The original version of this article, “The Natural,” was written by LAVA Magazine senior editor Jay Prasuhn and was published in the July 2013 issue of LAVA Magazine:
Sipping a post-lunch coffee in St. George, Utah, as he prepares for the Ironman 70.3 U.S. Championships, Sebastian Kienle harks back to last October, specifically to the minutes when he was leading the Ironman World Championship.
Grinding as big a gear as possible, Kienle soared upwards of 50 miles per hour, bombing down from Hawi like a freight train. Belgian Marino Vanhoenacker put everything he had into his pedals to hang on as the rest of the lead men were still making their way uphill toward the turnaround.
“Wouldn’t it be an advantage to be in the group?” the man most call “Sebi” asks hypothetically, eyes gazing into the distance. “I don’t think so. If you ever led Hawaii on the bike, you know. It gives you so much power on the bike—it’s such a rush. You’re smiling all the time. Well, not smiling like Chrissie [Wellington], but smiling inside.”
He sips his coffee, sits back and grins. A flat tire took him out of the lead, but he fought back on the run to finish a remarkable fourth in his Big Island debut. At 28 years old, he knows he has nothing but time.
As eye-opening as Kienle’s Vegas show was, many thought his Kona debut a month later would be simply for the experience—and many were wrong. Capturing the lead group, he rode through it, made the turn at Hawi and joined Belgian Marino Vanhoenacker in turning the screws.
“I saw Marino (Vanhoenacker) was having a good effort after the turn and I screamed across to him, ‘If you want to go together, I’ll be there in a minute!’” he recalls. Sure enough, the young German caught up to the Belgian—but instead of tag-teaming the breakaway effort, Kienle unintentionally proceeded to pull away.
Vanhoenacker recalls, “He was going so hard, I yelled at him, ‘I think you need to go; I can’t keep that pace.’ He slowed a bit so we could work together and motivate each other.”
Then it happened: a flat tire. The Queen K Express lost its locomotive. Vanhoenacker soldiered on ahead alone, while Kienle stood on the roadside waiting for race support to swap his wheel. The minutes-long wait put him behind the chasers. Advantage gone, he was back in pursuit.
Vanhoenacker led the race into T2 with a buffer, attacked the run, detonated and dropped out. But Kienle rolled out onto Ali’i Drive and ran like a veteran, at first using former Ironman world champ Faris Al-Sultan as a guide, later striding away from his countryman to claim fourth. If the Vegas 70.3 win didn’t make you sit up and take notice, this fourth-place Kona debut certainly did. And, of course, there was talk of what might have happened had he not flatted.
What if he hadn’t flatted? What if he had been able to run off the bike with Vanhoenacker? Could he have held off Jacobs, perhaps done something only one other man—Luc van Lierde—has done and won a world title on debut? Kienle dismisses it.
“No—I don’t think about it,” Kienle says about the flat. “I learned from it. What I did was prove to myself that I’m theoretically capable of winning this thing. I know I can do it. Everything else is being patient. I felt like I won something and not that I let go of a potential win because of bad luck. People around the sport say the chance (to win) was probably there. I still think Jacobs could have gone faster if he was pushed. Who knows?”
While guys like Chris Lieto keep their power data under lock and key (to the point where he’ll pack his head unit away from prying eyes immediately after a race), Kienle considers power data to be less important to his success than many would believe. “It’s like playing a video game; you’re always chasing the high score,” he says. So he ditched the power meter.
And he also recognized that the game has changed—the line between the specialists is now blurred. And he says that’s a good thing.
“It’s not like five years ago, when we had the bikers and we had the runners. Crowie [Craig Alexander] and Jacobs have both improved their bikes. Nobody has big weaknesses anymore,” he says. “Still, there are people who can try to decide the race on the bike. That’s what’s exciting and good for the sport—anything can happen. I don’t even want to win a race by 10 minutes. I want to win a sprint by one second. Races like [Ironman] 70.3 Galveston with T. O. [Tim O’Donnell]—collapsing across the finish—those are the races that excite me.”
With a laugh, he adds, “Of course if you ask me that same question during the race, I’ll tell you I want those 10 minutes, so I can celebrate down the finish with the flag!”
That kind of buffer will require a perfect day—one Kienle said he’s waiting for. So why not in October? I’ve never had a really good run at a long-course race,” Kienle admits. “Honestly, I think I’m capable of doing way better than 2:48. But being capable is different than executing.”
But don’t expect him to ride up to the lead group and settle in at any race. For Kienle, riding like a bat out of hell is an emotional power surge to his race.
“Guys like Crowie and Macca [Chris McCormack] don’t need to show what they’re capable of for confidence—they can wait,” he says. “It’s probably not the smartest thing for most people to race emotionally to get this self-confidence, but for me, it’s a good way to race. It’s something I do for the rush. It truly makes me mentally strong. That’s an advantage you don’t have in a group. To ride to the front on the bike, I can prove to myself that yeah, I’m strong, I’m good. That’s huge energy for my race.”
The tactic, of course, has a lovely by-product: it forces the run favorites out of their comfort zone on the bike, and results in what Kienle calls “a completely different kind of running.” Some might call it chaos. “People talk about what they’re going to run, but you don’t know until you dismount from the bike. Nobody runs together off the bike; they’re all on their own,” he says. “Nobody is running a sub-2:40 marathon anymore.”
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