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  • Focused on the goal: IRONMAN athletes are ready for Hawaii.
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    Focused on the goal: IRONMAN athletes are ready for Hawaii.

    Supported by Mercedes-Benz, the world-class triathletes
    Daniela Ryf, Sebastian Kienle and Anja Beranek have prepared
    for the competition in Kona. They push beyond their limits
    and are ready for the big day.

    Text: Marcel Schlegel | Photos: Tobias Kuberski

The goal: success in Kona.

People who love triathlon all dream of taking part in IRONMAN Hawaii. But only a few actually manage it. To qualify, you need to take on a fight that calls for stamina: while the participants for the different age categories qualify by earning a slot at one of the qualifying events, the professional athletes have to collect a sufficient number of points during a qualification period over several months. So, already in the run-up to this great competition, you have to prevail over the competitors and push yourself beyond your own physical limits. Only the very best of the age-group athletes and professionals qualify to enter the competition in Hawaii. And the conditions on these pacific islands could not be tougher. High humidity, temperatures varying between 28 °C at the coast and an almost unbearable 38 °C close to the lava fields.

Add to that strong winds that turn the cycling race into a continual battle with the gusting wind – and don't forget that the swimming race on Hawaii is in the open sea. This constant struggle with the limits of your capabilities, however, seems to be exactly the thing that so many endurance athletes find so fascinating about the IRONMAN world championship on the Big Island. The other thing is its history: the first competition was held in 1978 and makes the IRONMAN on Hawaii the oldest triathlon of its kind. The fact that this competition is so inspiring comes from the many dramatic races these world-class athletes have shown us in Kona. The legend lives from the countless tales these long-distance athletes tell when they get to the finish – everyone has their own story. But only a few actually become IRONMAN legends themselves. One person who can claim so, is Daniela Ryf.

Daniela Ryf on her way to becoming a triathlon legend.

At a pace as if she'd just started the running, in October 2016 Daniela Ryf sped into the finish of the toughest triathlon of the world. On those last few metres, the Swiss woman still had enough power to accelerate – even high-fiving fans at the edge of the route. At the finish she stood defiantly raising her hands up high in jubilation. She stood there: upright, with the winner's crown on her head, looking as fresh as ever. Ryf had defended her title from 2015 and was even better. Her fabulous time of 8:46:46 hours meant not only her second IRONMAN world championship title – Ryf improved the track record in the women's category by a good five minutes. Her biggest pursuer, the three-time winner, Mirinda Carfrae from Australia, came into the finish 23 minutes later – half an eternity in an IRONMAN race. The third victory in Hawaii in succession would ultimately make her a true legend. So far: she already has the triple on the 70.3 course under her belt. Now she has to leave her competitors behind on the long distance. For nothing's as old as yesterday's success stories.

“Think of the balance between body and spirit.”

Why didn’t Ryf even slow down as she neared the finish? It is precisely these moments that distinguish an IRONMAN winner, says the 30-year old, as she parks her training-mobile, a V-Class, at the side of the road. She has just become a 70.3 world champion and triple winner for middle distance in the European Championships. “If you don’t back down even in these situations, then you get your reward at the end.” It is this peak performance that navigates her mentally, showing the way to the next level of performance. Ryf describes here a mindset, that could be circumscribed: never to give up even when the finish seems so close. “The fascinating thing about our sport is always checking out what the body is able to do and how the mind can help,” explains the triathlete. Then she hops on to her bike, leaving the V-Class behind.

Triathletes – the modern Shaolin.

But how do you achieve this level of mental stamina? How do you motivate yourself to be even better, when it would seem that you have already won everything there is to be won? In top-class sport, it is often nuances that decide whether you win or lose. Physical power is not enough – a second level is called for – mental strength: resolute discipline and an uncompromising mindset. Like scarcely any other, the Shaolin monks stand for this spiritual clarity, strength of will, and, at the same time, the serenity that is needed to achieve athletic goals. But the members of this Buddhist monastic order are much more than mere masters of their mindset.

Physical strength is also something that they consider to be inseparable from spiritual strength: Kung Fu, which began around 1,500 years ago in China, is considered to be the blueprint of the Asian martial arts. For the Shaolin, martial arts and physical training is the same as character training – another form of spirituality. And the only way that a balance can be achieved between the body and the soul.

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Sebastian Kienle – from hunted to hunter.

If you like, triathletes like Daniela Ryf, Anja Beranek or Sebastian Kienle are modern Shaolin monks. Kienle definitely deserves this comparison. The IRONMAN world champion of 2014 thinks that the self-control of the monks stands symbolically for the mindset of a world-class endurance athlete. You can only be successful in Hawaii if you have combined the physical with the mental over a long process. Only those people who can motivate themselves again and again every day and realize the importance of pushing their limits during training and disciplined self-study have a chance of winning the toughest triathlon in the world. To achieve this, Kienle needs his familiar surroundings.

The 33-year-old counts his V-Class among these things. It serves as a mobile changing zone wherever he goes and accompanies him during training and at the races themselves. With this support, he was able to become IRONMAN European Champion for the third time in July. But the 33-year-old is aware of another side of the IRONMAN: his experiences in Hawaii have to do with the feeling of no longer being the number 1 despite having won in Kona in 2014 and being a world-class athlete. In 2015 he came in eighth, in 2016 second. In contrast to Ryf, Kienle is no longer the hunted. He is the hunter.

New attack in Kona – with an eye on the opponents.

Sebastian Kienle says that he actually likes the role of the attacker! However: The dress rehearsal did not run quite so well for the South German. At the world championship over half the distance in the middle of September, he missed being in top three, coming in fourth. A setback: But for Kienle, defeats are synonymous with incident from which he can learn; they give him new incentives. In addition to that, he can rely on the experience he has, which gives him security and mental strength, he says. “Everyone has their own personal memories of Hawaii. I can look back on success and some very positive experiences.” He brings these to mind at the start. “Doubts do crop up here and there,” says Kienle. “But at the starting signal, they’re all gone.” Then there is only one goal for the professional athlete: to be the first to cross the finishing line – like in 2014.

Anja Beranek’s goal: to defend the title as best German.

Ryf, Kienle and Beranek have learned to differentiate between what’s important and what’s not – which is also an integral part of Shaolin training. They need to keep their sights on the goal and in focus – although this is not necessarily the same thing as crossing the line. Anja Beranek explains: “In training, when you regularly push yourself to your limits – that itself can be a goal.” You have to engage with the journey, “otherwise you won’t make it,” says Beranek, who was best German female athlete in the previous year’s IRONMAN world championship – and would now like to repeat her success.

Body and soul form a symbiosis.

Only people who are prepared to train hard and believe in themselves without compromise will survive the course of 3.8 km swimming, 180 km cycling and 42 km running during the IRONMAN competition. The mindset during the race is just as important as your physical condition, explains Beranek. “The body can only grow if you treat it to breaks and balance.” And par to this course, the Mercedes-Benz brand ambassador swears to her regular cup of tea in her Marco Polo.

Because: no mental endurance without physical self-control; no victory over the competitors unless you can defeat yourself – and no excellence without patience, hard work and sweat. That is what IRONMAN and Asian martial arts have in common: that the body and the soul form a connection that benefits both. In Kona, each triathlete will tell their own tale, but there is one goal that unites them all: each of their tales will become a story of success.