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© John Levison/Tri247
Marino Vanhoenacker: still hungry for wins
Posted by: John Levison
Posted on: Monday 11th January 2016


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13-time Ironman champion Marino Vanhoenacker - "I'm still hungry"

If you are a fan of Ironman racing, then you must surely be a fan a Belgium's Marino Vanhoenacker. The Belgian superstar won his first Ironman over 10 years ago and since then has been lighting up races around the world with his attacking, 'catch me if you can' style of racing. 13 times - so far - the answer to that has been a resounding no.

I sat down with Marino last week in Lanzarote for a chat, where he was training at Sand Beach Resort (www.sandsbeach.eu), in preparation for his 2016 campaign which will begin at Ironman New Zealand on 5th March.

2015 was another stunning year, with two Ironman wins achieved just four weeks apart at both Ironman Brasil and a return to his spiritual home of Ironman Austria, Klagenfurt, where he collected his seventh win. Winning both races in under the eight hour mark (the first time anyone has achieved that in a calendar year), Marino joined Chris McCormack with four career 7:XX finishes.

Surprising many - having said he was 'done' with the island after a painful 2014 race - Marino returned to Kona. Does a DNF mean his is finally done with the Ironman World Championship? Actually, the door is still open on that one...


I wanted to start by turning the clock back five years. I was fortunate to be at the finish line in Klagenfurt, Austria when you set the Ironman world record time. Your celebrations there were something special – beating your chest and looking like an excited WWE wrestler you were so hyped! What do you remember about that now?

We only started thinking about the record the year before, when I did seven fifty-something, in Klagenfurt. Right before the race in 2011 we knew I was going to go faster than the current record [Ed. which was 7:50:27, which had stood for 14 years from Luc Van Lierde], it was just a matter of how fast. I didn't expect to be that far under it… but the whole time during the race I knew what I was doing. I felt pretty much untouchable that that day for the first time in my life. It's maybe a cocky thing to say, but nobody could beat me on that day, anywhere. So yes… it was a little emotional!

I always remember the feeling crossing the line, because I thought that if they take the record next week, next year or whenever it doesn't matter - they will never take this moment away from me.

Ironman Austria 2011

Did if feel like the perfect day?

I couldn't go any faster on that day at any point of the race. The weather was, for me at least, perfect – it was cold in the morning, and then never more than 20°c when I was running. At that time I didn't think there was a possibility to go even faster for me on that course, so that's why I decided not to go back [Ed. after winning for six consecutive years].

Thinking about it now, maybe I could have gone faster in the next three or four years, especially looking back at how I ended up last year without really going for those times. I think maybe there was a chance to go a little bit faster provided we had good weather, but…. I'm not disappointed I didn't go back. It was a closed story and it ended on a high.

Last year I was really scared going in to the race not to f*&k it up and mess up the good story in my life, but it ended up well and it was a big relief!

Related Article: Men's Sub-8 Hour Iron-Distance Archive

Throughout your career you've consistently raced three Ironman races a year, typically a March/April race like South Africa, a summer event (Austria, Frankfurt), and then usually Kona. Last year you raced Brazil (31st May) and Austria (28th June), which was probably the closest you've ever done with just four weeks in between them – what was the thinking behind that schedule?

Yes, everyone said I was crazy to do both of those races so close, and they said “ok, so you're just doing the first one to peak for Austria then?”, and I said no, I want to win them both….

For years I've been saying I want to race Brazil and win it, and with the injury and all from late 2014, last year seemed like a good time to do it. Coming back from nothing this time last year, we looked at the schedule and New Zealand was way too early; I wasn't even running at that time. Then South Africa was still too early and so Brazil was really the first one I could be fit for. Then my team, Pewag, came a little bit more into play as they really wanted me to race I Klagenfurt, and so I said ok I will… but I'm not going to drop Brazil!

Brazil proved a tough race too, as you had some quality competition from Tim O'Donnell and Brent McMahon?

Brazil was a whole lot harder than I expected. I think that's probably the first close race that I've won. Usually if someone comes up from behind, with the way I race you typically don't have an answer, but on this day it worked and so for me it was a really big win, coming back from injury and against those two guys.

How did you manage that short recovery period between the two races?

There's not much you can do. We had a plan that I would be ready for the two Ironman races before Brazil as there's not much you can do training wise other than tune a little bit in between. I was actually in a whole lot better shape in Austria (the second race). I think Brazil seemed to activate the system somehow. In Brazil I could go hard, but not without some punishment afterwards, whereas in Austria I could go as hard as I wanted without any impact… and so that was a lot more fun to race!

©Chrlie Crowhurst/Getty Images for IRONMAN

Did having Klagenfurt as the second race make the process easier? You had won there six times previously and you must feel as though you know everything about that course, every pothole and element of that road?

Oh yes, for sure. I think everybody else at the press conference there already knows that they are not going to win that race with me there. I've been doing that course even more than people who live on it. After my first win there I realised that this would be where the best of me would come out and I put a lot of time and energy into it. Throughout the year I had camps just on the course, so looking back on it, it definitely paid off.

Were you aware that the two results in Brazil and Austria mean you are the first athlete to have broken eight hours twice in one season, and that you are also equal with Chris McCormack now with four career sub-eight hour finishes?

I never really thought about records before, but now have people reminding me. You know, I don't really mind too much about times, I just want to win as much as possible - but they are good side things that come with it too. I have a few records now, which means you are doing well I guess!

©Chrlie Crowhurst/Getty Images for IRONMAN

Let's talk Kona… immediately after the 2014 race you said you were ‘done' with Kona and not coming back, but you did come back last year. What's your thinking on it now, are you ruling it out or still keeping your options open?

I don't know… everybody close to me would like me to leave it alone and go for a third Ironman win in the year and I think maybe that's what I should have done the last five years, but I was close in Hawaii on a few occasions. I think I was really close in 2010, and you want to keep going back and trying because that's the race why you started the sport. I call it a love/hate relationship – I love it, but it hates me!

I already knew from my first time there that it's not my type of climate, because I sweat like a pig basically. It was always going to be harder than I thought. I've always said that for me to win this race I have to be 15% stronger than my competition just to match them, and I stick to those percentages. We've tried basically everything to cope with the heat and the sweating over there but it is basically how your body is built. There's a lot of stuff that you can train and adapt, but sweat rate is one that we haven't mastered yet.

I wasn't at my best (of 2015) anymore for the race this time, and I'm pretty sure I had a bad day too, and so with those things coming together it didn't really help. In the morning at the start I felt really confident and healthy, but as soon as the gun went, a different feeling arrived!

The year before (2014) I started with a broken sacrum without knowing it, which is ridiculous really, but as a triathlete you always push the limits. I've learned to train with injuries and pain for months and months, so we sort of get used to it.

Marino Vanhoenacker's Career Ironman Wins

Year
Event(s)
2005
Ironman Florida
2006
Ironman Austria
2007
Ironman Austria
2008
Ironman Austria
2009
Ironman South Africa, Ironman Austria
2010
Ironman Malaysia, Ironman Austria
2011
Ironman Austria
2012
Ironman Frankfurt (Euro Champs)
2013
N/A
2014
Ironman Canada
2015
Ironman Brasil, Ironman Austria

Looking at your record, one thing that stands out is your remarkable consistency over such a long period. From your first Ironman win in 2005, you've basically won at least one Ironman race every year except 2013 (when injured), since then.

That's really paid of this year as it meant I could sign another three-year deal with Pewag. Basically, if I talk to a sponsor they know that if we sign the guy, we win an Ironman next year. That's still not that common in the sport – it's sort of like playing the lottery with five numbers already on the ticket!

Marino at Sands Beach, Lanzarote
Some relaxation among the training - swim coach/timing for his Pewag training partners

Tell us a bit more about the Pewag Racing Team (www.pewagracingteam.com) – I believe they are based in Klagenfurt?

Yes, one of the two head offices is in Klagenfurt. So, the big chief, Ägyd Pengg, he got in contact with Rene who was a Pro triathlete at the time, a few years back and he coached Ägyd. From there came the idea for a team. Initially it was an Austrian team, and then Faris Al Sultan and I joined. The three years were ended last year and they decided to go even more international and also target the international markets where they have business goals. So yes, it's a good group now. There are more athletes who can win Ironman races now, including Corinne Abraham and Fraser Cartmell (Great Britain), Jeremy Jurkiewicz (France), Mchael Van Cleven (Belgium) and Stefan Schmid (Germany). I think it is better that you have a team that doesn't rely on one athlete to win the big races, because if you get an injury like I had, you are dry for half a year.

It's a really nice group and I think we get more out of each other doing training camps together. It's also motivating when you look on the internet on a Monday morning and see one of your teammates has done well in a race.

Pewag Racing Team

In Brazil and Austria you recorded your two fastest bike splits ever (both 4:11), and we've also seen a whole host of fast times from the men in 2015 versus historic levels. What are your thoughts behind that step forward in times?

Related Article: The fastest bikers in Ironman

I think the answer is quite easy – the easiest thing to train and improve is cycling. I think you can already achieve a really high level with a lot of miles, and pushing a little bit, you can get such a big improvement – and if you want to start doing the crazy sessions too, that can really make the difference. If you look at triathlon, let's say at Thomas's time [Ed. Thomas Hellriegel, one of the original über-bikers], he was the only one riding under 4:30 and now you have maybe 30 guys riding under 4:30. They've all realised that cycling is easier to train than running or swimming. I think there are lots of athletes who have gone into a winter and thought they will really focus on swimming or running and nothing happens… but if you do that focus and commitment in cycling, it will reward you, I'm convinced.

Are you a big user of powermeters in your own training and racing?

I have them on the bike and I look at them a lot in training. In racing it's less, it's more of a tactical game. In a race you might see numbers that you think you won't survive the whole day, so you have to decide, do I slow down or risk it? Mostly, I risk it! But, you know that if you are doing 350watts for 15 minutes that you might have a price to pay later on!. Every now and then you get away with it, but in training I'm much more guided by it and I think that it is also one of the big tools that has pushed the improvements in those cycling times.

What's your schedule for 2015?

I start in New Zealand, that's for sure, but after that it's pretty much all open.

Will you follow your typical schedule of three Ironman races in the year?

I don't know – it might only be two. After New Zealand I'll probably do a summer Ironman somewhere and then after each race I always want to feel how my body is. After the summer race I have to decide on either Hawaii, another Ironman or if I feel I'm empty then I pull the plug and start in early 2017 again.

You've achieved so much and race for so long at such at a high level, what keeps you motivated?

I still want to win races. For me, that is the most important thing. When I see other athletes on camps I still feel that I'm a whole lot more motivated than they are, even the young kids, which makes my life easier I guess! I still think about triathlon the same as when I entered the sport, I'm still hungry. Maybe saying getting faster from now on is the wrong word… but slowing down as little as possible.

Do you have particular future goals you want to achieve?

No, I just want to get that list as big as possible and win as much as I can from now on until the end. Maybe do some races I haven't done before maybe – but take it race-by-race, no more five-year plans for me!

Is there a chance that Challenge Roth might feature at some point as that's a race you haven't done yet?

Maybe, it was a possibility last year. I do believe that every year that goes by the chances are getting smaller now that I will do Roth, who knows. I did have a look at the course and biked it at the end of 2014 as I went over there for two or three days. It could be a course that suits me, but we'll have to see what comes and if that happens.

Good luck for what lies ahead, and thanks for making your races so exciting to watch – we're always sure there won't be a ‘settling for podium position' tactical, conservative move when you race.

No, that's not going to happen with me!

I've definitely lost out on a lot of podium positions in my career which I might have gained by being a bit more conservative – but then again, I don't think I've ever lost a race that I could have won.

I want to go for the win and that's not going to change.

Winning Ironman 70.3 Luxembourg 2014


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