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Interview with Julia Gajer on Kona 2014

Here is the next Kona interview that will also be part of my upcoming Kona Rating Report (you can already pre-order): This one is with Julia Gajer, another German athlete that might surprise a lot of people with a good Kona result.

Julia Gajer

Thorsten: Can you give some background on how you got started in Triathlons?

Julia: I got late into the sport and did my first triathlon in 2008 (Olympic distance). I grew up being a swimmer but didn’t have the talent to qualify for German or International Championships. During my time at university (I studied Pharmacy) I was really tired of swimming and therefore had about to years of not doing any sports before I started to run by myself just once or twice a week. In 2008 when I started my PhD, I bought a bike and raced my first three triathlons (two olympic, one half), which I all won. From that point on I was infected with the triathlon virus. In 2009/10 I raced Olympic distance races in the Baden-Württemberg Liga, some half distances (IM 70.3 Wiesbaden 2010, 5th place) and Powerman Zofingen 2009 (4th place), while working full time in a lab on my PhD thesis. In 2011 I became part of the Team Erdinger Alkoholfrei Junior team, which helped me quite a lot to develop as an athlete. We got the chance to train with the professional team and pick up a lot of stuff. In 2011 I did my first long distance race in Roth in which I finished 2nd. At the end of 2011 I was able to successfully complete my PhD, turned full-time Pro and became a member of the Team Erdinger Alkoholfrei Professional team.

T: How was your season so far?

J: I’m pretty happy with my season so far as my first goal for this year was to get a Kona slot. Eventhough I didn’t have a dream race (putting together a great bike and run) so far at the long distance events I raced, I really feel that I got stronger in all three disciplines this year. At the half distance race in Kraichgau, you could get a glimpse of what is possible when I perform well during the whole race. Therefore, I’m working quite hard right now to put it all together in Kona.

T: You’ve probably heard a lot of stories about Kona and what makes it special. Have you been able to see the course yourself?

J: I was able to fly over to watch the race and explore the course in 2012. From the first glimpse at the television, it doesn’t look too hard. But if you are on the course yourself it really is tough and honest. A real World Championship course. The heat and the wind make it even more challenging, especially on the run. That’s why I think that you really need to be ready to race Kona. When I flew over in 2012, my plan was to qualify for 2013, but when I watched the race and trained on the course, I felt that my mind and body were not yet ready for the race, that’s why I waited another year.
There are some things that make Kona special: the conditions and the great depth of the field. For me it is really an honor and it gives me a lot of extra motivation to race the best athletes in one race.

T: How do you prepare for Kona and how is that different from a “regular” IM?

J: I prepare at home as I have really good training possibilities here and feel most comfortable sleeping in my own bed. I fly to Kona two weeks before the race to allow enough time to adapt to the time shift and climate.
My coach and I created a special preparation for each of my long distance races. There are some basic sessions that you always do, but apart from that we’ve developed a specific preparation for each race. So I don’t really have a typical preparation that I can compare to my Kona prep.

T: What are your expectations for Kona?

J: If I can put it all together, a Top 10 result is possible, this would be a great result for my first Kona race.

T: Julia, have a great first race in Kona!

(Photo Credit: Privatbrauerei ERDINGER Weißbräu)

Interview with Nils Frommhold on Kona 2014

Nils Frommhold is one of the athletes that’s not yet a household name, but he might surprise a lot of people in Kona this year. Nils has switched to long-course racing in 2012 and immediately had great success, winning IM Arizona in 8:03. He was injured for almost the complete 2013 season, then easily qualified with a 5th place in Cozumel and a win in South Africa. This summer, he had a great race at Challenge Roth, leading for almost the whole day and eventually finished in second with a time of just over 8 hours. He also had a great 0.3 Championships placing fifth. This year will be his first Kona race, and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about Kona for my upcoming Kona Rating Report. You can already pre-order the report so you’ll be among the first to receive it!

Nils Frommhold

Thorsten: After your injury in 2013, was qualifying for Kona your main goal?

Nils: After Cozumel at the end of 2013, my goals were to get my Kona slot without too many races and also to have a peak performance at Challenge Roth in the summer. Both went better than expected! After my winning performance at IM South Africa, I had enough KPR points. The second place in Roth was my best result so far and a good basis for a great Kona result.

T: What makes Kona special for you?

N: To be honest, I don’t really know at the moment. This year it’s my first Kona and my first visit as well. Of course I’ve heard a lot of stories about the race and a lot of people try to explain what’s special. But to see it in real live is a different story – I’ll wait and see. As for the actual race, there aren’t just two to five main contenders! There are the best 50 long distance triathletes of the year. Everybody should be in your mind and you have to know everybody’s strengths and weaknesses. In the end the champion will be the one who’s best at handling the other contenders and the weather conditions. In addition it’s very important to play your „winning cards“ at the right moment!

T: How do you prepare for Kona?

N: Because this is my first start, I don’t have any Kona experience so far! But I won’t change what has been working well for me. As for the last two years (when I prepare for late season IMs), I’ll go to Clermont, Fla., for a training camp between the 70.3 Worlds and Kona. I know the place and – what’s even more important – the training facilities. It’s like „never change a winning system“ and it makes it easy to get into a training daily routine. After Florida I’ll go to Kona eight days before the „big dance“.

T: This is your first time racing in Kona – what is realistic, what would be a great result for you?

N: For me that’s difficult to answer! I don’t know what to expect and where I fit into that incredible field of athletes. But Kona is the race with which I want to grow. A good Kona result is one of my main goals for the future. To get back to the question, in 2014 I’ll find out my initial situation. Then I can start to chase the better-placed athletes year after year. Hopefully I won’t have so many to chase ☺!

T: Who are your picks for this year?

N: I hope that we’ll have a German winner! I think Sebi Kienle, Jan Frodeno and Andreas Raelert are athletes who have that potential.

T: Who is the most underrated athlete?

N: Christian Kramer! After his incredible Klagenfurt performance he is ready for a good result! But there are a lot of strong athletes. Everyone had to have a good performance to make it to Kona. Maybe Boris Stein or Filip Ospaly will be able to surprise.

T: Please tell us about the companies that allow you to focus on being an athlete.

N: I want say thank you to all of my sponsors that make my way to Kona possible! It’s an honor for me to present the Canyon Speedmax at the big dance and be part of the Canyon family as well. In addition, Lemonsports, Reynolds and Skechers did a great job! It’s incredible to be part of a big team of coach Wolfram Bott, and to have nice sponsors and a lot of friends behind me. Hopefully I am able to give something back with a good Kona result.

T: Nils, thanks again for taking the time to let me know about your Kona approach this year. I hope that a lot more people will know you after the race!

Interview with Meredith Kessler on Kona 2014

The last weeks I’ve been busy working on my Kona Rating Report. I have a lot of interesting content, and I still need a few more days to finalize the best Kona preview possible! I’m planning to release it on Saturday, September 20th – three weeks before the race in Kona. It’ll be a70+-page PDF document with more information about the race and the Pro participants than you’ll find anywhere else! As last year, I’ll release as „donation-ware“ – you can name your own price (including free) when you order. You can already pre-order the report so you’ll be among the first to receive it!

Meredith To give you a little preview of the content, here is an interview that I was able to have with Meredith Kessler, one of the best and friendliest athletes I’ve been in contact with. (There will be about ten more interviews like this one in the Kona Rating Report!)

Thorsten: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions! For those that don’t know you yet, can you give us a brief overview of you as a person and as an athlete?

Meredith: Thank you so much for the opportunity to chat with you Thorsten. As I have mentioned before, we all really appreciate and value the time you put into our sport – to thoroughly analyze and cover most races in the authentic way that you do – thank you!

My name is Meredith Kessler. Currently my husband, Aaron, and I have lived in San Francisco, California the past 14 years. It has been a pleasure racing professionally the past 5 seasons, having started racing the Ironman distance a couple weeks after I graduated college back in 2000. Fifty-two Ironmans later, there is still ample learning to be absorbed and I certainly appreciate the fact that we hit our prime in our sport a little bit later in life!

We are grateful to have such a valuable team of people around us – family, friends and the purplepatch community led by Matt Dixon – who I have so thankfully been coached by for nearly a decade. As I have always said, I am JUST the technician in this job – there is a core team of vital people who help make the “US” as successful as “WE” can be every day – and I mean this.

T: After your 2013 7th place, you took care of qualifying in March by winning IM New Zealand. After that you were racing (and winning!) a number of 70.3s  but no more IMs.

M: We genuinely feel fortunate to have had the season that we have had so far for the team – 5 victories and one 3rd place finish. Like in every sport and during every season, the highs are high and the lows are low. No season is perfect for anyone thus the highs are never taken for granted. With four more races to go in 2014, we will aim to do everything in our power to stay fresh, healthy, focused and happy! All of which are so important for progress and hopeful success.

T: What makes Kona special?

M: The most important race is the next race on the calendar – yet there is always Kona floating around the mind since it’s out sports Super Bowl. The race is special because it is the best athletes in our sport on a worldwide stage in some of the toughest conditions the human body can endure. This is the recipe for a special race with history, tradition, and memories unlike no other sporting event on the planet. Who would have thought thirty years ago some volcanic rock out in the middle of the Pacific would have this sort of athletic draw throughout the globe – it is truly amazing!

T: How do you prepare for Kona, and how is that different from a “regular” IM?

M: After many Ironman races, I know my body and throughout the year, I have adapted to train in 50-70 degree Fahrenheit weather. In my mind, the toughest aspect of Kona are the weather conditions so my body has to be used to this extreme heat or I will falter – no ifs, ands, buts about it. I can’t jump off a plane a few days before the race and expect to do well because my body cannot handle these extreme changes. The bottom line, I need to train in the Kona conditions in order to be comfortable toeing the line with the best in the world.

In Kona, your weaknesses and vulnerabilities rise to the top and usually come out on the run. The anticipation of the big stage, sun, heat, wind, and injuries all weigh heavily on the mind. If you are not prepared for these things, the course will eat you alive. Although Ironmans are always difficult, there are some races where you might get away with not having your ‘A’ game. However, in Kona, there are 29 other women who are the best in the world who are toeing the line with the same goal in mind so having your ‘B’ game won’t cut it. Half the battle is trying to get to the start line as close to 100% as possible and then you can deal with the course, conditions, and competition.

T: This year in Kona, what would be a great result for you?

M: Of course it is personally important to try to improve on last year’s result – that is always the goal. While the race needs to be a celebration of everything that went into arriving there in one piece, a podium finish is a great result for anyone in the field. We are all waiting for that one raw, subtle, precious Kona moment which is a vision that is in the back of everyone’s mind throughout the season.

I have said this before and I will say it again, we are all competing against ourselves, the course, and the conditions. If you happen to get through these things, you can then worry about the competition. If I happen to be in the mix on the run portion of the race, I won’t be surprised to see any of the women who toed the line that day right beside me.

T: Who are your top picks for this year?

M: As our sport has continued to progress and flourish, one could sit here and tell you about 10+ potential podium finishers and overall champions. The obvious favorites never fail to deliver or impress and the dark horses come fully primed to jockey the front runners. I can’t even bring myself to name any names – as there is so much talent – I would be fearful of forgetting worthy competitors. I never underestimate the power, strength, fortitude, determination, grit and tenacity of ANY of the girls on the course – they are there for a REASON. No one is necessarily more deserving of the win than another person. I promise you that each and every athlete has done everything they can to be in the best condition possible for Kona – regardless of any adversity they have encountered along the way.

T: You wouldn’t be able to prepare for Kona without your sponsors. Which companies are you working with and why? 

M: The next few months allow us as athletes to properly showcase our partners a little bit more than we can/do during the season. It’s our time to really GIVE BACK to them while the world championship hype is at its peak. We will be working with all of our partners, in the months leading up to Kona, to get the proper message out about the benefits of using their products or services. We take all of our partners very seriously as a give/give type relationship. It is not just our title sponsors like Saucony, Enve Wheels or Roka Wetsuits who everyone knows produces amazing gear. It is highlighting Boardman who is introducing North America to their amazing bikes, showing the world two Bay area born companies Kit Order and Bungalow Munch (and both are started by my good friends), or promoting quality niche products like Xlab, ISM, Rudy Project, Challenge Tires, Ceramic Speed, Atomic Coating or Powertap – they are all a part of our family and involved in getting us to the starting line at the World Championship races!

T: Thanks again, Meredith, hopefully all the careful preparation will allow you to take another step forward in Kona!

(Photo Credit: Jay Prasuhn)

New Episode of IM-Predictions podcast: Interviews with Trevor Wurtele and Marko Albert

For the latest episode of the IM-Predictions podcast I’ve had the chance to talk with two great interview partners:

  • Trevor Wurtele took some time to chat about Team Wurtele and the chances of his wife Heather for IM Coeur d’Alene.
  • I’ve asked Marko Albert about the upcoming IM Austria and his general goals as a triathlete.
I think it’s a great listen, both in preparation for the races on June 29th, and about these interesting athletes in general.


Q & A with Thomas Gerlach

Thomas Gerlach has grown up in Wisconsin (guess his favorite Ironman race!) and is now training a lot in Tucson, Arizona. He’s been racing Pro since October 2011 season. He opens up on his blog about his training and prolific racing, and is pretty active on Social Media as well. He races almost every weekend on all distances. Here is a table of his professional Ironman races:

Race Date Swim Bike Run Total Adjusted Rating Rank in Race
IM Arizona 2011-11-19 00:57:04 04:43:37 03:12:27 08:57:00 09:11:26 09:11:26 27
IM St. George 2012-04-29 00:59:19 05:33:54 03:12:14 09:49:00 08:59:36 09:05:08 4
IM Louisville 2012-08-26 00:56:19 04:39:52 03:21:33 09:02:42 09:07:56 09:06:10 3
IM Wisconsin 2012-09-09 00:54:42 04:45:21 03:12:19 08:58:20 08:53:49 09:02:49 6
IM Florida 2012-11-03 00:57:45 04:15:57 03:14:54 08:33:26 08:49:05 08:59:47 11
IM Arizona 2012-11-18 00:54:29 04:28:54 03:08:49 08:36:05 08:44:37 08:57:01 10
IM Los Cabos 2013-03-17 00:58:30 04:41:51 03:03:02 08:47:46 08:42:29 08:54:35 7
IM Coeur d’Alene 2013-06-23 00:58:04 04:47:31 03:10:35 09:00:02 09:02:13 08:55:45 7
IM Louisville 2013-08-25 00:51:52 04:36:28 03:07:12 08:41:11 08:50:39 08:55:03 3
IM Hawaii 2013-10-12 01:00:02 04:49:53 03:33:26 09:28:02 09:28:48 08:59:17 39
IM Arizona 2013-11-17 00:53:49 04:20:35 03:07:01 08:25:01 08:41:53 08:57:18 12

He is now ranked 57th on my ratings. He qualified for Kona 2013 in July, his 3.800 points (at that time) were enough for a 42nd place in the KPR ranking and the second to last qualifying spot. The changes in the KPR for 2014 bring a new points allocation that favor the top 3 finishers, and with his 2013 results he would have dropped beyond #100. He recently finished Ironman Arizona with a PR of 8:25:01, „only“ good enough for a 12th place. I was interested in his perspective on racing Kona as a Pro, his thoughts on the KPR system and his plans for the next qualifying cycle, and he was kind enough to answer my questions.

Thomas Bike

Q: After you qualified for Kona this year, why did you decide to race there, even if it ends up mostly being a „vacation with a race“?

A: I raced this year at Kona because it was just too much of honor not to race there, but I never really made it a season goal to qualify, it just kind of happened. I had many friends whose only goal was just to get there. However, the days of old are over. There are guys who are better than they were 4 years ago and went under the old system and now they have no chance of making it back today. The system is changing again for 2014. I think I can still get back there but I’m not setting my season up around it. Kona is a special race, and it takes a certain type of athlete to do well there.

Q: Earning some prize money was probably unrealistic for you, so is there some compensation from sponsors or other benefits outside of prize money?

There is compensation for many of the athletes and there was a small amount that I received by going but it was nowhere close to the cost of the trip. Thankfully fellow pro Bryan Rhodes helped me secure a wonderful homestay which helped defer some costs. I have to thank Katie and Paul Burke for welcoming me into their home. I always encourage people to homestay athletes. It really helps us out, especially at venues where scarcity of lodging really drives up the overall cost. Kona is definitely one of those places.

I would like to thank Trisports2XU, and Atomic for offering additional support in helping me race in Kona. And I wouldn’t want to forget Cobb Cycling and Powerbar who were extremely supportive in the 2013 season.

Overall this sport is tough and almost every athlete could do a better job with sponsorship in general but you have to decide at what cost to your own development as an athlete. For Americans it seems like sponsorship can be really hard to come by. I know some athletes who are the top athlete from their country and it seems to be that funding seems to be less of an issue for them. I will say that Kona is by far the biggest event in our sport. Anyone that has been over there understands this but there are a lot of opportunities to build your own brand over in Kona and that is worth a lot.

Q: The way the qualifying system for Kona is set up, it seems to “force” athletes to focus on racing WTC races. What are your thoughts on this?

A: I’m not sure it is necessarily to “force” athletes to race. There is always a lot of talk about that but it is not like WTC is the only game in town. Truthfully I don’t understand why so many pros travel half way across the world to end up four thousand dollars in the hole to race – that isn’t sustainable unless you have sponsors just throwing money at these athletes. In my opinion these athletes should stay closer to home and that is why I race close to home.

Thomas Run

I guess I look at it differently than most pros, I think many pros are dreamers, and they are not doing what it takes to make it into a viable career choice. Personally I am a fan of the KPR in general. I think as athletes we should be out there racing – it seems to be that some of the big dogs have a problem with it. I see it as a hunger issue, they want to collect checks and don’t have the hunger to go out and race. Regardless this year it is changing and the new system rewards big performances at big races. I’m sure it will be a learning process again this year.

Q: Would you like to be able to race Rev3s, Challenge races and money races such as Abu Dhabi, MetaMan etc. or are you okay to just race WTC races?

In 2012, I made a lot more from the Leadman events than WTC races. This year I have just done the WTC races, but it is a tiny amount. After all it was just $1,500 from a 7th place finish at Ironman Los Cabos, $1,500 from 7th at Ironman Coeur D’Alene, and $1,750 from Ironman Louisville. Bonuses and exposure are pretty small in general as well, and then there is all the costs. This isn’t a sustainable model for me, but yet I would say my income in the sport was greater than 95% of the other pros out there. I also keep expenses down compared to my peers which I don’t think they really focus on. The old saying “it takes money to make money is” is probably one of the worst sayings in the sport among my peers. They could focus on events closer to home and travel less but yet they end up at the end of the year 25K in the hole. I’m not sure how they make it work but they do.

As for more diversity in the race series, I’ll always do the races that make the most sense for me. I like to pick races that I can do well at – it helps on financial level, a confidence level, and for growing as an athlete in general. Races I can drive to are important and avoiding things like plane tickets and bike fees make a big difference.

Q: Based on how you qualified in 2013 and some of the statement you’ve made, you don’t seem to have a problem with racing a lot to qualify? Do you feel this impacts your chances of racing well in Kona?

A: It absolutely affects my ability to race well, but if we are all in the same boat we all have the same handicap. I have raced a lot in the past to gain experience and it blows my mind that there are pro athletes out there who have never even won a race, not even their local sprint. I mean, if you don’t have experience in all kinds of situations, what are your chances of making the right move when it really counts? With that being said I have gained a lot of experience, it doesn’t mean there isn’t more to gain, but I’m focusing on more quality going forward.

Thomas Finish IMAZ

Q: What’s your opinion on „validating“ and the amount of points for Kona?

A: I don’t think validating should be an option. It creates an unfair advantage in my eyes and I’m all about fairness. At the very least I think a “validation” should require an athlete to finish with 8% of the finisher’s time. The Kona points is tougher, you are racing so you should get some points but I’m not sure on the allocation.

Q: What changes would you like to see for the KPR?

A: I think the old KPR system was better, it rewarded hard work. If the guys in the trenches want to do the work then reward them. It also acts as a platform for development and not a barrier to entry. The way you have it now it is weighted so far to the top-3 that I think it will result in even more DNFs, after all, if there are no points and no monies then it is better to save it for the next day. We only have so many performances to dig deep, and I see so many guys wasting them on the 11th place finish. They come across the line and collapse, when I think it would be better off for the longevity just to finish strong.

Q: Do you think WTC should give out some Kona “wildcards” (e.g. for the Brownlees, Javier Gomez, or Lisa Norden) or should everyone go through the qualifying system?

A: No wildcards, again it creates an uneven playing field. I understand the desire to get some of these athletes to go long, but not at the expense of other athletes working hard.

Q: With the recent changes to the KPR system for 2014 and the new points allocation favoring the top 3 finishers, it seems that race 7 IMs and get enough points probably won’t work any longer. What’s your strategy to qualify for 2014?

A: Ultimately I’m not putting a big red circle over that event in 2014, nor did I in 2013. If it happens, it happens, but I’m not chasing it. The 2014 race schedule isn’t set but I’ll probably race a few Ironmans. I know what I need to work on and I’ll be ready to take another step up next year. If I make it up that next step then I’ll be in a good position to earn some points and requalify.

Thomas, thank you for your willingness to answer my questions and your honest answers. I hope that you’ll continue to develop as an athlete, and that qualifying for Kona will be something that can just „happen“ for you with a few great results. All the best for your 2014 racing season!

Photo Credits: Eric Willis, Nick Morales (2, from Trijuice)

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