The Bold, Brash Story Behind Ben Kanute’s Breakthrough 70.3 Worlds Race
“Everyone just bows to the Norwegians, and we were like: ‘F**k that!’ If you’re not going out there to really test yourself against the best, and people that everyone says are better than you, then why are you even doing the sport?"
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“What I saw yesterday was the culmination of the last six years of working with Ben,” explains coach Jim Vance. “The way he raced is exactly how I’ve always wanted him to race – to be aggressive and go after the people that everyone claims are better than him.”
It’s the day after the men’s pro race at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in St. George, and Vance is making the long drive home from Utah to San Diego as he talks on the phone with us about the mindset that almost made Ben Kanute the first American man to land the Ironman 70.3 World Championship title since Andy Potts in 2007.
“Everyone just bows to the Norwegians, and we were like: ‘F**k that!’ If you’re not going out there to really test yourself against the best, and people that everyone says are better than you, then why are you even doing the sport? I see so many people come to the start line with the mentality that they can’t win. Ben absolutely believes he can. Some people might think it’s crazy, but he really believed he could win yesterday too.”
The day before, Taylor Knibb had become the first US woman to win the 70.3 World title since Joanna Zieger in 2008. The dream of a double win by the U.S. was only thwarted by the Viking heart of Kristian Blummenfelt, and only in the final couple of miles of the half-marathon. Yet for Vance, it was still the proudest of moments. To see his athlete duking it out with an Olympic, world and Ironman champion, and the emotions were hard to contain. “When he took the lead on Kristian I told him: ‘This is the race. It’s between the two of you. Bring the fight to him.’”
Vance’s coaching career stretches back to his own college days, when he mixed running track at the University of Nebraska with coaching high school cross-country. Having switched to being a competitive multi-sporter himself, including winning XTERRA and ITU amateur world championships, the specificity for triathlon coaching came in 2004, a few short years before Adam Zucco from the Multisport Madness team introduced him to a talented 14-year-old kid by the name of Ben Kanute.
Vance was predominantly a keen observer as the youngster progressed on the Olympic pathway to Rio 2016, seeking – as is the wont of so many short course athletes – to increase the 10km run speed off the bike needed for a medal.
Kanute not only qualified for the Games, but made the front pack in what proved a decisive break for the Brownlee brothers. Yet his own hopes would wilt on the Copacabana as he faded to 25th. It wasn’t all that he’d dreamt of.
Two months later, Vance and Kanute chatted over coffee in Kona. Kanute was still young and hadn’t entertained Ironman at this point, but within weeks the pair had plans in place for winning an Olympic medal in the mixed relay in Tokyo – and an Ironman 70.3 world title.
Cracking the code
In 2019, everything looked to be heading in the right direction. Kanute placed seventh in the Edmonton World Series race and was second in a World Cup in Chengdu in a super-sprint format. Additionally, he was part of the US quartet that placed third in the mixed relay in the Tokyo test event – the sixth successive time Kanute had made the podium in the team event.
Showing his versatility, he’d also won three races in 22 days in Oceanside, Barbados and St. Anthony’s – all different types of races and distances. Next stop: the Olympics. Next hard stop: a pandemic. Everything changed. By the time racing kicked back in, others were having breakthrough results. Kanute’s last World Triathlon race was May last year, finishing 35th in a World Cup in Italy. The Tokyo Games drifted on by.
But it did clear the slate for 2022. “Ben told me he could finally choose his own races and peak for the events he wanted,” Vance explains. “So we decided to go all in on the PTO Tour [with their $1million prize purses] and 70.3 Worlds.”
That would mean a schedule of events that started in the spring with Clash Miami, and then the 70.3s of Oceanside and Chattanooga, before targeting a race-a-month from July with the PTO Canadian Open, Collins Cup, PTO US Open and finally the 70.3 Worlds at the weekend. It started well enough with third in Miami and fifth in California, but ninth in Chattanooga was below expectations, and a disappointing showing in Slovakia was sandwiched between 28th and 23rd in Edmonton and Dallas. Something wasn’t right.
“Ben wanted to see a change, and being foolish, I changed the approach only to realize ‘ok, that didn’t work!’” Vance admits. “We tried big volume with more 70.3-type work, less intensity, and went to more ‘recovery on demand’ training. There was no set cycle, we did the work, Ben seemed to handle it, so we kept going. The problem was he would fall off a cliff – and we didn’t realize it until he was a little ways off the cliff.”
The pair reverted to their more proven, structured style with predefined training blocks and recovery periods. “Lo and behold it worked,” Vance adds. “And on Saturday, he made me look pretty smart.”
It shows that no matter how long you have coached in endurance sports, there is always the opportunity to learn. “I heard Dan Plews say it pretty well on the How They Train podcast. They asked him what he should change for [new Ironman world champion] Chelsea Sodaro next year, and he replied: ‘I don’t really think we should change anything… this works.’ I was laughing thinking: ‘I wish I’d heard this podcast earlier in the year.’”
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Very few commentators were talking about Kanute as a 70.3 Worlds contender despite the American having finished sixth, tenth, fourth and second in the previous four editions. The team were more than happy with that though. “I knew he was ready,” Vance says. “We tried to be very quiet about how fit he was – and we felt no one would believe it anyway based on the season to date.”
Rather than a concentrated training camp with Vance in San Diego, Kanute decided to head for St. George; the father-of-one (with another on the way in December) traveling two and a hafl weeks in advance of his family to link up with fellow pro Nick Chase and practice on the course. A fortnight out, a triple climb of Snow Canyon, the biggest ascent in the closing miles of the 56-mile bike leg, showed he was in form.
Perhaps even more important was the focus. “Ben is the most mentally healthy athlete I’ve ever seen,” Vance adds. “He was able to remove himself emotionally from his results and be very matter-of-fact about the situation. I can only imagine the stress he was under. It’s kind of a fickle sport and I think sponsors can look at that too, but he doubled down on this race and said it has to go well.”
The best of Kanute’s previous results had been in Chattanooga in 2017, where he laid down a 1:16:23 half-marathon only for Spain’s Javier Gomes to run six minutes faster and pinch victory in the closing miles. On Saturday, on a lumpy course in St. George, Kanute clocked 1:11:55 for 13.1 miles, just 17 seconds off winner Blummenfelt’s fastest run split.
“We’ve always joked that ‘Hashtag Kanute Can’t Run’ and I think he ended that yesterday,” Vance says. “It has been the narrative. If you watched the broadcast, no one had him running anywhere near the best times of the day. It was all about whether Jason West or Matt Hanson could catch, or whether Gustav Iden could bridge up. But I knew Ben was fitter than he’d ever been. I just didn’t know he’d be that good!”
Kanute has long been renowned as a gutsy swim-biker, a front pack regular at what was then ITU (now World Triathlon), but lacking the foot speed to contest with a Brownlee or Gomez. One of the elements that made Saturday’s success so sweet for Vance was to see the work invested in that oft-criticized run – much of it during the downtime of the pandemic under the guidance of Bobby McGee and Matt Pendola – now coming to fruition.
The analysis was pinpoint, looking at the minute detail of the foot strike, for example, to then prescribe targeted functional strength and activation work, helping the stride length edge longer, the turnover become a little quicker, and, ultimately, the runner move faster. But it was also about attitude, and Vance reflected on the sea change in mentality that occurred after a 22nd place finish in a 2017 World Series race in Edmonton where, once again, Kanute was out front, leading the field.
“He was trying to talk everybody into working hard and getting the break to stay away,” Vance explains. “He ran OK, but was frustrated that no one would work with him on the bike. Over dinner I flat-out told him: ‘Dude, you need to stop trying to convince people to go with you. You just need to f’ing go! Rip the bike and we’ll see what happens. You then force people into making a decision, and if they don’t, the decision is made for them.’
“I remember him saying it was the exact opposite of everything he’d ever been told to do in triathlon – make the front group and save your run legs. I said: ‘And where has that gotten you? You’re consistently 18th-25th in every World Series race. That won’t do.”
I remember him saying it was the exact opposite of everything he’d ever been told to do in triathlon - make the front group and save your run legs. I said: ‘And where has that gotten you? You’re consistently 18th-25th in every World Series race. That won’t do.'
Kanute didn’t have long to wait. The following weekend, the action moved to Montreal over Olympic distance and again he was out of the swim with a small front pack. But this time, there was no looking around or letting up. The gap increased to over a minute and Gomez outran Blummenfelt for the win. Kanute finished 23rd – one position worse than the previous weekend.
“He told me: ‘I know that wasn’t a better result, but I feel like I raced to my strengths and gave myself a chance,’” Vance says. “I replied that with his swim-bike prowess he would continually put himself in a position where things could go right. That became the strategy.
“Fast-forward two months and he’s in Chattanooga, and what does he do? We didn’t care about Gomez, we just raced to our strengths. That conversation in Edmonton changed the trajectory of his career and five years later here we are and it’s still the same Ben, saying: ‘You might be world, Olympic and an Ironman champion, Blummenfelt, but we’re still going to give you our best shot.’ Honestly, I had to be careful not to get emotional during the race.”
Ever honest, Vance also confessed that his motivational soundbites from the sidelines – and he’d been zipping about the run course on his bike – might even have been counterproductive in the closing stages.
“I think I f’ed up,” he admits. “Ben did everything he could, putting in surges to see if there were any cracks or some post-Kona fatigue. They ran on to the golf course the second time and it’s 5km to go and I shouted to Ben: ‘Mixed relay! Get it to a mixed relay! ‘I was trying to push the button that if he could be there with 2km to go [around the same distance of a mixed relay run leg], he wouldn’t be afraid of Kristian. Unfortunately, Kristian looked right at me when I said it, then looked at Ben and maybe thought: ‘Oh s***, that’s right.’ And he took off!”
Ultimately, the Norwegian accelerated to win the one title that has so far eluded him and cap arguably the greatest 14-month spell triathlon has ever witnessed. But while the high fives started a way out from the tape, there was a sense they were as much about relief having finally shaken off the American than they were about winning. Kanute had, after all, just delivered the race of his career to date.
“Oh yes, absolutely,” Vance confirms. “Numbers-wise it was better than 2017 [in Chattanooga]. The bike was about the same power, but he ran almost 5 minutes faster. I knew everything was fine the way he rolled out of T2. He did exactly what I wanted. When he got to Kristian he didn’t pause, he went right past and the race was on.”
Progressive tempos: Ben’s workouts for 70.3 success
Jim explains how some of the regular sessions in the build-up to St. George consisted of progressive tempo training. These would be fractionalised periods of intensity that would increase in duration as the sessions were repeated. Ben would target 70.3 power on both the bike and the run (Vance uses run power to make solid comparisons on undulating terrain).
- 4 x 8min @ 70.3 power/intensity with 2min rest
Increase in following sessions to:
- 4 x 10min
- 4 x 12min
- 4 x 15min
- 4 x 15min @ 70.3 power/intensity with 5 min easy
Increase in following sessions to:
- 4 x 20min
- 4 x 25min
- 4 x 30min
Want to train like Kanute? Coach Jim Vance shares all his secrets in our 10 Weeks to Your best 70.3 course and training plan, available exclusively to Outside+ members!