Thomas Hellriegel: “I need to be active!”
Please enjoy Chapter 8 from the book 17 Hours to Glory: Extraordinary Stories from the Heart of Triathlon by Mathias Mueller with Timothy Carlson. From the moment the starting gun is fired on Kona’s sandy beach at the Ironman® World Championship, triathletes have 17 hours to cross the finish line. It’s a feat marking the ultimate achievement in the sport. 17 Hours to Glory is one of only a few books to commemorate this dramatic quest. Seventeen compelling chapters tell stories that allow readers to experience the competition first hand, revealing tremendous athleticism, unbelievable capacity for suffering, and true strength of character.
Thomas Hellriegel accomplished what no German had done before him: He won Ironman Hawaii in 1997. In the buildup to that victory, his legendary appetite for training likely pushed him to cover more miles than any triathlete before or since. And on that long road he lost two heroic duels that prompted two of the greatest wins in the race’s history before his iron persistence rewarded him for his battles with disappointment, illness, and sacrifice.
Hellriegel was born in Bruchsal, Germany, a town of 30,000 people in the Rhine Valley in southwest Germany, about 30 kilometers from the French border. His father, Walter, was a nuclear engineer who worked at the Karlsruhe research institute studying superconducting devices for space technology and nuclear fusion as a potential source of energy. Walter and his wife, Ursula, had no idea that their son Thomas would become a spectacular one-man source of energy in the field of Ironman triathlon competition.
As a child, Thomas was already athletic. At age 6 he went to children’s gymnastics, at 10 he played European handball as part of a local league, and he also played tennis and participated in track and field. “I was always active, riding my bike 10 kilometers to school while others rode the bus,” he recounted. At 15 he also swam with the local club, not yet imagining that several of these individual sports would one day propel him toward stardom.
In 1988, when he was 17, a friend who was swimming with him in a summer camp program told Hellriegel about the sport of triathlon. His curiosity piqued, Thomas saw the 1988 Ironman on TV. He also bought a German triathlon magazine and read about Scott Molina, who won that race, and pioneer German Ironman athlete Dirk Ashmoneit, who was 7th.
“I started training that winter, and the next spring I ran a 10 km,” said Hellriegel. “I had been running just three times a week for two or three months, and my time in the race was 33 minutes [5:20 per mile pace]. I didn’t know whether it was fast or slow. My friend Christian said he couldn’t believe it, so I decided I might be good and should train more seriously.”
Hellriegel was 18 when he entered his first triathlon. He easily took 3rd place in the Baden-Württemberg youth and junior championships held in Fischbach along Lake Constance on July 1, 1989. One year later, at 19, he was already thinking about iron-distance events. “I always wanted to do Ironman, but since I was still so young, I had to slowly develop my body with short-distance events,” he explained.
However, his outwardly reasonable attitude didn’t stop him from quietly registering for Ironman Europe in Roth, Germany. “I didn’t tell anyone about it,” he recalled with a laugh. He borrowed his parents’ car and set off without telling them where he was going. Purely by coincidence Walter noticed on his son’s calendar that Ironman Europe in Roth would take place that weekend. He put two and two together and at the last minute took a train to meet up with his son. At 1 in the morning, Thomas Hellriegel picked up his father at the railway station in the Bavarian town. Since Walter Hellriegel was not able to find a hotel room on such short notice, they spent the night in his son’s small tent.
Hellriegel’s trainer, Gerhard Wachter, was as surprised as his father by the young man’s appearance at the long-distance event. “Thomas, have you really thought about what you’re doing?” he asked. When his protégé responded, “Nah, I’m gonna do it,” the trainer protested that it was much too soon for such a young athlete, that he risked injury and might sabotage his athletic promise. But Hellriegel would not be deterred. The next morning the starting cannon signaled his first Ironman event.
Young and fearless, he pushed hard on the bike. During the marathon he started running with an experienced triathlete. “He was equipped with everything, from a water bottle to a timetable to a heart rate monitor,” Hellriegel recalled. The teenager followed the lead of the veteran and was happy to finish in 9 hours 26 minutes. Taking 56th place in a world-class field at the age of 19 also gave him perspective. He realized that the best athletes were still 90 minutes faster, but he felt that getting to the top was within his reach.
After graduating from high school, Hellriegel attended a technical trade school, which allowed him enough time to train. The 500 deutschmarks in federal student assistance each month didn’t hurt, either. After trade school he was so fit and strong that the military welcomed him into its athlete development program in Warendorf. He stayed with that program for four years, taking advantage of its rigorous training and advanced coaching.
He also proved that he had reached the elite level in short-course triathlon, finishing 2nd to world champion Simon Lessing in the 1992 European Elite short-course championship and taking 6th at the ITU World Championship that year with an impressive final 10-km run time of 33:15.
But 1995 was truly showtime. At 24, he was feeling strong enough and possessed the endurance to transition to the Ironman distance. The results came fast. He won Lanzarote in Spain’s Canary Islands and came in 2nd behind long-distance triathlete Jürgen Zäck, the then best German, at Ironman Germany in Roth. His confidence high, Hellriegel felt ready to realize his long-nurtured dream of racing at Ironman Hawaii. He trained hard with his friend Holger Lorenz, who had finished 8th at Ironman Hawaii in 1993 and told Hellriegel that the bike course was custom-made for them both. As Hellriegel remembered, Lorenz assured him they would be able to “push meaty gears” over Hawaii’s rolling hills.
On race day Hellriegel came out of the water just 3 minutes 27 seconds behind heavy favorite Mark Allen. Hellriegel went all out on the bike, he explained, and after 25 miles made it to the front of the race. But he didn’t stay with the experienced contenders for long. Before the race he’d had a discussion with fellow German überbiker Zäck about making a break, and he was ready to carry out their plan. “Jürgen said that Mark Allen is very strong this year on the bike, and if we make a break he will try to come with us,” said Hellriegel. On race day headwinds were blowing 45 mph in gusts, giving the advantage to the strong cyclists. “When I came to the group with Mark Allen, Ken Glah, and some others, Jürgen tried to make a break, and I wanted to go with him to see what it was like my first time. I thought, I will stay as long as possible with Jürgen; then I will see on the run.”
At first the move unfolded as Zäck had predicted. “Mark Allen did try to come and rode also a little bit away from the group,” recalled Hellriegel. “But then he didn’t manage it, and he lost touch. Then Jürgen said he needed a little bit more water at this aid station just ahead. But I had enough, and I took off and just kept going. I thought, Maybe he will have something to drink and then he will be coming with me. But I was riding and riding and looked back and didn’t see him. I asked the guy on the motorbike, ‘Where is Jürgen? Is he coming or not?’
“‘Oh, Jürgen, he is 2 to 3 minutes behind.’
“I said, ‘What?’
“I was really surprised because I expected him to come and we would ride together. Then I thought, I won’t wait!”
It didn’t faze Hellriegel that he had just passed Allen, who was regarded by many as the best triathlete of all time. He just wanted to ride as fast as possible. “Mark Allen didn’t want to push himself too hard on the bike because he knew he would have the guys under his thumb on the run,” said Hellriegel. “I thought they would probably catch up. I was never scared much about the run. I know if I am dying, I still can run 3:10 or 3:20. But if I have a good bike, maybe I will be top 15 no matter what.”
At the turnaround, 52 miles into the bike, Hellriegel and his pursuers took stock of his daring move. “At Hawi I saw the others, and Jürgen was in between. They were looking at me and I was looking at them. My lead was already about 4 to 5 minutes and I was very motivated. Still, the whole time I was thinking, It’s too fast! It’s too fast! It’s too fast! I will die here.”
Hellriegel explained that part of the fuel for his colossal talent on the bike was an insecurity bordering on a phobia about what might happen if he ran out of energy on the bike leg. “When I raced Ironman races I was always scared to die on the bike,” he explained. “For example, in January in Lanzarote, I was doing my first long mileage training, and after 120 km I was just dying because I didn’t train enough. It is such a bad feeling. There is nothing worse. And maybe that’s why I train hard on the bike—it makes me stronger.”
No one caught him on the bike leg. Hellriegel was riding as if from another planet. His competitors would refer to him thereafter as “Hell on Wheels.” He entered the final transition zone 13 minutes 31 seconds ahead of Allen. His 4:29:37 ride on a brutally tough day had put him 11 minutes ahead of Zäck and was an astounding 17 minutes faster than Allen’s ride.
For the 37-year-old master Allen, the race was coming down to the wire. He was already a five-time winner on the Big Island, and this was to be his last race in Kona. For him a farewell as runner-up would be tantamount to a farewell as the last-place finisher.
Hellriegel, who was quite capable of running a marathon in under 3 hours at the end of an Ironman, was now hopeful. “I knew that if Allen, the strongest runner there, was going to catch me, he would have to work very hard,” he explained. “If he only ran 2:50, then it would be all over for him.”
Hellriegel was misunderstood and underestimated by the U.S. Ironman media. The experts thought Hellriegel fit the usual profile of a powerful German überbiker—like Zäck—who really could not run well in Hawaii. But under the coaching of old school East German Stefan Grosse, in various triathlon races at short and long distances, Hellriegel had outrun every other top German triathlete at the time. Hellriegel said he had the capability of running a sub-31-minute open 10K, just 30 seconds or so slower than Mark Allen himself.
With the growing prospect of an upset driving him, Hellriegel ran well. But he had devoted so much effort to the bike that the gap he had established over Allen was melting away. Allen, in one of the greatest come-from-behind campaigns of his career, calculated that he had to make up 30 seconds per mile to overcome the 13-minute deficit. On his way to a sizzling 2:42 marathon, Allen had cut the margin to 4 minutes as Hellriegel entered the Energy Lab. Soon Hellriegel’s lead dropped to 3 and then 2 minutes, and Allen was running like a man possessed. On the final 5-mile stretch along the Queen K Highway before arriving back in town, Hellriegel was increasingly surrounded by motorcycles carrying journalists and photographers not wanting to miss the moment of the kill.
Just before the last hill before Kailua-Kona, only 3 miles from the finish, the jig was up. Mark Allen passed his adversary, who responded with one last surge a few meters past the famous American. When Allen once again upped the pace, Hellriegel knew he was beaten.
But he wasn’t too disappointed. “If someone had told me the day before the race that at 24 I would finish 2nd, I would have laughed until I cried,” he explained later. He was happy about his exciting debut in Hawaii and was more than pleased with 2nd place.
“I never thought about winning,” he said. “Maybe that was a mistake. I was not cool enough. Maybe if I had slowed down and biked 2 to 3 minutes slower I could have run 5 minutes faster, and I might have won. But I never thought about it then. I just thought, Okay, make a big gap. Then maybe you will be 5 or 10 km in the lead or something. But I never thought before the race that I could be leading the race.”
Things looked different a year later. In 1996, victory was his clearly defined goal. “Mark Allen had retired; now it was my turn,” said Hellriegel.
With a firm resolve to be ready for battle, he dialed up his training. “I was a little asocial back then,” explained Hellriegel. “Aside from training, eating, and sleeping, I didn’t do much.”
His immune system didn’t take too well to the massive training volume, and he was tormented by shingles for several weeks. Despite it all, his training for Kona included 13,700 miles on his bike—up to 840 miles in his longest weeks early in the year, when he built a huge aerobic base by riding 50 hours a week in Tenerife in the Canary Islands. That year he also logged 3,000 miles of running and 500 miles of swimming.
When the shingles forced him to withdraw from Ironman Europe in Roth in early July, he was depressed, but the enforced rest was good for him. Seven weeks later he had recovered, and at Ironman Canada—his last test before Hawaii—Hellriegel was at the top of his game again. He won and set a new course record of 8 hours 9 minutes 53 seconds, smashing the previous record by about 20 minutes.
Bring on Hawaii.
The race in October 1996 unfolded much as it had the year before. Hellriegel trailed slightly after the swim, then stormed to the front on his bike. The last leader he passed was Belgian Luc Van Lierde, only two years his senior. “He was definitely a gifted athlete,” the German acknowledged, a judgment obvious to anyone who knew of Van Lierde’s silver medal at the 1995 ITU long-course World Championship at Nice and his silver medals at the 1996 ITU long-course World Championship at Muncie, Indiana, and the 1996 ITU short-course World Championship in Cleveland, Ohio, where he finished behind Simon Lessing.
After receiving a 3-minute penalty for drafting, the Belgian sat it out in the transition area following the bike leg. Observing that Van Lierde appeared “flustered and frustrated,” Hellriegel recalled that he wasn’t immediately worried about him.
After setting a new Kona bike course record of 4 hours 24 minutes 50 seconds that would last for a decade, Hellriegel took off aggressively on the run at a much faster pace than the year before. He was feeling confident, having observed the Belgian vomiting on the bike. But Van Lierde was far from done.
At first everything looked good for Hellriegel. “I felt really strong, and I was not worried about him because I thought, This is too fast for him and he will explode on the run. I was very sure I could beat him. When I started running, my lead was 3 minutes. Then it grew to 4 minutes, and after 20 kilometers it was 4.5 minutes. I was running away from him; I felt very fresh and I was running really quick.”
When Hellriegel entered the Natural Energy Lab, a 4-mile out-and-back, L-shaped segment of paved road that veered left from the Queen K Highway toward the ocean, he was 5 minutes ahead of Van Lierde. But when he left the Energy Lab, with only 7 miles left to run, his lead had dwindled. This did not concern him at first. “I was running less than 4 minutes per kilometer on my way to running 2:46,” said Hellriegel. “So I felt very strong, and at that time I thought, When he gets closer I can go harder. I thought, Oh, it is not so far to go.”
But after he left the microwave heat of the Energy Lab, things looked different. “After the Energy Lab I was getting really tired,” he recalled. “Just before the turnaround, they sent me to go the other way around the cones, which is stupid. I had to make a sharp move to get back on course, and that is where I cramped. You can see it on the video. Then leaving the Energy Lab, the cramps came back.”
A spectator told him Van Lierde had radically closed the gap. “I thought, That’s not possible. I was going pretty damn fast,” he recalled. It was déjà vu, with only the name of the opponent changed. The gap was narrowing to only a 2-minute lead over his rampaging pursuer. Hellriegel was becoming increasingly surrounded; more and more motorcycles carrying journalists or photographers were riding next to him, once again not wanting to miss the moment in which he would be passed.
Despite the fact that it would only take Hellriegel 2 hours 46 minutes 55 seconds to complete the marathon, Van Lierde passed him with 2 miles to go, at the same place where Mark Allen had passed him the year before. “I was pretty ticked off, above all because it was on the same hill as in 1995,” Hellriegel said.
Allen had closed with a 2:42:09 marathon and had beaten Hellriegel by 2 minutes 25 seconds. In 1996 Van Lierde ran 2:41:48 and beat Hellriegel to the line by 1:59. Buoyed by ideal conditions, Van Lierde’s 8:04:08 finishing time was a record that surpassed all Mark Allen’s race times and still stood 13 years later. Hellriegel’s 8:06:07 also remains as the second-fastest time at Ironman Hawaii.
Discouragement can loom large. But giving up was not Hellriegel’s style. For his 1997 Hawaii tune-up, Hellriegel again turned to Ironman Europe in Roth. The year before at Roth, Lothar Leder had become the first Ironman to break the 8-hour barrier. In 1997 Hellriegel also broke the magic 8-hour barrier but finished 4th behind Van Lierde, Zäck, and Leder. As at Kona in 1996, Van Lierde set a record time for the Ironman distance, 7:50:27.
“I felt very strong that day on the bike and rode 4:14 with Jürgen, and we led into the transition,” said Hellriegel of Roth ’97. “I never pushed too hard, and I thought I could beat Jürgen in the run and win the race because I ran so quick in Hawaii the year before. Luc was already so far behind, and so I was pretty sure to win. Then everything changed during the run.”
When Zäck, much fresher on a cool Roth afternoon than in the heat of Hawaii, ran away, Hellriegel had to recalibrate. “I thought, Oh man, this is too fast for me. I can’t follow.” When he heard that Van Lierde and Leder were also coming, Hellriegel recalled, “That was very tough mentally.” At the end he crossed the line in 7:57 in 4th place. “It was crazy! After the finish I said, ‘This can’t be true.’ But that is the sport. It doesn’t depend only on you. It depends on the others, too. Everyone was just so strong that day.”
Still, Hellriegel took comfort from one fact. No other German performed as well as he in the heat and winds of Hawaii. “When it is hot and humid, Jürgen suffers much more than I,” he said. “Also Lothar is very tall, and it is hard for him to ride against the wind. I am smaller, and it is easier for me to ride against the wind.” He said he was not discouraged after Roth. “It made me even more motivated to train harder.”
Hellriegel arrived in Hawaii optimistic as ever. Although he welcomed the best competitors, he also knew that one of the biggest requirements of a race like Hawaii is getting to the start healthy and ready. So he did not mourn when Van Lierde, who had a leg injury, did not show up in Kona.
Hellriegel made progress with his swimming, and his 53:08 opening split left him less than a minute behind all the serious contenders, his smallest deficit ever. The fierce mumuku winds returned that year along the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway, and for the first time Hellriegel did not ride away from everyone on the bike. He knew that under those difficult circumstances he would need to carefully modulate his efforts.
For much of the ride Hellriegel and Zäck broke out to a modest lead. Near the end of the bike, both American Ken Glah and young Australian Chris Legh surged to join Hellriegel and Zäck. Then, with 12 miles left, Zäck made a surge and arrived at T2 with a 2-minute lead. Now a Hawaii veteran, Hellriegel did not panic.
“That time I knew there was no super runner like Luc,” he said. “I knew I should beat Jürgen on the run in the heat. So I let him go because I knew he went very hard to get that lead, and I also knew his best marathon in Hawaii was about 3 hours and the year before I ran 2:46.”
He transitioned from bike to run with three other athletes. While Glah and Legh were soon left behind, Zäck still hung tough. At mile 8, where the steep hill on Palani Road leads up to the highway, it got harder for Zäck. Two miles later Hellriegel increased his pace and returned the favor from Roth, leaving Zäck behind.
With just 7 miles remaining in the marathon, many spectators were already celebrating his victory. But Hellriegel, twice burned by late-race losses to Allen and Van Lierde, retained an understandable dose of paranoia. “After my experiences the past two years, I kept thinking that something was coming, that something would happen,” he recounted. He remembered all too clearly the beginning of Mark and Dave Hill, at the 24-mile mark of the marathon where he had been caught twice on the verge of victory. When he was asked at what point he knew victory was his, he replied, “I was never sure. I kept turning around to make sure that no one was coming up behind me.”
When a spectator gave Hellriegel a large German flag three-quarters of a mile from the finish, he reacted with anguish. “It seemed so incredibly heavy that I just wanted to set it down for fear that it would cost me my lead,” he said. “I was completely uncertain. It was crazy, horrible!”
But after a total of 8 hours 33 minutes, it was a done deal. As he crossed the finish line, he turned around one last time, more symbolically than out of fear. Thomas Hellriegel became the first man of his nation, whose athletes’ imaginations had been so captivated by this race, to win Ironman Hawaii.
Hellriegel’s psychic wounds from his first two heartbreaking losses did not completely heal with the reception of the trophy in Hawaii. “A week later, I could not quite believe it,” he recalled. “I was back in Germany, and it was cold and raining, and I thought, Did I win Hawaii? Everything is so far away. Outside it is 10 degrees.” In one of many celebrations, officials in Germany gave him a ring to celebrate his victory. “One morning after, I woke up and went to look in the cupboard for this ring. When I saw it, I thought, Yeah, it’s real. I have the ring.”
The athlete from Bruchsal was now the trailblazer who opened the door for other German athletes to follow. He proved that there was no reason to be intimidated by the North American juggernaut. Two more Germans—Normann Stadler, who racked up wins in 2004 and 2006, and Faris Al-Sultan, who won in 2005—were inspired by his accomplishments, courage, and determination.
Thomas Hellriegel did not repeat his feat on the Big Island, but in 2001 he returned to form and took a respectable 3rd place and followed that with a 4th in 2002. The boy who began with an abiding love of outdoor activity and sport had become a man who retained that same unquenchable youthful spirit.
Nearing 20 years in the sport, he had competed in more than 30 iron-distance triathlons when he expressed his desire to compete two more years as a professional. Regardless of what awaited him, one thing was certain. “I will always participate in sports,” he vowed. “When I don’t train, I don’t feel good. I need to be active!”
Thank you for reading this chapter from the book 17 Hours to Glory: Extraordinary Stories from the Heart of Triathlon by Mathias Mueller with Timothy Carlson. From the moment the starting gun is fired on Kona’s sandy beach at the Ironman® World Championship, triathletes have 17 hours to cross the finish line. It’s a feat marking the ultimate achievement in the sport. 17 Hours to Glory is one of only a few books to commemorate this dramatic quest. Seventeen compelling chapters tell stories that allow readers to experience the competition first hand, revealing tremendous athleticism, unbelievable capacity for suffering, and true strength of character.