At age 24, Rudy Von Berg seems to be on track to fulfill his triathlon dreams. And on course to match the big dreams his father holds for him.
Back at Colorado University, he won USA Triathlon Collegiate National titles in 2014 and 2015. Since then he had 10 professional podiums, but this year he broke through to the upper levels of 70.3 racing. He ended Jesse Thomas’ 6-race win streak at Wildflower, scored a hard-fought victory at the Ironman 70.3 European Championship at Elsinore, and one week later he followed with a fast and well-paced second place to superstar Lionel Sanders at Ironman 70.3 Mont Tremblant.
It has been these three races, guided by new coach Luc Van Lierde, that lend credence to the senior Rodolphe Von Berg’s belief that his namesake son is destined for triathlon stardom at the highest level.
Slowtwitch: Was Elsinore was your breakthrough win?
Rudy Von Berg: Yes I think it was in the sense that it was my first Ironman branded event win, and that it was a high level championship race. It wasn’t a breakthrough in the sense that I knew I had that type of performance in me, but obviously the hard part is actually doing it.
ST: Several people wondered how you were able to react to getting passed by Adam Bowden on the run at Elsinore - he of the 1:10 half marathon splits – then fall 20 seconds behind. Then rejoining him at the front and sprinting away at the end.
Rudy: I knew he was a great runner, so I put in two long surges on the bike to try to drop him. The second one stuck. I started the run with a 1:50 advantage on him. Not that much on a proven 1:09 70.3 half marathon runner! I was running well, but he still caught me after about 9 or 10km. He must have run a mid-32 minutes first 10km, because I did 34:25.
ST: How did you calibrate your effort in response to Bowden?
We ran about 2km together but then it was a little too much for me, so I had to let him go. His pace was still really fast and although I ran with him for 2km, that pace wasn’t sustainable. I had to let him go to regain some strength. But I never really lost hope, it was a mental game. I kept telling myself that I could still win. It is so easy to settle for second. Second would have been a great result for me too! But the win was right there and I refused to settle. Only the win really counts.
ST: How did you grind your way back to the front?
Rudy: I managed to accelerate when he slowed down. I was still running well, and he wasn’t gaining that much – only a handful of seconds per kilometer and went up to twenty seconds around 14-15 km into the run. I then started giving everything I had to regain a few seconds every km. At 19km I caught him and I was able to lift the pace even more as I passed him and hold strong for the last 2 kilometers. So it wasn’t exactly a finish line sprint.
ST: Was he worn out from trying to stay with you on the bike leg and then by running you down?
Rudy: Clearly he must have been! Half Ironmans are hard. The race is very physical, but very mental too. When he passed me, he maybe thought he had it. When he saw that I caught back up to him, my guess is that in his head things were over, especially that he was fading and I was making a winning move.
ST: What led you to sign on with Luc Van Lierde as coach? When you met, what did you think about him?
Rudy: I’ve known about Luc for many years (my dad knew him in in his racing days) and I know athletes that are coached by him [Frederik Van Lierde, Will Clarke, Romain Guillaume, Martijn Dekker, Michelle Vesterby, Saleta Castro and Alexandra Tondeur]. So at the end of 2017 I decided to talk to him. I contacted four coaches total, but Luc came out on top. I liked his scientific approach to coaching, and his very periodized approach to the main focus races of the season. I wanted to give myself a chance with that approach to have breakout performances.
ST: When you met, what did he think about you?
Rudy: You’ll have to ask him that question! I think he saw that I was a motivated young individual that already had some solid results in the half distance, but most importantly he saw that there was a lot of space to improve and that he could be a strong added value for me.
ST: How did he make the biggest improvement on you?
Rudy: After some testing, we determined that I had to work on my bike first before the run, so I’ve been improving the most on the bike. In my very first 70.3 in 2015, I ran a 1:13, but I lost 5 minutes on the bike. That scenario more or less repeated itself against the best 70.3 racers so it was clear I had to work on my bike first.
ST: How has your switch to Colnago helped your cycling?
Rudy: It’s been great working with the guys at Colnago, and riding their new TT bike. Their new bike the K-one has helped me very simply because it is fast! Also, I have been able to really work on my position which has helped a lot thanks to the high adjustability of the front end of the bike. That is something that is a great advantage compared to my previous bike. I am able to use any extensions and arm cups on the market, as well as a tilt for the aerobars and cups, which helps a lot to work on the most aerodynamic position I can get.
ST: How was Luc different from your earlier coaches who included Simon Lessing?
Rudy: The training is very different. There is a lot of base training, and not that much intensity, which is different than what I’ve been doing for many years. It’s been different because I really had to identify two peak weeks (maximum a span of 2 weeks) for the entire season where we would really work on getting there in my best shape.
ST: Have you upped your bike mileage this year?
Rudy: Yes my mileage has gone up with Luc. Last year the intensity was very high with relatively low mileage. Now I ride more but with a lower intensity.
ST: Your dad has faith that you will one day win at Kona. Do you believe him now?
Rudy: It’s always been a dream of mine, since my youngest age. I was 5 years old when I watched the race in Kona for the first time, Since then, I’ve been 4 more times. That’s how dreams and passions build in a young kid. I do believe I can win that race one day, but it’s still pretty far off on the map. My dad will always be my number one believer and it’s great to have a dad with so much passion for the sport, as well as my mom who is always there no matter what and has been following the sport for decades now, and my brother and sister that both have done or do triathlon and love the sport as well.
ST: Faith is one thing. But often the best coaches simply remind you of your performances, your marks in training. Does Luc work that way?
Rudy: Not really actually. I don’t really need a coach to fuel my self-belief. I am pretty good at doing that on my own. Luc works hard on giving me the best workouts and the best organization possible. That is enough for me. I know that I am getting a world class program, and he is always available to answer my questions about anything – training, traveling, etcetera related so that’s all I need.
ST: How does Luc coach you when you live in Boulder? Do you plan to stay with him in Belgium for a while?
Rudy: We message or talk through whatsapp. He is very available. I went to Belgium for a few days in January when I started with him, and I’m sure I will go again. I will see him at races too this year.
ST: How was it racing Mont Tremblant one week after your Elsinore win?
Rudy: I have never done two 70.3’s in one week, especially in two different continents and 6 hours of time difference. But it was a little challenge I gave myself. My legs were still hurting, and the jet lag hit me. But overall I was feeling fine.
ST: Have you been fighting any injuries right now?
Rudy: I haven’t had any injury or a niggle this year. Touch wood! I just try to stay on top of it.
ST: How do you stay healthy?
Rudy: My running has had relatively low mileage and intensity so that definitely helps in not getting injured. I try to run when I’m as fresh as I can which helps. I barely ever run off the bike. And as soon as the smallest niggle comes about, I’ll always try to listen to my body and cut a workout short if I need to. I’m not a workout hero. I try to stay on top of everything I can to stay injury free. On the swim and bike I can go as long and as hard as I want without ever getting injured.
ST: What is your goal race now?
Rudy: The next big goal will be 70.3 World Champs in South Africa September 2nd followed by 70.3 Nice two weeks later.
ST:When will the Ironman distance take precedence for you?
Rudy: I will do my first Ironman in two years probably, and start targeting Kona in 3, something like that. Maybe ITU Long Distance World Champs as a stepping stone next year or in two years but we’ll have to see, nothing is decided obviously. I definitely still want to race a lot and discover new races rather than racing just 5 times in a whole year with Ironman racing. I want to race the halves with technical and hilly to very hilly bike courses.
ST: Where does your Mont Tremblant race rank with Elsinore and Wildflower?
Rudy: My Tremblant race was almost as good as Elsinore, it was right up there. My swim wasn't as good as Elsinore, I felt it right away at the start that I didn't have the extra strength in my arms that I had in Elsinore. My wattage was almost identical and both were the highest of the year, and my runs were both by far the fastest of this year (1:12:23 in Elsinore and 1:12:45 in Mt Tremblant but with a hillier run). My legs got very tight and sore in the last 6km of the run in Tremblant, understandably I still had tightness from a week earlier. I wasn't in as good a form for Wildflower, so everything was lower there (power, pace, average heart rate).
ST: How much more do you need to improve?
Rudy: I need to improve to the level where I can win World Championship races, So I still have a fair amount to go. But at least I can somewhat see it happening, at least it is possible. Winning Kona or 70.3 Worlds is extremely hard so I’ll need to improve a lot, but that’s what we all strive for, so why not me, one day.
ST: What does this tell you about your chances at Ironman 70.3 Worlds?
Rudy: I hope to be in the best form of my life, which should be better than the form I had these last two weekends, which should enable me to swim and bike with the best guys and run a 1 hour 11 minutes, which could give me something sweet in the end.
ST: What did you learn about yourself in this race?
Rudy: I learned that racing back to back in two different continents is possible but that the second performance will be at 99% of the first one. Obviously it is extremely important to relax and sleep as much as you can and not train excessively in between the two races.
ST: What did Luc tell you after the race? What did you tell him?
Rudy: He was very happy with the result, and told me that it is now time to rest. He said that I need to lose a little bit of fitness now, in order to build back strong towards Worlds. I told him that I was very happy with my form and this definitely encourages me in working with him.
ST: What inspires you?
Rudy: I am inspired by the fact that life is short and that I don’t want to waste it by not doing anything or by being mediocre. I want to live life, be a winner, achieve personal goals, get things done, and enjoy the world we live in. And I consider myself extremely lucky to even be able to lead that life, because many aren’t so fortunate and live to survive, to get food on their plates, where thankfully, I don’t have to worry about that. Maybe people should think about that a little more, for example when it comes to food waste. Forty percent of all the food in the US every day goes to waste, when millions in this world are dying of hunger. People at their own level, need to try not to waste any food they have at home for example. That’s a first step that we can all do on an individual level.