After finishing fourth in Kona two weeks ago, Sebastian Kienle, the reigning 70.3 world champ from Germany, will take on the Xterra World Championship Sunday here on the northwest coast of Maui (read a race preview here). Kienle is one of a handful of road specialists topping off their season with a bid for the prestigious off-road title. (Other road-focused competitors include three-time Xterra world champ Eneko Llanos, who raced in Kona this year but dropped out on the run; London silver medalist Javier Gomez of Spain; 2000 Olympian Tim Don from Great Britain; and ’12 Olympians Brent McMahon of Canada (27th) and Costa Rican Leonardo Chacon (48th).
Kienle did his first Xterra in 2005 in Germany, “an absolutely great race” that inspired him to return the following year, and he won it.
“I think it is good for road triathletes for both short distance and long distance athletes to do a little bit of off-road, especially for us Europeans during the winter,” says 28-year-old Kienle. “It’s just fun—you go out and play. Sometimes I just get lost in the forest.” Outside the fun factor, Kienle, known as one of the top cyclists in the sport, says his bike training has benefitted from taking to the trails: “With the hills you are forced to go hard for short periods of time so it’s like a fartlek you’re forced to do. It’s just a fun way to get some quality in, and of course you also improve your bike handling skills a lot. I think a lot of triathletes have to do some work on this. The other thing is you are out in nature and there’s no cars and sometimes I’m on my own seeing so no one except for some deer for four or five hours. Mentally, it’s really nice.”
Tomorrow’s race will be an honest test of how Kienle has recovered from his Kona effort. “I really don’t know how I’ve recovered from Kona,” Kienle admits. “When I go out for a small training session I feel good, but it doesn’t mean anything because in the race it’s different when you have to ask 100 percent of your body. I feel like I’ve recovered well. It could be very good, I could have a chance on the podium, or I could have the feeling on the first hill that I’m absolutely empty. I will still give my very best. It’s the last race of the season, so there’s no reason to hold anything back.”
The question of whether or not Kienle held anything back in Kona is a question that’s been nagging him in the two weeks since the race, which was only his fifth long-distance triathlon. The day after the race, he expected to feel “much, much worse” than he did, which made him wonder if he’d given everything he had.
“It makes me kind of disappointed that I didn’t feel worse,” he says. “It sounds funny, but my main goal is to always to give 101 percent—I want to die on the finish line. Then I don’t care if I got second or fifth or first. For me it’s not the most important thing. Of course it’s better to win, but it’s more important for me to fight as hard as I can. The proof of this fight is how I feel the day after. I didn’t feel completely gone. Part of me was happy because it was a really good race, but I didn’t feel completely nuked. So I was a little bit upset with myself.”
Kienle says that, in looking back on his race in Kona, there were “a lot of little situations where I could have tried to go harder, especially on the last 10K when I was running with [third-place finisher Frederik] Van Lierde.” Running into a fierce headwind, he tucked behind Van Lierde but couldn’t keep the pace, and began feeling his podium dream dissolve with a receding Van Lierde. He decided on the run that fourth place in Kona was pretty damn good, especially after flatting on the bike and staying within himself for the rest of the ride so he wouldn’t blow up on the run. Kienle says it was that acceptance that decided his race before he reached Ali’i’ Drive.
“If you are happy in fourth place then you can’t win and you can’t make the podium,” he says. “Next time I won’t be happy with fourth place. I thought, ‘Hey, you are fourth-place at the Ironman World Championship, be happy with it. Don’t be upset, don’t fight too hard.’ Then you can’t fight harder when you’re starting to be happy with something during the race. Maybe I could push myself harder in a situation like that.”
He’ll invoke that fighting spirit tomorrow, when he again vies for a podium spot. And while he says it’s unclear whether his body is prepared for a full-throttle effort, his mental game is primed—an aspect to his racing that is quite powerful, as evidenced in Vegas.
“I realized before Vegas that I didn’t have the feeling I was at 100 percent of my fitness, but I was absolutely pumped up for the race,” he says. “In the end, that’s more important.”
Kienle says it’s a personal lesson that amateurs can benefit from: “A lot of people think, ‘If I win this race I’m going to be happy.’ It’s not the case. You have to be happy before the race and then you can win the race. It’s exactly the same with recovery: if you feel comfortable and are in a good mood—even if that means staying up late and having a few beers with your friends if it puts you in a good mood—it speeds up your recovery. It’s not speeding up your recovery if you’re going to bed at 8 p.m. because you think you have to sleep for 11 hours and you start to freak out about the whole thing.”
If his mood is any indicator, Kienle should have a good day tomorrow (he’s also in the running for the Hawaiian Airlines “Double” $2,500 bonus for the fastest combined Kona-Maui time). His confidence is also buoyed by the course difficulty (he calls it a “a real leg-breaker”). “I’m expecting myself to do well, also on the bike because the course suits me well—it’s really a course for power riders. Especially in combination with the run, it’s really, really, really hard. Because it’s so hard, it’s very difficult to have any specific goals.”
Does the celebrated uber-cyclist feel any pressure to post the fastest bike split? He says his only expectations are internal: “The biggest expectation always is from yourself. It took a long while to not expect putting out the best bike split in every race. I want to win the race; I don’t care about the fastest bike split. If I have to post the fastest bike split I try to do that, but if I have to be more patient on the bike and run faster, then I do that.”
Mostly, he says, he’s just excited to see what he can do tomorrow and compete with some of the world’s best triathletes hailing from all corners of the sport—from short-course Olympic racers to non-drafting long-distance stars to off-road specialists like four-time Xterra world champion Conrad Stoltz.
“With such a strong field, you always try to prove you’re good and you belong in the mix,” he says. “It’s always fun for a lot of people to come from their other ‘job’—people you don’t usually meet during your races. I’m usually not racing against a guy like Javier, so it’s just great to see them here.”
After Maui, Kienle will head home to Germany for some legitimate downtime. It will be his first time back since being crowned 70.3 world champ. “I’m taking three, four, maybe five weeks of doing nothing at all,” he says. “I don’t mean a 30-minute run instead of an hour and a half run. No running, swimming or biking. Maybe I’ll do some indoor climbing or something like that. It’s not only important for your body but also very important for your mind.”
Once home, he says he’ll have some time to grasp just what it means to win a world title. “The journey is still not over,” he says. “I didn’t have the time to get it all sorted and check out the different options there might be now. I had good sponsors before, and it wasn’t a big surprise to all the guys back home because I broke 8 hours on my very first long course race and two years ago I won the race in Weisbaden against Michael Raelert. For me it wasn’t a shock, so it wasn’t a big change. It’s better that things are slowly changing; for me it’s a better way. I’ve always been slowly developing—my performance has been very steady for the last 15 years in the sport. I’m not forcing anything.”
As for the coming year, Kienle’s got his sights set on what he calls “the triple-crown”: a shot at Hy-Vee, defending in Vegas and a podium finish in Kona.
But first, there’s some dirty work to do Sunday on another island: Maui.