After heroically placing 5th in his first crack at Ironman Hawaii in 2009 – despite racing with a broken hand – Rasmus Henning seemed to be on the fast track for the Kona podium – or the win. Then last year at the Ironman World Championship he got caught behind some paddlers at the start of the swim, fell back on the bike and run and never cracked the top 20.
That was followed by mysteriously ferocious cramps that forced Henning out of the Abu Dhabi International this March. Suddenly the can’t miss Dane was off the tracks and off the radar as Andreas Raelert, Marino Vanhoenacker and the likes of Eneko Llanos were in the spotlight as Kona contenders. While he carefully recovered to take runner-up finishes at California and Texas 70.3s and won a smaller Challenge half Ironman distance race in Buenaventura Spain, Henning’s stock dropped again when forced to withdraw from the Challenge Aarhus half in Denmark with a recurrence of the mysterious super cramps that have so far defied solution.
Wax this a sign that the once formidable Olympian and two-time Hy-Vee winner and sub 8-hour winner of Challenge Roth was on the downslide of a once shining career?
Through it all Rasmus Henning moved forward, switching from his longtime Danish coach to San Francisco based Matt Dixon – the man who guided Chris Lieto to 2nd in 2009 -- and put together an impressive, dominating win at Timberman 70.3.
The question remains – is Rasmus Henning back to fulfill his bright promise and have the race at Kona he is capable of? First, he will take on the latest, non-drafting incarnation of Hy-Vee and its million dollar purse for a nice speed workout before heading for his latest appointment with destiny on the Queen K.
Slowtwitch: After your second attack of a mysterious and painful cramps, you had a moment when things seemed unsolvable, a solution unclear. What was it like?
Rasmus Henning: I had a very rough month in March when I had to pull out of Abu Dhabi with a painful cramp unlike anything I had experienced before. This was a big shock to me. To tell the truth, I wish I had been working with my mental coach and we had been dealing with this in proper therapy. After a while, we realized this did affect me more deeply than I thought. Because I was afraid this would be a recurring thing and possibly I could not ever again race as I once had. I was worried that this would happen every time.
Q Who is your mental coach?
Rasmus: His name is Ulrich Ghisler. He is Danish and we have been working together since 2003.
ST: What did he think the problem was?
Rasmus: We think the problem I have been having was that I haven’t been working enough with him over the last couple of years. We have done a lot since and I think if I had been working closer with him the last few months he would have helped me. That is one of the mistakes I made. I didn’t realize early enough I needed to get him more in the picture and I needed to get him to help me focus on all the things I was trying to do.
ST: You seemed to recover well enough?
Rasmus: I did my next race in 70.3 California. This went well until the end. It was fun. But I’m gonna pay Andy Potts back at Timberman next month. [He did]
But back then I was unsure about the future. I wondered, Could I even plan for the future?
ST: You have a lot of momentum of having a carefully crafted career, done with intelligence, few injuries and great results. Did that increase your anxiety dealing with a mysterious problem?
Rasmus: This was no regular injury. You are used to dealing with that. But you know how to deal with it. You know what it is and what you have to do to fix it. Injuries are never fun. This is very hard mentally – but you can treat it. But these cramps were totally inexplicable. I was talking to all the competent people I had in my network and nobody seemed to know anything about it. The only thing that we knew was we found some other athletes who had it. But they never found out what it was and so they couldn’t help us.
ST: What happened to the people who had the same injury?
Rasmus: In some cases the problem disappeared. In others nothing helped. My problem was it never happened in training. It was something specific to the race situation. When it happened in Abu Dhabi, I went out and tried to get it checked properly.
ST: What muscle was affected?
Rasmus: The Vastus Lateralis. [the most lateral (outer) of the four quadricep muscles and is felt on the outside top of the thigh.
ST: When the doctors looked at the MRI, what did they find?
Rasmus: I saw a professor in Europe and had him take a look. We could see on the MRI scan the whole area where the cramp was, was damaged. It was not a usual cramp, believe me. It feels like it is tearing your leg apart. You could see lesions on the MRI. It was pretty harsh. And we made some modest adjustments and afterward I had some decent races.
ST: But not your best?
Rasmus: I started my season back with two 2nd place finishes – the California 70.3 behind Andy Potts and the Texas 70.3 behind Chris Lieto were OK races. But they weren’t great performances on my part. If I had a great day I believe I would have beaten Andy and I also believe I would have beaten Lieto in Texas too. Then I won the Challenge Buenaventura half Ironman distance event pretty comfortably. I felt pretty good that day, better than those two second places. I think could have won by quite a lot. Then this happened again in August at the Challenge Aarhus half Ironman distance.
ST: Was that scary or just frustrating?
Rasmus: Obviously it was frustrating again. Before I could say I have been doing well. But now I have to get this looked after.
ST: What was the process of examining the injury?
Rasmus: We have looked at it thoroughly but we have been unable to find factors that were present in only a those two races and none of the others. At Abu Dhabi, the water was relatively cold. But the water in California was colder than any other race and things were fine there. Aarhus was a wetsuit swim as well, but not as cold as California.
ST: Has something like this ever happened previously?
Rasmus: No, never.
ST: Describe the ferocity of the pain.
Rasmus: It was so painful. When I got off my bike , the knee was locked, and I needed a medical assistant to move. Just trying to get in and out of the ambulance was extremely painful. I couldn’t lift it or move it or anything. It took 2 or 3 hours before it started to release – with the help of somebody else. Finally I got somebody to sit on my foot for a few minutes and then we moved it. The whole process took 3-4 hours before I was able to move it and move around and make a little progress walking. Then for 2 or 3 days more, when I walked down stairs I would cramp again.
ST: What does it do mechanically?
Rasmus: It is just the whole leg stretches and locks. I had no movement in my knee. In Abu Dhabi I thought to get on the bike and spin for about a kilometer or so to loosen it up. A regular cramp, if I did that, it would release. At that point I didn’t know how serious it was. At that point I thought it was just a heavy regular cramp.
ST: Did the thought cross your mind maybe this won’t go away? Or that maybe this was linked to your psyche and worries about your future?
Rasmus: I am not a very spiritual or religious person. I don’t believe in anything like that. I saw my injury as only vulnerable to racing. Of course you are more liable to injury if you are under mental stress. Then again, there was nothing special about those two races. I wasn’t under any special stress at all. I was feeling confident, relatively good and relaxed. I think I know myself well enough in a career of 13-14 years, I’m not going to crack like that. At Hawaii last year, afterwards I could see I was not where I needed to be.
ST: What were the details of your uncharacteristically poor performance in Hawaii last year? I know you don’t want to offer excuses. But what were the factors?
Rasmus: The main factor was I had been way too busy over a long period of time. My problem was I didn't realize this until I was in the middle of the race. After the race I saw a more complete picture.
ST: What happened on the swim?
Rasmus: I got behind a couple of paddle boarders and they didn’t get out of the way and I had to swim my way around and through.
ST: Ironman is an energy equation and this used up a lot of unnecessary energy early – as well as losing position?
Rasmus: It was more a mental thing. Physically I was relatively OK. I wasn’t in the very best shape but I should have been able to do well again. Physically I was ready to finish 5th through 10th, but mentally I was fragile. Then when things fell apart at the beginning with those paddle boarders, I just went Boom!
ST: One of choices you made was to work with Matt Dixon as your coach. How did that come about? Why did you choose him?
Rasmus: That choice didn't really have anything to do with the cramps. It just came to a point after having been away from my Danish coach as well, I needed some fresh air. I needed some new eyes, some new ears to listen to me.
ST: What did you look for in your search for a new coach?
Rasmus: I searched around for information and talked to people in the business about this and talked to some coaches I found interesting. I must say I was very impressed with all of them. All the ones I talked to, I could safely have gone with any of them. Out of those I found that Matt’s personal involvement and his seriousness and also his excitement about working with me really came across. I could just feel from talking with him this would work out very well.
ST: Was anyone’s word or advice crucial to your choice?
Rasmus: I didn't talk to any of his athletes. But just people outside of his group of athletes. Several people mentioned him. I plan to go to his place after Timberman before I go to Des Moines for Hy-Vee. [Which he did after his dominating win]. This is the first time I will ever see him in person. But we talked a lot on Skype and in emails.
ST: How will Hy-Vee will be different as a non drafting race?
Rasmus: It will be different – not a huge ITU field, it will be a smaller field and not too many of those will contend, so it will be like those Life Time Fitness races. I guess there will still be 10 or so guys in contention for the win.
ST: This involved some change in your schedule.
Rasmus: I wanted to go do that race when I saw it was on and get one of those wild cards. At first they said no.
ST: But you are a two-time champion!
Rasmus: Then they turned around and eventually let me in. Actually I had changed all my plans when I decided it meant made good sense. It will be worth doing it also to go see Matt between if I had only done Timberman I wouldn’t have gone to San Francisco. Since then I have done a lot of talking with Matt.
ST: How sharp have you been recently when healthy?
Rasmus: It is difficult to say. I haven’t had an uninterrupted period of training and this I haven’t yet stepped up to any super high level. The one race I was aiming for was Abu Dhabi. I was very fit and would have been the fighting it out for the win. But I am in a pretty good place now.
ST: Whatever happens now, you will have had a very good career no matter what. What significance do you place in Hawaii now after two races – one OK 5th for an injured man and the other very disappointing mid pro pack?
Rasmus: Kona hasn’t been that easy for many people. Most people have paid their dues there and it has taken almost everyone quite a while to get it right. I’m no different in that respect.
ST: It is quite discouraging. Were you tempted to say the hell with it?
Rasmus: Initially after what happened last year I was sick and tired of Hawaii. I didn't feel like coming back. It took some months to get to the point where I said ‘OK I want to come back to Hawaii.’ But since I came to that point, I went through a lot of mental work as well to change my perception of Kona being the bad guy that has caused me a lot of frustration to something I really wanted to do again. I am happy I was able to turn that around to something I really, really wanted to come back to.