Updated: Jun 17
I have been asked to give a breakdown on the year of Daniela Ryf and how one sustains such a long term performance of such a high standard.
The first point that I’d make is that the race planning for 2015 didn’t start in January, but at the 30km mark of Daniela’s fantastic 2014 debut performance at Kona. In 2014 our planning had been focused solely on winning the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Mt Tremblant. The full distance, while always a long term option, wasn’t on the radar until I saw the way she was handling the 70.3 workload with such ease.Thus we adapted the training late in the season to get her to the stage where she could handle a strong 180km on the bike in preparation for an early attack on Kona.
2014 was a successful year, but her 2015 race campaign was always going to be different.
The first impulse to improve on her 2014 results was to move to mid-foot pedals. This was done to help the run off the bike, as she had already shown the ability to push big gears. Dani kept, but reduced her study commitments at university after agreeing to give the Kona title her 100% focus body and mind. Kona was the only goal and and she was prepared to sacrifice as much as needed, which meant much more time in camp away from home than in 2014. Our proposed races for 2015: European Ironman 70.3 Championship, Wiesbaden 5150, Zurich European Ironman Championship, Frankfurt World Ironman 70.3 Championship, Zell am See All to be integrated as preparation races for Kona. There was absolutely no goal to go after the Triple Crown.
It was only during the middle of a Swiss winter that we decided to make Challenge Dubai part of a second heat camp for training – train through and use the 10 days away from the cold and the stress of university. Nobody was more surprised than me of her scintillating performance there. Not at peak fitness, doing turbo and treadmills indoors – we were aiming Top 5, a podium would be a great result. Instead. A 1:17 run split and my plan of a steady build up to Kona with little pressure totally demolished. Dani had just won, by some margin, the first leg of a $1 million series. The fastest bike and run splits at each 70.3 distance race this year. Then back home to the cold.
We carried on training mostly indoors as we prepared to race at Rapperswil. In 2014 we used this race a a confidence builder. In 2015 for training. We kept all the training in Switzerland with Daniela moving to St Moritz altitude training camp with the squad as we targeted the mid-season goal of Ironman Frankfurt. After a very good training block, we viewed Frankfurt as a most crucial 180km ride under race conditions and the perfect set up for Kona. In the back of my mind I thought she needed two 180km rides and then to race Kona after a spell, to use a horse racing term.
The race, again, went again better than expected. I was extremely worried about the hot weather that engulfed Germany on race weekend. A hot day in St Moritz is 26C. The forecast for race day was close to 36C and the run on some parts of the pavement registered at 41C. Having seen her race so well at Kona the year before, my worry was not about handling the heat. But instead how the heat would delay her recovery in the lead up to big show. Dehydration is totally underestimated by many athletes in triathlon. The depletion can take over a month to fully recover from.
I travelled from Switzerland to watch the run. I don’t believe in being with athletes too much during big races as by the time they are racing it has to be up to them. However, this one was important and while everyone focuses on her breaking Chrissie’s record – I only had one thing on my mind. Winning. As easily as possible.
She won and beat Chrissie’s record. But the decision to go after it was only made with 5km to go when we saw she was in complete control. Within three days after the race Dani was back in a modified routine and by 10 days in full work. The original plan was to race 5150 Zurich and European Ironman 70.3 Championships, Wiesbaden. However, during this time it was announced that the second leg of the Triple Crown would indeed be the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Zell, Austria. Game on. Zell is only 4 hours drive from St Moritz and the course is a Ryf playground. It rewards both the technical and powerful rider – which is good if like Daniela you are both.
With $1 million up for grabs a coach starts thinking... ‘Does the objective now change?’ It was never discussed with Daniela but Prince Nasser’s decision to give triathlon a great shot in the arm gave me cause to have a rethink about whether Kona was now indeed the main focus and should a probable victory at Zell mean we change race strategy completely. Nothing was decided as injury made the decision for us.
One morning Dani came to the pool with a completely stiff neck. After two days we could see it was serious and we needed to back of the training and racing to let her recover. Decision time came and we decided to skip Zurich. A short time later Dani was back firing as Wiesbaden (70.3 European Championships) approached. In good form and being the defending champion we again made the decision to not compete at one of her favourite races. This call paved the way to allow Dani to be able to really give the last 3 races her full attention. Skip Wiesbaden and use the 70.3 World Championships as the training race (a risk – but you have to take tham), and attack Kona, but still have some petrol in the tank for the !nal Triple Crown in Bahrain.
The ability to back up after Kona was always a risk in my mind. Not physically, but emotionally. Dani is an emotional racer, she locks in with a laser like focus and energy. As such after major competitions she usually gets quite ill. This was the case after Kona 2014, where returning home from Hawaii to 5C Swiss weather made it very hard on a physically and mentally drained body.
Many have asked if we seriously did consider dropping Kona all together to go after the $1 million. The truth is not really. At Trisutto.com we go for history 1st, 2nd and 3rd. Dani knew that Kona was the main goal, and it was coach’s job to plan for how she could achieve that while still having the option to take the whole lot.
But how does one devour a whale? One bite at a time. So it is with a Triple Crown. One race at a time. So she raced Zell am See during full training and a concentration towards this race with a polarity that to be honest only she could do. With little rest she became the first woman to defend Ironman 70.3 World Championship in a stunning performance and a margin of over 10 minutes.
3 days later she was with the squad at our Trisutto humidity camp in Jeju, South Korea. St Moritz is the perfect place to train for Zell am See, but Kona conditions are completely different. Jeju offers the same latitude as Kona and while this year didn’t feel as hot as our previous camps there the humidity was spot on. It didn’t take long for the Bird to be back in flying mode, but small bouts of home sickness did start to creep in for the first time. St Moritz is in Switzerland, but it’s not her home village and culturally is very different. It had already been three months away from home with still 5 weeks to Kona.
To keep her mind focused we upped the training and said we have got two races to go, not one. If you train up to Kona you’ll be still be very good there and have enough credits in the bank to cash in come Bahrain. With that thought we pushed on and worked harder in the humidity than Dannie did last year in the lead up to Kona. The work was fantastic and I sent her to Kona knowing the training wise everything had been done.
Last year we kept Dannie away from the hype and hoopla of Kona as much as humanly possible. She arrived late and stayed out in the countryside. This year we were confident that the Bird could stay in town so she could deal with commitments better while retreating to her accommodation. I don’t need to recap how Kona went. A clinical Tour D’Force from start to finish. A superbly executed race from a supreme athlete.
But now, time to recalibrate and quickly for our last goal – Triple Crown and triathlon immortality!
With three weeks before the final race of the season Dani already was mentally hanging on by her finger nails. She had already missed a semester of university and had not been home for over 4 months. On top of this was fighting the usual post success mental slump that many champions face. Around this time the bombshell hit. The Triple Crown would be delayed until December. While most would think a delay of a few extra weeks would be good for her to recover, it wasn’t. It hit her very hard.
Yes, there was a lot of money to be motivated for, but those who know Dani realise very quickly she has never raced for money. Like her compatriot Nicola Spirig, who after the 2008 Olympics went back to university, since the rebuild of Dani’s career in 2013 we have treated triathlon as a time consuming hobby – one of the keys to her success.
It has taken the pressure off and allowed her to express herself. But now here she was with every triathlete on the planet looking at her when all she wanted to do was one more race and go home. The delay nearly derailed everything. We had planned not to head back to the cold of Switzerland but do a short training block in Thailand before moving to Bahrain – with the promise of a very, very long break after an exhaustive year.
The delay threw us all off, but Prince Nasser’s understanding of athletes helped enormously in trying to make the date change as painless as possible – even helping Dani with accommodation for her family to spend the last 9 days with her in Bahrain. It was a well appreciated life line.
Thailand had turned out to be the hottest place the we had trained in 2015 so doubts started to arise as heart rates got higher and times got slower. Coach made a trip over, and while she was worried about not recovering from Kona I saw bike training in hot conditions that was nothing short of amazing. She had improved.
In the less humid conditions of Bahrain the times and breathing returned to normal and apart from a cold a couple of days out, coach and pupil were very confident of a good performance. But one has to perform. And the pressure of ‘win this race and you win $1 million’ is something no other triathlete has ever had to deal with.
She delivered. It was the icing on the cake of one of the greatest female seasons of triathlon history. No one was prouder than myself seeing a World Champion get paid what they deserve. Triathlon’s first and hopefully not last Million Dollar Baby.
It must now be recognised that Daniela Ryf has raced from February to December at a level never seen before with such consistency. And during this time she handled a subconscious pressure that the sport has not charted.
At the beginning of 2015 I promised that this race would mark the end of the third chapter in her triathlon career: The first two being a hugely dominant Junior career (including the World U23 Championship), and a highly decorated ITU and Olympic career.
We planned to take a huge break, rethink 2016 completely and go back to university. Perhaps only race in Switzerland or Europe, perhaps just race short distances, and above all make sure it is a year of replenishment.
But like the season just gone, we see 2016 also throwing some curve balls.
Ironman has been acquired by the Chinese Wanda group and with it a possible new beginning and opportunity for our sport.
And the bigger surprise? Prince Nasser announcing he wants to help grow the sport and treat professional athletes as their workload deserves by announcing the 2nd edition of the Triple Crown in 2016. A magnificent gesture for the sport and one I want to put on record as saying thank you for.
However this point is important:
Whether Daniela is on the start line at Dubai in January or not – I can say for sure it will not be with the Triple Crown in mind. She needs a rest. Badly. Should she participate it will be to make a similar gesture of support and goodwill to Prince Nasser for his participation and help for triathlon.
Under my watch 2016 will be a fun year. If that means aerobics classes and yoga so be it. University studies and home life will help keep the Bird grounded. Epic is not a word I use usually or lightly. But this season has been epic in every way and I am honoured to play a small part in it.
Daniel Ryf, Kona queen and true champion of a new generation of long distance triathlon.