German Jan Sibbersen has made a few attempts to grab the Kona swim record and this year it finally happened. Sibbersen's previous best was 46:50 in 2003, but American Lars Jorgensen held the course record with a 46:41 (1998) and then a 46:44 (1995). This 46:41 was always listed as the time to beat, but in 1998 Jorgensen is listed as DNF in the results, so does this result count? But it doesn’t matter that Sibbersen pushed it down to 46:29. I chatted with him about how he prepared for the big day.
Slowtwitch: Thank you so much for your time Jan.
Jan Sibbersen: Thank you for having me!
ST: Are you still sore or have you already managed to recover?
Jan: I’m sort of ok by now. But I can tell you one thing: riding 180k and running 42.2k with essentially no training - 200k of riding and 40k of running in all of September for example - really hurts at some point. It makes the pain from the swim feel like a spa visit.
ST: How many times have you started in Kona before this year?
Jan: 5 times, 2001 through 2004 and last year.
ST: What was your best result to date in terms of overall time?
Jan: Not 100% sure what year it was, but it was a 9:38 in a year where the wind was still blowing.
ST: What do you see as the biggest change over the years when comparing those 2001-2004 events to now?
Jan: Everything around this race became way more professional over the years. The commercialization of the race has reached new dimensions. Who would have thought 15 years ago that 20 million people around the globe would watch this race live on Facebook? There was no Facebook in 2001... we still dialed into AOL.
ST: This year there was a lot of focus on the pro race and the possibility to break the swim records and other previous best marks. So you flew a bit under the radar.
Jan: Well, at age 43 you better fly under the radar! If I had gone out there and told everyone I’d go for the record and then not delivered, I would have made a fool out of myself. People close to me knew that this was my goal, but I only spoke to German media about it – and very carefully. A day with waves and current and there’s no chance to break any records on this swim course.
ST: Describe the water conditions this year.
Jan: I know this course really well and it all came together last Saturday. The rain during the night before the race killed the small waves, they are more dangerous to a fast swim than the big rollers. It was a rare occasion of slack tide, there was hardly any current. Last but not least, we had cloud cover. One might not realize this, but it’s absolutely critical because it keeps down your core body temperature as opposed to swimming in the morning sun. Overheating is actually one of the key problems in 80 degree water when you go all out. Regardless, after about 2 miles into the race, I started to cook… finally, on the second half of the swim there were small long rollers starting to come from behind. I had a nice little surf every once in a while, this gives you relief for a split of a second, and it helps. The conditions in the water could not have been any better.
ST: You swam 46:29.
Jan: I have been chasing this record for 17 years since 2001. I can’t describe the feeling I had when I realized that I broke it. I just thought - finally. Then pure happiness took over.
ST: Where were you time wise when you made the turn?
Jan: In all 5 previous races on this island I carried a watch with me, this time I didn’t. Not only does a watch physically slow you down, but the psychological impact can also be deceiving. Imagine you go out in a super-fast time, but you do not notice the current that pushed you, and then you turn around and the buoys just won’t come any closer – it’s the most frustrating feeling. I have had this in 2002, I was at the turnaround in a little over 20 minutes, thought I’d break the record for sure and then it took me 27 minutes to bring it home. It was a very good decision to swim without a watch this time.
ST: Do you usually swim with a watch?
Jan: No, not in pool training. I use the pool clock. A real swimmer would never use a watch in training and even though I am a triathlete these days, my original blood is from swimming. During open water training, I use a GPS watch, but mainly to see whether I swam straight or not.
ST: You seemed aware that it was close when you approached the steps. What went through your head?
Jan: I had no idea, absolutely none. I was also intentionally breathing to the right side, so that I could not see anything of what was happening on the pier. I did not want to be distracted. I knew I had to give it all until the line.
ST: At the steps you looked completely spent. Is that an accurate description?
Jan: I stumbled up the steps, all my blood was in my upper and my feet did not really work yet. I was fully spent. I sprinted in the end, I gave it all, 100%. I actually threw up in the change tent, feeling sick. I can tell you, it was so nice to finally sit on the bike and relax a bit.
ST: When did you realize you had broken Lars Jorgensen’s time from 1998?*
Jan: There was a German TV crew and a couple of friends of mine at the swim exit and they went nuts when I turned around. I knew immediately there and then.
ST: Your 46:50 in 2003 came close, but Lars Jorgensen had a 46:44.
Jan: Well, I now know how it feels so close to his record – on both sides. I pick the south side, though.
ST: What did you do differently this year to get ready for Kona, and specifically for the swim?
Jan: I did a normal triathlon season until the end of July. Pretty balanced training, probably 50% of my training time cycling, 25% running, 25% swimming. I had some good Olympic distance races, did a 1:57 at the Hamburg ITU triathlon. Those times were almost as fast as 15 years ago when I raced pro. Then, on August 1, I switched to 90% swimming and one run and one bike training per week. I went on two 10-day training camps, in August and in September, and swam 60-70k per week. The hardest part was the recovery times. It takes forever when you’re 43, I could not believe it! Thanks to my head coach and my swim coach, we trained very smart, and this was another key for success. There were so many other things we focused on, and during race week, experience was absolutely crucial.
ST: Describe for us what one of these hard sessions looked like.
Jan: I give you one secret. In order to swim a fast time in an Ironman swim, you need to get your 400m intervals right in training. Not the 100m, or the 200m, or the 800m, it is the 400m intervals that will put you in the best condition. Basically you can simulate the race intensity of an IM swim best with 400m intervals at race pace or a bit faster. My standard set for the 5 weeks leading up to Kona every Monday was 10x400. Rest 45 seconds to 1 minute, as you need to be somewhat fresh to keep the pace up, so that’s why the rest time is a bit longer than what you would expect. In the end, I averaged slightly under 4:40 minutes per 400 – so a little bit under a 1:10 average. In Kona, the average was pretty much exactly 1:12/100. The set is nothing fancy, but it’s an honest set that tells you where you are. No paddles, no pull buoy, no fins, very important.
ST: Where did you qualify and what time did you swim there?
Jan: I qualified at 70.3 Xiamen in China last November and I swam 19:06 there. Needless to say, the current was in our favor.
ST: What do you think about the time Lucy Charles posted?
Jan: I can tell you, I was a bit scared before the race that she might even be faster than me, this girl knows how to swim! We briefly met after the race, I congratulated her and we took a selfie. She’s a fantastic swimmer and triathlete!
ST: She appears to have a very fast arm turnover.
Jan: Swim styles vary, what works for one athlete does not work for the other. My turnover is much slower, but I also swim with a lot more specific swim power under water. You can substitute power for turnover, but when you do this and lose your turnover on the way home, you will lose substantial amounts of time.
ST: What will it take to crack her time?
Jan: The conditions were so good, her abilities in the water are so outstanding, and it will take some time until the stars align again. At the moment I believe only she can break it again herself.
ST: Josh Amberger and Lucy Charles both did the Ho’Ala open water swim the weekend before the World Championships. Did that interest you, or were you content waiting for the main event?
Jan: On that Saturday I was not even on the island yet, and it really did not interest me. Patrick then told me that it was somewhat chaotic, thus it was a correct decision.
ST: What is next for you?
Jan Managing Patrick’s amazing second victory! When I turned on my phone after the finish line, I found 37 text messages, 234 emails, and 666 WhatsApp messages. I took a screenshot and started to work. I am on the plane to Germany as we speak. Patrick will appear on 6-8 TV shows during the next few days, and I will be with him at all times. In November, I will take a week of vacation.
ST: Anything else we should know?
Jan: I would like to send a message to everyone who reads this far.
First, a huge thank you to the entire team that helped me make this dream come true, I could not have done it without you.
Second, this record performance marked the end of a 2 year project. It’s been the toughest project of my life so far, managing my company, Sailfish, managing Patrick, getting my training done, coping with never-ending back problems and setbacks, and trying to have a private life as well – all at the same time. The doubts were there, always. But I never stopped believing.
Don’t you ever give up out there. Believe in your dreams!