Sport: From Wurst to First

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
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 MËller 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 MËller, 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 blood 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."

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!