Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, Ironman champion MATT TRAUTMAN talks about being a late bloomer in the sport, overcoming a life-threatening accident and chasing world domination.
Sport24 asked: How did you get into the world of triathlon?
Matt Trautman: I was quite a late starter to the sport and it took me a while to get into triathlon and Ironman, but the bug was always there. I grew up in Pietermaritzburg, which is a town renowned for its endurance sport. My parents did the Comrades Marathon and Midmar Mile, so I honestly think that endurance sport has always been in my blood. I did an array of sports at school and was good at cross-country, but becoming a professional sportsman wasn’t on the radar back then. When I left school, I decided to take a gap year and went sailing. I thought it was a good way to see the world and get paid while doing it. I ended up becoming a professional sailor and only when I was based in the UK, did I consider triathlon. There was such a big hype with the Olympic Games taking place in London in 2012. When watching the Brownlee brothers – Alistar and Jonathan – win gold and bronze, I said to myself: “Hang on; I know how to run, swim and ride a bike.” So I did a few months of training and entered a half-Ironman distance race (70.3 miles or 113km). It was quite a small field, but I placed second in my maiden triathlon. I surprised myself and really enjoyed it. (Since going pro in 2014, Trautman has won numerous full and half-distance Ironman races).
Sport24 asked: Tell us about your career threatening injury…
Matt Trautman: In January 2017, on the weekend before Ironman 70.3 in London, I went for my last training ride before the race. I was on the road going towards Franschoek Pass riding in the yellow emergency lane and the next thing I knew I was floored. At the time, I didn’t really know what had happened and thought maybe I had hit a pothole. However, when I came round I realised I had been hit by a car. An ambulance rushed me to the Stellenbosch Mediclinic and the prognosis wasn’t great. I had three crushed vertebrae in my lumbur spine, but luckily there was no damage to the spinal cord. However, the ligaments between all three vertebrae had torn. I was told they would never grow back and the best option was to do a multiple level spinal fusion to stabilise the area. It’s not ideal for running because it places a heavy load on the back but the surgeon, who said I probably wouldn’t be able to race again, is always going to give the worst-case scenario. It gave me added motivation to come back stronger. My wife, Nicole, is an occupational therapist, so I couldn’t have asked for a better partner during the recovery process. My recovery took a while because the body had to heal between the time of the fusion and before I could place any load on it. It was six months without any running and I really didn’t know if I would be able to compete again and at a good level. It was a tough time, but I started to get back into it, saw the day-to-day progress and slowly but surely I started to believe that it may be possible to race again. (He came back from a nightmare 2017 to win the 2018 Ironman 70.3 in South Africa).
Sport24 asked: Did you ever consider quitting the sport you love?
Matt Trautman: After the accident, I definitely thought that I was going to quit. Any time you get injured as a professional athlete, even if it’s a small one, there are doubts which start to creep into your head. For four months I said to myself: “What am I doing here” and “this isn’t for me.” My first goal was to get active again and what kept me going was seeing small day-to-day progress. If you partake in this sport, you have a competitive edge which runs deep from within. I ultimately accepted the challenge and was determined to prove the doctors wrong... Group training is easier than training on your own from a mental perspective, but I do a lot of my training indoors since the accident. Most of my running is on the treadmill because I find it’s easier on the back. It’s a softer surface and there is less impact. In terms of biking I do a lot of it on the indoor turbo trainer. When I head over to Europe – my Australian coach is based in Switzerland – I do some training with the group. If you can keep yourself motivated and are pushing yourself at the correct intensity then it’s fine to train on your own. However, some athletes cannot self-motivate and need that group environment to push them. I’m quite self-driven, so I don’t find that training on my own or with a group makes too much of a difference in my situation. I find it’s good to stick a specific programme you’ve worked out with your coach and not deviate too much from it.
Sport24 asked: What does your training entail during the week?
Matt Trautman: The unique aspect of triathlon is that you partake in three different sporting disciplines within one race. The run leg was always my favourite and it’s slowly coming back. My worst was the swim but, even if you don’t like swimming, you can’t neglect your weaknesses. Even if you dislike swimming, you still have to work on it and probably even more so if it isn’t a strength. You want to put all three distances into the pot and add the right amount of each to suit your particular needs. All three disciplines are aerobic in nature, so there is carryover from them. While you can mix up training, the bottom line is that you still have to put in the miles no matter where you are weak or strong. As far as swimming is concerned, I average 28 to 35 kays in a week, then on the bike I am looking at between 500 to 700 kays and the running comprises 90 to 110 kays during a seven day week. It’s a full-time job and it’s a commitment I’m happy to make to myself, the sport, my coach and sponsors. My coach has mentored numerous world champions. He follows an old-school approach and focuses on perceived exertion, which is pretty rare in this day and age because there is a lot of science you can get into. However, his approach has worked well for me. You have to have lots of trust in your coach if you are training 35 hours a week.
Sport24 asked: Was competing at the Olympic Games an option?
Matt Trautman: If I had started earlier, I would have loved to represent South Africa at the Games but, to be honest, I wouldn’t be competitive at this stage in the Olympic-distance event. I could maybe qualify if I focused on that but, at the end of the day, I don’t have the swim speed to match the front pack. And if you are not in the front pack of the swim then you have got a lot of work to do on the bike and run. The guys are running crazy times now. I would rather just train longer and slower and keep all my focus on the long-distance events. The Olympic-distance and the full Ironman are really two different sports. For Ironman, you have to train for a lot longer and it’s a slow type of mileage, whereas Olympic-distance is short and sharp training. I prefer the longer stuff for sure and got into the sport too late for the Olympic-distance because it’s become a young man’s game. (Trautman turned 34 in February). In the Ironman distance, you generally hit your stride in your late 20s and there are some athletes who are racing into their early 40s and are still competitive.
Sport24 asked: What do you still want to achieve in the sport?
Matt Trautman: At the Ironman African Championship, I have come fourth twice which is the absolute worst position to finish. We refer to fourth place as the chocolate medal. In 2016, I was in third and gaining on second place, but the wheels fell off with about 5 kays to go and the guy who finished third passed me over the last 500m. In an almost eight-hour race it’s ridiculous and that disappointment still burns. In April this year, at the annual event in Port Elizabeth, I ended up in eighth place in a time of 07:54:22. The result and execution could have been better, but the effort was 100 percent. When I don’t finish were I want to it drives me rather than gets me down. It’s quite good motivation to get back out there and the aim is to finish off the front sections a little faster in the future. Ironman has really grown and there are now races all over the world. My big goal is to prove successful in the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii in October. My win at Ironman Wales last year qualified me for Kona this year. (Last year’s record-breaking event welcomed around 2 500 registered athletes from 82 countries, marking the largest international field in race history).
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