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The top U.S. finishers in Kona last year—Ben Hoffman (2nd), Andy Potts (4th) and Liz Lyles (7th)—sat down with Tim DeBoom, the last American to win in Hawaii, for some tough-love talk about what it will take to bring the world title back home.
Tim DeBoom: So, Ben, how do you think doing three Ironmans—Kona, Florida and Texas—in the span of six months is going to affect your next six months?
Ben Hoffman: Florida wasn’t even really an Ironman because it didn’t have the swim but, yeah, that one was a validation simply to take the stress off. You find a lot of athletes every year where something happens, whether they get sick or crash, they get injured, and suddenly, you find yourself in June or July, and you don’t have your Ironman done, you didn’t punch your ticket. I’m not at all concerned about the way that it’s going to affect my preparation for Hawaii because I have the entire month of June and into July to be more relaxed on my training and recovering so I can get into that big block before Hawaii. Because an Ironman, to me, is not only a physical drain, but the buildup and the actual race itself causes emotional stress. Also, in Texas, I felt like I didn’t really end up getting to race that one like I wanted to, especially on the marathon.
TD: Why don’t any of you go overseas and race the people who are winning Kona? Why don’t you go and race Germany, why not challenge yourself and learn something that way? Why stick to the safety of the States instead of getting yourself out there and getting out of your comfort zone of racing some of these guys who are performing in Kona and winning it? Challenging guys like Sebastian Kienle and Frederik Van Lierde on their turf instead of on American soil. Andy, I don’t think you’ve ever ventured out to Europe to do an Ironman.
Andy Potts: Not to do an Ironman, no, and I don’t know if I will. I mean, maybe.
TD: Why? Why wouldn’t you do that? Last year, you had kind of a breakthrough in Kona, getting fourth by changing your plan a little bit, by not racing as much leading up to Kona. I’m just wondering if putting yourself in a different position, changing some options throughout the season, would help lead you to a different result in Kona?
AP: As an athlete you don’t want to fall into the trap of doing the same thing and expecting a different result. You do want to continue to evolve, and I think my job as a professional athlete is to stay ahead of the curve in terms of my competition, and treat it like a business. I mean, this is something I take very seriously and something I’m passionate about. But I’ve had great seasons where I haven’t performed well in Hawaii. I think going over to Europe—there’s not a cost benefit in that analysis for me, it’s not worth it. A lot of my goals in life are structured around my family, and I like to call my own shots, and I think just because you perform well in Europe once or twice it doesn’t mean that you’re going to perform well in Hawaii. So it’s tough, I certainly don’t have the answers. But I’m willing to look for them. Maybe I would go over, but the benefit would have to be substantial for me to do it. I’ve raced Sebastian a couple of times, Frederik Van Lierde a couple of times, and I think I actually have a winning record against both of them. They just have happened to beat me in Hawaii.
TD: Well that’s the whole point of this conversation—what it takes for the next American to win Hawaii. … Believe me, I understand about family obligations and the want to be with family—that’s why I stopped racing. … I wanted to win Hawaii, and I was willing to throw everything into it and, when I’ve talked to other guys who have won it, that was the focus it took for them as well, making that the ultimate goal and throwing everything else off the table. It was like, ‘Well, win or lose, this is my season.’ … That’s a risk, and everybody’s got a difference risk tolerance, so that’s the question I was asking.
BH: I know you’ve said this a lot of times and I’ve read things you’ve said about Americans and why they aren’t winning in Hawaii, but I would ask you a couple of things. Why is it that you think racing in Europe is the absolute answer for us? And number two, how do you explain someone like Craig Alexander, who has the course record?
TD: I’ve always said Craig’s an anomaly.
BH: Like you said, Andy, there is no one answer for Hawaii. And I mean certainly, you’re seeing a trend, you know faster cyclists all around, but how is [racing in Europe] the one answer for us?
TD: Well it’s not specifically Europe. What I’m seeing in Europe is that these guys who are winning Kona these past couple of years are picking a big European race. If you haven’t done one in Europe you wouldn’t realize that, when you’re there, it’s bigger than Kona. It’s a pressure-packed situation, so getting yourself ready for that is very similar to Kona. It’s almost bigger to do Germany than Kona for them because of the hometown thing, so you’re going against them when they’re almost fitter than they are in Kona, so it’s a good test of everything. And that’s what I’m getting at is racing these guys, getting out of your comfort zone, off your home turf—it’s pushing your boundaries and your limits.
I’ve watched things change, and I think I saw it with Craig where he won Kona after winning 70.3 worlds four weeks before, and now everybody just kind of does a half-Ironman, basically, two to four weeks before an Ironman and thinks that’s kind of become the standard of prep for Kona. Not even just for Kona—for an Ironman. I saw you do it before Texas, Ben, so do you think that played into your performance in Texas? Doing St. George two weeks before an Ironman, that’s—I mean, I think the respect level for doing a 70.3 distance is not quite there for what it does to your body. I would never be able to do an Ironman two weeks after a half, and that was my question, just like, ‘Wow, is everybody that much fitter and better at recovery than I ever was? Or than Mark [Allen] or Dave [Scott, two of the legends of Ironman] ever was?’
I think [coach] Brett Sutton has perpetuated this with his female athletes where he just throttles them, but people don’t realize how many people are shot out the back of his program. One or two might make it through, no man has ever made it through his program successfully, but the women do occasionally. I mean Chrissie Wellington, totally an anomaly, up there with Crowie. For me, four weeks out from an Ironman was always prime training, and beginning of recovery for that Ironman. So what’s the mentality for you guys going into a full Ironman with a half-Ironman two to five weeks out?
Liz Lyles: I think though, for maybe earlier in the season, you don’t really know what’s going to get you a win in Kona. You don’t know if a lot of rest is or racing more. So earlier in the season if you want to do a half two weeks before and then an Ironman you’re like, ‘OK, that didn’t work.’ Now for Kona I won’t do that. But you always have to be trying different ideas, right? You have to, [or] how are you ever going to know if racing three weeks before Kona didn’t work unless you try it earlier in your season when it’s not all the cards on the table?
TD: Right, but I’m seeing it almost every time by athletes.
LL: Some are.
TD: So like I said, it’s not a judgment. I’m just questioning it because I’m just wondering how often you can keep doing that without it being cumulative to not only your season, but your career. And I mean, Andy, how old are you?
TD: 38, and I’m having a hard time thinking that there’s going to be a lot of athletes in their 20s and early 30s right now who are going to make it to 38 with the race schedules that everybody has. Ironman I blame for that, with the point system.
AP: Yeah, I also started later.
TD: Well you started doing Ironman much later, you’ve been an endurance athlete your whole life.
TD: I had a 20-year career, but I probably still have raced less than you guys. Just because I was very cautious.
BH: Well, you didn’t have the same [Kona Pro Rankings] qualification system.
TD: I didn’t have the qualification system, but you had to go through the qualifying process and I mean, I still think their points system is off. It needs reworking for athletes, I think. The top 10 in Kona deserve to be invited back, and winners of an Ironman deserve to be invited, but the point system has definitely changed the game, for sure.
BH: But I think what you’re going to see is there’s going to be a block of guys where you don’t have that performance in Kona, and you almost have to—it’s going to be like a swapping each year, you know? A chunk of athletes who come in prepared, not having done it the year before, and people that don’t have a great Kona are going to potentially miss out because they’re getting swapped out by those other people each time, so I don’t know. But you’re right. if you have a good Kona, it sets you up for the next year. Just like it did when you were top 10 and they gave you auto-qual, or whatever it was before. I don’t even know what the system was back in the ’90s and early 2000s for you, what was it?
TD: It was top 10 got invited back.
BH: OK. But if you didn’t do that you had to—it was slots?
TD: It was slots at an Ironman. And there were slots at some 70.3s.
BH: But to answer your question about the 70.3 thing, it is something I’ve done a lot of times. I’ll brave a half before an Ironman, not before Hawaii—probably the closest I would do is five or six weeks. I think that you’re probably right, it’s worth considering the impact it has on you, but I think when you’re really fit, I don’t think it’s tremendously difficult to recover from a 70.3. There is a sharpening aspect to it, and it’s a good reminder of racing, just the simple things. Staying focused for four hours and transitions, things you might forget about a little bit when you’re training, just big blocks of 8 to 10 weeks without any racing in it, so I think there is some advantage to it.
TD: I used to throw Olympic-distance races in there, purely as trainers, even 5Ks or 10Ks just to get that nervous energy out. I used to question the half-Ironman because I think—for me, that’s a tough distance, and it took a lot out of me.
AP: The fields are definitely getting better, and deeper and faster, right? And it’s the way that the sport, any sport should be progressing. There is a lot of racing, it’s tactical, you can’t just put your head down and go. The women’s race is getting there, although you’re seeing it’s not quite as deep and it’s not as tactical, I think you can still get away with just doing your own race, more on the female side than on the men’s side.
TD: It was like that when I was racing. I agree. 100 percent.
AP: But now there’s just more in the mix, right? I think an American’s going to win eventually—it’s going to happen. I don’t know when, but I guarantee you, the answer to the equation then changes again. The 70.3 world championships are in Europe, so I think that’s going to get a little more attention from the Europeans, which is great for us.
TD: I think if they want it to be a true worlds, they need to put it in June. So you guys can actually train for that and not have Kona in the back of your head for that one.
For me it was just solitary focus on Kona. That was it. Meaning like, every race I did, everything I did—the reason for doing it was Kona. I planned my season around Kona. The races I did, how they were going to affect Kona. Racing two weeks in a row, how was that going to affect Kona? And my off-season was, ‘How is this going to affect Kona?’ And was it healthy to think that way? It worked for a couple of years. But it’s hard. I couldn’t do it with a kid now, it’s just a huge sacrifice. And now I realize why it only works a couple times—because of the amount of sacrifice it took. And the amount of selfishness and being an ass at times, you know? To win over there you need to have a mean streak. … I didn’t have it until I had a taste of it. I got third and I got a taste of it. And then I got another taste of it the next year and it really pissed me off to get second. So the next 364 days before the next one, it was one solitary focus. And that’s what it took. I wouldn’t do something that wasn’t going to benefit me in Kona for that entire year. And you look back at people in the same situation in other sports and everything, and that’s what it took to get to that pinnacle peak level was, ‘All right, I’m putting all my eggs in this single solitary focus. If I fail, it’s on me, I’m failing miserably, but if I win, it was all worth it.’
LL: How do you think the race has changed in terms of the swim and in the first group on the bike, how do you think that would factor in?
TD: That was the same way back for me—it was I had to be out in the lead group in swimming, there were guys, [like] Normann Stadler, who were good enough on the bike that they didn’t have to be in the lead group but, again that’s an anomaly, that’s very rare. But in that sense, the race was similar, and seriously the biggest change now from when I was racing is the qualifying procedure. … I’d show up in Kona, I’d be like, ‘There’s 10 guys who can win today. And I’m one of them. And I’m going to mix it up with them.’ And I don’t think that part of it has changed. I think the biggest change is the qualifying procedure and I think you can still set up your season to be your freshest, your fittest, your fastest in Kona. I think a lot of guys are not showing up in Kona, and a lot of women are not showing up in Kona their fittest, their freshest.
AP: Does that frustrate you?
TD: It does. I look at Michael Raelert … and I’m like what are these guys doing? I shake my head because they just shoot themselves in the foot doing dumb stuff. And I think a lot of it is done out of fear. They throw in something, that one last thing that they need to do, throw it in instead of just taking the risk. It’s hard to watch sometimes. And sometimes maybe it pays off, but it’s more than likely it doesn’t.
AP: Does anything surprise you? Did last year surprise you? Or maybe the past couple years? In terms of a singular performance or the lack of a performance?
TD: I saw you, Ben, right before you left for Kona last year. We crossed paths on a trail. … Quick hi and stuff, and just seeing his stride and his face, I got back home and I told my wife, ‘I saw Ben out running, he’s probably headed to Kona right about now.’ I said, ‘I think he’s going to have a good race.’ Because I’d seen your run progression, what you did in Coeur d’Alene and just that you hadn’t over-raced. I predicted Van Lierde the year he won, because I saw his progression, and I was just like, ‘He’s doing everything right, everything that I would have done as well.’ Luke McKenzie the year before, nobody picked that. So there’s always somebody thrown into the mix, but the winner has been consistently someone who has shown that potential. … The strongest guy usually does win. That’s usually the way it works out. That’s the beauty of Kona—it’s more about strength than speed. There are some years where tactics have really played into it, but look at Kienle last year—it was just full throttle the whole day and that’s what it took. It’s funny, everybody told me, the next American to win, they’re like, ‘Oh, he’s going to make a million bucks,’ and I could say the same thing to you guys. Use that as a carrot. Say, ‘Man, if I win this thing, I can write my ticket to do stuff.’ It’s way bigger than when I won or when Mark won, or Dave won. I mean, corporate America, it’s not ‘I want to do a marathon’ anymore—it’s ‘I want to do an Ironman.’ And that’s a big deal to have an American win it. We need it. The sport needs it.