From Rowing Ace to IRONMAN Champion

Lars Wichert was the top male finisher at IRONMAN Hamburg in 8:12:46, in what was his first triathlon and marathon. The former Olympic German rower is looking now for new adventures and challenges, and clearly he isn't the first rower that has embraced triathlon. Aussie Cameron Wurf is among those who have done that transition.

The time Wichert had for his first IRONMAN is quite impressive and he said himself that he had less lofty goals. His individual splits were 59:50 (swim) 4:11:11 (bike) and 2:54:30 (run). He chatted with us about his rowing past, the Hamburg experience, training, racing, family and much more.

Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time Lars.

Lars Wichert: You are welcome. It’s a pleasure for me and thanks for the invitation.

ST: Just recently you were the top male finisher at IRONMAN Hamburg with a very fast 8:12:46 time and rumor has it that this was your first triathlon and your first marathon. Is that actually correct?

Lars: That is correct, I am a former lightweight rower but that was up until three years ago. Since then I’ve kept myself somewhat fit with sports like MTB and road cycling. I basically did sports that I enjoy. Last December I registered for IRONMAN Hamburg and from April onwards I trained in a fairly structured manner for it. But I knew all three disciplines.

ST: Why triathlon and why now?

Lars: I took up long distance triathlon as my entry point because I enjoy endurance sports. It was a good target to have. Triathlon has always interested me, and I like to ride bicycles, running is a discipline that is easy to train everywhere, and swimming is something challenging.

ST: I think you will fit well into the triathlon world. Most triathletes find swimming challenging.

Lars: Thank you, I think if you did not start swimming at a young age it is not that easy to get the right feeling to grab the water. And unlike cycling and running, swimming has a very technical component. You have to work more on this part especially if you are a bit older. But I came from a technical sport, so I hope that I will find some speed if I work hard on it.

ST: Your fellow German Olympic rower and Silver medal winner Jason Osborne just signed a contract with deceuninck / Quick-Step. Had you considered that athletic direction or other sports too?

Lars: At my age, I think it is a bit late to join professional cycling, because Jason is just younger. In addition, Jason is naturally a bit lighter compared to me, which makes the w/kg ratio better for him. I am someone who can perform at a high level for a long time, but I don’t have the massive power Jason showed to win the Zwift World Championship. I totally miss something like that. That's why I think I'm better off in long-distance triathlon. Until now, I didn't know that such a time was possible for me, so I very much surprised myself. But this now opens up new possibilities and considerations.

ST: Do you use Zwift too, or is all your riding outside?

Lars: During the winter I use Zwift very often and during the Zwift Racing League Season I ride for the CRYO RDT Team in the premier league. In the build-up for the IRONMAN I used it when I could not find some time during the day, so it is perfect to go for a ride in the evening when my kids are in bed.

ST: Going into that IRONMAN Hamburg race, what was your goal for it?

Lars: When I started training in April, I thought a time around 9 hours was possible. 1:15 swimming, 4:30 cycling and 3:15 running. The best-case scenario was maybe an 8:45 and in order to have that time everything had to go right. As the Hamburg race came closer, I adjusted my targeted swim time to 1:05. But I didn't have a clue in terms of a possible running time. I did three long runs in training, but I had no idea how that would translate into a race time, because I've never been in such a situation.

ST: What was the longest running race you did prior to Hamburg and what was your time?

Lars: The longest running race was a self-organized half marathon with group of other athletes in mid-April. My time was 1:11:50 during a normal training block, so there was no special build up for it.

ST: That is a very impressive time. But what about an official running race?

Lars: I did not do any running race in the build-up to the Hamburg IRONMAN. My latest official running race was a 10km in 2016 while rowing training after the Olympics. The only race I had was being on a relay team at the Inferno Triathlon in Thun Switzerland, where I did the 3km swim and 30km MTB.

ST: Hamburg this year had no professional males at the start, and the focus was on professional females. Did that have any impact on your race?

Lars: No, that didn't affect my race because the pros start before the age groups anyway. I had my plan for how I wanted my race to develop and I stayed with that plan. In the end, you would have had a comparison of your time with those of the professionals, but otherwise it had no effect on my race.

ST: The race featured a wave start and did that make it difficult to gather where you were in the race?

Lars: The wave start was good for me for swimming wise, as otherwise I might have had some battling for space with other swimmers. The focus was almost exclusively on my swimming. And after the first round of cycling I got the info where I was. After the first lap it got a bit confusing anyway, because then all age groupers were on the bike course and slow and fast mixed up.

ST: Of the 3 disciplines in triathlon, which one came most naturally to you and which one could see the biggest improvement?

Lars: The most naturally is cycling for me, that’s my strength. And on the other hand I see the biggest improvement at swimming. So the main goal is clear hold the strength of cycling and running and build up the swimming performance.

ST: We are bike geeks, so we want to know about your bike.

Lars: My bike is a TT Fuji Norcom from 2017 with 175mm cranks and a 55 tooth chainring. It is equipped with SRAM Red 11-28 and Edco wheels. I ride Conti GP5000 tubeless tires with 7bar pressure. The fueling system is a Xlab Torpedo.

ST: No power meter?

Lars: I forgot to mention it, I use a Favero Assioma Duo.

ST: What about your weekly training? How was it structured leading up to Hamburg, and what adaptations are you planning to make for the next race?

Lars: The weekly training was structured in low intensity training and medium intensity training. I did much of it in the evening, as it is often impossible to do otherwise with work and family. Before the IRONMAN I was no longer able to stick to the plan 100 percent because I was on vacation with my family, so priorities had to be set. On average, I've been training around 11-hours a week since April. The next step should be that I hire a swimming coach or train with a swimming club, because I was in the water without instruction and see my greatest development potential there.

ST: 11 hours a week seems very low. Clearly it has worked for you here, but do you expect to put in more time?

Lars: Yes, that is a low average and it partially based on the fact that I did not have that much time during the vacation. But I think if I want to develop my time it is necessary to increase the trainings volume. I think the reason why it works for me is, that I have a good steady base because of my long rowing career with a lot of endurance training.

ST: You rowed competitively for many years with several World Championship titles and an Olympic start in London and Rio to your name. When did you start with rowing and what other sports did you do when you were younger?

Lars: I started playing handball when I was three years old. At the age of 10 I started rowing and when the sports collided, I had to decide on one sport, and I stayed with rowing. I also played a lot of soccer in my spare time, went snowboarding in winter and always tried something new when I had the time. At age 21 I joined the U23 national team for the first time and from then on I was an integral part of the national team.

ST: In Rio you rowed in a cox-less lightweight 4 and that category was ended soon after. But you did not only row in that boat. What were the different boat categories you competed in and which one was your favorite?

Lars: When it comes to rowing, a distinction is made between heavyweight and lightweight. A lightweight may weigh a maximum of 72.5 kg and a team boat has an average weight of 70 kg. I always started as a lightweight. I started with sculling and then switched to sweep rowing. I have competed internationally at World Championships, European Championships or World Cups in all boat classes, that means sculling in single, double and also in a quad and sweep rowing in the pair, four and also the eight. All boat classes have their charm, I like the single because you are responsible for yourself there, the blame cannot be shared. Even the four is one of my favorite boat classes, very tight races, a high level of performance and I always found sweep rowing very nice when you get that feeling that you are flying.

ST: Rio was 5 years ago. What have you been doing since that event?

Lars: I rowed for almost 2.5 more years and was part of the national team. In 2017/19 I became a father, which also supported the decision that i would no longer do competitive sports in the direction of the Olympic games in Tokyo. I was still a member of the German Army and had the chance to finish my master's degree in health research. I still need my master’s thesis and then I would have completed my studies.

ST: Is that how you occupy yourself during the day or do you have another day job?

Lars: Besides my studies I am also a rowing coach and I give private lessons. Mostly for talented upcoming rowers who seem to be on the path to join the national team. As you can see, sometimes there isn’t much time for training. My two children still want to have fun with me. From my rowing career I know how to focus completely on the sport. That is now a bit different. I can’t dedicate everything to do my sport.

ST: That is a good perspective. I guess that means no Pro card?

Lars: I can imagine a pro career, but that is something I have to discuss. For me a Pro is not just buying the card, for me it would be a lifestyle. You have to act like a Pro athlete and there comes the part of subordinate things and bring the triathlon back in the full focus. That is something I can imagine because I really love the lifestyle with all good and bad thinks of the high-performance sport, but I really have the passion for it. And in my opinion at age 35 I am not the youngest but maybe someone in the best age. The important part in being a Pro is that I have to earn a bit of money and for that I have to find sponsors who are interested in my story and believe in me.

ST: Talk about your diet please.

Lars: I eat a balanced diet in my everyday life. Nothing special really. I love to cook, which is why there is really variety on the plate and if I feel like it, there is also a piece of chocolate. The week before the Ironman, I made sure that I was consuming good carbs. For example, I had tagliatelle with shrimps and spinach on the Saturday before the race. In the race I worked entirely with liquid food, which works best for me, plus two gels for cycling and running.

ST: Which liquid nutrition do you use?

Lars: In my bottles I used Isostar Endurance because I need a lot of carbs and with the maltodextrin mix it was a real good energy source. I also had some liquid gels form Powerbar in my tri suit.

ST: Is there anything else we should know?

Lars: I very surprised myself what an achievement that was in Hamburg. The spectators at such an event give you great strength and from my point of view races like this are decided in your head. It's about whether you want it more than the others, and the attitude sometimes begins during training. Whether you are ready to go the extra mile if it is necessary. That would be my tip for those who also want to do a triathlon. In the course of the Hawaii qualification, which I will accept, the IRONMAN made me want more, I am of course happy about supporters, maybe things will come.

You can follow Lars Wichert on Instagram via @larwicht

Image 1 © Ruben Best
Images 2 and 4 courtesy Lars Wichert
Image 3 © Jasper Korth
Image 5 © Mirko Boll