Any pro who qualifies for Kona these days is a truly accomplished triathlete – and Ben Hoffman was surely one of those with four Ironman wins and six Ironman 70.3 and half Ironman wins to his credit coming into this year’s showdown on the Queen K. But every once in a while at the Ironman World Championship an unexpected star is born who makes the podium ahead of dozens of the triathlon’s royalty who came to the race with greater reputations and more acclaim and more wins outside of Kona. Some of those surprises include Desiree Ficker’s runner-up finish in 2006, then unknown Chrissie Wellington’s win in 2007, Chris Lieto’s duel with Craig Alexander and runner-up finish in 2009, and Luke McKenzie’s well-earned runner-up finish to Frederik Van Lierde last year.
This year’s star-is-born Kona competitor was Ben Hoffman of Boulder, Colorado and Tucson, Arizona who swam 51:20 with the front pack, joined seasoned pros Frederik Van Lierde and Marino Vanhoenacker in a move on the bike (5th best 4:32:20) that put him in the top men chasing Sebastian Kienle at the start of the run. Whereupon he finished with a 6th-best 2:51:25 marathon to take 2nd overall and ahead of such stars as Jan Frodeno, Andy Potts, Frederik Van Lierde, Craig Alexander, Luke McKenzie, Ivan Raña and many more.
Since he turned pro in 2007, Hoffman has made a steady, patient curve of improvement reflected by his 5 previous attempts at Kona – 102nd overall in 2009 in a time of 9:29:54, 53rd overall in 2010 in a time of 9:03:29, a DNF (with faster swim and bike splits) in 2011, 15th in 2013 in a time of 8:36:25. And now this career-best moment, achieved by a combination of patience learned over time and a spark of the moment which inspired him to seize the day midway through Kona’s momentous bike leg.
Slowtwitch: Do you feel you have been underestimated before this race?
Ben Hoffman: To be perfectly honest with you, I feel I have underestimated myself at times. Sebastian Kienle touched on it this week when he said “The top athletes, the elite athletes’ biggest enemy is self-doubt.” Obviously Kona is such a difficult race to figure out. I’ve been here a few times [five] now. But I was 15th at this race last year.
ST: That is very respectable and showed you were on the way up. Was it a stepping stone to putting all the pieces together this year?
Ben: I did go to another level this year.
ST: Do you have a coach?
Ben: I do. His name is Elliot Bassett. He runs a company called Mountain Endurance, based in Missoula, Montana where I went to school. To think about going from 15th to 2nd is a big jump. But I did make progress this year -- for the last few years really – my run especially.
ST: How do you get to this point?
Ben: I believe that success is a function of constantly improving and raising your level of self-belief. And that is what I've been doing my whole career. This year I ran 2:43:59 at Ironman Coeur d’Alene. And I had a tough race there. I had a crash -- I collided with an age grouper and I spent 12 minutes beside the road and then got going again and finished 3rd.[in 8:29:12, 3:28 behind winner Andy Potts] That was a tough day. I also had a couple flats at Oceanside 70.3 [DNF]. I just had one of those years where I got second place to a couple world champions in 70.3s. [2nd to 2007 Ironman 70.3 World Champion Andy Potts at New Orleans and second by .79 of a second at Lake Stevens 70.3 to 2008 Ironman 70.3 World Champion Terenzo Bozzone]. Sure, I had some good races this year. But it felt like there was just like something left to be done.
ST: What led you to feel this way?
Ben: I had taken big steps in my training and racing and I felt like I my best performance was still within me. It turned out that I was ready for a second place performance at the Ironman World Championship. Once I got in a good position in the swim and at the start of the bike, I went to another level.
ST: How did you stay fast and keep your cool under pressure?
Ben: I felt this was such a unique opportunity and such a privilege. You have to wait an entire other year to come back here and try again. Nothing is guaranteed – including a next time. All I knew was, I am in the top five. I am here – and this is the day. So I pushed and I tried and I did everything I could short of catching Sebastian, who was on another level for this race and he is a deserving champion.
ST: You were wearing a coolant collar like Luke McKenzie a few years ago?
Ben: I did a few projects figuring out what I needed to do to have my best race here. Heat is a big enemy of mine. It is something I had to work really hard to overcome.
ST: Is it something in your background? Where you grew up?
Ben: I grew up in Western Colorado. It is very dry - nothing humid. So Kona heat is not something I am terribly used to. So, I spent some time training in Tucson training for the race. That was helpful.
ST: Do you find your performance hard to believe?
Ben: At the end of the day it is a huge step forward for me. It seems surreal. But at the same time, my belief level in myself has gone up so far this year, it isn’t that crazy either. I guess that is the explanation – that I believe much more in myself and I now have an incredible level of confidence.
ST: Some coaches say that if you do the numbers in training, that brings real confidence. I would say that 2:43 marathon in Coeur d’Alene was world class and THAT brought you confidence you could perform on this stage.
Ben: I am not naive enough to believe that a 2:43 in Coeur d’Alene where it is dry is the equivalent of a 2:43 in humid Kona heat. But I did think that a 2:50 marathon at Kona is possible. [He ran 2:51:25]
ST: It depends on the weather and how much energy you expend on the bike.
Ben: Today I played my cards perfectly on the bike. I knew which moves to cover on the way to Hawi and I pushed when I needed to. And then I stayed steady all the way back to town.
ST: Did you have any numbers to back that up?
Ben: My target power in normal days is 290 watts and I went 291. So, it was almost weird how perfectly I did my race. Before the race I said I came here to do my race. There are other athletes out there and you are competing against them. But at the end of the day you are really competing against yourself. I knew what I needed to do and I had my best race today.
ST: You always had a strong bike. But how did you go so fast and remain comfortable enough to have a strong run in reserve?
Ben: I started out the day with a really good swim. I was right where I needed to be out of the water [51:20]. And there was a split in the top swimmers, which surprised me. Conditions weren’t extreme. There was a swell but it wasn’t that bad. I thought that everyone was together. But in the end there were two groups. So it turns out I made the proper choice. The front group was limited to 10 people. The pack was not so big at that point, and so going on to the bike, it prevented some of the yo-yo effect within the front group on the bike that allows for some people to get away.
ST: That helps avoid forming a big group that cannot help but be in danger of drafting?
Sometimes you get the feeling that maybe top athletes don’t get drafting calls. Obviously if Frodeno got a call – he is the Olympic gold medalist – you know the marshals are being strict. And that is what it needs to be. There are reflectors on the road out here [roughly 12-13 meters apart] which is very helpful. I’ve been here before. Every athlete should know where they are. There should be no excuse, honestly. In our pro email, they said ‘Look. There are reflectors on the road. Know the rules. There is no excuse.’ And I agree with that. Maybe sometimes you look down for a moment. But you have to be very attentive here. From what I could tell, the race was raced very fairly. I wasn't looking behind me when I was with guys. So I don’t know if anyone was too close behind me. But when I came in with Frederik, the two of us stayed very safely spaced the entire way. Frederik is very professional.
ST: The race he put together last year was brilliant in its balance.
Ben: Absolutely. He is very much a balanced triathlete. And that was part of what gave me confidence, too. Being with last year’s world champion –I knew he would be making good decisions. He has made a steady progression throughout his career toward the win last year. So I felt very comfortable having an opportunity to ride with him.
ST: Tell me about your feeling of insecurity and how you overcame that feeling today?
Ben: What really started to take over in my mind was the realization that it was an absolute honor to be in that position. I had done the work. I feel like I deserved to be there, given the training that I did and the way that I raced. But it was important to realize that nothing is guaranteed. Especially in Hawaii. Getting here and being healthy to start the race. The number of stories of accidents that happen this final week, or the weeks before, is huge.
ST: What did you tell yourself during the race?
Ben: The overwhelming thought in my head was that this is an absolute opportunity that cannot be passed up. Sebastian [Kienle] was well up the road. But there was nothing stopping m from doing everything I could to get close to him. In the end I did pull back some time at the very end of the marathon. More important, what it did was keep me pushing hard enough to keep the 2008 Olympic champion from passing me for second place. Yep. It was a fantastic day. I am definitely over the moon.
ST: Before this year, how did you look at yourself and your abilities?
Ben: I think my career has been a progression. I started from being a slower swimmer with a very strong bike and an OK run to being a very balanced triathlete. I am a front pack swimmer most of the time, especially in this race. I’ve been very good at swimming well here.
ST: What about the bike?
I think everyone’s bike level has come up. So everyone is good and very few are great. I am OK – very good but not outstanding. And my run has also come up quite a lot. Now I think of myself as being a very balanced triathlete. Which is what you need to be. You don’t have to be the very best at any one thing. But you have to be nearly the best in all of them.
ST: Starky led the bike for a while but did not arrive first in T2 this year. Do you expect more from him in the future?
Ben: Today the bike played out in a weird way. This year Andrew didn’t get away from us. In fact I passed him before Hawi. He is a tremendous talent, but Kona takes time to figure out. This is my 5th time here.
ST: What did you learn about Kona at first? And what did you learn today?
Ben: You learn something every race. The big factors were heat adaptation and this is a big factor for me. And then you realize there are a lot of dynamics on the bike. You really have to be strong and be smart.
ST: You have to have strong instincts. You have it have X-ray eyes and know which moves to cover and which it let go. Can you tell all the difference between these two?
Ben: I am not sure you can. Because you know what? I don't know how everyone’s trained coming into this race every year. I think this year I am probably one of those who gave an unexpected performance. Any year any competitor could be in a place that you don't know about. What you do know is that Kona tends to reward the people who have been here before and done well. Or at least progressed. And I knew that when Marino, who has always ridden well here, and Frederik went -- it was probably a smart move. And so I went with them. Honestly, I told myself before the race that I probably wouldn’t do something like that. But in the moment, I felt good enough and I went and it was the right choice,
Ben: So what does that tell you?
Ben: Next year maybe I wouldn’t make the move. And next year I might be smart by not going. But who knows? Kona is unique.
ST: Sometimes too smart is dumb?
Ben:Yes. Overall I am ecstatic. It was s huge step forward. Now, I wouldn’t say I am cocky. But my confidence level is much higher now.
ST: How will his change your life? Are possibilities opening up?
Ben: I think triathlon is tough. Triathlon is a sport that rewards a very top level group of athletes. Hopefully I am moving to that level. I do make a living I am not complaining. I have chosen to do this and I've never been a guy who complains about what is and what isn’t in this sport about money. But as far as that goes. I hope this would be a stepping stone for me in terms of sponsorship. I have tremendous support as it is.
ST: Who are your sponsors?
Ben: Zoot is definitely a top sponsor. Specialized is also a very big sponsor. And Clif Bar is right up there. I also have a couple of interesting sponsors based in Denver. Tender Belly Bacon, Sport Pump and a few others.
ST: There may be big corporations sponsoring you. But the sponsor game is really about the people and your relationships?
Ben: Yes. But as far as it changing my life, actually that thought crossed my mind today. Kona has the ability, has the power, to change your life. Somebody said that to me before. Especially if you win. But I think even my race today has that ability. So yeah I am looking forward to what the changes are. And my hope is I will be as prepared for those as I was for this race.
Ben: Are you superstitious in any way? Do you have a lucky penny?
Ben: Not really. But I do think that every race is an opportunity to learn something. Unless you win every single race that you do by a very comfortable margin, there is probably a need to be experimenting to some extent. Today was s step in the right direction.
ST: I can only imagine. But watching Frodeno win the Olympics, that charge at the end took a lot of intelligence and the spirit to grasp the moment. And you did that today.
Ben: I race to my very best ability today. Sometimes – I remember what Frederik said after the European Championship in Frankfurt. Kienle won that as well and Frederik said, “I raced an exceptional race today. Kienle raced a better one.” Sometimes that happens. And today I think we saw that Sebastian was a worthy champion who raced a very intelligent and very strong race. I think I was probably not prepared to win the race today. Not that I didn't believe it was a possibility - and not that I didn’t try. But I think when I looked at the way the race played out, I think I emptied the tank. And that is where I stood today.