German Jochen Dembeck has been in the triathlon scene for over 30 years and more recently he has been plagued by injuries, but that has not stopped him from spreading joy and his singing. Known by friends as Ultra Joe, he started competing in Ultraman events in 1999 and switched completely to the dark side in 2007. The last 2 years he crewed in Hawaii, but the itch is still there to compete in Ultras and other events.
Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time.
Jochen Dembeck: My pleasure and thank you.
ST: How did you spend the New Year’s Eve?
Jochen: Totally relaxed alone with my wife at a small family B&B in Eastern Belgium. The High Fens is the highest region of Belgium and is right behind the border. It is a high moor area and our personal local recreation and recovery spot. We have discovered several beautiful hiking trails there which offer a unique type of charm in any season. We thus ended the old year with a 4-hour hike and started 2020 with a sunny 6-hour hike and run. And as far as I am concerned, I would not mind for the year to continue like that.
ST: I believe you have been dealing with knee issues in 2019. Could you share with us what exactly you dealt with and how that impacted your season?
Jochen: I have been battling for years now with orthopedic problems. A Hallux Rigidus on my right foot is what started it all, and it developed likely over several years because of an untreated capsular tear when I was 17-18 years old. I finally had it operated after the 2001 Ironman Hawaii, because there I needed to cover the inside my cycling shoe with Vaseline to be able to get my foot in it. It then was better for a few years, but subsequently got worse. I ended up getting knee issues because of stride changes, and that is what I now have been dealing with the last 10 years. I can now only run in very limited numbers because of arthrosis in both legs and a baker cyst on the left. And I have given up on track workouts and interval sessions for a very long time now. And thus in 2017 I arrived at Ultraman Hawaii with only about 600km total running. I really wanted to have another go but with a heavy heart dropped out after 50km on day 3 because running was not possible, and I was afraid to do more damage. Then no more competitions for me in 2018 and 2019 and I then did a lot of balance training with a Bosu ball etc. I attempted running here and there but that always ended in pain, and right after I also felt knee pain while cycling.
There have been times with fear and frustration as to how move forward with endurance sports. A knee operation? Medications? Or simply continue with stabilization and balance work? Maybe quit running altogether and only ride bikes? One thing however is more important than competitions, I want to be fit enough to enjoy vacations with my wife over the next 30 years. And I motivated myself with personal challenges like the Mauna Kea Odyssey, One Day Bike around Big Island, Bike Everesting at home, a 500 km bike ride to Challenge Roth etc.
ST: Most folks know you for your Ultra passion and your singing, but it was not always Ultra for you. And when did the singing start?
Jochen: My first triathlon was a sprint event in 1987 in Cologne at the Frühlinger See. Then there in 1989 my first middle distance and 1990 the first long course in Roth. When I started to sing, I actually do not recall. It was likely around for a very long time, and it is simply part of me. I remember that some training partners hated it when I started to sing after 200km at about the time when they were starting to run out of steam. I love it and I easily can think of songs and then I hum and sing. But only recently tough Facebook and Instagram have others been able to experience my musical offerings. It makes me happy when I get nice feedback, and it is really meant to spread the joy of life. My motto Color Your Life and Spread Aloha is expressed through my singing and the cycling clothing that I often design myself. My posts are pretty much a diary for me, and when they make others happy, that is then certainly a bonus.
ST: I think you did your first Ultraman race in 1999. Is that correct?
Jochen: That is correct. In 1999 I was the second youngest starter at the age of 32. I was very excited but also without any pressure. My crew at that time was my then girlfriend and who is my wife today, and my current in-laws. Everyone was inexperienced and the experience itself was awesome. I managed a 6th place overall, and my 7:25 double marathon was 3rd best.
ST: What about it captured you?
Jochen: I took notice of the Ultraman in Hawaii in the early 90s. I was immediately drawn by the idea to circumnavigate the Big Island while swimming, cycling and running. It feels a bit like a conquest, especially since the Big Island is so diverse and beautiful. Each of the 3 days has its own unique characteristics, and the first 2 days vary from year to year because the conditions change. You typically feel the enormous energy of the island – water, fire, wind, rain, heat and cold. Three days where you have to adapt to the conditions no matter what they might be. And the whole group of athletes, support crew and organization has a very unique energy that is difficult to describe and has to be experienced to fully grasp. Bob Babbitt has reported from there the last 4 years and usually refers to UM Hawaii as a back to the roots event, but clearly not in terms of technology. No more than 40 starters and everyone is responsible for themselves, just like the first years of the Ironman in Oahu.
Furthermore, I am part of the self-titled Ultraman Rat Packs (Gary-USA, Marty-Canada, Miro-Slowenia, Peter-Switzerland, and myself) and we have about 60 Ultraman Hawaii finishes together - friends for life!
The 3 basic principles of Ultraman are Aloha (love), Ohana (family) and Kokua (help) and these ideals should be common in all athletic competitions but are especially lived by and valued at Ultraman. In 2018 I crewed for a Canadian friend, and in 2019 for an Australian friend. In one case it was about the battle to beat the cut-off, and the other mixing it up in the top 5.
ST: You also finished 30 or so Ironman events including 3 in Kona. When was your last Ironman start?
Jochen: I indeed took part in more than 30 long course events but most in Europe, including as I had mentioned my very first one in Roth in 1990. I also went to Kona 3 times and my last Ironman branded event was actually 2007 in Hawaii. I then decided that this was it. Either one accepts the steady growing problem of drafting or one looks for other events. After those World Championships I rode out to Holualoa, and then asked myself if I wanted to start again in Hawaii, and the answer was yes. But Ironman or Ultraman? And the answer to that was Ultraman.I never regretted that decision and have no desire to start at another Ironman labeled event, as the problem seemingly only has gotten worse. But I could imagine starting in Roth one more time.
ST: Is starting either in Roth or an Ironman even still an option with your knee issues?
Jochen: There are moments when I dream to set a new PR close to 9 hours or sub 9 hours. But that would only be possible with no injuries and more run mileage and intervals. This is really unrealistic, even more so at age 53. But with lower expectations around 9:30 it should be possible. As I mentioned earlier, I am not interested in most flat IM courses. An exception would be Roth, to inhale once more the atmosphere as an athlete and close the long-distance chapter where it started in 1990. Maybe an idea for AG 60. One marathon is for sure easier to manage with less running than the double in the Ultraman. I would really love to compete there once more. It was very tough on one hand to watch it the last two years. I feel that I can play with the top 3 or 5 the first two days, but the double marathon on the hard Queen K black top with less mileage and some ortho problems is stupid and no fun.
ST: At the Honu Half in 2006 at age 38 you finished in 4:39:05, one second ahead of American Pro Ben Collins. Where does that rank in terms of your finishes of such “short” events?
Jochen: Look at that, I did not even remember this. I was there in Hawaii for sort of a personal training camp as I had a lot of vacation left and wanted something other than going to Mallorca. Spent thus 3 weeks with my Hawaii family and after all I typically was very frugal otherwise. The Half happened to be at the end of that period and I then started it fully not tapered. It was a beautiful, family like competition with a very high female starting percentage (40%), and the course was great. I also did that event in 2007 and was part of my only 4 middle distance starts.
ST: Was that your fastest half? And what was your fastest long course?
Jochen: I guess my fastest was the Honu as I never competed in a half well prepared and tapered. My PR long was 9h20 also with very low run mileage and a terrible swim in 2007.
ST: Talk about some of the other endurance challenges you have conquered.
Jochen: There were indeed some other events that have caught my attention. Embrunman in 2008 (11:28), Trans Alpine run in 2010, Race Across the Alps in 2011 and Tortour Solo in 2012. And as mentioned, various Ultraman Hawaii events.
ST: And what is still on your bucket list?
Jochen: During my Hawaii stay in November I registered for an event after a 3-year break. I needed another target to get me motivated, because Ultra Joe is very lazy, which to some folks seems hard to believe. Just before that trip I discovered the TRIVEREST competition in Switzerland. The structure and the distribution of the disciplines really spoke to me. I pre-registered while still in Germany and then pulled the trigger in Hawaii. It is 4km of swimming, 260km of cycling with 6,850 meters of elevation, plus 27km of running with 2,000 meters of elevation. The total elevation of 8,850 meters is the elevation of Everest and thus the name TRIVEREST. The shorter run section was especially appealing and the last 8km up the Pilatus Berg will likely be a hike anyhow, and that is better for my knee. There is an option to start as a team of 2 or 4, but I wanted to do this event solo – as a motivator. I hope my eyes were not bigger than what my body can do. Athletes need a crew of 2 and in addition to my wife I will get support from my Swiss Ultraman Rat Pack friend Peter. For that final climb a Sherpa is required, and in Switzerland no one could be better than a Swiss one.
ST: What is your day job?
Jochen: I work for Bayer in the supply chain department as change manager. Nothing super sexy for a triathlon forum, but we have a cool little gym with 2 indoor rowers and some equipment for tough circuit sessions, where I coach a few colleagues. (Motto: Hate the coach!)
ST: Is there anything else we should know?
Jochen: I have a side gig as a spinning instructor, and for those who end up in Cologne, they ought to visit my evening classes at ASV Köln. A very broad musical selection with some singing by Ultra Joe, plus plenty of sweat.