Fit and Fab: the making of an ironman

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 March, 2013, 5:22pm

He lost his job. He dehydrated himself to the point of needing hospital treatment, and his delirious state caused him to cut the course short, which got him disqualified from a triathlon in Taiwan in the summer of 2011. Yet, Olaf Kasten didn't give up the sport. Instead, the combination of those episodes actually motivated him to become a world-class triathlete.

Kasten, 40, always had his eye on the World Ironman Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, but his dream seemed impossible. A triathlon consists of 3.86-kilometre swim, 180-kilometre bike ride and a 42-kilometre run, and three years earlier, the German native could barely swim 50 metres without losing his breath. Although he was a talented young athlete, he let his fitness slide in his 20s as his climbed the corporate ladder by leading trading teams in Asia.

Then suddenly, he lost his job. With time on his hands, he planned to set up a new executive coaching business. Kasten also decided it was time to turn his dream - to compete in the 2012 Ironman - into reality. His coach, Andrew Wright, was sceptical. "But I'm a very disciplined guy, so when I have a programme, I do exactly what is on there," Kasten says.

It began to work. He trained intensively and intelligently, gradually increasing his training load to 25 hours a week. By finishing 55th in a field of more than 1,400 in the Melbourne Ironman in nine hours, 10 minutes, 46 seconds in Australia, he qualified for Kona in October. There he emerged a true Ironman, completing the course in nine hours, 31 minutes, eight seconds. He placed 118th overall and eighth among men in the 40-44 age division.

While Kasten believes an iron will was a key to his success, he says could not have achieved his results without the coaching.

"A lot of people say that it is 70 per cent mental," he says. "I don't know if it's really that high, because if you haven't done the work, you can't invent it. You can't go half an hour faster just because you want to."


What made you want to go to the Ironman championship in Kona?

I had read a book called Iron War about the Kona World Championship race in 1989 where Mark Allen and Dave Scott went head to head until six kilometres to go, finally finishing 58 seconds apart. They were the two legends of Ironman. In the book, the author says you can't call yourself a true triathlete until you've done Kona. That really annoyed me, so I decided I had to do it.

But to go to that level, you need a very good support system around you in terms of physiotherapy, your coach and your family. You have to make it your No1 priority for a given period. It's really about determination and making the time to train.


What do you love about Ironman?

There's no place to hide there. People can talk all they want, but you can't tiptoe around the result. I also really like the fact that the hard work pays off. I'm a strong believer that if you do your work, if you are well prepared and if you have thought of all the options, there's not that much that can go wrong. And even when something goes wrong, there's always a good way to deal with it.

To some extent, I think we live such comfortable lives that it feels good to suffer when you do triathlon. If it's not hard, it's not a great achievement.


What does your triathlon training bring to your coaching business?

Coaching in my triathlon made a huge difference, and I feel coaching has the same effect in business. It's very difficult to have the discipline to impose things on yourself; it's very difficult to change if you don't have a process or somebody holding a mirror in front of you.


What keeps you going during the tough moments?

Anything is possible - that's my motto. A year ago, I didn't think I could even qualify for Kona. All the triathletes I knew were way better than I, and this year out of all the athletes I think I'm the best athlete in my age group based in Asia, excluding Australia.