It was 2014 and Australian professional triathlete Tim Van Berkel was having the race of his life in his debut in triathlon’s most iconic race — the Ironman Triathlon World Championship at Kona, Hawaii. There was just 7.5 miles (12km) of tarmac separating him and the finish line in what would be a momentous fourth place finish, perhaps even second or third if everything went right. The confident then-30-year-old was within sight of a podium finish and accomplishing a childhood dream.
It is where dreams are made and lost and legends are born
“I had seen this thing on TV, this Hawaiian Ironman and just thought what those guys did was crazy, racing in the world’s harshest, toughest conditions against the world’s best,” says Van Berkel, of why he took up the sport. “I just thought it was superhuman, the pro-guys were ripped and shredded. I thought it was awesome and that’s what I wanted to do.”
Kona, as it is typically referred to by triathletes, is best described as a test of endurance, strength and speed over a long time — a very long time. The 3.8km ocean swim followed by an epic 180km ride culminating in a gruelling marathon (42km) takes the world’s best athletes just over eight hours to finish in arguably world sport’s most arduous conditions. The current record at Kona stands at 8:01:40 set last year by German Patrick Lange who completed the marathon stage of the race in an astonishing 2:40:00.
In triathlon, Kona is the race that separates the wheat from the chaff among the sport’s elite. It is where dreams are made and lost and where legends are born. Nobody can just enter the race. Entrance is by qualification through the accumulation of points during the season from wins and high finishes at triathlons around the world.
Therefore, at Kona, it is the best of the best who assemble each year in October on the big island of Hawaii. It is triathlon’s Super Bowl. Winning it is perhaps the equivalent of taking out a tennis or golf grand slam title. It is the pinnacle of the sport and something that triathletes plan their entire year around.
“Here I was, a rookie in the sport’s biggest race,” recalls Van Berkel who is currently training in Boulder, Colorado in preparation for his tilt at the Ironman 70.3 Asia–Pacific Championship in Cebu, Philippines in August. “I’d only ever seen the race on TV and here I am running in the energy lab in fourth place with second and third just 70 seconds ahead of me. I was fizzing with excitement.”
“Once I came out of the energy lab with 7.5 miles (12km) to go, I just fell apart. It was like a f**king piano fell on me and I was just gone”
The “energy lab” that Van Berkel refers to is the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority, a marine science and technology facility located at the 16 mile (25km) mark of the marathon stage at Kona. It has been described many things by triathletes over the years but most often simply as “hot as hell”.
Chris Foster from triathlete.com magazine sums it up brilliantly: “the Natural Energy Lab has the ugly distinction of being the worst thing at the worst time.” His description makes for horrifying reading: “After already flogging themselves for the previous 132 miles (212km), athletes take a left-hand turn off the Queen K Highway into a bowl of heat. Completely exposed, and actually boasting some of the highest levels of insolation in the coastal US (insolation is the strength of solar radiation that reaches the Earth), athletes enter the lab at almost exactly mile 16 (26km) of the marathon. When they exit three miles (4.8km) later, they’re rarely the same.”
In that 2014 race at Kona, Van Berkel was about to find out for himself what Foster was talking about. He was having what he describes as “an awesome race” sitting in fourth place in his first Ironman World Championship and then he hit the wall:
“I’d never run in the energy lab before and it’s really, really hot. Races have been won and lost in there. Once I came out of it with 7.5 miles (12km) to go, I just fell apart. It was like a f**king piano fell on me and I was just gone.”
Van Berkel gradually made it to the finish line giving up a few positions along the way to end up seventh, an amazing achievement for someone in his debut race at Kona. But he was spent. The realisation of just how difficult it is to win the race had just been made loud and clear for him.
“But you know, I was still stoked, seventh in my debut. I was pretty excited.”
“I didn’t want to go to Kona just to make up the numbers”
It had been something of an unconventional career move for a professional triathlete like Van Berkel to delay a start in the sport’s most defining race. He had taken his time to get to Kona although he had won his first Ironman at 24 years old and in doing so became the second youngest Ironman champion in history, missing out on being the youngest by just 20 days.
“I didn’t want to go to Kona just to make up the numbers,” he says. “I waited. I wanted to go to Kona when I was ready physically and mentally. I wanted to be a contender.”
The disappointment of what transpired that day at Kona almost four years ago is evident in Van Berkel’s tone when he recounts it, but there is still room for pride in his achievement in placing seventh on debut there. His top 10 finish meant that he had truly arrived on the scene and confirmed he could mix it with the best. As a result, he started attracting more quality sponsors offering more lucrative contracts, including one which allowed him to spend six months of the year training at altitude in Boulder and six months at home near Ballina on the New South Wales north coast of Australia.
Since his 2014 finish at Kona, Van Berkel has, like many pro-triathletes, planned his year around the race. Yet, he hasn’t been able to replicate the form that got him so close to a podium finish.
“I don’t know. It’s a hard race,” responds Van Berkel when asked why he hasn’t been able to get a result at his past three attempts at Kona. “In 2015, I started working with a new coach and was probably the fittest I’ve ever been in my life. At Cebu (two months before Kona) I had a good swim, had an awesome ride and a really good run in the heat which ended up in a sprint finish with Tim Reed (Van Berkel came second). Then I won Ironman 70.3 Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. I had a perfect block going into Hawaii with the best numbers and data I’d ever had in my life but I went there and fell apart.”
“I was just a mess after that race…I didn’t want to train, I partied heavily and I was totally off the sport”
Van Berkel can’t pinpoint why he finished 35th and ended up having to walk a lot of the marathon that day in 2015. There were some personal things going on away from triathlon, and he was juggling training and racing with ever increasing commitments to sponsors. He also says he miscalculated his nutrition slightly on race day, yet he believes those things didn’t distract him from the task at hand. Despite it all, he remained focused and motivated and was in the form of his life.
“I was just a mess after that race,” explains Van Berkel who prides himself on getting over poor performances quickly and moving on to the next. “But that race really hit home. I was gutted for a month. I didn’t want to train, I partied heavily and I was totally off the sport. It was my wife, my coach and my manager at the time who gave me a big kick up the arse. They told me to pull my head in and get back into training. So that’s what I did.”
Six months later Van Berkel had rediscovered his mojo. After finishing off 2015 with a couple of races — including fourth place at Western Sydney — the beginning of 2016 saw a turnaround in attitude and form leading to a second placing in the Ironman African Championship at Nelson Mandela Bay in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. He then backed it up by winning the 2016 Ironman Asia-Pacific Championship in Cairns, Australia two months later.
“I started off the year well with a second and first in eight weeks, including an Asia-Pacific title, which would be up there with one of the highlights of my career — it’s a big title to hold,” he says. “I was motivated for Kona and went into the race as one of the favourites. I had a great swim but then an old injury flared up during the bike, I lost a chunk of time and finished 19th.”
“Deep down I know I can do a top five finish. I just need a day where all the stars align and everything works out well”
Last year at Kona, Van Berkel was able to improve two more places to finish 15th but it is this year’s race that is looming as the most important of his career. Personal pride and a sense of unfinished business aside, his contracts expire at the end of this year and so the pressure is on if he wants to continue in triathlon as a professional into 2019. But as each year passes, the competition is getting harder and Kona is getting faster.
“Every year I go back it just keeps getting quicker and quicker,” says Van Berkel. “Patrick Lange won it with a new course record and ran the marathon in 2:40, which is just mental in that heat. Deep down I know I can do a top five finish. I just need a day where all the stars align and everything works out well.”
Indeed, that is why Van Berkel is currently in Boulder training at altitude. Speaking to him, one gets the sense that he has made up his mind to give Kona one hell of a shake this year — perhaps his biggest yet — and isn’t leaving any stone unturned in his preparation for the race.
But it comes with sacrifices.
Van Berkel has a wife and 10-month-old son, which makes time away from them difficult. As a result, his training blocks in Colorado have been slowly dwindling down from 6-months a year to four weeks at a time and he says he may not even return to Colorado next year. But he believes this four week stint away will put him in good stead for what he expects to be a hot race in Cebu and provide him with that all important preparation for Kona.
“When I look back over my career so far, I’ve been pretty lucky…but I feel my best is yet to come”
Even so, Van Berkel is fully aware there is no telling how he is going to perform, especially given his past experiences in the cauldron that is Kona. He is as aware as anyone that there are days when athletes are just ‘on’ and everything feels easy and there are others “when you feel like you can’t get out of your own way”.
But the Tim Van Berkel at 34 years of age appears to be a much improved version of the one 10 years ago that won his first Ironman title.
“When I look back over my career so far, I’ve been pretty lucky,” he says. “I’ve had a pretty good run and I’ve had some good results but I feel my best is yet to come. I just feel that I train well and race well when I’m happy, so these days I just try to enjoy life, train hard and race hard. I used to be the guy who did everything strict and didn’t have a life other than triathlon. Don’t get me wrong, I still take it seriously and I’m still super passionate, but you only have one life and I’m here to enjoy mine.”
If happiness does indeed predicate success, then Van Berkel’s words are an ominous sign for the field at this year’s Kona, because over the phone he sounds very happy and relaxed.
Thank you to Tim Van Berkel for taking time out of his busy training schedule for the interview. The Bureau also wishes to acknowledge Glen Murray at Korupt Vision for some of the photos used in this article, including the featured image.