Frederik van Lierde still rides a Hawaiian high
When the Belgian crossed the finish line in eight hours, 12 minutes, it would have been easy to look around Hawaii’s Big Island, exhale, and take time to smell the hibiscus.
He ended 2013 with a career-best five wins and a runner-up finish in seven events.
One of his victories was in the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon to start the season.
So from that high Hawaiian vantage point, after winning the 2013 finale, what else was left to achieve? Actually, van Lierde said his year-long triathlon eruption was only the beginning.
“I wondered about that after winning Hawaii,” he said. “I think I am still somewhere in the clouds, but it helps as a motivation. It has been a help, mentally, to have achieved my biggest goal.”
After competing in the most demanding sport of all for exactly half his life, van Lierde completed the skill set in 2013.
Triathlons not only require top-shelf abilities in three distinct disciplines, but the self-belief to beat the best.
Physical gifts aside, the last requisite is toughest to earn. It delivers sustenance only in the form of success. As in, been there, won that.
His career year began last spring in Abu Dhabi, where he won for the second time in three years, though he has been steadily rising through the ranks since his 2011 victory along the capital’s Corniche. Last season, he targeted three events – Abu Dhabi, Nice and Hawaii – and won them all, achieving a personal triple crown.
At 34, he is at the peak of his powers and cruising along after four consecutive injury-free years. He might not have reached his apex, actually.
“Some reach their highest level at 25, some people reach their best a little bit later,” he said.
“I think an ironman is also about experience and mental strength. You don’t see a lot of people who are 20 or 25 years old who win these races.”
Like many of the 2,400 people competing in Abu Dhabi this week, van Lierde was involved in one of the core triathlon sports as a kid.
He was a decent swimmer, and when he was 17, countryman Luc van Lierde won Ironman Hawaii and drew headlines around Belgium.
The two are not related by blood, but are certainly brothers in sweat. Frederik followed Luc into the sport, and the latter is now Frederik’s coach. Despite a steady progression, van Lierde remains a work in progress, especially with regard to the mental elements of the sport.
Over eight lonely hours, plenty of thoughts can carom around a guy’s head, not all of them helpful.
“I am still working on that, and I am sure I can make some progress,” he said.
“A lot of winning the big races is between the ears. It’s confidence, together with being in shape.
“A body is more than just the physical part. It’s a combination of the two. It has worked well for me the last couple of years.”
Success has its perks. In a sport where prize money is modest, van Lierde now employs a coach, sports psychologist, nutritionist and agent, which means he can concentrate on training.
“When you climb the ladder, the higher you get, the more people you can get around you and, financially, it is possible to get the help you need,” he said.
Yet at its crux, triathlons remain the most painfully solitary pursuit of all. van Lierde seems to prefer it that way. While some triathletes train in groups offering moral support and counsel, van Lierde goes it alone when doing his lengthy workouts.
It relates both to solitude and attitude.
After all, during real competition, nobody sends in plays or reinforcements from the bench to help.
“In the races, you are on your own,” he said. “It would be stupid to train in a bunch the whole time, because you’d get used to it. You have to train accordingly.”
van Lierde has never finished outside the top five in Abu Dhabi, an event he has never missed, and odds are pretty good that he will be among the front-runners on Saturday, too.
He is the quantifiable total package. In his three splits from Hawaii, he posted the fourth-best time in the sea, in the seat and on his feet.
Nearly every other top foe has a liability in one of those areas.
“I think that’s my strength – not having a weakness,” he said.
Follow us on twitter at @SprtNationalUAE
Updated: March 12, 2014 04:00 AM