Friday, February 19, 2010

Tobias Frenz: Triathlon’s Teutonic Triple Threat (Part 3)

Tobias’s approach to racing, training and living is very – German!

Enrico: What did you do to prepare for Kona? Which sacrifices did you make?

Tobias: Like every Kona rookie I was very excited and wanted to do a PB in Kona. The training itself was not much different from what I’ve done before: A long and fast run (building up from 20km to 30km) on Saturday, and a long and fast ride (with intervals thrown in) on Sunday (150km to 180km). I very much believe in not doing slow long runs or ride, except when you are fatigued.

One or two swims on the weekend (2 to 3km) and during the week two runs (10-13km) and two rides (60km). The weekday evening rides were at time-trial pace, quite hard for about 40km. The morning runs were ‘fillers’, not run hard.

But training didn't go well as I strained my hamstring (it has always been my weak spot as I don’t stretch enough) and couldn't run the last 10 weeks leading up to the race. The first time I ran again was a 3km run in Kona, two days before the race. I was quite worried if it would hold for the whole 42km (it did).

Enrico: What was it like to do three Ironmans back-to-back over two days in UAE? Describe that experience.

Tobias: It was without doubt my proudest sports moment, something I’ll never forget.

I felt very strong in 2007 as I had a very good built up, winning the MR25 Ultramarathon 2006 by miles and setting a new personal best at the IM Langkawi 2007.

The decision to participate in an ultra-Ironman was a spur-of-the moment decision in early March, inspired by the ultra-accomplishments by our good friend Harn Wei. Whilst googling ‘ultra-ironman’ I happened to come across the Triple IM event in Ras al-Khaimah in May 2007. What appealed to me was the fact that the swim was not in a pool, which is normally the case for Ultra-events, but in the sea. Furthermore, the bike and run course was also a rather long 6km stretch, unlike the 2-3km loops you have at other events.

I did increase my trainings volume slightly, especially the weekend workouts: Saturday morning a 42km run, followed by a 3km afternoon swim at Tanjong Beach, Sentosa. On Sunday a 180-200km ride, again followed by a 3km swim. I also added a third weekday run and trained twice a day. Training twice a day made a big difference in my performance and so did the weekly marathon distance I ran. I did six of these leading up to the race and it gave me a lot of confidence going into the race.

On race day, I didn’t know what to expect. I was the rookie, whilst most of the other competitors were seasoned ultras. My only goal was to finish. Day 1 started with the single IM distance, followed by the double IM distance on the second day. Initially, I wanted to take it easy on day one to ensure that I will somehow manage the double.

When the gun went off, I quickly feel back on the swim, as I was one of the few participants that didn’t bring a wetsuit. Now why would I bring a wetsuit to the UAE with temperatures at 40°Celcius? Well, they were allowed due to the jellyfish.

Out of the water, I felt extremely strong on the bike. So I threw out my game plan and decided to push and come in first into T2. And so I did, with quite a gap. On the run, I decided to shift down a gear so as not to be too fatigued for the second day. I cruised at a steady pace and managed to maintain the lead until the finish line. I did a new PB of 9:38h.

Day 2 was a new game. We had new and fresh competitors (those that didn’t do their single IM) and so this turned out to be the biggest mental and physical struggle in my life. I was again handicapped at the swim and lost a fair bit of time. On the bike, I realised that my legs were weak and I couldn’t really push hard anymore. It took me quite a while to get into the rhythm. Whilst I was still overtaking one rider after the other, I couldn’t quite catch up with an Italian rider (who didn’t do the single IM the day before; I learnt only much later that he was a former-professional cyclist and still training with the national cyclists). Whenever I gained some ground, he kept fighting back and I simply couldn’t close the gap. It started bothering me as I felt that nobody could beat me on the bike. So, I made a commitment to myself to catch him at all cost, as I wanted to be first in T2 again. I rode the ride of my life, suffering like I never did before (sounds corny, but it was like that) and I finally caught up with him after about 280km.

I took another 10km out of him before we hit T2. Unlike most other competitors I didn’t rest or eat at T2 and continued straight with the final 84km run leg. The Italian was, meanwhile, overtaken on the run by a Frenchman, who was the race favourite and a fast runner. Still, by then I had a lead of about 15km and I was not willing to let this race slip away. The run was hell, I was exhausted, and my stomach was so bloated that I couldn’t take any solid food or drink. I managed to hold on and if one can speak of a life-changing experience, this was it! I won in 21:50h with a solid lead to the runner-up who clocked a 24:28h.

Enrico: Who are your biggest influences in your life? Why them?

Tobias: There are two persons in my life that will always be close to my heart. One is my brother in-law, because he brought me into cycling and running. He was always very supportive and we had a very close, almost father-and-son-like relationship. Where I’m, sports-wise, now is because of him. Then there is my brother Stefan, who is 2 years older and with which I have an inseparable bond. It is not so much of an influence in my life, but a soul mate I fully trust.

Enrico: What is your strategy for racing? Is it ‘all or nothing’, or ‘one step at a time’, or ‘be the best’?

Tobias: It depends on whether it is an, ‘A’ race or not. Qualifiers for Kona have always been my focus and I've achieved what I was aiming for with a ‘one step at a time’ approach and a bit of ‘all or nothing’. ‘Be the best’ is not reflective of my rather good-hearted nature. I never race against others; I only race against my own goals. Though I do have a competitive strike inside me that naturally forces me to drop others, especially on the bike, where I excelled in.

For ‘B’ races, especially in later years it was more of a ‘see how it goes or I want to enjoy it’ mindset, which is a reflection of the level (or lack of) motivation. The more goals/to-dos I managed to tick of my virtual to-do list, the commitment to going all out decreased sharply.

Enrico: What mental skills/anchors do you use once you really start hurting (in a race) and the grizzly bear climbs on your back telling you to just walk or quit?

Tobias: When cycling as a teenager I happened to be strong in the hills, and to live up to that, I told myself ‘to never ever get off the bike, regardless of how steep the hill is or how exhausted you are’. Sounds silly, but I’m a very hardheaded person and there was no way I would break that promise. Whenever it got tough, I could pull up that promise and it worked well for a long while.

But life has its up and downs and we all have to eat humble pie at some point in time, and so have I. But it never happened in my A races.

Enrico: How do you stay motivated to repeat similar challenges once you have ticked the box, i.e. Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Kona; Ultra-marathon; Ultra-Ironman?

Tobias: Admittedly, after I won the Triple Ironman, I found it hard to motivate myself to continue doing Ironman races, or the like. I was very contented with my achievements and I felt it was time to move on. But I'm a very driven person and need challenges. So, the new job in KL came along and it is a challenge I've taken on whole-heartedly. Within the first two years of our operations, we have become the market-leader and it took a lot of energy out of me, mentally.

Sports-wise, I had no big plans until I was asked by a colleague to participate in the 250km 4 Deserts Run, through the Sahara in October 2009, as part of a three-men team. It is, basically, a self-supporting run over six days with roughly 40km each on the first four days followed by 89km on Day 5 and a short 2km sprint to the finish on Day 6.

Honestly speaking, I wasn’t too excited about a long distance running event because it is, probably, a most boring sport to do. I can very much sympathize with Andre Agassi who stated in his biography that he truly hated playing tennis, but what do you do if you are good at it? Despite my recent running-allergy, I decided to join the team in order to get a break from work and to do some ‘sightseeing’ in Egypt. I had to run the team’s pace and that gave me comfort that I would not be under ‘soft pressure’ to run fast. However, my two teammates had to pull out for medical reasons and so I ended up in the solo category.

Training for the Sahara event was very different to what I have done before. All runners had to carry their own food, clothes, sleeping bag and other mandatory items in a bag-pack. That, basically, means that you aim to carry a minimum amount of food to keep yourself going. I carried about 14,000kcal amounting to a total bag-pack weight about 8kg. Leading up to the race I did about eight long training runs with distances over 40 to 60km with a bag-pack. It took a while to get in shape after such a long break from serious training, but it felt good. The pre-race favourites were Mehmet from Canada, who won the Atacama (Chile) 4 Deserts Run and Christian (Austria) who came in second there. Christian was sponsored by RedBull and had his own film crew following him throughout the race. There was quite a bit of tension as both so badly wanted to win this race! I simply could not relate to this and was rather put off by this kind of atmosphere. I was here on a vacation, do my run in the morning, and then enjoy the camaraderie in the camp.

The first stage was a showdown by Mehmet who went all-out and took 15 minutes out of the runner up, Christian. I just ran my own steady pace and, rather surprisingly, came in 3rd. Even more surprisingly on stage 2, I was in the lead until 2km before the finish, without trying hard. Mehmet was behind me in some distance and I could have easily brought it home. But, funny enough, I told myself that ‘I’m here to get a break from work and not to compete.’ This is supposed to be vacation! I came in second and found it very odd that things were going so smoothly. On stage 3, I was again in the lead without much effort and won the stage ahead of my dear tent-mate, Italian Paolo. After stage 3, an equipment check was done and it turned out that some competitors where not carrying all mandatory items (some forgot, some lost items during the run, or others might just have taken by chance), which carries a time penalty. So after day 3, I had a lead of about hour over my competitors. Day 4 was uneventful and I came in 3rd. Day 5, the long stage 89km stage went well until the halfway mark. I was running together with Paolo with a lead of 15 min over Christian, i.e. a 1:15h lead overall. The overall win was doomed to be mine. Well, not quite so.

All of a sudden, I got severe diarrhea and it forced me to stop running. I had to walk for the rest of the stage, dropping to 4th place, finally. The female leader from South Africa joined me during the run - walk that is - as she had ITB pains. It was an almost magical experience to be in the middle of the Sahara desert in the middle of the night, something I’ll never forget.

Enrico: What’s next on the list of ‘To Do’ or ‘To Conquer’ list?

Tobias: Swimming the English Channel is something I have high on my list and I would like to go for it in 2012. But there is no swimming club near my home in Kuala Lumpur, and training for it on my own in my 25m condo pool would simply be too boring. So, it is on the back burner for the time being. But the good thing about that goal is that I can still do it at an older age. I have a couple of 5 to 25km open water swims on my list that I’d like to do in 2010/11, to see if I’m really up to it.

I’m also quite excited now about diving - freediving - in particular. But I have yet to see how my ears and lings cope with the high water pressure.

Enrico: What is your philosophy towards life? The host of ‘The Amazing race’, Phil Keoghan wrote a book ‘NOW – No Opportunity Wasted’. What is your take on that?

Tobias: When the movie Carpe Diem [Dead Poets’ Society] came out, it was all about living life to the fullest and not wasting any opportunities. Well, we are all inspired by such is easier said than done. A lot of it has to do with your character - you dare or you don’t. Sports-wise, I have developed a level of confidence where I can't think of something I wouldn’t dare trying. But actually doing it is the tricky thing, as many sportsmen (that includes myself) tend to be ‘lazy’ or find it hard to make time (a cheap excuse; often, it is).

Enrico: What methods do you use to monitor the onset of fatigue/flat spells/de-motivation during training for such events that come down to you performing at your best on a single day?

Tobias: As for fatigue, when I started training for IM I was using a heart rate monitor; that gave me a good indication when it was time to rest. But after a year, I got rid of all gadgets, notably the heart rate monitor and my bike computer. We all develop a fair feeling of how hard we train and when we feel fatigued.

De-motivation/flat-spells are the evil ALL athletes are facing. Those two minutes at 5am when the alarm bell is ringing, and you are arguing with yourself that it might be okay to skip the morning run, as you had a hard training session yesterday or an important meeting in the meeting where you shouldn’t look too tired. Whether you can fight it or not, depends a lot on your self-discipline and commitment. I have loads and loads of that I can probably count on one hand, when I skipped a planned training over the past 6 years. Very German!

Photo-credits: Tobias Frenz

No comments: