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Sultan of triathlon still has plenty of magic left

Sultan of triathlon still has plenty of magic left

PHUKET: For a man who has reached the pinnacle of what he calls an “egocentric and selfish” sport, Faris al Sultan is refreshingly down to earth.

By Dane Halpin

Wednesday 11 April 2012, 11:20AM

Faris al Sultan.

Faris al Sultan.

The winner of the Ironman World Championship in 2005, Faris has been in Phuket recently training at Thanyapura Sports and Leisure Centre (TSLC) in preparation for the Samui Triathlon on April 22.

Of course, the humble German is no stranger to our shores – he has been a regular contender in the Phuket Triathlon and Ironman 70.3 since 2007.

“I like the place, I like the race. I think it’s a super cool destination, and I haven’t heard of any pro who said that this isn’t a lovely place to race at.”

But the island has not always been kind to him – last year he finished 13th in the wet conditions, well below his usually high standards.

“Last year when I was on the starting line, I already knew ‘it won’t happen’. My legs were very tired, and I simply wasn’t in race shape at all, so I wasn’t too disappointed. The most important thing was the party afterwards.”

While he may have an affinity for Phuket, and parties – he became the first athlete inducted into the TSLC Hall of Fame during an informal ceremony last Friday night (April 6) – on a purely competitive level, Faris says there is no substitute for the big one.

“For me, my favourite place is Kona [Ironman World Championships]. You can ask most of the pro triathletes, and most of them will give you the same answer.”

It’s not difficult to understand why. The Hawaii race is the pinnacle of the sport, a brutal test of physical endurance and mental stamina. Winning there in 2005 was the highlight of Faris’ long career, but it also posed a dilemma of what to aim for next.

“Of course [winning] Kona was a big turning point for me. Every triathlete dreams of winning the big thing, but now you’ve done it, so what’s now? And I was really a bit confused for about 10 months, and it was kind of a roller coaster ride from a mental perspective, because one day you think you’re invincible, and the next day you think you don’t have to train because you’ve already done it.

“But then you focus on the things you really enjoy, and there are still a few races out there that I would like to win. And of course I’d like to have one more good race in Kona.”

Coming off the back of a closely fought second place in the Abu Dhabi triathlon last month, it’s clear Faris still has the potential for that one good race, or possibly even several.

At 34 years old, he is unfortunately on the wrong end of an unforgiving bell curve, though he says this has given him a lot of time for personal reflection, and to establish his physical limitations.


“It has changed [with age], of course, the way you can train. You have to be more smart, and you need more recovery time,” he said.

“But if you train intelligently and you race intelligently – while you might not have a whole season where you crush every race – on the day, you can still be very, very good.”

Despite racing the biological clock as well as his competitors, Faris still firmly believes he is capable of another Kona victory. And for a man whose humility is only surpassed by his brutal honesty, it would be a brave person to bet against him.

Every year in the last three years I became a little bit better again on the way back to that super fitness level, but last year I couldn’t really prove it. This year I hope [to be confident enough] to know that I can physically win the race. But you have to do it then of course.

“There’s a difference between knowing that you cannot win no matter how good the day might be, or if I have the perfect day, then I might win it. I want to be back at that possibility.”

Faris is under no illusion about how difficult that will be though – after all, he’s been there before.

“Even for us it’s still a struggle, because it’s not easy even for a professional athlete to finish the race, no matter how fit you are. The distance is challenging, and difficult. On race day, everybody’s afraid of the distance, no matter how much you’ve trained before it.”

In the meantime, Faris says his preparations are “on track” for Samui, and even after nearly two decades of competition, he seems to relish the lifestyle that his sport affords him.

I don’t do anything else other than eat, sleep and train – this is what I do. On the one hand, it’s a big blessing because you can focus so much on yourself, and there’s no other job in life like that... It’s an incredibly egocentric and selfish way of life.”

For Faris though, the egocentricity hasn’t rubbed off.


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