Steve Mantell finished second overall at Ironman Boulder despite being relatively new to the sport. He started with hockey and soccer back in Minnesota, but is now all in with triathlon in Colorado where he attends college.
Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time, Steve.
Steve Mantell: Of course! This is exciting for me.
ST: Have you fully recovered from the Ironman Boulder effort?
Steve: The first few days after were rough but I think I’m well on my way. We’ve added some intensity back in to swimming and biking, and running is feeling pretty good again.
ST: That was your first full distance as far as I know, or is that not correct?
Steve: Kind of. I raced Ironman Florida last November. But the swim was canceled the morning of the race. So I had done the bike/run combo of a full distance race before but no swim.
ST: Were you bummed when you learned there was not going to be a swim?
Steve: I was. Like everyone, else I spent a great deal of time preparing for a swim-bike-run event. Although the swim makes up a small fraction of time for a full distance race, it’s still important. Biking and running fresh is different and swimming 2.4 miles affects athletes to varying degrees.
ST: But looking at the water did it make sense?
Steve: The waves were definitely larger than I’d seen them all week but I thought the swim looked manageable. However, the safety personnel were really struggling to get out past the waves because most were on paddle boards instead of jet skis. Being that Ironman Florida generally attracts less seasoned athletes, as it is known as a slightly easier course, I would say that the race director did not feel that they would be able to adequately provide safety to all the athletes. Safety is always the number one concern and for this reason I completely supported the decision.
ST: What kind of expectations had you set for yourself going into Boulder?
Steve: Focusing on finish line results always adds too much stress to the race so I try to do my best and race to my potential. All I want is for hard work to show through on race day. Every time I get to the start line in good shape and injury free, I’m very grateful for the opportunity to do something I love. I already had a Kona spot from Florida last fall so it was nice not to have any additional pressure from that. With all that being said, coach Mace (at MP Multisport) and I believed I could be close to around 9 hours on the day if things went well.
ST: Did it bother you that it was not a pro race, or did you see it as an opportunity to be in the spotlight?
Steve: I was a little disappointed to learn Boulder wouldn’t include a pro field. Last year I volunteered with the CSU Tri Team and it was really cool to watch them tear it up on the roads I’m fairly familiar with. Going into the race, I was most looking forward to being able to race in front of so many people I know and love.
ST: Were you nervous on race morning?
Steve: Actually, I don’t think so. I believed in myself and in the training we had done and I was excited to finally get things going. After training at such a high intensity for most of the year, Ironman is such a controlled effort throughout the day that I feel I’m actually able to relax until about 10-15 miles into the marathon. The energy around the swim start was incredible and I had a feeling I would be able to feed off the spectators throughout the day.
ST: Talk about the swim.
Steve: The morning of the race, it was announced the swim would be “wetsuit optional”. I was indifferent to this and figured it would be good practice for Kona. I’d been doing long open water swims every week in Fort Collins so I felt prepared for the distance. I started about two lines of people back from the front and once the cannon went off, I started swimming hard for a few minutes before settling into a rhythm. For the most part, everyone around me was swimming a straight line with minimal contact. One of the hardest things to do was reign in my urge to bury myself only 20 min into the swim with all the built up energy! I broke the swim up into thirds. For the first section, I tried to take it easy and draft as much as possible. The next section I began picking up the pace a little bit and by about half way was leading a line in our group of five or so people. My swimming felt good. The last third I tried to increase my stroke rate and finish strong.
ST: With the rolling start, did you have an idea where you were overall and in your age group?
Steve: I had a decent idea where I was overall. Although, I knew a few strong bikers and runners would be starting a little ways behind me in the swim. I wasn’t too worried about being several minutes back coming out of the swim because it’s a long day.
ST: Once on the bike, how did you feel?
Steve: I felt good. My heart rate was controlled and despite the yelling from everyone around me I kept the power in a reasonable range. I took some time to really ease into the bike and get the legs and stomach adjusted to the effort for the next few hours.
ST: What bike do you ride and how is it set up?
Steve: The bike is a Trek Speed Concept 9.9. For Boulder, I borrowed some race wheels that were pretty deep. It has mostly SRAM Force components from my first tri bike and I bought a Stages power meter this winter as well. My ability to remember details about gearing and whatnot is somewhat limited. [laughs] I can get by with basic maintenance and keep my bikes clean but prefer to focus on training legs.
ST: So who handles your bike fit and details?
Steve: Patrick Ray of PR TriWorks has been helping me out the past year or so. He is the man! He has an incredible amount of experience and worked as a course mechanic at Kona a few times. Patrick does everything out of his garage and is more than willing to go the extra mile to get your bike ready when you need it.
ST: Did you have any idea where Clay Emge was, or actually who he was?
Steve: Nope and nope. A couple guys blew by me about 15 miles into the ride and I didn’t give chase because I was trying to relax my bladder - but don’t tell Riccitello. In all seriousness, Clay is a first class guy. We chatted a bit the day after the race and anyone who has had to take off a significant amount off time like that from injury has some willpower to come back. Major congrats to him and I’m excited to see him race in Kona!
ST: What went through your mind when you crossed the finish?
Steve: [laughs] Lots of things. My feet really hurt and I hoped I didn’t have any massive blisters. Mostly though I thought, man, that was a lot of fun, I hope it doesn’t take too long to recover and I want to see my girlfriend.
ST: Were you drug tested?
Steve: I was not. I have actually never been selected after a race for a drug test. To me, any endurance sport should be done because you enjoy being active, competing and pushing yourself. I really want to believe that the systems in place are working to keep our sport clean.
ST: You grew up in Minnesota and played hockey and soccer, but I think you ran to stay in shape.
Steve: Yeah, hockey was life in Minnesota. We would run as part of “dryland” for hockey and conditioning for soccer. I have always been someone who thought that if you wanted to get better, you needed to do a little extra on your own time. I grew to enjoy running as a mode of stress release and there was a big hill by our house that I could be found on throughout the year. I still enjoy going there when I’m back visiting.
ST: One of the reasons you attended Colorado State was to play hockey, but I think that did not pan out as you had envisioned.
Steve: CSU has a very competitive club hockey team. I really enjoyed hockey because it has so much creativity and lots of read-and-react situations. The atmosphere on the team was not what I was hoping for and it ended up adding more stress to my life than needed. I stuck it out for one season but decided to follow my passion for some sort of endurance sport. I found the CSU Tri Team, bought a bike off Craig’s list and started playing outside.
ST: What was the first triathlon you took part in and how did it go?
Steve: My first triathlon was a sprint distance race in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. I was back for the summer as a camp counselor and signed up for the race. I did a few group rides with a local bike shop that had some triathletes. They showed me the ropes and helped me discover hill repeats on the bike for how to get ready for the race. 30 seconds into the swim, my competitive nature kicked in and I went super hard, which I suppose is okay for a sprint! I ended up being first out of the water for my AG but got beat out of transition because I put on shorts, socks, a t-shirt and running shoes (my bike had cages on the pedals). I still had hockey player legs and hammered the bike. All I could think of on the bike was that it was cool passing these people with all this fancy gear. I think I had the fastest T2 because I biked and ran in the same shoes and was full of adrenaline. I took off on the run and had the wobbly legs for a bit but they eventually went away. I think I won my age group but more importantly I had a blast racing. I really liked getting to do three sports hard back to back, it was exciting. I was all set to race more triathlons that summer but ended up getting injured the next weekend from running too long – I had paced someone for an ultra marathon.
ST: So 2012 was you first serious season?
Steve: Yep. I started practicing every day with the CSU Triathlon Team. For the collegiate season, everything is geared towards Collegiate Nationals which is in the spring. I learned so much from the veterans on the team and our coach that fall and winter. We pushed each other and had a lot of fun.
ST: How did you connect with EMJ?
Steve: In the fall of 2013, another collegiate athlete (Yoni) who had been on the team reached out to me and told me to consider applying. I was still pretty raw in triathlon and wanted to continue learning, and Team EMJ seemed like a great group of guys with a lot of experience. Also, I strongly believe that who you know can get you places and Team EMJ was a great way to expand my network. The team is friendly, fast and humble. Being a part of the team is probably the second smartest decision I’ve made, right after admitting I was too short to play basketball.
ST: Are you the youngest team member?
Steve: Last year I might have been. This year, the team has a few studs that are younger than me.
ST: Do you still play hockey?
Steve: All of my gear is back in Minnesota. When I go home to visit family for the holidays, I like to go down to the park and play some pickup or shoot on my brother who used to play goalie but is also doing triathlon. We have a good time. It always amazes me that I can still make forward progress on skates after having been off them for a few months. We used to skate at least once a day!
ST: So what is next?
Steve: In terms of triathlon, Kona! I’m really excited for the opportunity to race at the event. I’ve never been to Hawaii and EMJ is going to be well represented at the race. The conditions sound tough so I’m going to do my best to enjoy the experience. School starts again for me in a little over a week, so I’ll be trying to balance that with training but I trust my coach and my training partners and know that we’ll be ready to go in October!
ST: Word has it that people have asked you about getting a pro card. Is that something you are considering?
Steve: Yes. I unknowingly qualified for a pro card a few years ago at Collegiate Nationals. It was my second full year competing in the sport and I did not feel I had developed enough in the amateur ranks to warrant racing with the big boys. I spoke with a lot of coaches and athletes over the past few years and many of those that I respect supported my decision to continue developing as an amateur. Racing as a pro is a whole new ball game and one I do not want to take lightly. Making the jump too early when an athlete is underprepared can lead to disappointing results and end up crushing their enjoyment and motivation in the sport. The past two seasons I feel more confident that I can work my way to becoming competitive as a pro. I still have to work a lot on my swim, and bike and run, but I’m still [only] 23 and willing to take the time to work smart and hard to get there. The short term focus is always on the next race but 2-3 years down the road I want to be racing in that field.
ST: Is there anything else we should know?
Steve: All triathletes would be nowhere without their support system. Massive thank you to my family for always being there for me. Team EMJ, NoCo Tri, CSU Tri and MP Multisport have provided me with the sponsors, guidance, motivation and training partners over the past few years to keep me going. I love being a part of something bigger and thinking of racing for others helps me. Oh, and I drive a minivan and love training camps.