INTERVIEW | 10/08/2023

"At some point, the box of mental strength is empty!"

Sebastian Kienle
Triathlete Sebastian Kienle during running training in Spain.
Sebastian Taprogge

Triathlon is not only a competition against the clock, but also an intense battle with one's own mind. 2014 Ironman Hawaii champion Sebastian Kienle shares his personal odyssey through the world of triathlon and the indispensable role of mental strength. Learn how a strong mind can make the difference between winning and losing, and the intimate secrets Kienle reveals after more than two decades in elite sports. Dive into the world of triathletes and learn how mental power can overcome even the toughest limits.

Mental power is the key to success

Genetically, you may be the perfect athlete. But if you don't know how to use that talent, you don't stand a chance. In my career, I have seen many athletes who were physically stronger. They still didn't make it to success because they often lacked the mental power. The body is like a car. It stands there and looks good at first glance. Mental strength may be only a small aspect, but it is the ignition key. If you can't start the car, you won't win anything in the end. For me, the value of mental power lies in seeing problems as opportunities. You sort of lie to yourself without recognizing it as a lie. The head says in the race that you should stop because it's too much. Then it is the art of directing exactly these thoughts in such a way that this is the decisive point in the race for which one has entered the start in the first place. That's the real challenge in a race, that's when the difference is made. If there is little wind and the water is flat, you can't show that you are a good sailor. Only when the waves are really high and it's stormy do you have the opportunity to show that you are better. I have not always been able to do that in my career. You don't know what mental strength is until you've been through weaknesses. The head plays a big role in this sport, for me the decisive one.

The body is tired, the mind empty

My body and mind are slowly ready to end the athletic career. While an immense amount is demanded of the body almost every day in training and competition, the mind is especially challenged in difficult situations. Protracted injuries that last for many weeks and months, plus years of pain. Then it becomes increasingly difficult to tell yourself that you still have it. That hollows you out mentally and it's a lot of things that make your mind mentally fatigued. The end of the year is the end of it.

"Once you've been to the limit, you're scared."

In this sport, sometimes a certain inexperience can even help, especially at the beginning of a career. If you don't know that the wall is coming, then you don't brake. If you've seriously pushed your limit once, you're more likely to be afraid to get there again. I've done that a few times and it tends to scare you off rather than make you feel good. That's also why I was able to go much lower in my first long distance races than years later. You learn more to manage that condition and it's extremely mentally challenging. My pot of mental strength is so slowly empty.

Physical boundary experiences: "At some point, the box is empty."

In my first long-distance triathlon at the Challenge in Roth, I was the first rookie to stay under eight hours. It was a moving experience that left me in tears for a long time afterwards. Immediately after the race I collapsed. Even though I felt better hours later, I could hardly move for the three weeks afterwards. Training was not possible, my body and head kept me from it. I slept a maximum of 1.5 hours a day. On the way to an appointment I had to pull over because I had a nervous breakdown. I sat in the car and just cried on it. There it was-my first post-traumatic stress disorder-meaning limit. It didn't deter me, especially since I was prepared for it. For many athletes, this is the proof of being able to demand something of the body with an irrepressible will that it otherwise would not have been able to do. However, I don't think you grow mentally from these situations. It's like a box of matches that eventually runs out. On the other hand, unexpected situations that happen but are not accompanied by the physical limit are the ones you grow from.

Feeding visualizations and inner voices

Inner voices accompany you every day. You haven't trained hard enough or enough. You think others are investing more and you don't see how close you are to your limit. Why? Because you don't manage to block out everything else and look at what others are doing or what you yourself have already done in the past. Then you generally always believe that you are too fat. But during a race these inner voices also help. I have different scripts, many are linked to technology. There's a balloon hanging from my neck that pulls me up, my foot is a pedal scooter and my hip works like a Segway, you lean forward and get faster and faster. If you keep your brain busy, nothing negative comes in.

Hawaii heat hell

The first hurdle awaits you before you even get on the plane, especially if you are competing in Ironman Hawaii for the first time. You read and hear so much about this race that you develop great respect. That's the myth of Hawaii. I don't think it's the toughest triathlon, but it's the fastest with the best field of starters in the professional field. That also makes it the triathlon that is the hardest to win.

Then at some point you reach Hawaii completely overtired and there you are hit by extremely warm and humid air. In the first training you have 15 to 20 pulse beats more on the clock and are totally unsettled. Everything feels heavier and you think the spirits of the island have conspired against you. In the race, there are several adversities that can get you down. Many athletes get scared during the swim. The vastness of the ocean, the many starters around you, it can create panic. On the bike course, the last 35 kilometres up to Senic Point can be key. Here you can really feel the heat for the first time and you must not make the mistake of thinking about the marathon that follows. Several hurdles lurk on the running course. One is the Queen Ka'Ahumanu Highway. It has 6 lanes and you can see incredibly far. You can't lift your head and look into the distance, because you feel so incredibly slow. And finally, this brutal heat. The temperature of the body core can move towards 40 degrees Celsius, which is life-threatening, and when in doubt, the body shuts down everything. Mentally, that's incredibly hard, because you just can't think cold thoughts. Once you're overheated, you have to cut out so much power. I was always in this phase in Hawaii.

A strong spirit needs freedom

On the one hand, you often wish you had a normal job during your career, where the potential for failure and consequences is not so great. I dropped out of college for competitive sports and put all my eggs in one basket. You can't get disability insurance at that level either. So there is always the danger that suddenly everything is over. On the other hand, the degree of freedom has kept me in this sport for 30 years. I'll definitely take the performance principle with me into my future career. And of course the mental attitude. I will always dedicate myself to new things with 100 percent, there is no such thing as half throttle for me. And I always have to take the reins myself. You can't take this personal responsibility off your shoulders.

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Sebastian Taprogge
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