Ironwoman Daniela Ryf: the fittest of them all?

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Who is the fittest of them all? Runners, cyclists or swimmers? That was the debate out of which the concept of the Ironman was born in 1977 in Hawaii. It was to be settled by combining the three disciplines in one race; a 2.4-mile swim, a 112mile bicycle ride and a marathon. In 1978, fifteen people competed in the race. 40 years later the Ironman has spread to six continents. The Hawaii race, slightly relocated, is now the Ironman World Championship.

On 14 October, Daniela Ryf won the title in Hawaii for the third consecutive year, finishing in 8:50:47. She is the fourth woman to win three consecutive Ironman World Championships, but at 30 the youngest ever to do so. Before starting to compete the Ironman-distance, Ryf had a successful career as a triathlete. Until the summer of 2014 her focus had been making the 2016 Olympics in Rio. She switched disciplines only when she started working with coach Brett Sutton. “You’re strong” she recalls him saying to her in an interview pre-race on Hawaii, “it’s pretty clear, you’re going long.”

It is not uncommon for “Ironwomen” to have had a different career in another athletic discipline beforehand. Lucy Charles (24), this year’s silver-medallist, was Britain’s national swimming champion at age 16. Ryf, however, had to be forced into the discipline over an argument with Sutton. He wanted her to compete in the 2014 Ironman Switzerland, while she wanted to do the 5150 European Championship (the Olympic triathlon distance). Both took place on the same weekend.

Not to be dissuaded from the 5150, she competed and won the race on Saturday. Sutton got his wish on Sunday, when Ryf competed and won her first Ironman. Mostly Sutton’s job is to hold Ryf back from training too hard and too much or from losing too much weight. “They can look like a skeleton with a hat on, but they are never too light,” he says. He tries to enforce rest and fewer competitions, too, though how successful he is at that is debatable. Ryf begins defending her title as world champion seven months before the main event, in a small, bare-walled room containing a bike and a treadmill, in her parent’s house in the canton of Solothurn, Switzerland.

30 minutes on the bike and some aerobics is what she starts with. Five months before the race her workout gets drastically tougher. Two hours on the bike, cycling hard for 30 minutes, harder for the next 30 and even harder for another 60. Without taking a break she switches to the treadmill: interval training to the point of fainting. In these first three months of training her coach is not present. Instead she exercises alone in the room that she has rented from her parents. “In a small room, you can achieve great things, too.”, her mother said in an interview in 2016. How does she sustain such a torturous routine? Apparently by making that same torture her ally. “Whatever doesn’t hurt is just your comfort zone”, she said in 2014.

But she, too, needs diversion. Asked last year what she thinks during the long hours of an Ironman, the answer turned out to simply be food. Food is a big part of any athlete’s life, but perhaps more so for Ryf, a student of Food Science and Management at the University of Bern. Five months before the race is a stage Ryf has characterized as preparing the main course and dessert, the dessert being the race itself, ‘Dessert’, however, is preceded by four months of further training.

Like many long distance athletes Ryf trains at high altitudes. The lack of oxygen boosts the production of red blood cells. This year Ryf put in a training block at Maui, too, adjusting to Hawaii’s climate. However, the results from this year’s Ironman Hawaii could suggest that relieving the pressure at some point during preparation might be helpful. Both Ryf and the men’s world champion of 2017, Patrick Lange (08:01:40), were injured this year and trained less. That said, Ryf was less fit than in 2016, when she set the course record for Hawaii (08:46:46), on that Sutton and Ryf agree. “It was the hardest I had to ever fight for the win,” she said. Getting out of the water Ryf was five minutes behind Charles. While on the bike that lead extended to, at one point, six minutes.

Cycling is Ryf’s strong suit and she pushed hard on the last 40km. When Ryf and Charles embarked on the 26.22 miles run, five hours 46 minutes had passed for both of them. By the time Ryf reached the finish line, Charles was nine minutes behind her.

The next thing on Ryf’s agenda is the half Ironman in Bahrain, on 25 November. Coach Sutton, meanwhile, is talking about taking a year out from competitions because he fears a burnout and thinks her career will be longer if she does so.

As to the question of who is fittest – runners, cyclists or swimmers? I don’t know. If you really do want an answer, I think the Debating Society is more likely to satisfy you than racing in an Ironman. Daniela Ryf is pretty fit though, let’s leave it at that.