“I always see the Ironman like a short life. It is an adventure with ups and downs. Every Ironman is like a scar.”
Have you ever watched an Ironman event and wondered who the participants really are? What drives them to want to do triathlons and what is the secret to success? What motivates some to do what others may think is insane?
I wanted to find out for myself after having watched marathons, duathlons and triathlons for years and having admired these athletes who won’t give up until they cross the finish line. So I met with the Swiss triathlete Ronnie Schildknecht, winner of 8 Ironmen, to understand more about this sport and the Ironman competition.
If you would have asked Ronnie before he was 17 years old if he would think one day of doing a triathlon he would have probably responded, no way. Even after his first one in 1997 as a junior, he said after that, no more. “It was a struggle, it was horrible”, he confessed explaining he finished 2nd last in the race and that it was no fun.
No, Ronnie Schildknecht wanted to be a professional tennis player. He started playing when he was 4-5 years old. His mother played tennis and he spent much time at the tennis club. He was in the Top 60 in Switzerland and shared that he lost against his big hero, Roger Federer, 6/4-6/4. Ronnie loved sports and team sports too. Like his father he played soccer as a child. He started when he was 9-10 years old. He gave it up only when he jumped over a grade and lost the fun. When he was 14 years old then he focused on tennis until he felt too much pressure. His parents had to bring him everywhere to play and he lost the fun. It was not the end for Ronnie with sports. This time he tried something different. He joined an ice hockey team, but while he enjoyed it, he admitted that it was hard to learn at the age he started.
So, how did Ronnie Schildknecht, who had invested so much time in tennis, become a professional triathlete?
It happened when a friend of his, who was a bicycle courier, approached him one day and suggested they do an Olympic triathlon together. Ronnie agreed not knowing what to expect. He explained he had never run or swum much before, but he did have a road bike. The two friends started training intensively during the weekend and did more training during the summer.
While he had said never again after this first negative experience as a junior, he got hooked three years later during a language stay in San Diego. In 2000 Schildknecht was spending 3 months learning English in the United States and met three Brazilian triathletes.
The rest is history Schildknecht bought his first triathlon bike, started training and did his first Ironman in 2003. He finished 7th and got an offer from EWZ (electricity company in Zurich) for the year of 2004. The group sponsors him ever since. Other current sponsors are Puma, BMC, Raiffeisen Bank and IWC.
In 2006 when he won his first Ironman Switzerland he started winning more money, but it is not until two years ago that he became a professional triathlete. Talking to Ronnie you feel how sports are important, but not only sports. He explained how his father always pushed him to study. So that is what he did and he received a degree in communications. Even today he still does speeches and coaching in addition to sports.
Since the 2003 Ironman Florida it has been 10 years. In the meantime the Swiss triathlete has won the Ironman in Zurich six times, getting ready this week to participate in the race. He won the Ironman Florida in 2011, making a speed record of less than 8 hours. No other triathlete has made that speed in Florida before him. This spring he won the South African Ironman, an event he really wanted to do this year.
While he generally only does 2 Ironmen in a year, he is participating in one more this year with the world championship in Kailua-Kona (Hawaii) on October 12th.
When he is not doing a full Ironman he participates in the shorter version, the 70.3 Ironman (about 4 yearly) and in some short races. The sprint races (300 m swim, 10 k run & 2 km bike) are good for speed training. So in a year he does about 10-12 races.
It takes about 3 weeks to a month to recover from an Ironman, he said and he keeps a period of 3-4 months between each.
Schildknecht’s strength is the bike and he knows it well. He overtakes people as soon as he jumps on the bike. He likes the speed and going fast. At the moment he rides a bike of his sponsor, BMC. “I like my bike because it’s very swift looking. It’s made to go fast and it looks like it.”
When he arrives for a race he always does a short warm up. It can be a 15′ run, bike or a swim, whatever can be done at the time but usually it is a run and a swim. He shared how important the warm up before jumping in the water is. For him the pace without a warm up would be too high and he would struggle.
Ronnie always leaves his home with a positive attitude and goes there to win the race. For him it is very important to think this way if he wants to win. It is a mental decision which has to be taken before the race. Plus what helps him now is that he knows he can win. “But sometimes he said you give everything you could and you don’t win.”
“I always see the Ironman as a short life. It is an adventure with ups and downs. Every Ironman is like a scar. Winning and losing is really close,” he went on. Sometimes I did everything right and I am 10th or 20th and sometimes I win but I didn’t do anything right. Sometimes I am more proud of losses because they bring you the win. I always say winning is easy. You have to lose first to win.”
Dealing with disappointment is something he can deal with and learn from. “As long as you do everything for it, I have no regrets”.
Not quitting is important. He talked about the Ironman in Hawaii and how hard it is there because of the hot weather and the humidity. Last year he had to walk during the race but never gave up. He finished 18th although he ended 4th in 2008 when the weather was not as hot.
What is harder for him is that his work is only judged on the few days of races each year. No one care if he did better during his training. So pressure is high before a race. It is a strength to be in great shape before the race and to not feel pain when you get up. Knowing the parcours and having good weather help too.
But what does he think of during such a long race?
To my great surprise Ronnie does not think much. Thinking is negative, he explained as it takes away your energy. The race is not a good time to try to resolve a personal problem. He stays in the moment.
Simple thinking is ok like thinking of minutes, how far ahead or behind he is. At all times he tries to remain calm to not send negative feelings to his body. He rather encourages himself.
Music is also not allowed during races. Ronnie shared as well that when he trains he appreciates the quiet time. When he goes to the forest to run, he likes thinking!
Are spectators really important to you?
“Of course,” he replied “it pushes you and give you energy”. He likes having the people he knows around the parcours and other spectators. But he added that one has to be careful not to push oneself too hard but rather take it easy. “The race is long and you need to save energy. With experience it is something you learn.”
So what is the typical training week of a professional triathlete?
Ronnie trains about 20-25 hours a week, 6 days a week, generally 4 hours a day. It can be one day 3 hours biking and 1 hour running and the following day a bit of swimming and 4hrs of biking. His training program is quite flexible depending on the races. He likes training with others and has a couple triathletes and decathlon friends who live near his home in Samstagern. As well he has a swimming coach and a good friend of his in San Diego is coaching him.
In January and February when the weather is too cold in Switzerland he flies to training camps in the Canary Islands and to South Africa. Sometimes his training partners go with him. To get ready for the world championship in October, he will train somewhere in California.
So will Ronnie Schildknecht feel more pressure to win the Zurich Ironman this year? If he wins, he will make a record as no one has ever won it 7 times consecutively.
He assured me it won’t change much as his big goal is Hawaii. Again he brought up Roger Federer, who would rather win another Grand Slam then make another record. Nevertheless Ronnie added it would be nice to win 7 times.
When Ronnie started in 2003 he had a dream, it was to win the Hawaii Ironman, today it is still his dream. He also had a goal of winning the Zurich Ironman, which he already achieved.
No matter if he wins Hawaii this year or not or win Zurich for the 7th time this upcoming Sunday, Ronnie Schildknecht will remain an amazing triathlete and an Ironman no matter what.
Date of the Ironman Zurich: July 28th