Friday, 13 April 2012

Interlude with the Ironman

This is a story I wrote for Tri-Mag, the Hong Kong bible for those who take pleasure in the triple-trio of pain that is the Triathlon. Full disclosure: Eight times Ironman champion Jurgen Zack now works for Thanyapura, a PR client of mine, and this piece was written on their behalf and I wasn't paid by the magazine for it. But I thought it was a decent read on a fascinating chap so onto the blog it goes ... 

Jurgen Zack appears relaxed and happy as he takes a sip from his cappuccino and surveys his kingdom. We are sitting in the organic restaurant and coffee shop that is part of the ambitious Thanyapura project in Phuket, where the legendary ironman and speed chess aficionado is Director of Triathlon at its Sports & Leisure Club.

His pale gaze sweeps languidly across the shimmer of the club’s swimming pool, where some of his charges are churning impressive wakes under a cloudless cobalt sky. He puts his coffee down, contemplates a cookie perched on the saucer, then his head swivels and he looks straight at me for the first time.

For a split second, his eyes blaze with the cool blue fury of a gas flame; intense, laser-like, blinding. It’s like staring into the sun. In a flash, the legend comes to life; here is the ironman  whose steely will and merciless bursts of pace rode roughshod over rivals; the master of mind games and tactics who once represented his native Germany at chess. Picture those eyes locked like tractor beams on the riders ahead, reeling them in, upping the cadence, dropping a gear, and then – swoosh, clank, whir – a blur of carbon fibre and pistoning lycra blows past, heading for the horizon. Behold the ‘Zack Attack’.
The moment passes, he smiles, and the friendly crinkles steal back across his sun-tanned face. Zack demurs when pressed for details about his famed maneouvre and would rather discuss his role at Thanyapura than dwell on past glories. Triathlon aficionados will know the numbers anyway: the extra 10km/h he could summon from his legs to drop flagging rivals, and the 17 times he qualified for Kona, home of Hawaii’s original and brutally punishing Ironman race. The five European Ironman Championships - four of them in a row – and the second quickest Ironman time in history at 7:51:42.
And then there’s his best Ironman bike split: 4:14:14, until 2010 the fastest ever; and a record of fitting symmetry for a man-machine. To achieve it, Zack had to sustain an average speed of 42.35 km/h around all 112 miles (180.25km) of the Klagenfurt, Austria course. Austrian Sebastien Kienle went faster, recording 4:14:07 at Roth in Germany but purists argue the Roth course is notoriously ‘bike short’ and that Zack’s record should stand.

When Zack ceased competing as a professional ironman and triathlete in 2006, an unsettling torpor descended. “I didn’t train at all for quite a while once I stopped racing,’’ he says. “It was a big adjustment.’’ Sports history is littered with sad tales of former heroes who failed to adjust to life outside the limelight. Zack counts himself fortunate to have landed a dream job on the island he believes will become triathlon’s new Mecca.

Today, it might be already. As we speak, the Laguna Phuket Triathlon has just been held, and the following weekend will see the Phuket Ironman 70.3 put athletes from all over the world to the sternest test of all. Many of the sport’s big names are in Phuket, and Thanyapura is buzzing.
“I’m happy to say our triathletes who represented Thanyapura did very well,’’ Zack says. “Frederik Croneberg came fourth in the men’s triathlon, and Katya Rabe was third in the women’s. Also training at our academy is the best Thai triathlete, Jaray Jearanai, who was the first-placed Thai in the race and also became the first Thai to qualified for and finish the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii this year.’’

Zack also counts himself fortunate to have reconnected with his sport in  ways he never imagined. Who, for instance, could see the ‘Zack Attack’ tootling along at 20km/h on a Sunday ride with a plodding peloton of novices and amateurs, having the time of his life? “Actually, it’s something I look forward to all week,’’ he says. “It’s a great social event. We always get 30 or 40 riders, we keep together as a group at a nice steady pace, and no one gets dropped. But once we hit the bridge (that links Phuket to the mainland) on the way back, for the final 20km the race is on, so the top riders still get a high intensity workout.’’

For much of his professional career, Zack based himself in San Diego, California. “That was considered to be the Mecca of triathlon,’’ he says. “I was always looking for the perfect triathlon destination. San Diego is pretty good, but I have to say that Phuket is even better. For triathletes, it’s the perfect place to live and train.’’

Despite an aversion to spicy food and no great interest in Asia, Zack journeyed to Phuket for his first triathlon in 1997 and says he fell in love. He became a frequent visitor, and at one point donned a backpack and spent months traipsing around the country in a bid to “get to know the real Thailand.’’
When German entrepreneur and the visionary behind Thanyapura, Klaus Hebben, invited Zack to Thanyapura last year, the former champion says he was skeptical. “I thought, well, it can’t be that big. In Phuket? It’s probably just a swimming pool with a locker room. And then I saw the facilities. Wow. Then I understood the vision, and that’s when it hit me that Phuket could become the world’s premier triathlon training base.

“Look at this place. All the facilities are world class. We’ve got the Olympic standard 50m pool, a 500m Tartan running track, an almost 1,000 sq m gym. We have a nice sports hotel and we’re building a bigger one, which will open in a few months. And the facilities for the other academies are at the same level – championship tennis courts, full-size rugby and soccer pitches with professional standard locker rooms.’’

The Sports and Leisure Club is part of a bigger vision. Thanyapura’s 23 hectare campus, located in the natural amphitheatre of a national park on the island’s north-eastern coast, also includes an international school and the Thanyapura Mind Centre. Beyond the campus, Thanyapura also offers a chic Beach Club and the award-winning Thanyamundra eco-retreat, a five star organic resort in Khao Sok national park.

Thanyapura, Zack explains, is pioneering a holistic approach to sports, wellness, education and spiritual development. With upwards of US$100 million invested to date, the vision is fast becoming a reality. “I’ve competed all over the world, and I’ve never seen anything like this,’’ Zack says. “Thanyapura really is unique and triathletes all over the world are talking about us.’’

Its three centres work closely and adopt a cross-disciplinary approach. Zack says he finds the work of the Mind Centre intriguing, given the increasing importance afforded sports psychology and visualizing success as part of training elite athletes.

Phuket’s climate also offers athletes a boost. “Even in the rainy season, there are very few days where you can’t get out for a ride or a run,’’ he said. “I investigated all the bike rides and the running loops and they are way better than what I expected of roads in Thailand. From our campus, further north, east and across the bridge to the mainland has some amazing rides.’’

Zack says island life has lifted his own mood and filled him with fresh enthusiasm. “I am amazed. I feel so fit now. After not training at all for years, I think I’ve missed maybe one day in the last three months. I’m leading a daily training program. We have a Monday run, Tuesday is a bike ride, Wednesday is a swim in the morning, open water, and a track session for running. Thursday is bike, run, Friday is run, swim, and on Saturday we do a long high tempo ride at a fast pace.’’

He becomes increasingly animated as he recounts this litany of pain and suffering. The fire in his eyes ignites again. The ‘Zack Attack’ is back.

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