At school, as every child knows, you learn lessons for life. However, it's less widely known that you can also lay the foundations for your future on the journey into school. But Laura Philipp's development into the world's best extreme triathlete is a story full of unusual twists and turns. And so it is fitting that the Karlsruhe-born athlete still draws on the experiences she once had on her way to the Walldorf School in Wieblingen and back to her home in Lobbach: back then, the sixth-form pupil covered 60 kilometres a day on her bike, going up several hills in the process. During the hours spent on her mountain bike, the exceptional athlete discovered her passion for pushing herself to the limit, for battling through pain and, above all, learned that physical limits lie far beyond those we usually define for ourselves.
Back then, she would never have imagined that 15 years later, she would complete the Ironman in Hawaii and break the world record for the competition. After all, Laura Philipp wasn't even a particularly good swimmer as a teenager; her main concern when in the water was simply to stay afloat: "The only contact I had with water was when I had a shower,'' she says now.
She completed her first triathlon at the age of 24, then her rise to the top of the sport began at an age when most elite athletes are drawing the curtain on their careers. To begin with, she didn't even know the rules of the competition, and her rivals had spent their entire adult lives geared around the demands of competitive triathlon training. 18 years on from the bike rides home from school and after thousands of hours of training, Philipp is now travelling to Hawaii at the age of 35 to try and win the Ironman in record time and crown herself the fastest triathlete in history.
Shortly before taking off for the jaw-droppingly beautiful chain of islands, Philipp is back in the Kraichgau. In Zuzenhausen, she pays a visit to the training ground of TSG Hoffenheim, who she will be representing in Hawaii. You can see in every fibre of her being that she is bursting with anticipation for the upcoming competition, which has been cancelled in both the past two years. She laughs, but her eyes are filled with an unmistakable steely intent: Laura Philipp is ready. She is looking forward to the upcoming ordeal, the start of the punishing 3.8 km swim, the merciless heat on the 180.2 km bike ride, then the mentally and physically torturous marathon to finish off the ultra triathlon. It will take her just over eight hours to complete a course that most mere mortals would struggle to get through in a week.
Philipp also counted herself as a mere mortal for most of her life - however, the journeys to school hinted at a special talent that would only be unlocked later on. "The ride home was always a bit tough. I was always short of energy, got on my bike hungry after the last lesson of the day and then rode home for another hour. There was always a hill right at the end, and my stomach would be in knots with the hunger." But she always fought through the pain - and jumped back in the saddle the next day. Even back then, Laura Philipp was a fighter, disciplined, hard on herself and with a clear goal in mind. But at the same time, she was also a young woman who enjoyed the pleasures of life, who liked to party and for a long time didn't really know what she wanted to do professionally.
The fact that she now earns her money as a professional athlete makes her "proud", but when she looks back, she can't help but laugh. "I would never have thought that it would turn out like this - and my parents certainly wouldn't have either," she says. That said, her first involvement with triathlon came in a professional context.
''I'm a Hoffenheim fan''
Hoffenheim at the Ironman in Hawaii - what sounds unbelievable will become reality on 6 October. Laura Philipp will be there representing the club in the world's most famous triathlon. This special link-up was made possible by fitness coach Christian Neitzert, who works with both the club's Bundesliga squad as well as the exceptional athlete from the Kraichgau and brought the two parties together. "I'm a Hoffenheim fan and I'm also a frequent visitor to the stadium. Competitive sport inspires me, and I find it incredible to experience the games live in the arena. It's a completely different feeling than watching on TV. In addition, I was able to take advantage of the sensational facilities at TSG during my preparations. The training ground, with all the options available here, is a paradise for me. My heart gets racing just thinking about it. I find it incredible that I have something like this right on my doorstep. At some point, I got the fun idea in my head that I could represent TSG - and now it's become reality. I'm very happy because Hoffenheim are a really cool club from my home region. It just fits and feels right," says the 35-year-old. The cooperation with Neitzert has long since paid off for Philipp. Now she can officially compete for TSG Hoffenheim and fly the flag for her favourite club on the international stage.
The fitness expert, who was active in pro cycling before joining TSG, helped her to "even out imbalances" and "bring her to new levels of conditioning". During their work together, the two also regularly talked about TSG, about the differences and contrasts between the sports and what makes football so special. Philipp is very passionate about the game and despite all the differences, she has also identified a few touching points: "At first glance, triathlon and football may seem to have very little in common, but there are still a few parallels. The focus on a goal, the enormous mental challenge of having to deliver and being extremely fit. I find it all very exciting and I like to exchange ideas with footballers."
But it wasn't just the TSG facilities that formed a key part of her Ironman preparations; the countryside of the Kraichgau region was equally important. The hilly landscapes, which are incorporated into the design of Hoffenheim's home jersey this season, formed the perfect training environment: "It was very hot in the summer, so I was able to prepare myself well for the heat that awaits me. In addition, the hills make you fit, the ups and downs are similar to what you find in Hawaii, and the running and cycling routes are very demanding. You can't hide from the hills, so that means I have a good base level of fitness.’’
However, her first contact with triathlon would not come as an athlete, but rather as a physiotherapist - in the job she once chose as her future career. "I treated a professional triathlete back then. I was really excited by what she told me. And that was the start of my career, it was at that moment that I first thought that it would be cool to give this sport a try and see how far I could go.''
Before long, Laura Philipp had gone further in the sport than any other German triathlete before her. And faster, too. After teaching herself how to swim the front crawl through hours of individual training, she entered the "Heidelberg Man".
''That's when I realised: wow, this is a lot of fun, I should do this again''
A local triathlon with the tempting benefit of having a downstream swim in the Neckar river to guide the athletes on their way to the finish line: "I thought to myself: you'll get there eventually, even if you just let yourself drift. That worked well, and then on the bike I quickly started to overtake the people in front of me - and then came my favourite discipline, the run. That's when I realised: wow, this is a lot of fun, I should do this again.''
Six years later, Philipp completed her first Ironman. She was now over 30 years of age, but still a complete newcomer to the sport. It was a sporting miracle, made possible not only by her outstanding fitness, but also by her "good old German virtues of hard work". She explains with a smile: "I would never have thought it possible after my first triathlon. You have to train for three sports, and for all of them every day, about four to seven hours in total. You need a special kind of motivation. That's why I think a lot of Germans are so successful at Ironman."
This October, in a race that is virtually impossible to plan due to its sheer length and countless uncertainties, she is hoping to reap the maximum reward: victory in Hawaii in world record time. Although Philipp holds the best ever time in the Ironman category, Chrissie Wellington from Great Britain ran seven seconds faster than the Kraichgauer, whose personal best is 8:18:20 hours, in a race held by the parallel organising body Challenge.
Despite the lofty goals, the trip to Hawaii is a journey into the unknown for Philipp. In order to acclimatise as best as possible to the extremely high humidity, the time difference and the racing conditions, she flew to the island paradise at the end of September with her coach and husband Philipp Seipp and TSG fitness coach Christian Neitzert, who has been working with the triathlete for a number of years now.
But all the painstaking preparations can't ever come close to simulating the gruelling competition; moreover, neither a marathon nor the entire swimming and cycling distances are on the training programme, as the long recovery periods required would throw the whole schedule into disarray. Even as a now seasoned athlete, the challenges posed by a race in over 90% humidity are enormous: ''It's always hard for me mentally to think about these distances, even though I've conquered them several times before. But I never train for the full distance. These are reference values that I look at and then think: wow, that's really long.''
The psychological component is even greater in Ironman than in other sports. Although the race between competitors is the centre of attention for spectators, the real battle is the one going on in the athletes' own heads. She is aware that ultra triathletes are sometimes regarded as "a bit crazy". "Despite the enthusiasm, I also have moments when I just don't feel like it anymore, when it drags on forever. And then you have to be patient. I actually want to step on the gas all the time or really push for something, but nothing happens for what feels like an eternity, especially during the 180-kilometre bike ride. But I've become better at holding off, I think that comes with age a little bit.''
So it is a lucky coincidence for the 35-year-old that her actual disadvantage, her relatively weak swimming, becomes a mental advantage as the race progresses. Philipp barely ever comes out of the water among the leading pack, so the chase always begins with the climb onto the bike. Philipp is more than happy in this role: "The race is decided in the run at the end. And if you're used to being fast on your feet even when you're tired, it's an advantage. It's also fun to overtake one runner after the other, I like being the hunter. If you're lucky and you're running really well, you get into a so-called flow state: you're so concentrated and focused that you don't even notice what you're doing. And then you actually get the feeling that everything goes by faster."
The fact that this year's edition features a separate men's and women's race for the first time offers an unprecedented chance to cross the finish line first in Hawaii - and not among the men. The moment when the agony ends, the adrenaline level drops and the first tired muscles make themselves known is always a rush - regardless of the placing. "You feel that you have once again managed to break all previous boundaries and you think: 'I can do anything'".
Immediately after crossing the finish line, however, there is only one initial thought: hunger. After the seemingly superhuman athletic performance, during which she only ate carbohydrate-packed sugar syrup instead of solid food, Laura Philipp is overcome by a craving that takes her back to her home in the Kraichgau region. To her school days, when she parked her bike after the last climb on the way home, exhausted and with tired legs, entered her parents' house and had only one thing on her mind - which was once the same in Lobbach as it is now in Hawaii: "When I'm completely exhausted at the finish line, what I'm most looking forward to is a really greasy pizza."
Ironman Hawaii: the world’s most spectacular triathlon
"Swim 3.8 km, cycle 180.2 km, run 42.2 km. Brag about it for the rest of your life!" This note was given to every participant at the first Ironman Hawaii in 1978 by Commander John Collins, who was chiefly responsible for organising the first event. The Ironman on the archipelago in the Pacific Ocean is the oldest long-distance triathlon in the world. Both professional triathletes and amateurs can qualify through their performances in other Ironman events. In the past two years, the famous sporting event fell victim to the Covid pandemic, but this year Ironman Hawaii has been given the go-ahead to take place once again. Since 1982, it has also acted as the world championship in the Ironman category.
German triathletes have often been among the winners. The year 2019 was particularly memorable, with Jan Frodeno winning Ironman Hawaii for the third time with a course record and Anne Haug also winning the women's race. In 1997 and 2016, there were also all-German podium finishes in the men's race. A total of eleven Germans have won the Ironman Hawaii, while eight have picked up silver medals and 19 bronze. Only US athletes have won more medals.
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