While the crown of European Ironman champion can be worn with distinction by Laura Philipp, the German is frank enough to admit the only reason she lined up in Hamburg was because she couldn’t face another training camp.
Coach and husband, Philipp Seipp, had suggested she avoid the race and instead rebuild fitness after contracting COVID and missing the Ironman World Championship in St. George. It was with sound reason. The data showed Laura was 20 watts down on her threshold power, and any coach would be justified in making that call.
Yet, given that Laura posted an Ironman-brand best time of 8 hours, 18 minutes, and 20 seconds—just seven seconds shy of Chrissie Wellington’s fastest-ever time at Challenge Roth back in 2011—she was perhaps even more justified in refuting it.
“I went to Hamburg to see what was possible,” Laura said. “[Coach] Philipp said I needed to get back into a training block because I’d lost fitness, but I was hungry to compete in St. George, so wanted to have a race. Looking back, it was a good decision.”
A good decision, even if the build-up consisted of base training with the occasional interval session thrown in to see how the body would react to the intensity returning from the virus, and a test run at Ironman Kraichgau 70.3 the weekend prior.
Hamburg was Laura’s sixth consecutive victory, and while we’ll get into the factors that contributed to the rarefied feat, they need to be balanced against the impact of contracting COVID on the eve of her flight to Utah.
“I underestimated COVID. The symptoms hit me hard,” she said. “From the moment we knew we were definitely not going to fly, my body released, and I had a few days in bed. Back in training my heart-rate went crazy. After a good session, the next day I’d be completely flat. As an athlete you think you’re fit and young, but it was a big lesson. I recommend everyone be careful, and even though I might seem to be in super good shape after the Hamburg result, I think pre-COVID I was in a lot better shape.”
Racing Kraichgau 70.3 a week before Hamburg was a calculated risk, but provided the mental boost and physical confirmation she needed. “I felt rusty, but didn’t do anything crazy and just brought it home safe.” It was a comfortable three-minute victory over compatriot Daniela Bleymehl, and a middle distance success to add to a win in Dubai in March, with an even larger margin of victory then over Daniela Ryf. In fact, Laura, a native of Heidelberg, a town between Frankfurt and Stuttgart in Germany, has rarely tasted defeat at all in recent years, having won 14 out of her past 16 races—on par with anyone in the world.
Perhaps more significant than hankering for a race after missing out on Utah was that the Hamburg performance coincided with the first half of Laura’s menstrual cycle, an topic she has put increased focused on in recent months.
Finding Another Dimension
“Previously, I never saw the connection between my performance and my cycle,” she explained. “Whenever I experienced low moments in training and racing I never had a real explanation. I’d feel good the week before, but then couldn’t hit an effort. When I found out there’s a connection, it made sense. I began tracking my cycle, and trying to optimize performance through nutrition or different sessions was a game-changer for me.
“I’ve always had a functioning cycle, which is something I appreciate more now, because talking to more high-level female athletes I see that it’s a big issue in terms of injury and performance. Of course, I can’t always choose races at the perfect time of the month, but looking back at Dubai and Hamburg, they were in the perfect cycle phase, and I think it’s no coincidence that I felt super strong.”
The follow-up question then becomes whether it’s possible to look forward to October and understand where her cycle might be when racing in Hawaii. “The funny thing is that after Hamburg, when I posted I was in the first-half of my cycle, some Instagram followers did the math for me, and said: ‘We think Kona will be good!’
“But to be honest, it’s not that easy. Not every cycle is the same length. It could be 29 days one month, 30 or 31 the next. I track it daily so I know when I’m hitting ovulation, and from that moment the math is easy, but if I have a lot of training or outside stress, it can affect it. I’m also not doing the math right now for Kona, because I also don’t want to make myself crazy!”
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A Fast Day
In Hamburg, a 54-minute swim preceded a 4-hour 31-minute bike leg, followed by a 2-hour 45-minute run. The times paint a picture; the day went from good to great. “As an athlete you always dream of this perfect day where everything comes together, and I definitely had a perfect day. Having missed the Ironman World Championship, the European champs are the next big thing, but looking at previous results, it didn’t seem to be a fast course. I thought 8 hours 40 minutes would be fast! Had I gone to Roth, I’d have something in the back of my mind telling me to aim for a fast time.”
Despite the eventual margin of victory being 18 minutes—most of that drawing out on the run—Laura believes having U.S. full-distance rookie Chelsea Sodaro present helped push her. “At my first Ironman in Barcelona in 2018, I finished in 8 hours 34 minutes, and hit so many first-time moments. That excited me, and so I expected Chelsea to have a great race. Even if I had a big lead in the end, I felt pushed, so I think it helped. I think it’s easier if you have someone to battle with, and a scenario you need to break a world record.”
The four-lap run course in Hamburg became crowded as the race wore on and more athletes emerged from T2. It made picking up nutrition and running the racing line more taxing, so having paid no attention to the clock, when spectators started to shout that she was on world record pace, it came as a surprise.
“I thought: ‘What are they talking about?’ It was the last lap when [Coach] Philipp told me if I pushed, I could make the time. But it was also when I started struggling with fatigue and low blood sugar, and didn’t want to miss any aid stations.”
What Could Be Better
While the calm conditions were ideal, Laura thinks the race organization could be improved. “If Hamburg really wants a world record, they need to pay a bit more attention to the pro race. I missed several aid stations on the bike because they were not ready for me—and even if you feel good at the time, it can come back on you during the run.
“There were other small things. No spare swim caps before start, and mine broke. And a multiple lap bike course needs to have a motorbike telling age-groupers when fast women are approaching. I had a few dangerous situations. I don’t want to get in anyone’s way, but if you’re searching for a world record, then seconds count and you need a one-loop course or have someone driving 100 meters ahead to clear the way. If I’m in my aero position I don’t see much.”
Phillip also has a few thoughts on the PTO ranking system that awarded her 115.08 points for the win, compared with the 115.61 she received for last year’s Ironman Finland and 109.43 for Ironman Austria. While those three results rank her as PTO #2 and mean almost certain selection for Europe for this year’s Collins Cup, she questions the veracity.
“I can definitely say I didn’t race as well in Finland [as in Hamburg]. Also, Klagenfurt [Austria] was a way stronger performance, but I got less points there too. I know it’s hard to make the best ranking system, but I thought Hamburg would be more like 120 points.
“I think it’s fair that you get more points for championship racing, and I think to have scored the kind of points Daniela did in St. George [124.60 before a mark-up], I’d have needed to be there on the day. But I still think the Hamburg performance was worth more than it got.”
How Laura Got Here
Much of the credit for Laura’s evolution as an athlete is down to her husband Philipp. A latecomer to triathlon, the 35-year-old has ignited after her first Ironman 70.3 win in Mallorca in 2017 and has barely missed a podium since.
“He’s the first coach I ever worked with, and I’ve no other coaching experience,” Laura said. “It’s been 10 years now and we’ve tried many things, failed here and there, but I help him develop as a coach and he helps me develop as an athlete. He sees the numbers and I tell him this is how I feel, and we try to get the best out of both worlds.
“He knows me very well, of course, and I think this is the biggest positive. We see each other every day, and I also trust that he’s not letting me do crazy stuff because he still wants to do sport together when we’re 60 years old!”
Looking ahead to a potential Hawaii showdown, Laura picks out Kat Matthews, Skye Moench and, if fit, Lucy Charles-Barclay as athletes to watch, but it’s re-envigored champion Ryf who she feels is the one to beat. “Daniela showed in a super dominant way she is back to her normal self.”
Before that though, she’ll have more than half an eye on another Kona contender, Anne Haug in Roth, the venue where Wellington set the long distance record of 8:18:13 in 2011. “She maybe will do a new world record.” Watch this space.
For Laura it will be a second visit to Hawaii, having finished fourth in her debut in 2019, including the fastest bike split. “My first time there I had really bad preparation and the outcome was a miracle,” she added. “My number one goal is to make it there healthy and in a positive state of mind to be willing to leave it all out there. Of course, I’m hoping my menstrual cycle is in the right place too. That would be the cherry on the cake.”
Laura’s training sessions for Hamburg
Coach Philipp Seipp provided bike and run sessions Laura used in the build-up to the record-setting time in Hamburg. Laura explains why each was included in the schedule.
Bike on TT Bike
2 ½ – 3 ½ hours including 4-6 x 20-minute efforts on or slightly below VT1 (first ventilatory threshold where breathing begins to increase)
Laura says: “I love these longer efforts around race pace, they suit my strengths and come easy. Also, the area at home is quite hilly, and I enjoy doing the intervals on some longer climbs, with a nice descent for a rest. It’s a fun session and one I’m not often allowed to do because my strength is already aerobic power, so I generally only do it to make me race-ready.”
Run Session One
75- to 105-minute run with fartlek
Including 4-5 x (alternating 1km at 3:35/km, 1km at 4:20-30/km)
Run Session Two
VO2 set on the track 2 x 3000m (alternating 100m at 19sec/100m at 24sec)
Laura says: “The fartlek run is similar to the bike session and makes me race-ready. I find the ‘slow’ is the perfect pace to get rid of lactate—even faster than running at 5-minute per kilometer pace. It’s always amazing for me to see. It may be only 5km fast, whereas I think others would do 10 x 1km, but we always run shorter stuff but try to hit those numbers with good technique and then rest, and it works well for me.
“I like the VO2 run because it’s 100m on, 100m off and always amazes me how fast I go as an average—and how high my heart rate goes. I like the combination of fast and easy and always feel these sessions help develop my speed.”