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How Did Marten Van Riel Take Out The Reigning Olympic Champ?

The 29-year-old Belgian beat Kristian Blummenfelt by 23 minutes at 70.3 Dubai; we’ve got two of his killer workouts, plus the inside track on his breakthrough race.

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Marten van Riel might not yet be the most famous name in Ironman racing. But he foreshadowed what’s to come when he eventually turns his full focus to non-drafting competition—by winning Ironman 70.3 Dubai in one of the fastest times ever last weekend.

The Race In Dubai

“When I saw the finish clock for the first time I was like: Holy sh*t, am I actually going this fast?!” he reflected on the 3:26:05 outing. “During the race I knew it was super fast, but I had a bike Garmin, a run Garmin, and hadn’t put the pieces together.”

Olympic champion Kristian Blummenfelt had tipped Van Riel pre-race, and the 29-year-old was in a confident mood. “It’s about six-to-eight weeks before the short-course season starts, and my training is very endurance based, so I didn’t have to do too much special training to compete.

“We dialed in my nutrition, how many watts I could hold, and what pace I could run. On the day, it was almost perfectly executed, and I even went a little conservative on the run.”

Having also won Ironman 70.3 Xiamen in late 2019, Van Riel is now two for two over the half distance. And while Blummenfelt was off his game in the Middle East, he’d have been hard pushed on his very best day as Van Riel put the hammer down on a 1:53:27 bike split followed by a 1:07:55 half-marathon.

A Blistering Bike

The course in Dubai is known to be quick, but a 1:53 split typically raises eyebrows as to the validity of the 56-mile distance—or the way the race is marshalled. Austria’s Paul Ruttman in 2021, and another Belgian, Bart Aernouts, in 2020, both clocked race-best 1:52 splits.

While Van Riel admits that traffic in the adjacent highway may have played a role in reducing drag, he believes the weather conditions are a bigger factor. “There is barely any headwind heading out into the desert for the first 45km,” he explained. “But the wind starts to pick up through the morning in Dubai, so there’s a solid tailwind on the way back when we were going 35mph in places.”

Short-Course Pedigree

Those who follow the sport closely will be aware how Van Riel’s prodigious talent extends to all race distances and formats. He placed sixth in the Rio Olympics in 2016 and fourth in Tokyo last year; he is currently ranked second in the world in the WTS rankings and hasn’t finished outside the top 10 in his past seven top-tier World Series races.

He also excels at the uber-short stuff too, finishing sixth in the Super League series in the fall, and winning both indoor Arena Games earlier in 2021. It is Van Riel’s ability to recover quickly and go again—as seen between rounds at Super League—that his mentor, Marc Herremans, identified when he first realized the 16-year-old Van Riel could be a world-beater. It continues to this day. “Monday after Dubai I was good to go, but the coach said take one week easy,” he said. “It’s going to be a long season this year.”

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That long season is largely due to Van Riel’s desire to finally step on to an Olympic podium. With Paris 2024 remaining the top target, the non-drafting scene must wait.

“It would have been different if I’d gotten a medal last year, then I could make a different decision. But long distance is where I’m going to be better. In 2024—hopefully with a medal around my neck—I can immediately turn to full distance and go all-in for Ironman.”

Photo: James Mitchell/Ironman

The Competition

Should the Norwegians be worried? “They are good friends of mine, and I know what they can do. I think Gustav is comparably better over the long distance than the short distance and Kristian is good at every distance. I think I might be more of a ‘Gustav’ myself. That’s maybe a big claim because he has some big titles already, but I’m not scared to race them and believe I can beat them on any given day. That comes from my short-course mentality where we race a lot more. It’s not like it’s only two-to-three races a year where things might get more into your head.”

When he does step up, the aim is to rival the achievements of celebrated Belgian Ironman racers such as Luc van Lierde, Marino Vanhoenacker and Frederik van Lierde. But while they might be trailblazers, it is another athlete from the previous generation who he thanks for even being in the sport at all.

The Mentor

Marc Herremens, also from the village of Loenhout in northern Belgium, finished sixth in Hawaii in 2001 before a catastrophic bike crash the following year in Lanzarote left him a paraplegic. Herremans fought back to return to Big Island as a wheelchair competitor just months later, and was recognized with Belgium’s sports personality award for indomitable spirit. Having suggested Van Riel take up tri as a teenager, he became his trainer, mentor, and team manager.

“The way he kept positive [after the crash] was really inspiring. That’s the main thing that makes people love him,” Van Riel explained. “Without Marc I would never have gotten anywhere in the sport. Still now I am super thankful. I called him after Dubai, and he was super happy. From the start he would have rather seen me do long course because it’s where his real passion is. He’s a big part of my story and every race I am trying to make him proud.”

Van Riel can see more of Herremans these days too. Having been coached by Joel Filliol for seven years as part of the Canadian’s star-studded international squad, the Belgian is now closer to home with Glenn Poleunis of PTC Coaching where he trains with a talented young group of Belgians.

“There is not one guy who is competitive in all the disciplines, but in every discipline there’s at least two to three guys who keep me on my toes,” he said. “I’m also trying to give my joy for the sport and what I’ve learnt to the next generation.”

Not that this should sound like retirement is beckoning, he stresses. The next task is to finally win a World Series race. After finishing second in the Championship Finale in Edmonton behind Blummenfelt last summer, the time has come. “That’s for sure the big goal. If you can win a World Series you can win Olympic gold. But that’s a step I still have to make.”

Van Riel’s 70.3 Prep Work

It was only Marten van Riel’s second Ironman 70.3 race, but by the time he reached the start he knew he was able to produce a winning performance thanks to sessions like the two below:

Big, Bad Bike Intervals

Total time: 2 ½ hrs

Warm-up: 20mins

Main set: 4 x 25mins at race intensity/watts. 5mins recovery between intervals

Cooldown: 15mins

“I did this session two weeks out as one of the last really hard sessions. If you can do the watts here, you’re probably going to be able to do them in the race. The week prior to this session I completed 4 x 20mins, and the week before that 5 x 15min. Training your actual race pace is important, so don’t ego push it! It doesn’t help if you push 20 watts more, but cannot hold it—or run—on race day. If you do, you’re training in the wrong zone.”

Mile Breakdown Run Intervals

Total time: 2hrs

Warm-up: 30mins

Main set:2 x 2 miles at race pace. 2min rest between intervals

6 x 1 mile at race pace. 90sec rest between intervals

Cooldown: 20mins

“These long, big-volume threshold runs are new for me. The run is the same premise as the bike session. It’s 10 miles of running at race pace and sounds really hard, but it shouldn’t be crazy hard. By the end you should be fatigued, but if you’re completely wiped out you’ve probably done them too fast. Another area I trained a lot was nutrition, and taking three gels on this run. I was surprised how much it helped. During previous big sessions I’d felt like I was borderline bonking towards the end. Now getting the fueling right, I’m sometimes feeling stronger at the end than the start.”