Rodolphe von Berg first raced the Ironman World Championships on Kona in the 1980’s and plans to continue going back for at least the next 20 years. With a Ironman career spanning over four decades, Rodolphe provides an incredible snapshot into the sport we all love so much.
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BRAD BROWN: For the first time we head to France. The south of France is a beautiful part of the world. And fairly close to the Ironman Nice route as a matter of fact. It’s a great pleasure to welcome Rodolphe von Berg onto The Kona Edge.
Rodolphe welcome onto The Kona Edge. Thanks for joining me today.
RODOLPHE VON BERG: Thank you Brad. Thank you for asking me to do this interview.
BRAD BROWN: Rodolphe one thing I love about doing this podcast is I get to chat to athletes from all over the world. You’re the first one we’re speaking to who lives in France, and has got a very diverse background. You were telling me before we started recording that you’ve got ancestry from Hungary, Belgium. You’ve spent time in the States so you’re pretty much a citizen of the world.
No boundaries in Ironman race pickings
RODOLPHE VON BERG: Exactly yes. That’s how I consider myself. I have moved so much during my life. Been in 4 or 5 different countries that I feel at easy everywhere. I adapt immediately to a lot of customs wherever I go so there are really no boundaries for me in my life now.
BRAD BROWN: And having a sport like Triathlon really does bridge things too. It doesn’t matter where you are from in the world; we’ve got this one thing in common.
RODOLPHE VON BERG: Exactly, In fact I pick my races very often in relation to the country or the spot where they are. Places that I want to discover that usually I don’t know and it’s part of my race picking.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about how you got into the sport Rodolphe. Growing up, were you always active? What is your sporting background?
RODOLPHE VON BERG: It’s very active. Since I was 8, 9, 10 years old, I started to do all sorts of sport. I started with the team sports because in France you usually only have team sports in school. So I was part of the soccer team, basketball team, handball team. And then I switched to track and field. Then in the later years of high school, from 16 to 18 years, the last 3 years, I was in the varsity team of my school in the soccer, basketball, tennis, Alpine skiing and track and field.
A natural talent for sports
In track and field I was doing 5 events. So I was pretty much you could say, without being presumptuous or too arrogant, now that I’m 60 years old I think I can tell the truth right? I was pretty much a natural in sport. I picked up a sport real fast and I would immediately be in the varsity team of the school or the university. Because then when I went to college in Babson College in Massachusetts just outside Boston, I was in the varsity team of the soccer team, the tennis team and the Alpine skiing team. So you see, none of the triathlon sport yet.
BRAD BROWN: But in saying that, having a diverse sporting background and then coming into a sport like triathlon it really does help. Often we will see an athlete come in from a swimming background or a running background and they are really good at that one specific sport. But someone like you who has that all round ability, you found the transition into triathlon pretty easy I’m sure.
RODOLPHE VON BERG: I think that’s really the thing that helped me be reasonably good, reasonably fast. Swimming is something that usually you would say is so technical that you have to start learning when you’re a kid. In fact, I put all my children in the swimming pool at 5 or 6 years old to learn the technique. Because I only started to swim at 27 years old.
Learning to bike as an adult
Somehow, I don’t know if it is because all my life I’ve been watching sport on television. Just watching the people when I went in the pool I was reasonably good pretty fast. Biking, you know the idol of my youth was Eddy Merckx, the famous Belgian rider. I watched a lot of bike racing although I didn’t bike. Except a small hint with the Belgian National Ski Alpine team because we would do some hills with the bike as training for skiing.
But we would meet only twice a year so I would bike maybe 2 or 3 times a year. I really had not biked in my life until I was 27 years old. And running, I had done some running but it was 1k on the track and field team in high school which was nothing. We would train a month for that and that’s it. Then I, as a fluke, as a joke, as a bet, I did the Boston Marathon twice while I was in Babson College.
Lessons learned in your first marathon
The first year was 3 weeks of practice, and I didn’t finish obviously. And the second year was 2 months of practice and then I finished. But you know I was completely ignorant. I did that marathon without drinking a single cup of water because I thought that eating and drinking while doing sport was detrimental to you.
So my goal was to finish the Boston Marathon without taking any fluids whatsoever in the whole race. The last 10k was a horrendous nightmare. But I refused to walk one single metre and I finished the race in less than 4 hours, at 3:45. And I was on a pace of 2:30 after half the marathon when I completely collapsed. Then I learned my lesson and after that I learned to read a lot of things.
You don’t have to move to an island to train for Ironman
Then suddenly one day I heard about the World Triathlon, and the Ironman in Hawaii. It was in the Boston Globe. They were mentioning that a few wierdo’s were doing this race with 3 outrageous distances on an island. I said “what is this? This is impossible to do. Except if you move to the island and you train for a whole year just to do it”. Then it disappeared from my mind. About 2 years later at the end of college, while I was in New York, I was going back home. I was a commodities trainer but I was still in the soccer team. I was running around Central Park, I was still very active.
Then I saw a flyer of a big Apple Triathlon Club. There was a phone number and I called the guy. The guy was named Dan Hornick, I still remember his name. We talked for an hour on the phone and he hooked me. And that was 31st October 1983. On November 1st, my career as a triathlete started. It was in New York. I would swim or run in the morning and then in the spring, I would bike in the morning and then swim or run in the evening. The club was going to the Bahama Triathlon.
Meeting the Big 4 names in Triathlon
At the time it was a triathlon called The Diamond of the Stars. It was organised by a guy called, if I recall the name, Horner. He had brought multiple Hollywood stars. I remember Christine Brinkley for example that’s the name that pops us. But there were other people from the triathlon world. I remember Scott Tinley, it was the first time I met him there. And I think there were some others of the big 4. I think maybe Dave Scott was there, I’m not sure. That triathlon of the Bahamas was basically a half Ironman with weird distances. Maybe a little bit more in every sport and a little bit less but around the half Ironman distance. That was my first triathlon ever. And that hooked me for the rest. After that I did triathlon about every week.
At that time we were in 1984, and in 1984 you didn’t need to qualify for Hawaii. As a foreigner they almost invite you to come because they want foreigners. They didn’t want the Ironman to be only an American affair. So it was very easy to enter the race. With a few friends from New York, we went to the Ironman in Hawaii in October 1984.
Doing your swim training naked
All these months in New York I was training in a pool. In the beginning it was a pool that had about 14m. I had to do 112, 120 laps to do a kilometre or to do 1 mile. Then I switched to another pool. What was fun about that pool is that it was a pool of the New York AC. The New York Athletic Club and it’s not a joke what I’m going to tell you. We were obliged to swim naked. A man was not allowed to have a bathing suit. So all my training was swimming naked in that swimming pool in New York and that’s how I really got into swimming.
BRAD BROWN: That’s an incredible story Rodolphe, I absolutely love it. The sport has changed a lot since then. Obviously you had a very early experience on the Big Island in the early 80’s. You’ve been many times since. It’s a very different sport to what it was back then.
How Ironman changed through the years
RODOLPHE VON BERG: It’s a very different sport from all points of view. When you see my pictures in the 80’s with the bikes we had and the helmet we had. Just the way we were, it looked like prehistoric times. It’s almost like watching the Tour de France in the 1900’s, in the beginning. When you compare the bikes then and the bikes now. But the whole thing has also changed in Kona. Kona was this very small village, there were very few stores. There was no traffic on the highway. You could go to the airport and not see one single car. In a certain way it’s nostalgic; I have to tell you the truth.
It’s interesting because the other day, the other day was a few months ago in Kona, I was talking with Mark Allen who has remained a very dear friend, and we were talking about all these years. He was asking me “I would like to know from your point of view really what has changed? What can we do to make it better to improve the race now? Of course it will never feel as it did in the 80’s but what can we do?” We hear so many bad stories about Kona and the Ironman now. So many negative stories particularly around the fairness of the race and particularly because the drafting is very poorly marshalled and as a result we were talking about that.
The nostalgia of the early days of racing at Kona
And we realised that both he and me were very nostalgic about the 80’s. The 80’s for me, and for him it was the early 90’s because he didn’t really compete in the 80’s. So the whole thing has changed. It was a family affair. I remember Valerie Silk when I crossed the finish line, I don’t remember if it was 85 or 86, she sang Happy Birthday because it was my birthday on that day as I was crossing the finish line. Can you believe that? That never happens now. The race director singing when you crossing the finish line in Hawaii. It’s absolutely amazing; it just gives you an idea of how it has changed.
BRAD BROWN: You talk about it being a family affair. Your family has grown up around that race. You’ve got a son who is a pretty good triathlete in his own right as well.
Planning 20 years to win at Kona with your son
RODOLPHE VON BERG: I’m very subjective on that of course. I feel that he has great potential and he’s more than good. If he maximises the way he trains and if he does everything well, I think he should do extremely well. He’s really built; he’s made for the long distance more than for example, the IT distance. And I remember when he was still very young, he was about 16, 17 and Craig Alexander had just won Hawaii when he was 37 years old, I don’t think I’m making a mistake. And Rudy when he saw that he said “Hey Pappie I have 20 years to win Hawaii”.
He has that goal in his mind and someday I hope we will be together at the start of that race. With the goal, each one of us to win. Me in my category and himself to do the best he can in the pros. That would be interesting.
BRAD BROWN: That would be amazing. Rodolphe what’s the secret to your longevity? You talk about racing still today. You were talking about racing and hard racing in the early 80’s. How do you stay fresh and on top of your game and not got burnt out over that length of time?
Be loyal to sport to build a healthy body
RODOLPHE VON BERG: Well, I think the motivation comes from many different places. I think it comes originally, from my inner inside, if I can say. As you said at the beginning of the telecast, I was always very active when I was young. I recall in my adolescence I was really ashamed of myself physically. During the summer months I was always embarrassed to not be wearing a t-shirt. I was embarrassed to be topless because I felt I was too skinny and I had no muscles. That put me in sport since my early youth and I never left that sport environment. For me it was a way to double up myself and to be healthy.
Then I noticed little by little, as I told you in the beginning I was pretty good in sports. Immediately, I was in varsity teams and I loved it. I loved the sports and I loved the competition. Also, I love to win and I love to be the best that I can be in something. To study all power meters and to try to manage everything and to really, at the end of the day, to maximise my potential in something.
Where does your motivation come from?
But I’ve done that not only in sport, I’ve done that in everything and I always try to do it the best that I could be at that thing. That developed through my adolescence and through my college year I was always very active. Then when my family came I started to find my motivation somewhere else. I said ok, how can I be the best father possible for my children? I’m going to try to lead by example and I’m going to try to show them what a healthy life is and I’m going to tell them about nutrition. I am going to try to fight the pernicious influence of society.
When my children were in school there were lots of drugs, lots of cigarettes. Lots of [inaudible], no sports. So a lot of negative influence that was coming from all over the place. I was trying with my wife to fight that at home. We also tried to not be invaded by all the technological advances of society. Some are good but some are really not good when they enter your home and they have your children in front of them for hours during the day.
Sport is a healthy lifestyle for your family
Just to give you an example, all these game things, the Nintendo, the game box. One has never entered the first 20 years of my children’s life, in my home. Really, we kept these things outside and we put them in sports immediately. We taught them about nutrition, we taught them about health. At the end of the day they were always telling me when they come back home, you know Dad, in my class there are 30 guys and girls in my class. There are only 3 of us that don’t smoke and there are only 2 of us that do any sport. They were kind of very proud of that. It shows that the fight was hard and it was very important for us as parents to do that.
So that was increased motivation and for me to keep on racing and to keep some years to be the best in the world in my age group and to show that to them. All these trips, once they were grown enough, basically once they were 5 years old, we would bring them all to all the races. We would go abroad and they were all major races. In Hawaii, in Ironman, in Austria, all the places we went they came with us.
Health is my main motivation
So that was the second main motivation in my life. In a certain way it was an educational tour. It was really geared towards my children. Now they’re not here anymore. They’re all grown up and live somewhere else so now we have to find motivation somewhere else again.
You know, really, when you’re 60 and you start to have some discomfort, not health problems, but some weaknesses that start to appear. After 50 years of age, some joints, some things, whatever. I then started to realise that health becomes my main motivation. Health is paramount for me and for me to have that health, to have that longevity, I cannot be sedentary. I have to keep on doing sports. The healthy sports, among all the sports that exist in the world, the 4 healthy sports, 3 of them are in triathlon. Swim, bike, run. The 4th one is cross-country skiing. Why? Because these 4 sports are what I call straight sports. It means you are doing them basically in a straight line.
You see you don’t have torsions like in all team sports. You don’t have torsions of your ankle, of your knees like in squash, or tennis. Those are sports that many people over 40 or 50 keep on doing, but it’s not good for them. So in a certain way, the best way to be healthy in your life is to do triathlon because you have 3 of them. You get 3 of them for the whole deal. It’s fantastic. So if you don’t have any structural problems and you don’t have major health issues, the best way to have long term health is to do triathlon.
Follow a training program tailored to your abilities
And now while you’re doing them, you obviously have to know yourself. Then all training programs need to be tailored with one person. We’re all so different I don’t believe the people who use the training plans that are basically made for everybody. Each one of us needs to know oneself very well and then to adapt the training program to itself. We know very well that after 55, after 60, physiologically in a triathlon, in an Ironman, we’re really not built any more to be able to race a marathon. At most, I feel you can survive the marathon but you cannot really race it.
So if anybody wants to be competitive, like I do, when I’m 65, 70, 75, 80, 85. One day I hope to be the oldest person to have finished the Ironman in Hawaii within 17 hours. I remember when I was interviewed 20 years ago; I mentioned that out of the blue in the interview. It was kept as a title. Unfortunately in a certain way my children, almost every 2 or 3 years they remind me of that. Hey Dad, remember one day you’ll be the oldest person to finish Hawaii. This means to win Hawaii in your age group you have to be there. Now you’re 60, be careful, you have a few broken bones. You had a very bad accident 5 years ago. You have to be careful on these roads with the cars. We want to see you when you’re 80, 85.
Your return on investment in triathlon
But the only way to get there is to manage everything I’m doing now in relation to sports, with that in mind. And I’m thinking that the race, the European Championship in 2 weeks, or the World Championship in October or September, it’s the end of my life, or it’s the end goal. That’s not the end goal. So in order to still be competitive in 20 years from now, I have to prepare for that now already. I have to be smart now already. That’s why everything is a return on investment. I calculate the time and the energy spent in an activity and the reward and the return I’m getting for it.
If I have to spend lots of hours in the car for example, I’m taking that as an example, so for the swim. In the car, to get to the pool this is 30 minutes away. Then I have to come back, and then we don’t have masters programs here in France like we have in the States. So you have to basically swim alone in the pool. To gain what? To gain in a half Ironman I’m going to gain what? Maybe 30 seconds, maybe 1 minute? I mean this is ridiculous.
The decision not to swim 6 months of the year
So I have decided I’m not swimming from October to April, except of course if I’m injured. If I’m injured, have a bad injury, I had a bad injury this winter. My first hamstring tears in 40 years so I swam a bit more. But let’s suppose I don’t have that, I will not swim from October to April because it’s not worth it. The gain I’m getting out of the energy and time spent on it is not worth it.
Now I’m switching to running. If you want to still be able to run at 80, 85, there is no way you’ll get there. If I run, and I’m not going to give you very high mileage, if I run 50 or 60 kilometres a week when I’m 60, I will not make it. So I have an average, even in an Ironman year, between 25 and 29 kilometres a week. That’s my average. I can show you my training log. That’s the way I’m going to do it.
Train smart now to still race in 20 years
Provided I’m lucky, I’m not facing cars during my bike training which is perhaps the biggest danger we face as triathletes. As you can see in the news there are so many that get hurt and killed that it’s terrible. But providing the good star is still there, if I minimize the pounding and the running. And I train smart in the running and everything else, and of course we’re talking also about nutrition where we, I consider we eat now extremely well for the last 20 years. We really eat extremely healthy, and I think it’s also one of the major parts of ‘my present success’ then you can see a road map towards the next 20, 25 years of my life.
BRAD BROWN: Racing Ironman, that’s incredible. Rodolphe you’ve been on the Big Island for the best part of 4 decades essentially. Is there 1 race that really sticks out in your mind as a favourite within all that time? Or is that too difficult to answer?
RODOLPHE VON BERG: My favourite race is not Hawaii. It’s not the Ironman, I’m telling you right now. In a certain way perhaps if you’d asked me the question at the end of the 80’s or early 90’s, I might have said Kona because of the reason I mentioned before. It was a much smaller race. The drafting was very well marshalled, so basically it was a fair race. It was the most competitive race in the world and it was a fair race. Now it’s not a fair race anymore.
World Championship must be the fairest race in the world
Last year, even though I won it, I really did not enjoy it I have to tell you the truth, I hated it in fact. Because the race was so unfair on the bike. There was so much cheating. Frankly I was completely disgusted and I really didn’t like it so I posted a huge post on Facebook which had a lot of feedback. In the hope that some people are going to do something in Hawaii. I hope they are going to change, for example, the swim start.
This is one of the reasons why the bike is so clogged because there are too many people. You have to start having an age group wave start. Even though some people like the mass swim start but it’s not reasonable anymore. You have to decide. It’s the World Championship. It has to be the fairest race in the world. It cannot be the least fair race in the world. It’s the World Championships, come on, it has to be the best race in the world from all points of view and it’s definitely not.
Kona not my favourite race
So now to come back to your question, I think I really loved the Ironman in Holt in Germany. The atmosphere was fantastic in not only around the finish line, the atmosphere was fantastic. Then the crowds are amazing in all the hills. When I was doing it in the 90’s, if I recall we were doing 2 loops of 90km and there were about 2 major hills in the 3rd one. But on these 3 hills there were huge crowds. On one of them there was exactly 1 yard to go through on the bike. There was so much, a little bit like when you see the stage in the Tour de France, you see like the US, they’re going up, everybody’s touching the race.
The exhilaration of the atmosphere, support and enthusiasm
I think it was last year, where did Chris Froome fall? You know in the mobile tour when he was running? It was exactly like that in Holt. Really, we had 1 yard to put your body and the bike and there was no way that 2 bikes could go side by side. But for an athlete, the atmosphere and the support of the people and the enthusiasm of the whole crowd was exhilarating. You would not feel any tiredness once you’re there. So I think I really can say Ironman Holt was, it’s not an Ironman race now anymore I think it’s owned by Challenge, that was my favourite race.
BRAD BROWN: Fantastic. Rodolphe I’m looking forward to chatting a little bit about the individual disciplines and some of the lessons that you’ve learnt and things that you’re implementing in your training right now. We’ll save that for another podcast. Thanks for your time today.
RODOLPHE VON BERG: Okay.
Brad Brown is a 40 something age grouper that dreams of one day qualifying for and racing on the big island (He may have to outlive everyone in his age group though).
Morbidly obese in 2009, Brad clocked in at 165kgs (363lbs) at his heaviest.
He's subsequently lost a third of his body weight on the way to a half Ironman pb of 5:06 and a full Ironman pb of 12:21.
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