The man who came & conquered

German age grouper Tobias Winnemöller has qualified for the Ironman World Championships in Kona several times, but tried his luck at Ultraman instead this year, and with great success. Meet the 2014 Ultraman World Champion.

Slowtwitch: Wow Tobias wow.

Tobias Winnemöller: That’s what I thought – it was a blast! The experience of Ultraman blew me away.

ST: You put on quite a big show in Hawaii.

Tobias: Thank you. I’m entirely thrilled with the way the race went. I’ve done quite some races in the last 14 years but never anything comparable to Ultraman – and I’m really happy that the race went so well for me.

ST: When did you first think about taking part in the Ultraman race?

Tobias: When I started doing triathlon in the winter of 2000/2001 I met Holger Spiegel. He won Ultraman in 1998, setting a new record that is still valid today for this course. As a rookie the distances sounded really crazy to me, but at the same time his stories made me want to experience this race. In the years since I’ve been to Hawaii four times for the Ironman and fell in love with the big island and the idea of circumventing it in a race sounded brilliant

Nevertheless, I almost missed doing the race, since I stopped doing triathlon in 2010. I lost motivation and had the feeling that I needed a break. I focused on running for two years, with the first one being good and the second overshadowed by injuries and repeated colds, bronchitis etc. I restarted triathlon in 2013 and tried to get back to Kona – but I never really got back to the same level of training that I had 2010 and prior. Add some problems like a cold on race day in Nice and stomach issues on the run in Los Cabos and the result are some mediocre race performances.

After Los Cabos I decided to finally do the races that I had always wanted to do and signed up for Embrunman and Ultraman.

ST: Do you think folks do not value Ultraman as much because of what you just said? I know you did not mean that, but basically you could not make it to Kona but did Ultraman and won it?

Tobias: Of course the world’s top athletes are not regularly doing Ultraman, there is no money in it. I think the only IM Hawaii Champion that ever did it has been Scott Molina.

People who are looking for pure performance, nothing else, should watch the top athletes at IM or Olympic distance races. It is highly unlikely to find athletes of that potential at Ultraman. It is a race for amateurs and more a race to be a part of than to watch it.

Regarding my own shape I’m not certain how good it has been this time. I made it to the Kona IM four times. If I put in the necessary training I usually get there – and I really trained a lot in the last 10 weeks before Ultraman. I think I was in round about 9 to 9:10h shape for a fast Ironman, give or take a few minutes. Of course I’m far from world class. If somebody capable of 8:45 or 8:30 would have done it, he would probably have taken the victory. I would have shaken fewer hands and you’d interview somebody else, but it would not have significantly changed my personal race experience.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m super happy that I won it, but winning is not what makes Ultraman so special, I’d even say it’s not what it is about. It is a thrilling, humbling and epic journey around the big island that will confront each participant with unexpected obstacles. Each and every participant does this journey with the help of a team and together with a group of fellow athletes – and at the same time tries to be faster than them. I think that is a wonderful setup.

If people disregard Ultraman because there are no super stars, so be it. But they don’t know what they are missing.

ST: I think people actually do respect the athletes and the distance too. But because folks are not doing it, or have not done it, maybe it is harder to relate.

Tobias: That could well be. It is easier to relate to something that you do yourself. You know how it feels and can value what the other guys are doing. But I think it is good that there is a large variety of different races to choose from. It doesn’t have to be Ironman all the time.

ST: Agreed. But when you got yourself ready for the event, what goals did you set for yourself?

Tobias: My main goal was to finally seriously train again! I applied for Ultraman in April – but ended up on the waiting list. I got the invitation only ten weeks prior to the race and actually had to think if I really wanted to do this. I didn’t train in 4 weeks since Embrunman. My shape in Embrun had not been too great, I was very slow and while I was really glad that I had finally done that race I felt very bad during most of it.

Therefore, I thought that I’d finally have to get some serious training done, if I actually wanted to do the Ultraman! My hope was that ten weeks of really good training would somehow bring me back to the level that I had in 2010. I knew, if I could reach that level, I should have a chance to be far up front in this race. If that would be good for Top 10, Top 5 or even more I didn’t really know.

ST: When did you arrive and who was your crew for the event?

Tobias: I arrived on the Sunday almost 2 weeks before the race and stayed with my friend Tim Wiley, who lives close to Magic Sands. I stayed at his place the first time that I came to Kona in 2005 and did so ever since. My wife and parents unfortunately couldn’t make it to Kona, therefore I asked Tim to crew for me. I knew that I was asking a lot, but was extremely happy when he replied that he’d love to do it. A day or two later he had organized the whole crew, which in the end consisted of Wendy Daniels, Wilfredo Duran (team captain) and Tim himself. Knowing Fredo and Tim in advance gave me a lot of comfort, I knew with those guys it would be a lot of fun. On top they are all athletes themselves and understand an athlete’s needs. All three plus Tim’s family have been fantastic. I had a great time before, during and after the race.

ST: The night before the race how did you feel, and was it any different than before other triathlons you have done?

Tobias: I slept really badly before the race. Even the second last night I woke up and couldn’t fall asleep again, because I started to think about the race. This happened before the first Ironman as well, but ever since I slept really well before races. But this was just different. There was so much more to organize, it made me really nervous. This continued during the race nights, I slept about 4 to 5 hours for 4 nights in a row.

ST: After the first day how did you feel?

Tobias: Surprisingly good. I tried to use my energy wisely, putting in only little effort on fast portions, a little more in the tough sections. The idea was to do as little damage to my legs as possible.

ST: Were you at all sore?

Tobias: Yes, my lower forearms hurt pretty badly from the swim and later on the position on my straight aerobars. The left forearm actually still does and I think it is really weird to do an Ultraman and the only thing that hurts a week after is the forearm! I think I just didn’t do enough swim training and therefore overdid it a little, and ended up with tendonitis in the left forearm. But the legs felt great even after day one, I guess my strategy worked pretty well.

ST: Was the second day the one you looked most forward to?

Tobias: I absolutely did. The course is beautiful, especially the red road from Kalapana to Kapoho, the Hamakua coast and the Kohala mountains. It sounded like a brilliant ride.

ST: How were the conditions during the bike segment?

Tobias: Unfortunately we had a lot of rain on day two. Being on the wet side of the island a little rain had to be expected, but it rained for about 130 miles, partly really heavy rain at Hamakua coast and earlier on when descending from the volcano. Nevertheless the red road and the Kohalas were stunningly beautiful. And the epic rain somehow gave the whole show an even more monumental touch. At the same time the temperatures were still ok. I wore a rain jacket and a vest at the beginning, but for ¾ of the race I wore just normal cycling clothes plus knee warmers and didn’t feel cold at all.

The bigger problem was my stomach. I caught some stomach bug during race week. The day before the race I felt ok again, same for race day 1. But I woke up with really bad problems on day 2. I took an Imodium and tried to do the whole race on Gatorade and bananas from then on, instead of my usual diet of gel, water and Coke. I thought bananas would help and Gatorade has more electrolytes than Coke or water. I didn’t dare to drink and eat a lot at first though and after two hours completely bonked down on red road. I had to stop and thought: “Ok, I’ll drink half a bottle of Gatorade, eat a banana and a gel, and if I don’t feel the energy coming back in 5 minutes, I’ll have to drop out.” Luckily it came back.

ST: Before the final day you looked at an almost an hour disadvantage. How did Craig Percival look when he started the run?

Tobias: He made a really strong impression. At the same time I knew he was a little worried about day three, given that his strengths are swimming and biking. At the same time I was kind of uncertain about my own strength. My legs still felt really well, but my stomach was rebelling like it did on day two. I decided to use the same nutrition strategy as the day before and hoped for the best, but I knew that I would once again start with a pretty much empty tank. On top I had never done a run even remotely as far as the upcoming double marathon, which gave Craig an advantage. I just wanted to head out at my own pace and see what that was good for.

ST: Your 6:41:58 run was awesome and meant 3 of you finished very closely at the end.

Tobias: I don’t know if the run was that awesome, it felt really bad. After the first two days the legs didn’t feel that bad, but when we ran up the hill behind Kawaihae to climb up to the Queen K I felt those long first two days. For a while I still felt pretty good, but from about mile 31 or 32 onwards I was really tired. I was fading, but tried to do that as slowly as possible. My team reduced the distance from one refueling to the other and I just tried to run to the FREDOS / MY TEAMS red truck whenever I saw it. That somehow kept me going.

At the same time I knew that I had a good chance to win this race. From about the halfway point onwards, Jochen Dembeck, who had to drop out on day three because of even worse stomach problems, informed me about the gap to Craig. It was a huge motivation to run for the victory. Somehow I managed to keep it up and when I crossed the finish line I was pretty certain that I should have won it. But we had to wait and Craig managed to do a really good run and came closer than I thought he would. Considering that he missed the first turn on day 2, the race would have been even closer without that mishap. But that’s just how it is - every single competitor had to overcome unexpected obstacles in these three days.

ST: Did you exchange any words with Craig Percival?

Tobias: We chatted a little before and after the stages and he came over to me after day three when I was being massaged. He congratulated and I said that I felt a little sorry for him. But he said that I just did what I had to do. He’s a great guy, real sportsman.

ST: What about O’Keefe? Did you feel his presence?

Tobias: He headed out with the fastest runner, Miro Kregar, on day 3 at an insane pace. I saw them only for the first few minutes. Then they disappeared in the dark. I overtook him shortly after the first marathon and was able to drop him, but later on I suddenly saw his crew pulling up in front of me again. That was somehow nice, since they were cheering me on, as they did on the first two days, but at the same time I thought that he was gaining on me and that he was one more reason why I was not allowed to really fade.

ST: When you approached the line, what went through your mind?

Tobias: I just thought: “Finally I can stop running!” It was so good to be done. I had never been this tired in my life. The left calf had been repeatedly cramping on the second half of the run, especially uphill. Every part of my body hurt and I just didn’t want to move anymore.

At the same time I was really proud of what I had done, I knew I had given every last bit of energy that I had to give. No matter if I had been in better shape in the past, or if Craig would be quicker or not - I had given it everything I had – and that felt really good.

ST: How did you celebrate the win?

Tobias: The first day I was too tired to celebrate a lot. I hung out with my Hawaii family, how I call the Wiley’s now. They made me feel so welcome and it felt like the right thing to do. The day after the race we went to the awards party, talked to all the other people, the whole Ultraman family. It was a very nice ceremony at the Luau at King Kam that fit the whole spirit of this race – aloha, ohana, kokua – love, family, help. We exchanged our stories and everyone had a good time.

Afterwards we went to a bar downtown, had a few beers and that was it.

ST: No big party at Huggo’s?

Tobias: I think we were too tired. No, the beers with friends were exactly the right way to finish up the event. A day later we went swimming at the city of refuge with a few people and afterwards outrigger paddling with a whole bunch of Ultraman athletes, crews and organizers. That was the last and final event of the Ultraman 2014.

ST: What about media fanfare when you returned home?

Tobias: Some local newspapers were interested and I’ll visit your German colleagues at for their web TV show on Friday. Other than that it was quite weird to read your own name in an article on “another German victory in Kona” -

ST: Where will you find a place for the great award?

Tobias: We are thinking about it. Since my wife does love Hawaii as much as I do and the award has the shape of big island, I’m sure we’ll find a good spot for it. It will get a spot where we can see it and won’t go into some box in the basement.

ST: Anything else we should know?

Tobias: Jane, Sheryl and David are doing a fantastic job keeping Ultraman the way it is and I’d like to thank them for that. This race has been the greatest athletic experience of my life and the other athletes told me the exact same thing. The way that people treat each other, the way they live the Aloha, Ohana, Kokua spirit makes it a very unique experience. This race is more about completing the journey, overcoming the obstacles and experiencing this wonderful island than about beating the others. They are comrades doing the same journey, overcoming similar obstacles.

And they help each other. For example Miro had a flat on day 2 and Jochen’s crew gave him a spare wheel. Or Craig’s wife, she was on the course on day 3 checking out the gaps – and at the same time offered the guy who tried to run down her husband some water. Or Andre Kajlich’s crew, they did a dance for me when I ran past them on day 3 at mile 50! Speaking about Andre, that guy is awesome! He is the first wheel chair athlete to complete this race and deliberately chose to use a normal wheel chair instead of a racing one on day 3. He said that would feel more like running and that he would be too fast with the racing wheel chair – can you imagine that?

Besides the brilliant course the people really are what makes this race so special. If you ever get the chance to do this race – don’t think twice, just do it! You won’t regret it!