Eight and half hours of pain
What it really takes to be a pro triathlete: Behind the intense prep for Ironman Texas
Every Friday, local triathletes meet up for lunch at Freebirds in The Woodlands. Tim Floyd of Magnolia Aquatics Club Masters points out swimming buddy Balazs Csoke, who is sitting at a table of extremely fit people and munching on a brownie.
Csoke, now 29, was a swimmer from the age of 6 but switched sports at 16 after seeing a film about a triathlon race. After finishing college, he left his native Hungary to concentrate on training for triathlons. By age 24 he’d completed his first full-distance Ironman, with a home base in Switzerland where he worked as a swimming coach.
By 28, he’d won Ironman Korea 2011, and finished the Ironman World Championship race at Kona. Last year, he officially moved to the United States. He'll compete in the Ironman Texas in The Woodlands this Saturday.
He talked with me about his goals over the next 10 years, and what it means to be a professional triathlete.
"It hurts from the first moment of the start. And it’s going to hurt for eight and a half hours. Without a second’s rest.”
In part, it means free gear. “I get all equipment for free from my sponsors, and that’s a lot [of help], because triathlon is an expensive sport," he says. "The best equipment is pretty pricey. But . . . as a professional athlete, obviously, I have to make a living. I can’t book a flight with running shoes, even if I have 20 pairs at home.”
Triathletes’ livelihoods come from financial sponsorships and outside avocations. Cervélo has supplied some financial support, as well as Csoke’s bike; its chain system is by Rotorbike, pedals by Speedplay, components by 3T. Csoke’s cycling shoes are provided by Sidi; his helmet by Rudy Project; his supplements by Klean Athlete, his running shoes by Zoot; his swim gear by Sailfish, and, of late, Northside Fiat has given him a car to use.
“Still, you want to do some coaching, and have people who are going to help you, like I have Raiffeisen bank in Switzerland,” Csoke says. Raiffeisen’s assistance allowed him to travel to the Ironman Melbourne Asia-Pacific Championship in Australia this year, as well as to Ironman New Zealand 2013, where he posted a fifth place finish.
Csoke is excited to have recently been named Head Coach at TriTactics, where he guides first-time registrants through the full year of training needed to successfully finish an Ironman.
“Most professional triathletes help age group athletes," he says. "They want to have some coaching/training plan and they always ask professionals.”
TriTactics’ Maureen and Greg Gibbons “are both doctors, both Ironman athletes, and they love to coach people. They gave me a working Visa through their company. That’s how it’s worked for me to be living in The Woodlands and coaching 15 athletes here right now, sharing the experience I have as a professional athlete, because when you sign up for an Ironman it’s really important to have the proper training in order to get to the finish.
"It’s not a month of training. It’s a one-year commitment, dedicating 15 hours a week. I’m helping people write training plans and telling them what to do every single day to be able to finish their race.”
Csokes needs to train others around his own training schedule, but “everyone here is very supportive. There’s a large community of triathletes and — the weather being what it is — I can train all year long, and that’s a priority.
"As a professional athlete, I need five to eight hours a day. Some days I run three times. The next day I double it up and bike twice. The next day I swim . . . This [professional] level means it’s very special how I train, but in summary it’s 35-40 hours a week.”
All of that training nullifies the occasional brownie. “I try to eat very healthily, but it seems harder to do that in the U.S. compared to in Europe," Csoke says. "Everything tastes different here. Back in Hungary, bread is good for two days. Then it’s rock hard and you have to throw it away if you haven’t eaten it.
"Something must be in the bread here, because it stays soft for a week. I spent my childhood out in a big field eating strawberries and tomatoes right off the vine. I’m still missing that flavor. It doesn’t seem to matter if I buy organic strawberries here; it’s not even close. But that’s how it is.
"I stay away from junk food, like Chik-fil-A and McDonalds, and don’t drink soda drinks. I just have fizzy water with some lemon. I don’t drink alcohol when I’m training. But I’d love to have a beer, even now. I’m going to have a couple of beers after Texas . . . If the race is really good, I’ll have a couple more beers than I should!”
With nearly 2,770 Ironman Texas participants, the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), founder of Ironman and parent company to nearly 190 events in more than 20 countries, has collected nearly two million dollars in entry fees for Saturday’s sold-out race, and sponsorships and merchandising profits will add to that number. The overall winners’ purse is $75,000, distributed among the Top 8 finishers. A fourth place nets $3,000, barely enough to cover a pro’s international travel costs.
Reasons to finish a race go beyond prize money though — professionals are interested in points. The rules for pro triathletes changed drastically in 2012. With a deepening field of professional competitors, Ironman introduced a points system toward qualifying to be able to run in the Ironman-to-beat-all-Ironmans, the World Championship, held every October in Kona, Hawaii.
“It’s like the Olympics,” Csoke says. “Everyone wants to go there.”
“I try to eat very healthily, but it seems harder to do that in the U.S. compared to in Europe. Everything tastes different here."
At Ironman Texas, the first two or three age group finishers will qualify for Kona without having to accumulate points, but there are 50 slots available for nearly 2,700 nonprofessionals, making Kona a competitive gamble.
Professionals cannot qualify at one single event; they now need to travel to three or four Ironman races over the course of the year and collect points. The world rankings — constantly changing, as new races are run and won by different pros every weekend — end July 28th, and at that time the Top 40 male and Top 28 female pros in the world will qualify for Kona 2013. Running well at Ironman Texas means up to 2,000 points toward that goal.
“Everyone wants to go for the big points,” Csoke says, “so more professionals will enter Ironman Texas than races offering fewer points. If you win a 1000 point race, or finish Texas in 10th place, it’s the same points. So, 2000- and 4000-point races are always very, very competitive.”
An Ironman can’t be done every weekend. Even the best professionals are physically able to do only three Ironman races per year, possibly four. It takes is a month or two for a pro to recover from the rigor of completing an Ironman in eight and a half hours.
“And that’s why, at the beginning of the [marathon], if you say, ‘It’s just not going to be my day,’ then it’s better for us professionals to just quit the race rather than kill ourselves trying to finish, and not get any points — because we can’t race again for a month," Csoke says. "That’s very different than for the age-groupers; they want to finish. But racing at a professional level, it’s better for us to quit, and wait two or three weeks,” and start fresh at another race on another day.
Csöke had to make that call when he quit Ironman Texas 2011 during the cycling portion. A tire blowout and broken carbon rim left him waiting 25 minutes for a new wheel. He calls it “one of my best decisions,” since he was able to recover and win Ironman Korea a month later.
This year, “my main goal is absolutely Ironman Texas. I’ve built up my training plan to do that race. Of course I’m going to do CB&I (a Woodlands triathlon). But Ironman Texas is my race, and I can’t say what will happen next until 3 p.m. on May 18th. Right now I just can’t; there will be so many good guys here. It depends on points. It also depends on what other pros do — they could decide to push up the point ranking by doing other Ironmans.
"Rankings change every weekend. If I do what I want to do, though — and that’s a Top 5 or Top 6 in Texas — it’ll look good for me to qualify for Hawaii. I’ll be Top 20, and that should be enough to be in the Top 50 world’s best athletes by July, and then I can go to the World Championship."
Adopted Hometown Hero?
“Many people would say training in The Woodlands is a big advantage," Csoke says. "I personally don’t feel that way. I just race whatever I have to race. I am in a separated world when I race, you know — I’m just so focused on what I have to do. Of course I’m going to have lots of support from local people on the running course, but I can’t run faster because I know the way. I just run. It’s the same for everyone.
"A triathalon is a very fair sport. We don’t have a world record or time or anything, because you can’t compare two different races, but on race day, it’s always the same for everyone racing.”
Pro triathletes peak at a geriatric age relative to other sports, and Balazs Csoke has some time.
Even the best professionals are physically able to do only three Ironman races per year, possibly four.
“I’m 29 now, so, if I have the support and the possibility to continue, I’m improving every year," he says. "What everyone keeps saying is that I’m still very far from my limit. As I look around, all of the best Ironman athletes in the world are 40 — or close to 40 — now.
"Craig Alexander is the World Champ and probably the best triathlete in the world right now, and he’s nearly 40 years old. That’s the age you’re going to be strongest in this sport. Last year, when I made it to the World Championship in Hawaii, there were three guys who were under 30, and I was one of them. So it really starts in the mid thirties, where you’re going to be the strongest, simply because you need that time to be able to train and be the strongest.
"Your whole body is going to change over years. It takes time to put that one million miles on the bike for your legs; it cannot be done in two years. No one will be Ironman World Champion at 23 years old. No one can be that strong. You need to be an age grouper — and a competent age grouper, someone who does a 10-hour Ironman, which is very fast — to understand what it means to find another one hour for it to be faster.
"It just takes years and years of work, and work, and work to be able to race on that level. I can’t even explain to someone how there is no going slow. When you get out from the water, you sit on a bike and you ride as hard as you can for 112 miles, and then you start running, and you go as fast as you can for 26 miles. It hurts from the first moment of the start. And it’s going to hurt for eight and a half hours. Without a second’s rest.”
Why does he do it — not just once, but over and over? “It’s all about crossing the finish line," Csoke says. "It’s something that can’t really be described in words . . . crossing a line that seemed impossible. It’s the feeling that you can be stronger than you ever thought, and, in that moment, you realize that you are able to conquer yourself.”