x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Hawaii Ironman: Bragging rights forever

There is a purpose to running a triathlon: The test of mind over ability, the sheer physical trial ... yet many triathletes, such as the members of the Abu Dhabi Triathlon Team, all came to the sport indirectly.

Faris Al Sultan, founder of Abu Dhabi Triathlon Team, likes to lead from the front, as he did here to win the Ironman triathlon in Frankfurt, Germany.
Faris Al Sultan, founder of Abu Dhabi Triathlon Team, likes to lead from the front, as he did here to win the Ironman triathlon in Frankfurt, Germany.

When Pheidippides ran the 26 miles and 385 yards (42.2 kilometres) from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens in 490BC, he gave the Olympic movement, and indeed sports, one of its most celebrated events, a parable to honour the indefatigable human spirit.

Commemorating that fabled feat, the marathon stood as the ultimate test of human endurance in the modern Olympics for more than 80 years. Then a group of fitness fanatics in Hawaii decided to settle their debate over who was fittest - the runner, the cyclist or the swimmer - by combining all three disciplines in a 140.6 mile (226.2km) challenge.

Fifteen men stood at the starting line on February 18, 1978, and each was handed three sheets of handwritten paper, listing a few rules and an exhortation that is now a registered trademark: "Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life."

"Whoever finishes first, we'll call him the Iron Man," said John Collins, a US navy commander, giving birth to a tag that stands until this day, with a minor alteration: every single person who finishes the race is an "Ironman".

Only 12 of the athletes managed to cross the finishing line that day with Gordon Haller, a taxi driver, coming in first in 11 hours, 46 minutes and 58 seconds.

Having tested their limits once, they decided to do it again the next year ... and again and again. Today that exchange of bravado between friends attracts more than 1,500 participants, 25,000 spectators and millions in television audiences.

There is now an Ironman being held somewhere virtually every week, including one in Abu Dhabi.

The original event in Hawaii, however, remains the pinnacle of the sport. When the race will be held for the 35th time on October 8 in Kona, Hawaii, Abu Dhabi will be represented by Faris Al Sultan, the 2005 champion, and Rachel Joyce of Britain, the winner of the Ironman Lanzarote in Spain earlier this year.

Al Sultan, the founder of the Abu Dhabi Triathlon Team and the winner of the Ironman European Championship this year, is training in the Swiss resort town of St Moritz.

"I decided to go to altitude after Ironman Germany, so I'm in St Moritz right now," Al Sultan said. "It's pretty cold up here, but the scenery is stunning."

Joyce has just returned home after three weeks in France, and has her time between now and October well planned.

"After racing a lot between March and June, I took a short break to allow my body and mind to recover, which I feel is very important before heading into a big preparation period," she said.

"I have spent the past three weeks in Morzine, France, and this has made an excellent base for training and I feel my fitness is good.

"I raced in TriStar Estonia last weekend, which was a good test of my fitness, so I now know which areas I need to focus on in the coming weeks. I will spend two more weeks [in Britain] and then I will fly with the team to Tucson, Arizona, for the final part of my Kona preparation."

More members of the Abu Dhabi team could have been in Kona, but Paul Ambrose, the winner of the middle-distance Ironman 70.3 Racine in Wisconsin this year, decided he would rather make his debut at the World Championship when he is at his best.

Kristin Moller won the Ironman UK this year, but needs to participate in one more event to qualify for Kona, and doing that would mean not having enough time to recover for Kona. Swen Sundberg has missed out on qualifying due to an injury.

But hopes are high from the two Team Abu Dhabi participants.

"I think the performances we have had in the Abu Dhabi team this year shows that we can see some strong performances in Hawaii," Joyce said.

Hopes are equally high for good performances on the triathlon circuit.

"I think we have a strong team this year, with the two girls [Joyce and Moller] both winning their first Ironman titles this season, and Faris winning the European Ironman," said Ambrose, who has two runners-up and a third-place finish as well this year. "I think the team has shown that, this year, they are the team to beat."

Al Sultan reckons if they can prepare well, there is an opportunity to finish inside the top five.

Dr Werner Leitner, a former professional triathlete himself, is coordinating the preparations as the team manager, using his experience and expertise to make sure every member can concentrate fully on the sport.

"We can provide a structure so that they can focus on their preparation," Leitner said.

"Our athletes train together, not always but again and again, they learn from each other, and they motivate each other.

"It is an exciting time [for the team] at the moment. This year was perfect. No big injuries, no sicknesses and a good preparation in Abu Dhabi in the winter."

The team is sponsored by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, which has been a boon for the team members.

Joyce had to balance her professional life as a solicitor, working three days a week, with her love of triathlons, and supporting her racing through private savings.

The 33 year old from London finished sixth on her Kona debut in 2009 and improved to fifth the next year after joining the Abu Dhabi team at the beginning of 2010.

"Becoming a member of Abu Dhabi Triathlon Team made a huge difference to my life as a professional triathlete," Joyce said.

"It obviously took away a lot of the stress about how I was going to fund my training and travel to races, and also gave me a lot of excellent sponsors I would have struggled to obtain on my own.

"On top of that, I have enjoyed training with world-class athletes, such as Faris, and learning from their experiences - an opportunity I would not necessarily have had otherwise."

Moller, 27, became a member of the team last November. Before joining the world of triathlon, she had dreams of representing Germany in track and field at the Olympics.

A stress fracture wrecked those hopes and she started working as a fitness trainer.

Moller, however, struggled to come to terms with a life away from competitions, and after serving as a volunteer at a triathlon in Germany, she brought her running shoes out and was back in training.

"The decision to stop running was a really painful one," she said.

"Triathlon allowed me to experience that joy again. Coaching other people gave me a lot of pleasure, but I wanted to achieve something for myself."

Joyce did her first triathlon when she was in university. While studying law, she took part in the 2001 London marathon and finished in three hours and two minutes.

She decided to continue running, but a back injury ruined her plans.

Joyce took to swimming after her recovery and bought a bike as well. Around that time she heard about a half-Ironman race in the UK that offered qualification tickets to the first World Championships in Florida in 2006. She managed to win her age group, which earned her a championship spot.

She has not looked back since.

"I was getting bored with just swimming up and down a pool," Joyce said.

"I bought a bike, started running and set my sights on doing a half Ironman.

"I was attracted to the challenge of these longer events and of testing my own personal limits."

Al Sultan and Ambrose also come from swimming backgrounds, but got hooked to triathlon after their first races.

"I grew up playing soccer in the winters and cricket in the summers," Ambrose, 27, said. "That was a big part of my life growing up. But I enjoy a lot of sports, such as tennis, swimming and Surf Ironman, which is a big sport in Australia.

"I also used to watch some of the shorter distance triathlon races on television as a kid. I always liked a challenge, so I decided to challenge myself at a local triathlon with a friend. I have been in love with the sport ever since."

Al Sultan, who has a father of Iraqi origin and a German mother, was inspired by the success of Germany's Thomas Hellriegel, the 1997 world champion.

"I started with competitive swimming at the age of 14, too late to achieve anything great," Al Sultan said. "I looked for a new challenge and, at 16, I ran a marathon.

"Then I saw Thomas Hellriegel coming second at the [1995] Ironman in Hawaii and I thought this is it. This is what I want to do.

"So I did my first triathlon in 1996 and my first Ironman on Lanzarote island [in Spain] in 1997. I simply kept doing it, trained more, learned more and became better and better."

When they are not training or competing, team members said, they enjoy the simpler aspects of life.

Moller likes to meet up with friends for barbecues and to play billiards.

Ambrose said when he is not training he's resting.

"I like to catch up with friends and go down and hang out at the beach, something about the ocean really puts my mind at ease," he said.

Their real joy for them, however, still comes from crossing the finish line after eight or more hours of perseverance.

On their wobbly knees, they can repeat those lines from a triathlon advert: "Some people consider the marathon the ultimate endurance event.

"We consider it a cool down."

arizvi@thenational.ae