Michael Wachtendonk

Michael Wachtendonk, ultimate triathlete, 23 times

For most people, running, biking and swimming are individual forms of recreational sport. Michael is not most people. He likes to do all three at the same time. He’s an Ironman triathlete. He enjoys it so much; he’s done it 23 times.

A keen swimmer from the age of 6, like most kids, Michael played soccer and table tennis growing up before taking to cycling and running. At 16 he joined his first triathlon competition on a bike he borrowed from friend and finished third. “I figured I had potential as a triathlete”. He then spent a year in the army, where he ran longer, further and faster. Inspired by a generation of German athletes who dominated the Ironman scene in the nineties, Michael began to wonder about a bigger challenge.

Fast forward to summer 2002. It’s 2am in Frankfurt and Michael can’t find sleep. At sunrise, he’ll have to swim 3.8km, cycle 180km and run a full 42.2km marathon to compete in his first Ironman triathlon. “The trouble is you can’t train in racing conditions, you don’t actually do the whole thing in one go until race day. I had no idea if I’d actually finish.”

Ironman races are considered one of the most difficult one-day endurance events in the world. Athletes must complete the swim, bike ride and marathon run in under 17 hours to earn the privilege to be designated Ironman.

That first race proved to be an invaluable lesson in pacing himself, drinking enough and humility. Despite giving it his all and swimming and cycling well, Michael was gripped by leg cramps 16km from the running finish line forcing him to jog for 2 endless hours. He missed his 10-hour target by around 30 minutes. Still, crossing the finish line was “the best high ever”. “All of sudden, it felt like work and life issues had shrunk in comparison to what I had just experienced. And it boosted my self-confidence.” Michael was determined to try again.

He spent the next two years, training and racing at Ironman Frankfurt. But his sights were really set on the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, the ultimate, toughest and most iconic of triathlon races. “You can’t simply pay your entry fee. You have to qualify.” And to qualify, he needed to finish in the top five of his age group in any qualifying Ironman event.

So in 2004, Michael was back in Frankfurt for the Ironman European Championship. He’d improve his training over two years trained for a whole year to complete the full marathon without walking. In addition to his training, Michael spent many hours researching nutrition, pacing, recovery and strength training. “It’s about finding a balance that works
for you and not over-training. Then you learn from experience.” On race day, Michael applied the motto ‘steady pace, steady race’ and managed to shave 65 minutes off his first attempt, finishing close to 9h30min and earning a spot for Hawaii in 2004.

In addition to being considered to most gruelling of triathlon races, Hawaii is birthplace of Ironman triathlons, ever since couple Judy and John Collins saw their dream of a non-stop 226km triathlon come true in 1978. During the World Championship, the Hawaiian town of Kona “becomes the fittest place on earth”. But even the fittest can fall under the unpredictable and scorching weather conditions. “Racing at 36 degrees Celsius is typical, and the humidity can be very high, with the occasional rain shower in the evening. But it’s the wind that can be the biggest challenge.”

The 180km bike route goes up one lane of a straight highway, across the barren lava fields of the island and turns back down the other lane after 90km. During that first race in Hawaii, Michael lost precious time as he faced strong headwinds in the first half. “I knew I’d catch up with the tailwinds on the return”. Except that shortly after he’d u-turned, the wind unexpectedly changed direction and he found himself battling the headwind again. “I got off my bike completely broken and still had a marathon to run.”

He ended up crossing the finish line in Kona in 10h42. Then did it another 3 times to try and better his time (2011, 2016, 2019). To date, he’s completed 23 Ironman races around the world. In 2018, Michael completed Ironman Barcelona in 9h14.

“Over time, daily life problems seem rather minor compared to the physical and emotional stress you experience in a race.” Adapting to challenges and learning from mistakes during his training and competitions made Michael more resilient and built his self-confidence in life and at work. “It helps you understand what you’re capable of and dealing with stressful situations like the financial crisis in 2008 or the covid pandemic we’ve just been through.”

Working full-time as a Portfolio Manager, Michael does his best to balance work and training. “In a client-driven job, you must stay flexible as your meeting and travel schedule is bound to change weekly.” Michael usually stashes his running kit at the office and takes advantage of lunch breaks and turns his commutes into bike rides. “It’s all about logistics, consistency and recovery.” For Michael, beginners often do not see the value of recovery. “Over-training usually leads to injuries. Go on an easy run, stretch, or rest. And mix it up between different disciplines.” But even then, unforeseen challenges arise.

In September last year, Michael broke his arm and shoulder after a nasty fall on his bike commute to work. But two surgeries and months of physiotherapy haven’t deterred him from his next objective, getting back to Kona. “Even if I can’t train like I did in my twenties, I’ll keep competing as long as I can. I really want to break nine hours!” This is 3
hours and 35 minutes faster than the average Ironman triathlete.

When he’s not swimming or running or biking, Michael is Senior Portfolio Manager at Pictet Wealth Management in Munich.

*The number of qualifying slots can vary across Ironman races.
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