Ben Hoffman won IRONMAN South Africa in 2016 and 2017 but in 2018 he struggled to finish that race after he injured himself in the Absa Cape Epic MTB stage race in South Africa a couple weeks earlier. For those unfamiliar with Cape Epic - it is an 8 stage MTB race for teams of two and covers over 435 miles. The partner for Ben Hoffman was Sebastian Kienle and these two triathletes competed for the IRONMAN Foundation.
We chatted with Ben Hoffman about this race, Sebastian Kienle, IRONMAN South Africa, bacon and much more.
Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time Ben.
Ben Hoffman: Always a pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity to be back on here.
ST: What are you getting ready for as we speak?
Ben: I’m currently getting myself back to full health, and then looking to do a handful of races over the summer before getting ready for Kona. I suffered some setbacks in South Africa, so it’s been a little time away from the normal training schedule to reset and get strong again. We are still in Tucson at the moment, but the temperatures are climbing and we are packing up soon to head north and base in Boulder for the summer.
ST: How soon is soon, and how long will you stay in Boulder?
Ben: We will leave this weekend, break up the drive with a stop in Santa Fe to see my coach, Ryan Bolton. I’ll train in Boulder until the end of August, then return to Tucson for my final Kona prep in the heat.
ST: I think you last race was IRONMAN South Africa, a race you won in 2016 and 2017. This year however it did not go as well.
Ben: Definitely not the start to my season that I was training and planning for, but hoping it will be a silver lining come October. With the injury to my back that I sustained in the Cape Epic, I wasn’t able to run for a couple weeks leading into the race, and obviously wasn’t able to run during the Ironman. I hoped for a miracle on race day, but from the first steps when we ran into the ocean for the swim, I could tell it probably wasn’t going to happen. In the end, I gave my best effort on the day, and I wanted to respect the community of Port Elizabeth and all the competitors on course who make that race so special by finishing. I also know that nothing is guaranteed in an Ironman, so I wanted to make sure I finished and ticked the Kona box in case it took a while to heal and another race wasn’t possible before Hawaii. I put in some great training over the winter and early spring, and that won’t be lost entirely, and I’m hoping the forced break will be good mentally and physically.
ST: You seemed enthusiastic and hopeful before the race.
Ben: I put on a brave face after Cape Epic and tried to remain optimistic. The first week I was slow to bounce back, and even though the body was not 100%, I didn’t realize the extent of my injuries until probably 6 days after the Epic when I began to introduce harder running again. I know from experience that being really negative doesn’t do much to influence positive outcomes, so I did my best to believe in my ability to win even with the issues I was having. I don’t like setting myself up for failure by listing all the reasons that things won’t go well on race day and making excuses before a race even happens, so I practiced staying positive and believing I could surprise myself even with an imperfect lead up. I believe that when you make the decision to race, you have to be all in and fully committed, and my fitness was still high going in.
ST: How much time did you spend there this time around and how did that compare to previous years?
Ben: I went over a little less than a week before the Cape Epic kicked off, so after staying through for the Ironman, it was about 5-6 weeks total. In years past we have arrived 5-6 days before the race, and then stayed on for some vacation and made it about a 2-week trip. Having a lot of good connections in Stellenbosch and loving our previous trips to South Africa, get a little more immersed in the day to day living over there. It really didn’t make sense to fly all the way home and then back again between the races, so we decided to stay and try something new. I enjoyed the training in Stellenbosch and see why it has been and continues to be popular with many top level pros.
ST: Was Cape Epic your first MTB stage race?
Ben: It was. Probably not a lot of people know it, but I did race bikes early in my triathlon career when I was on the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory cycling team while living in Durango, Colorado. I can even claim Ned Overend as a teammate, even though I was never better than Cat 2 on the road. Back to your question, I have never raced my MTB other than for a one-day multisport event, so this was completely new to me. The longest road cycling stage race I did was 3 days, and that was a long time ago.
ST: I think someone from the IRONMAN Foundation initially approached you about it. Had that event even been on your radar before?
Ben: Not long after Kona last year, I received an email from the IRONMAN Foundation while I was still getting ready for Maui XTERRA Worlds, and it really wasn’t on my radar before that point. Of course I knew about the event from people who raced it or just talked about it, but I always thought of these kind of events as things I would do when my professional triathlon career was finished. To have the opportunity to race it with good support and for a good cause was enough to convince me to give it a try. After 12 professional seasons, and feeling that I needed to try something different both for the mental and physical stimulus, this seemed like a good fit.
ST: Was Sebastian Kienle chosen for you as a teammate or did you choose him?
Ben: Since I was the first one to be contacted, I wrote back expressing my interest and asking if they had any ideas for my partner. In my mind, Sebi was the only choice since I knew he would make a great teammate, and when they wrote back saying he was the one they were thinking, I said I’ll commit if he does. Sebi and I have trained a bit together and I know he has a passion for mountain biking, as well as the right demeanor for a race like this. It’s essential to have the right person as a teammate for that event, and I think we did quite well since we are still friends post-race!
ST: How many bikes did you take to South Africa and how did you manage all that?
Ben: I only took two bikes, the S-Works Epic 29er, and my Shiv Tri. I spend a lot of time on a road bike, but bringing 3 bikes would have been overkill, and probably pretty expensive. With the need for different gear in both races, I’ve never traveled with that much luggage before, so it was a little challenging shuffling it all around during our stay. Good thing my wife is an awesome sherpa, among other things.
ST: In triathlon that type of team format is very foreign. How did you like it and would you do something else along those lines?
Ben: I really thought the team dynamic was refreshing and engaging, and I enjoyed the change of pace. It was nice to have someone to discuss the tactics, lean on when I was struggling, and to share the investment of energy in a different way than I’ve become used to. It took me outside my self-involved world for a little bit and held me accountable in a different way. I grew up playing team sports through my high school years, so it was good to get back to that dynamic.
ST: I followed the race and it seemed you both were struggling with stomach issues pretty much the whole time.
Ben: Yeah, we both caught some kind of bug before the race even started, and it really didn’t leave my system until I could finally rest for a few days after the race. I don’t think it hit Sebi quite as bad, but I was really struggling on some of the stages, and it just felt like a bad dream. The race was hard enough without that element, but it doesn’t wait for you to get better, so you just have to deal the best way possible. A large portion of the field also had issues, so we weren’t unique in that regard.
ST: If you had been fully healthy how much better do you think you could have possibly done?
Ben: I think for the people that followed our race, they might not have understood why we were in 25th place when they are used to us performing much better on the triathlon circuit, but I was really proud of our performance. Considering it isn’t our speciality, we both had stomach issues, we started 5 minutes behind the UCI pros every day, and they are really good at what they do, finishing basically mid-pack of the 48 pro teams that started was pretty good. Without the sickness, maybe we would have improved a few spots and enjoyed it a bit more, but I don’t think we would have been anywhere near the top teams.
ST: For those folks not familiar with mountain bike racing, could you maybe describe the speed and skills of the teams that were battling for the podium.
Ben: It’s really hard to explain just how good these guys (and gals) are. The confidence and skill they have in loose corners, technical descents, and of course the incredible aerobic strength they have, is simply on another level from us. Maybe a close comparison would be to have the best triathlon swimmer take on a top level Olympic swimmer. They are going to be much better at the specific single sport they do. I really can’t overstate how punishing and challenging the race is, and I have total respect for the top pros and anyone who completes it.
ST: Since you mentioned swimming, we would love to hear how much you swim during a typical training week, and would love for you to describe one of the harder workouts you do in the pool.
Ben: I rely on group swimming for a lot of my pool time, swimming with a strong masters program in Tucson (Ford Aquatics), and jumping in with a couple different clubs in Boulder. I’ve always thrived in the group setting and get more out of myself when pushing hard with others in the water. Typical training weeks have me swimming 6 times, around 24-26,000 yards. A typical harder set I do looks like:
8 x 50 drill (15)
20 x 200
1-5 (Free) at Threshold (10)
6-10 (Pull) Moderate (15)
11-15 (I.M.) Moderate (15)
16-20 (Free) at Threshold (10)
3 x 300 Pull (15)
200 C.D. (Choice)
ST: Back to IRONMAN South Africa, when did it come unhinged?
Ben: The initial cause of my injury was a crash I had in the Cape Epic, but my inability to fully heal between the events meant that I toed the line in in a suboptimal state. Still, I managed a decent swim, strong bike, and then about a kilometer into the run I knew my dreams of winning the race were over. If I’m completely honest, part of things coming unhinged was how I handled myself between the races, as I’m really not used to being injured and it was a tough learning process both physically and mentally. I’m not saying I could have done a lot more between the races to improve my condition, but there were some pity parties thrown, and that really doesn’t accomplish much.
ST: Did you consider pulling the plug?
Ben: Absolutely. Many times I was tempted to stop and call it a day, both out of concern for my health and general disappointment, but I think I have only DNF’ed a couple times in my career, and it’s a terrible feeling. In the end, I decided that the time would pass whether I was sitting in the hotel room feeling bad for myself, or if I was hobbling along with the other athletes on course, so I kept on going. It definitely gives me new respect for anyone who keeps on going and finishes. A sub 8-hour race is probably easier in some ways than spending 12-17 hours out there. When I got through the first 10k in close to 2 hours, I could barely fathom doing 3 more like that. It was pretty rough.
ST: What lessons did you learn?
Ben: This has been the longest lasting injury of my career, so I’m still learning, but I realize that we didn’t have the proper team in place to diagnose and address the situation immediately, mostly because I’ve been really healthy and resilient in my career thus far. Part of this was being in a foreign country, but instead of having it at my disposal and ready to go, I was scrambling a little to get treatment when it hit. I’m also learning to be better with handling adversity, and appreciate how well things have gone for me in most of my Ironman builds. I’m reminded that having one clear goal with a narrow focus is essential for success, and that I probably will save any other non-triathlon events for after my professional career. Finally, I’m learning that my entire preventative care protocol needs some revamping and tuning as I enter this stage of my competitive life.
ST: Anything else we should know?
Ben: Two things. I’m not done fighting to win Kona or done believing I can win it, and I will do everything in my power to be as prepared as possible in October. Also, I always want to take a moment to acknowledge the people who support my career and make this passion of mine possible. Thanks to all my family, friends, fans, and incredible sponsors: Zoot Sports, Bahrain Endurance, Specialized, CLIF, Cercacor, Ice Friction, Infinite Monkey Theorem Wines, Tender Belly, Theragun, Rapid Reboot, and Oakley.
ST: Oh my I love Tender Belly, and I am pretty sure many pros and age groupers are envious and happy for you having that sponsor.
Ben: It’s the best in the business and an important part of recovery. If you haven’t tried it yet, I highly recommend a visit to their site.
ST: I think I held you hostage long enough. Best of luck and get healthy soon.
Ben: Thanks again for the opportunity and best of luck to everyone out there this season.
You can follow Ben Hoffman on Instagram via @bhoffmanracing