Outside magazine, October 1996
Sport: From Wurst to First
Propelled by Eastern Bloc training methods
and a zest for junk food, a
trio of Germans looks to sweep the Ironman
By Lolly Merrell
It's midnight in Worms, Germany, and
European Ironman champion Lothar Leder is in the midst
of his rest-and-recovery regimen: channel
surfing in his two-bedroom apartment. "We've got
Oprah now," he says flatly. "I'm not too
crazy about her." He reaches for a pint of ice cream,
which he spoons out in big dollops. "In
fact, I think German television is much better."
But then, the 25-year-old Leder and the rest
of his government-sponsored Deutsch Tri Union
squad feel much the same about their
approach to the sport: The German way is superior.
Indeed, with its focus on camaraderie,
patriotic fervor, and, surprisingly, a junk-food-laden
training table, the German take on triathlon
stands in stark contrast to the monasticism of the
American variety, as established by Dave
Scott and Mark Allen during the 1980s. And like it or
not, on the 26th of this month there may be
no avoiding the Germans, with Leder and
compatriots Thomas Hellriegel and Rainer
Mller all considered top contenders to win the 19th
annual Hawaii Ironman.
Hellriegel, 25, made his mark in last year's
race, finishing second, a mere two minutes behind
Allen. The 29-year-old Mller, something of
a showboat who spent the first ten minutes of the
running leg annoying Allen with nonstop
chatter, finished third, only five minutes out. Then there's
Leder, the eighth-place finisher in 1995,
who this July in Roth, Germany, not only bettered the
existing Ironman-distance world record set
by Scott in 1989, but broke through the sport's
mythic eight-hour barrier. With only two
past winners in the field--40-year-old two-time
champion Scott Tinley and 1994 victor Greg
Welch of Australia--it's not surprising that many
observers predict the Germans will finish
one-two-three. "Things are certainly different now,"
admits seven-time winner Allen, who retired
from competition after last year's race. "Frankly, the
Germans scare me."
Of course, there are those who say that a
good scare is just what the Ironman needs after more
than a decade of predictability. In winning
13 of the last 17 years, Allen and Scott did more than
simply dominate the event. They created
triathlon in their own image, establishing the standards
that thousands would mimic as the sport
caught on: obsessively monitored, carbohydrate-laden
diets; finely tuned, solitary training
regimens; and a soft-spoken, even-keeled demeanor. In the
early years, this cult of personality was a
great boon to the sport, but more recently, it had
become a bit stale.
Then the Germans burst onto the scene. "They
just don't do it like the Americans, or anyone else
for that matter," explains Tim Yount of
U.S.A. Triathlon. "They're of a different mindset, filled
with nationalistic pride." For example, the
squad enjoys 15 weeks of togetherness at DTU
training camps each year, sleeping in
dormitory bunks, singing team songs, and working out eight
hours a day. Here, under a veil of secrecy,
coach Steffen Grosse pokes, prods, and monitors his
charges, keeping tabs on everything from
resting heart rates to *** lactate levels.
But curiously, with so much science and
mystery behind their training ("I will not reveal anything,"
maintains Grosse, who honed his techniques
in the eighties as coach of East Germany's junior
national cycling team, "except to say that
we believe in working hard"), the German approach in
some areas seems haphazard to say the least.
While many extol the virtues of active rest, for
instance, their recovery program consists of
nothing more than couch time. As others bemoan
the effects of overtraining, Leder and
Hellriegel boast that they recently sneaked away from
training camp to log a few extra miles on
their bikes. And then there is the matter of the
Germans' infamous diet.
"They say they use a commonsense approach,"
says Ian Sweet, who covers triathlon for the
London Times. "And low-fat sausage is just
not part of the plan." Clearly. Leder's prerace meal
the day he broke the world record consisted
of two pepperoni pizzas and a plate of spaghetti,
washed down with a stein of pilsner. "I
wouldn't eat a PowerBar," says Leder, "unless I
absolutely had to."
While no one seems to question the Germans'
talent, it's precisely this sort of defiance that leaves
a few old-school triathletes skeptical. The
Germans may win, they say, but only because of the
vacuum left by the absence of the Great
Ones. Even Allen, who offers nothing but praise for the
German juggernaut, says that this year he'll
still put his money elsewhere. "I'd watch out for
Welch," Allen says. "After all, he's been on
the podium before, and in the Ironman, that counts
for a lot."
Copyright 1996, Outside magazine