On this edition of The Kona Edge we meet up with Steve Mantell. Steve burst onto the Ironman scene not long ago and after racing as an Age Grouper, has decided to turn pro. We discover how important it is to have a good team you can train with and the value of a support structure. He talks about the obsession of Triathlon and the balance to your life in having other people around you.
BRAD BROWN: We head to Colorado now to catch up with our next guest here on The Kona Edge and it’s a great pleasure to welcome onto the podcast Steve Mantell. Steve welcome, thanks for joining us.
STEVE MANTELL: Hey, thanks for having me.
BRAD BROWN: Steve, I’m pretty stoked to have you on. You had an incredible race in Kona in 2015, you literally just burst onto the scene. You haven’t been around the sport for a long time and you’ve picked it up like an absolute natural.
The great Triathlon community
STEVE MANTELL: It’s a really interesting sport, I think it’s kind of something that a lot of people can get into. I’ve just had a lot of fun and had a lot of help along the way where people have taught me how to do well and I think it’s a sport where if you work hard and you want to, I don’t know, just continue improving, it’s good for that.
BRAD BROWN: Absolutely. Let’s talk about your childhood. Triathlon hasn’t been a part of your life for that long. But you were an active youngster, you played a bit of sport, it wasn’t triathlon, but you were into some other things?
STEVE MANTELL: Yeah, I grew up in Minnesota and it’s really cold there the majority of the year. So I tell people, pretty much when it gets to November, it’s really cool and we have ice rinks outside. So there’s all the baseball fields, pretty much a few in every neighborhood. We flood the baseball fields and turn them into hockey rinks. In Minnesota, hockey is pretty much life and so I grew up playing hockey, really loved it, loved to skate, loved to be outside, loved to play, just compete and I played soccer as well.
I really liked that sport. I like the team sports, just being part of something bigger and working towards a common goal and I met a lot of really cool kids and just some phenomenal athletes and teams I was a part of, but yeah, I did hockey and soccer when I was younger. Throughout high school was pretty competitive with them and I went to Colorado State University for my undergrad and I wanted to play hockey there and they have like a club sport. It’s not like a university funded thing, but it’s just, it’s still pretty competitive.
I played hockey at Colorado State in my freshman year and it just was a little bit different. It was different to what I had back in Minnesota. The style of hockey and it was just, I don’t know, I wasn’t having as much fun as I was expecting to and as much as I wanted to. And so that spring I ended up joining, there was a club triathlon team at CSU as well and I joined that and everybody was really welcoming and it was a great environment.
It pushed me. I showed up to a swim practice and just got my ass kicked and I really liked it from then on. The coaches were awesome, team mates were awesome and a lot of really good memories. I’m still pretty involved with the team and it’s really awesome to have been a part of it these past few years as it’s attracted a lot more kids and yeah, just grown. It’s really cool, a good sport, even though it’s an individual sport, it’s really good to have a team. I think it’s good to have a team or other people that you can train with on a regular basis. That’s how I got into triathlon. I knew I wanted to do endurance stuff eventually and so my sister suggested that I give triathlon a shot, that’s about it.
BRAD BROWN: I’m glad you brought up the individual side of triathlon. It’s interesting that someone who came from a team sport perspective and loved the team sport side of things, ended up in a sport, and Ironman can get very lonely at times, but you mentioned the group of people that you train with and get to hang out with, outside of an actual race and it’s important to have that support structure around you, particularly if you want to go on and do the longer stuff and get better at the longer stuff.
STEVE MANTELL: Absolutely, I think like everything, there needs to be a good balance. It’s good to have people around you if you want to push yourself. I think it’s easier to push yourself with other people around you, if you’ve got a hard session. But I also think it’s also important to be able to step back and if you need a recovery session, if you need an easier day, if you need some time to yourself, then it’s good to be able to train on your own a bit as well.
Eventually you’re going to be racing on your own, so you should be able to do it a little bit, but it’s always good, having a group gives you a lot more motivation. Other people have other stuff going on in their lives and I think it’s easy to, especially with the longer distances, to get totally consumed with how much training you’re doing, how much you should be doing, worrying about all that. When you’re interacting with other people you realise that other people are there for you, it’s not like you’re suffering out there on your own. Other people care about you and there’s other things going on in the world.
Triathlon might be an obsession, you might really like it. But in the big scheme of things, it’s really just a hobby and we’re all doing it to enjoy it, and I think having other people around you really gives you a bigger sense of balance to your life.
BRAD BROWN: Steve, you mentioned that first swim session you did where you got your, as you put it, your ass handed to you, I find that really funny. But you must have discovered pretty soon that you were fairly good at this, like I said when we started, you really burst onto the scene and you’re pretty quick. We’ll talk about some of the splits in a moment, but when did you realise that you know what, I can be pretty good at this thing?
STEVE MANTELL: I don’t think there was an exact moment, I’ve always been just competitive, like when I get in a race, I like to race. I think there’s been, I’ve just progressively kind of learned that I didn’t really ever concern myself with my own results. I just kind of went out and raced and whatever happened, happened and other people would kind of look at it and be like wow, that was amazing.
I think probably after, for Colorado State University there’s like a Collegiate National Championship and that was like, I loved that race, it’s a really competitive race every day and we would, as a team, we’d kind of focus on that each year, and so my second and third year racing that, I did pretty well. And so I was right up there, working my way up on the run, like with some people that I had always been looking up to. I knew they were fast and I still don’t consider myself incredible, I just work hard and I like going out and racing hard.
I think it doesn’t matter to me past results. I just want to keep on improving and I’m in the sport really to just see how far I can go and really just enjoy it. I think probably this year, once I’ve started competing as a pro, I really like being able to, at least be close to some of these really elite guys, even just starting and watching them. Starting on the same start line as them and watching how they race and go about it and be close to them. I think any time anybody sees themselves able to hang with them on the bike or on the run, then that gives you a lot of positive reinforcement that you’re doing something right. And it’s just really cool to be a part of somebody else’s race as well.
BRAD BROWN: Talk to me about the distances and the step up to do an Ironman. It’s big, it’s a long time, it’s not a decision that can be taken lightly. What’s your favourite distance to race and why Ironman? You’ve raced a couple, you’ve raced in Kona, you obviously like the distance, you’re good at it, but what’s the attraction?
The addiction of the sport
STEVE MANTELL: I do like Ironman, I like it a lot. I wish I could race it a lot more frequently, but it just takes so much out of your body. I think probably my favourite distance is probably half Ironman right now, it’s tricky. I’m still working on figuring things out, but you’re on the limit, for four hours and it’s really hard to figure out nutrition. Whereas for an Ironman, for me at least, it’s kind of like just a go all day sort of pace.
You can’t really ever go too hard the first 6-7 hours because then you’re going to blow up and yeah, the task of doing Ironman is really daunting. It’s really attractive because it’s so epic and to even think about, I mean riding 100 miles itself is a hard day. It’s a long day and then to think about, you have to run a marathon after that, that’s insane! Looking back at the distance, it’s like I had no idea how I did that, let alone why.
We would do anything, like a challenge, but Kona was an awesome experience. I think nothing else is like it, with the atmosphere, the difficulty of the course, with everybody there, it’s really awesome. I don’t know, I think Ironman is attractive just because people want to get there and in your head the distance just seems impossible. So when you’re doing it and when you finish it, it’s like wow, I just did something impossible and that’s addictive.
BRAD BROWN: It is. Steve, it’s interesting you talk about wanting to race them as often as you can and obviously the toll it takes on your body, it’s not really possible. One of the downsides I find with Ironman is, it’s almost impossible to have the perfect race. There’s always something you feel that could have gone better and the opportunities to try and fix those don’t come around very often and it’s almost, you talk about the addictive nature of it, it’s almost that, that sucks you in and keeps you coming back for more.
STEVE MANTELL: Totally. Even if you win. I’m sure there’s something, you could pick apart your race where there’s something you could have improved on. And yeah, like with Ironman, you have 8-9-10-11 hours where something could go wrong and if it happens early on and if it’s big enough, it’s going to affect four more hours of your race and that’s what is so tough.
If you pace wrong, if you get your nutrition wrong, if you get a flat and you let it get to your head, I’ve heard people say this and it’s really just about how you respond to these setbacks. It’s not about, necessarily, how hard can you push yourself, but how are you going to respond to a setback. That’s what I think is really cool about Ironman and a lot of people that do well at it, it’s like, okay, maybe I’m not feeling great, but how am I going to adapt to this? How am I going to change my race plan so that I can get through this and still finish.
It’s so hard to go into such a long day with a time in your head, when so many things could affect that and there’s so many things out of your control that really might affect your race. And like we were talking about, the whole frequency of Ironman, running a marathon after that long ride, takes so much out of your body, at least for me personally, and the age that I’ve done it.
I’ve talked to people that are older and I feel okay after about three weeks and I can kind of, I can do some training after a week or so but I’m so out of it. Mentally I feel like my hormones are all messed up and I’m not in it mentally at all and it takes a good two months before I’m back and feeling normal again. And to race three or four Ironman’s a year, I just feel like you can’t do a proper buildup. Get ready for the race, recover correctly and then get ready again. I personally, I like racing frequently and being able to just empty the tank as much as I can and Ironman, you can empty the tank, but your body is really damaged after that. So personally, I like to do the shorter races where I can race more frequently, recover for them better and being that I’m younger still, I know I need to focus more on my speed.
Eventually I hope to do more of the Ironman stuff, maybe I will in the next few years for fun, but right now I think it’s over rated to just step up to that big distance right away. I think nobody should really do four or five Ironman’s a year, I think it’s good to focus on some speed and really enjoy the sport. If you want to enjoy it, you can race more instead of just having to do five hour ride after five hour ride to get ready for an Ironman.
BRAD BROWN: You mentioned that you’re still young, you were in the 18-24 age group in Kona 2015, have you found that doing an Ironman has slowed you down, that top end speed is not quite, maybe it comes back after a few months, but soon after an Ironman that top end speed is just not there for you?
STEVE MANTELL: Totally, yeah, I’m very sure it’s the same for everyone. I mean if you want to run fast, you’ve got to run fast and that’s how you’ve got to train and the more marathons, and I think being a younger age, my body isn’t totally developed yet, at least that’s what people tell me, I don’t know. I think yeah, the more marathons you run at this age, probably isn’t the best idea, just you’re running at the fastest 6:30 to 7:00 minute pace and if you want to be competitive at the shorter distances, then it’s not ideal to spend that much time at the longer distances.
I did the Ironman Florida two Falls ago to qualify for Kona and I had done like a month and a half of Ironman specific training and I had good speed going into it. I did a lot of Olympic distance racing that summer and I remember, I didn’t honour the amount of rest that I needed, recovery after that Ironman and I tried to build up speed again too quickly and it was the next winter and spring was really tough to get it back. I think as we get older and we do more of these races, we learn how much it takes out of you and just to really be patient with getting speed back. I think if you look at it more of a long term, big picture thing, I think it’s easier to not stress over getting your speed back. It’s going to take time, it’s a process, but if you’re running, you’re getting your body used to it again and you can build back up. I don’t think it’s impossible, but I think it’s definitely difficult.
BRAD BROWN: Steve you alluded to it as well, turning pro, the decision to go from being a competitive age grouper to possibly thinking, I want to give this a bash and see if I can make a living out of it, talk me through that.
STEVE MANTELL: 2016 is my first year trying to race as a professional and in the US you have to qualify for your pro card by doing well at a couple, there’s a few different ways you can qualify. I started qualifying to get my pro card for my third or fourth year racing and pretty much at every race that I was able to, I was qualifying for it and I got a lot of pressure initially to take it and start racing pro because a lot of people make the jump that like, if you qualify, you should take it. If you qualify, that means you’re supposed to race pro, but I was working with my coach Jonathan Mason here at CSU and I was really hesitant because I had no idea and no desire to get my pro card.
The decision to go pro
I had no idea I could earn it at this race, I didn’t know until a few months later or even after the season that a lot of these races I would have been able to take my pro card, but I really was doing it, I’m doing triathlon to be competitive and just push myself. That’s why at all of the races, I had no desire to race at that level just yet and after a few years I was towards the front of a lot of the amateur races and I was placing well, or decently, like middle of the pack of the pros and I started to think, okay, maybe I can race with these guys.
Last year the whole focus for me was Kona and that was like the big race for me for the whole year and at the other races I did, I was placing well amongst other pros even though I was an age grouper. I didn’t really have the competitiveness that I had the first few years of age group racing, unless I was racing in Colorado, there’s some really fast age groupers in Colorado.
Unless I was racing here, it was like, I’m kind of on my own, I’m kind of left to pushing myself on my own and after Kona I talked with my coach and a lot of people around me and we thought about it and decided it would be a good move for me. What I mostly wanted to get out of it though, I wanted to put myself against the best and feel that competitiveness again and be in a situation where I’m pushed to my limit and I have to respond and it’s definitely done that for sure.
It’s really difficult to make a living as a professional triathlete. I think it takes a lot of hard work and a lot of consistent performances over the years. I’m going to try, I’m not pushing anything. I’m not in any hurry to get there right now.
Enjoy your Ironman and avoid burnout
I want to make sure I’m enjoying the sport and not getting burnt out. I think having a team around you that’s going to support you, if you’re going to turn pro, is really important. I think my support network in [inaudible 0.21.21] and my family and my friends and the people who I have connected with over the years, through triathlon, have been with me and supported me and I know they’re going to still be there these next few years if I do well or if I don’t do so well. And there’s going to be times where I’m really high and feeling great and there’s going to be times where it’s low and I think if I had stepped up to the pro distance to compete in the pro ranks too early, then I would have gotten beaten really bad and I’ve known some people where that’s happened to them and they have just not responded well.
It can really crush you mentally if you’re not prepared to take that beating. For example, if you’re dominating the amateur ranks and you earn your pro card, take it right away, think you’re awesome and you go race and you get beat really bad and then what? Then you expected something and you didn’t get it and that’s a huge let down.
Everybody defines success differently, but I’m happy with how we’ve built that. How we’ve developed training and developed me as an athlete throughout the past few years to just be in a good position to compete and that’s what we want to do is just be competitive at different races and push and learn and this whole year is about learning and I’m motivated.
I would like to race and I’d like to continue my training and getting better and just see where it can go. If something works out where I can live off triathlon, then that’s awesome. But if not, I’m going to be happy with just giving it my best shot and hopefully I will have been able to have a good time, travel cool places, meet some other cool people and I’ve got a lot of good stories to tell already, so yeah, it’s been fun.
BRAD BROWN: What’s been the biggest surprise to you with that step up, has it been harder than you thought it would be or is it what you expected?
Meauring up to the pro’s on the same course on the same day
STEVE MANTELL: It’s hard to know, you see these pros racing all the time and you don’t really know what it feels like. This year, as I said, the goal was to just gain experience. So first of all, in North America Ironman has consolidated a lot of, so I focused on half Ironman races and Ironman has consolidated a lot of the races. Kind of taking away prize money from some so that the fields are more competitive and obviously there’s more races that are more competitive because there’s more prize money.
I’ve picked very difficult races on purpose. I know I would probably not make any money this year, so my first race was Puerto Rico. In the past it’s been a little bit less competitive, but Tim O’Donnell showed up, [inaudible 0.24.41] showed up, Chris Leiferman, some really good racers were there and I was very conservative on the bike because I knew there was a hard run, so I didn’t really race as hard as I might have wanted to. But the next race I did was Oceanside which is the big first hit out for a lot of the top pros in North America and there was probably 15-20 guys on the start list that could have won, that could have been in the top five, it was ridiculously competitive.
I was swimming in the water and I looked next to myself and I see Jessie Thomas is right there and then I saw Sebastian Kienle was on my other side and I was just so, I mean it was incredible, just to be, I was racing against these guys and I ended up coming out of the water with them and in the water I knew, okay, these guys are going to just hit the bikes so hard because they’re incredible bikers and I basically just prepared myself mentally to hurt as much as I could to try and stay with them.
I got on my shoes as fast as I could, tried to get a little bit of a head start and all of a sudden they came by and I just hung on for dear life. Even if I would have tried drafting, I let them get too big of a gap anyways and so it was just stay in touch, keep them in sight. I kept them in sight probably through maybe 40 miles on the bike, I could see them up ahead the whole time and they just gradually pulled away but that hour or so, a little bit over an hour where I was just on the limit, just holding on, but doing it, like I was holding onto these guys that I had watched race, it was awesome, it was really cool.
It showed me that if I’m willing to do that, if I’m willing to hurt, that I can stay with these guys and that I don’t know, they’re just people too. If I’m hurting, they’re hurting and I think after the race Jessie posted on Stravea: Oh my God, that hurt – or something like that. It was good to know that this wasn’t just a normal ride, they were riding really hard too. I think it’s been good for me to see how hard these guys race, how hard these top guys race in order to be the best and that motivates me to, I don’t think you have to turn yourself inside out every day in training, but to really make sure that you’re working hard and that you’re willing to really hurt when it counts on the bike and on the run. Still working on that, but it’s motivating to be able to have just been in the same race and been in person witnessing this happen.
BRAD BROWN: I think that’s one of the big attractions to Kona as well and I know right now Kona is probably, you’re talking about getting faster and I’m sure you want to get back to the Big Island, but as an age grouper in 2015, racing on the Big Island, that’s a pretty cool experience too. You talk about being on the same course as the best athletes in the world and it must be a great feeling with the turnaround points on the Big Island, where you get to see how you’re faring against the best athletes in the world on the same course, on the same day.
STEVE MANTELL: I think that’s one of the things that makes triathlon unique, is if you’re at a race where there are the top pros in the world, then you can compare yourself to them because it’s the same course, the same day, relatively the same conditions and yes, I might have been more excited seeing them on the climb up to Hawi. I was enough towards the front of the age group race where I didn’t really have to worry about drafting or whatever, there’s enough gaps and so I was like, I wonder who is going to be coming down first, is it going to be Kienle, just off the front hammering, is it going to be, I don’t know Frodeno and it was so cool because you watch it on TV, we see these big packs and that’s what it was like, them coming down. First you see the helicopter off in the distance coming down towards you and then they just come and it’s like oh my God, there’s Tim, oh my God, Frodeno, heads just snapping back and forth watching them go by and everybody you had followed for the past two years and for a few minutes I forget about my race and just want to watch what’s going down there and yeah, it’s so cool.
Then seeing them on the run too and seeing them on the run is really, it’s interesting because they seem untouchable. When they’re on the run and the marathon, they’re on the Queen K, they’re hurting so bad, it looks really painful and just to see they’re human and that they hurt as well. I don’t know, you suffer better when you have other company, so it’s motivating to see that and motivating to see how they react and fight through it. Kona is incredible with that, it’s so cool to see these idols out there doing their thing and just watching them, it’s really awesome.
BRAD BROWN: I love that. Steve, thanks for sharing your journey with us into the sport, best of luck. I look forward to getting you back on to chat a little bit about the four disciplines, the swim, bike, run and nutrition, but we’ll save that for another one. Thanks so much for your time today.
STEVE MANTELL: Awesome, thank you Brad, have a good one.
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