|| Outside magazine, November 1997
Assuming That the Calibration of My Heart Rate and Recovery Times Has Been Optimally Linked to My Individualized Nutritional Needs, I Will Kick Your Ass
A bit of in-your-face conversation with triathlon’s controversial heir apparent
By John Brant
After 18 years and thousands upon thousands of laps, you’d expect Luc van Lierde to thoughtlessly scribble his initials in the pool register, or hurriedly scrawl his last name, or merely nod bonjour to his old pal Damien van Houck, the lifeguard, and get on with his morning swim. But such is not the Flemish way. Such, certainly, is not van Lierde’s way.
|Van Lierde centers himself
Van Lierde’s way is to carefully sign his full name in precise script directly beneath his signatures of the previous eight mornings. The meticulous autographs form a small but telling instance of van Lierde’s passion for order, systems, and scientific principle; they bear the cumulative weight of his many beloved laws.
The law of recovery, for example. “It takes a man 48 hours to physically recover from an Ironman-distance triathlon,” he says in crisp English. “A woman, 64 hours. Theoretically, it is possible to do two Ironmans within a four-week period.”
In practice, of course, van Lierde would never dream of such competitive excess because, in his words, it would mean training à la carte instead of prix fixe; it would upset the intricate regimen that allowed him to set a course record while winning last year’s Ironman Hawaii and, in July, record the fastest Ironman triathlon ever run, a 7:50:27 at Ironman Europe in Roth, Germany. With those overpowering victories, van Lierde kicked down the door that Germany’s Thomas Hellriegel and Jürgen Zack and others had been knocking at for years. In becoming the first European to triumph in Hawaii, van Lierde showed that triathlon, a distinctly American invention, was passing from American hegemony. The reign of the beach-bred champions — Mark Allen, Dave Scott, and Scott Tinley, archetypal Californians all — was finally drawing to a close.
“It’s been a gradual shift that started in the late eighties, with Jürgen Zack and Wolfgang Dittrich upping the ante,” says Allen, who’s won Ironman Hawaii six times, most recently in 1995. “They started to shake up the dynamic. Then in ’95, Hellriegel blew apart the event and almost won with an unbelievable bike ride. Van Lierde winning last year was the final stage of the trend toward European domination. It’s a result of the support triathlon receives over there. Here, you’ve got to get corporate sponsorship to survive. In Europe, there are more club systems, which gives young guys a better chance to develop. It shows with Luc. He’s a superb tactician.”
Van Lierde’s meteoric rise hasn’t come without controversy, of course. After his surprise win at Ironman Hawaii, rumors of drug use — inevitable when a newcomer creams a world-class field — fanned through the triathlon world. They were reignited this fall by his sudden decision not to defend his Ironman title, a move made just after new drug testing procedures were announced for the race. A spokesperson for his sponsor Saucony claimed that van Lierde required foot surgery for a lingering bone infection, and — though the timing seemed suspect — he elected to skip Kona now, rather than skip Kona later. But the decision, which plays directly to prevailing suspicions of performance-enhancing drug use, may end up troubling his career far longer than any injury would have.
Van Lierde’s brown eyes play across the humid reaches of the Olympic-size pool, the only one in his hometown of Bruges, a small jewel of a city in the northwest corner of Belgium, near the North Sea. “In preparing for an Ironman, the approach must be exactly the opposite of what you might assume,” he says. “Instead of laying a base of endurance and then building speed, you must sharpen your speed first so you have not deadened it by too much volume. Closer to the race, once your speed is established, you add more distance. For a shorter, Olympic-distance race, of course, the approach must be just the opposite.” He peeks at what I’m scribbling in my notebook and asks politely but firmly, “Is that clear?”
Despite my nod of assent, van Lierde’s face flattens into a brief frown. I’m American, and Americans tend to be sloppy, profligate, and to lack proper respect for the elegant laws of sports science. American reporters, moreover, don’t want to bother about training; they want to hear about lifestyle, personality, controversy. But since winning Hawaii last year, handling Americans has become a vexing but inescapable part of van Lierde’s job. U.S. men have not been winning the major races in recent years: In the last four Hawaii Ironmans — not including this year’s race — Europeans have taken top-ten places 22 times, Americans, 11, and Europeans are expected to dominate well into the future. But the United States remains the single biggest market for triathlon-related products. So at age 28, with a reputation to uphold and a wife and four-year-old son to support, van Lierde must observe the base economic laws of his sport as well as the exalted ones of performance.
“My athletic career began right here, at this pool, when I was ten,” he says, gamely striving for a folksy tone. “As a boy I had an excess of energy. My mother took me to a doctor, who prescribed my getting involved with sports. So I was at the pool one day and my father saw the swimming club practicing and got me to join in. I have not really stopped since.”
Having tossed me this personal-narrative bone, van Lierde strips down to his swimsuit. The Belgians, it has been said, are of two distinct physical types: the ample, rosy burghers famously depicted by Rubens, and the wraithlike subjects of van Gogh. Stomping around in rubber boots, complacently hosing down the pool deck, Damien van Houck appears pure Rubens. Lean and rope-muscled, his hair a severe black skullcap, van Lierde seems van Gogh to the core.
Van Lierde’s difference from other elite triathletes becomes evident the moment he slips into the pool. Most professionals give swimming relatively short shrift, reasoning that it’s the least important of the three disciplines; a good swim will never win a race, for instance, though a poor swim might lose one. Far more at home in a bike saddle or running shoes, the typical triathlete swims woodenly, confining himself to a laborious freestyle crawl. Van Lierde, by contrast, a former Belgian national champion in the medley, moves sleekly and powerfully through the water, switching with virtuoso ease from the crawl to the backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly.
His hourlong swim covers exactly 4,000 meters. Afterward, he springs from the pool, eager to move on to his run. Then he spies me and, with a sigh, recalls the extra wearisome dimension to his day’s labor. “As a boy I did not train at all for running, but from my swimming condition I still always won the school cross-country races,” he says, dutifully resuming the story of his early life. “It was then that people said I had the potential to be a triathlete.”
He pauses for a moment. “It would be optimal for a child to begin very early in sport,” he muses. “Beginning age seven, he should practice a variety of sports: one that required flexibility, another that required skill, and another endurance. Then, by age 12, he can choose one sport and concentrate all his energies in it. Yes,” repeats van Lierde, “that program would be optimal.”
In the fall of 1982, the fledgling sport of triathlon experienced a defining moment when Julie Moss, dehydrated and exhausted, staggered across the finish line of Ironman Hawaii. Televised around the world, the image captured the essence of the sport: arduous, informal, dramatic. It was quintessentially American, and a global audience of nascent endurance athletes, including van Lierde, was indelibly impressed.
|“IN PREPARING FOR AN IRONMAN, THE APPROACH MUST BE EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE OF WHAT YOU MIGHT ASSUME,” SAYS VAN LIERDE. “IS THAT CLEAR?
Van Lierde was then 13 years old and already embarked on a standout amateur swimming career that would end just shy of the Olympic level. Before his birth, his parents had moved from their native city, Ghent, because his father had taken a liking to Bruges. It’s easy to see why. Bruges, an antique city of canals, bridges, windmills, soaring medieval cathedrals, vast cobblestoned plazas, and showcase Gothic architecture was, until the fifteenth century, one of the chief ports on the Continent. But then a catastrophic chain of flooding silted in the city’s outlet to the sea. Within a short time Bruges was a virtual ghost town, sunk in oblivion until the 1800s, when British artists and writers rediscovered it. Boom times have long since returned to Bruges. But ancestral traits from the hard centuries linger. “In this part of the country, people are not used to having it so easy,” says van Lierde’s coach and longtime friend, Jan Olbrecht, a former Belgian national swimming champion. “The west Flemish have had to struggle with the sea. They have had to adapt to the rule and influence of bigger countries such as France and Spain. They have a great desire to prove themselves. Luc is very much that way.”
When he was 14 van Lierde was packed off to Ghent to live with his swimming coach. At 17 he served a compulsory year in the Belgian army. Since becoming a professional triathlete in 1990, training and racing have taken him around the world. He’s visited San Diego but is unimpressed, heard about Boulder but sees little reason to go there. Bruges suits him fine.
“There are no other first-class triathletes here, but that is not a problem,” he says. “I have always trained alone.” His dark features split into a brief grin. “It is an individual sport, eh?”
Individual, yet at the same time deeply communal. Van Lierde’s family, friends, and circle of advisers are all in Bruges. He’s a man of fierce, lifelong loyalties. He married the girl next door. He’s known Olbrecht since he was 13. “I am very sorry that Jan couldn’t be here to take the training blood tests, so you could see the procedure,” van Lierde says wistfully. “The tests would have made a nice prop. They would have kept me busy. But I am afraid there is no choice about the matter. They must be drawn at very exact times or they lose their value.”
The blood tests form the core of van Lierde’s avant garde training system. They are taken at rigidly precise intervals in his workouts and then subjected to exhaustive computer analysis. The results show in detail the effects of specific exercises and provide an exact blueprint for future workouts. Reading the numbers, van Lierde and Olbrecht concoct a regimen meant to pare all waste and inefficiency from his training, to achieve maximum results with minimal physical effort, to fit van Lierde as specifically as his fingerprints.
“America, I think, has a different approach to training,” observes Olbrecht. “It is voluminous, very distance-oriented. America is such a big country, there is such a large pool of athletes to choose from, that the athlete is expected to adapt to the training system. Here in Belgium, a very small country, there are very few athletes, so we must work the other way around. We adapt the system to the athlete, and that can only be done through careful testing and analysis.”
For the first four years of van Lierde’s career, Olbrecht’s tests showed that he wasn’t ready for Ironman training. His joints and bones, attuned to non-weight-bearing demands during his swimming career, couldn’t withstand the pounding of distance running. Two seasons were virtually lost to stress fractures and a knee operation. In between, he showed flashes of promise in European events, but a major win in an international race always eluded him. He couldn’t even consider an Ironman. The wait was all the more galling because a vacuum was forming in the sport, as the old American masters started to fade and a variety of non-Americans, such as Hellriegel and Australia’s Greg Welch, scrambled to assume their mantle.
Finally, in 1994, Olbrecht opened the hood, checked the fluid levels, inspected the chassis, and gave a green light. Van Lierde’s joints had sufficiently hardened for him to make the jump to the Ironman. Elated, he went for a long bike ride in eastern Belgium, near the Dutch border. He remembers heading into an intersection, but that is the last thing he remembers. He awakened in a hospital room, his left shoulder severely separated. Once again he was sidelined, once again forced to wait. It’s become a common theme.
We drive to Tallegemboss, an estate-turned-park on the edge of town, where van Lierde will run on the forest trails: 400- to 600-meter intervals run at high intensity, the effort measured by continuous consultation of his heart-rate monitor. “I don’t like to do intervals on the track because I tend to go too hard there,” he says. “I must keep my heart rate at a certain level.”
He sets off after a carefully timed series of stretches, his white T-shirt and red shorts taking a long while to melt into the low mists of the surrounding oaks and elms. Once he disappears, the park is given over to strolling townspeople on holiday. A dining pavilion beside the lake fills with neatly dressed citizens enjoying cold plates, accompanied by the local beers and wines. A distinct gentility prevails, a setting that seems all wrong for an ironman, the least traditional and most immoderate of athletes.
It is by virtue of his two Ironman marathons — a 2:41 at Hawaii and a 2:36 at Roth — that van Lierde lays claim to greatness; the latter is the fastest Ironman marathon ever. (Van Lierde has also recorded the fastest-ever Ironman swim, 44:41, at Roth.)
Last year’s race in Kona began inauspiciously. At the beginning of the bike phase, he was flagged for blocking. He had to stop and dismount and at the end of the ride was detained a full three minutes before being allowed to continue into the marathon. Then he discovered that another athlete had mistakenly taken his running gear. Six miles into the marathon, van Lierde trailed first-place Thomas Hellriegel by five minutes.
|THE RUMORS THAT SURROUNDED HIS WIN AT KONA LAST YEAR WERE REIGNITED WHEN HE WITHDREW FROM THIS YEAR’S FIELD SOON AFTER NEW DRUG TESTS WERE ANNOUNCED.
Such snafus perhaps were to be expected. Ironman rookies always have to pay their dues. The Big Island kahunas were having their fun with van Lierde, the same way they’d had fun with his idol, Mark Allen, during his first few years at Kona. The kahunas sent Allen flat tires, they made him collapse just miles away from a seemingly certain win, they set the Dave Scott whammy on him. Now it was van Lierde’s turn. He needed to relax, make notes for next year’s race, appease the spirits.
But van Lierde refused to waste yet another year. It had taken him most of 1995 to recuperate from his car collision, and in 1996 his luck was finally beginning to turn. He won the prestigious, three-quarter-Ironman-distance Nice triathlon. Afterward, back home in Belgium, his physiotherapist, Micheil Veerle, marveled at how well he’d recovered from the race and suggested that he was primed for an Ironman. Hawaii was less than a month away. With Olbrecht’s blessing, he jumped into the race. It was just supposed to be a learning experience, but midway through the marathon, still five minutes behind Hellriegel, van Lierde decided that his apprenticeship was over.
Instead of easing off, he erased the deficit over the next 14 miles. He passed Hellriegel with just two miles to go and went on to win in 8:04:08, bettering Allen’s course record by almost four minutes. Had he not been penalized and further delayed by his missing running gear, van Lierde likely would have cracked the seemingly impregnable eight-hour mark in his first Ironman-distance race.
But he’d no sooner broken the tape than the whispers and allegations began. How could a 27-year-old journeyman pro make such an astounding breakthrough in his maiden Ironman — and in the sport’s showcase event? What was he taking?
“A lot of people were definitely surprised that he could go and win the Ironman the first time,” says Allen. “But in hindsight, you can see that he didn’t leave one stone unturned. For example, he studied every bit of that island before he got to Hawaii. I guess any time anyone does anything amazing, people question it.”
It was a tumultuous, confusing time for van Lierde, made worse by his rudimentary PR skills. His reserve earned him the nickname “Cool Hand Luc.” Journalists complained about his cold-fish personality and wrote that he’d come out of nowhere.
“No one really knew the guy, and he wouldn’t go out to speak to people,” says one longtime triathlon observer. “He worked on his own and emerged a little too quickly, which made the other European athletes suspect drugs right off the bat.”
But van Lierde passed the required urine tests (this year the race added a battery of sophisticated blood tests) and signed a solid long-term contract with Saucony. He then proved he wasn’t just a one-race wonder by winning the ’97 Ironman Europe in the same come-from-behind style and in even faster time. Had he returned to this year’s Ironman Hawaii and won in the convincing fashion that had been predicted, he might have been declared one of triathlon’s greats, in a league with Allen and the others.
Instead, his ascension will have to hold for another season, while he waits for his foot to heal and for the more pernicious rumors surrounding him to die, if in fact they do. Still, it may turn out to be good for his career to have skipped this year’s race. “At this level, finishing second is almost failure,” says Rob Perry, PR director for the Ironman race. “If he went into the race injured, knowing he might not win, that would be devastating. As for the drug talk, Luc has passed every test he’s taken, so until a red flag goes up that he’s doing something wrong, people are being unfair to him.”
Later, when I marvel at the aplomb with which van Lierde mastered Kona last year, he bristles. “Why should I have been intimidated by Hawaii?” he demands. His run completed, he strips off his sopping T-shirt and marches toward his car. “I had gone to the archives and studied the times of every Hawaii winner and had matched or surpassed those times in my training. I had no fear of the race.”
I start to remind him of Mark Allen’s kahunas and of the virtues of humility. But then I imagine trying to explain kahunas to Luc van Lierde in the shadow of a 700-year-old Flemish castle, and I silently follow him to the Peugeot.
In midafternoon, freshly showered, van Lierde takes me to a restaurant in the heart of Bruges’ old town. He seems relaxed after the hard work of the early day; his foot hasn’t yet started bothering him. On the short walk to the café he is hailed by a beat cop, a storekeeper, and a local TV producer. Van Lierde greets everyone warmly and unaffectedly in French. His affection for his native town is clearly mutual. Last fall, Belgian TV and radio crews accompanied van Lierde and a few of the nation’s other triathletes to Kona. Because of the time difference, the coverage of the race aired in Europe in the middle of the night. At three in the morning phones started ringing all over Bruges, spreading the news of van Lierde’s triumph.
The owner of the sidewalk café beams at hosting the local hero and seats us immediately. It’s the European siesta hour, the time when sated tourists stare vacantly into their espresso cups. As we linger over our crepes, I suggest that in the long run van Lierde’s bike accident seems to have worked in his favor, honing his resolve and maturity. Virtually all first-rate endurance athletes, I note, have waited out similar periods of dormancy in their careers. “It is true,” van Lierde agrees. “The accident made me a better sportsman. Mentally I changed and became stronger.” His face turns stony. “The lawsuit concerning the accident is still being contested, and that is the argument the driver’s solicitor is using,” he goes on. “He says I shouldn’t be granted damages because the accident actually made me a better athlete and enabled me to earn more money.”
Van Lierde leans back from the table, disgustedly shaking his head. “My response to the solicitor is this: You go out on a bicycle, let me run you over with my car, and you tell me that makes you a better lawyer.”
After lunch, Van Lierde concludes his day’s workout with a relatively easy two-hour bike ride. Then he stops at home to pick up Andrew, his four-year-old son, and we blast a half-hour east on the the autobahn to the village of Menen, on the French border, where he will undergo an hour of massage at the hands of Micheil Veerle.
Veerle kneads and probes as the two men’s children wander in and out of the treatment room. Our conversation turns to the odd position that Belgium in general, and Flanders in particular, holds in European geography and history. I am reminded that Belgium lies next to France but is not quite French, sits across the channel from England but is certainly not English, and though culturally akin to Holland, is not quite Dutch. This mixture of soils, Veerle asserts, produces the hardiest of plants. “Athletes from Flanders never panic,” he says, echoing Olbrecht’s words. “They’re very self-possessed. Before a race they’re preparing themselves, and then, once the competition begins, they don’t change their minds halfway through.”
After the session, we adjourn to the kitchen, where three generations of the Veerle family are sitting down to a big table laden with bread, cheese, pâté, and bottles of Westvleteren beer, brewed by local Trappist monks. The moment seems golden: the beer, the food, the graciousness, the fading Flemish light. The more Westvleteren I drink, the more expansive I feel. Suddenly I empathize with van Lierde, recognize the artist lurking behind the hard-eyed technician. I compose grandiose, tipsy theories: Van Lierde has reversed the arc of centuries, taking what America has forged and recasting it in his own light, just as America has recast all things European.
And so forth and so on, until van Lierde gathers up his sleepy son and we all pile into his Peugeot for the drive back to Bruges. Now we know each other, I think; now we respect each other, and tomorrow, certainly, we’ll build on the rapport we’ve forged this evening.
But at the zenith of my high feeling, just as I’m about to ask van Lierde for tomorrow’s workout schedule, he turns to me and says coolly, “I think we are finished. I think you have enough now, eh?”
Photographs by Dan Burn-Forti