When one thinks of a professional Ironman triathlete’s daily schedule, it is easy to envisage a lifestyle centered on endless training camps. An early morning swimming session followed by five hours on the bike and a late afternoon ten mile run is standard fare. Add in gym work, an afternoon nap and plenty of refueling and you have an eight hour day.
To Petr Vabrousek, nothing could be further from the truth.
“I am at home with my family for most of the day, which I see as the greatest advantage of being a professional triathlete,” explains the 39 year old Czech. “My family gets top priority. I know that most of my fellow professionals use their time for endless training camps, but for me to go somewhere without my family in order to eat, sleep and train means missing out on real life.”
In a sport where professionals and amateurs alike are obsessed with weekly mileage totals, power outputs and caloric intake, Petr Vabrousek could very well be dismissed as just a freak of nature with incredible talent. But if one considers his daily routine, an extremely well balanced individual emerges. After waking up in the morning, Petr prepares a cooked breakfast for his family before taking his son to school. He then spends most of the morning with his wife and baby daughter before embarking on his first training session of day. Lunchtime is spent as a family before a second training session is completed in the late afternoon!
Vabrousek believes that the key to sustaining a long career in an “all-consuming” sport like triathlon is to have a distinct life outside of swim-bike-run. He goes further to explain that he detaches himself from the sport when not training or racing. “If you let yourself concentrate solely on triathlon and stop thinking about the other things in your life, you will burn out sooner or later.”
Even more astounding is his racing schedule, which at first glance borders on the absurd. By the end of 2011, Vabrousek had completed 108 Ironman distance races and was victorious in 20 of them. “My focus is on Ironman races approximately every three to four weeks and I just train through the remaining events.” Vabrousek races almost every weekend, often up to three times a week. “As long as there is some sort of swimming, cycling, running or triathlon competition in my area, I compete. Races are the key building blocks of my fitness.”
To put this approach into further perspective, Vabrousek reveals that his frequent racing means that he rarely hits the “red-line”, saving his supreme efforts for championship events. “I think that by racing so often means that I rarely go all out. I take it pretty easy between hard races and reward myself with at least three days of total rest in addition to my usual pre-race taper. Fatigue is the best thing for me after those races as I have to rest and in turn spend quality time with my family.”
Apart from the sheer number of races on Vabrousek’s annual calendar, his “globe-trotting” is noteworthy, something of which can be attributed to his growing up in Eastern Europe. “In 1989 I was at a secondary grammar school right in the middle of student protests. It was exciting time and full of promise! Prior to this, we would hardly have believed the level of freedom we enjoy today. International travel was definitely a key motivator for me early on in my triathlon career. As a kid growing up in a communist country, life was OK so long as you were able to ignore the propaganda prevalent in our society. I was very lucky that my triathlon career began one month before the revolution.”
A knock-on effect of the fall of communism in the late 1980s was the sudden appearance of “Eastern-bloc” athletes in Western Europe. Tales of Eastern European cyclists and triathletes arriving in France and Italy oblivious to the local dialect and with little more than a contact address as a source of reference are “dime-a-dozen.” The Czech national triathlon team was no different and immediately made its presence felt in the early 1990s. Pooling prize-money to fund its passage around the French triathlon circuit, these hardy individuals acted as trailblazers for the next generation and instilled a culture of resilience and “street-smarts”, which are characteristic of the Eastern European athletes of today.
Vabrousek exemplifies these qualities and is completely self-managed; something which he admits has its pros and cons. “Having an agent would definitely create more chances to get decent sponsorship. But on the other hand, I have total freedom when selecting my race equipment and schedule.”
Despite his hectic race schedule, Vabrousek is a perennial competitor at the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. With thirteen consecutive pro-starts on the “Big Island,” Petr feels duty-bound to be there as a professional triathlete, even though the event does not necessarily suit his strengths.
“I am definitely not suited to racing in Kona. You have to be at least a 53min swimmer to have a real chance to ride in the front group. With my 58-60min swim, I am pretty much out of the race from the beginning. I realize that Kona is the “mother of all triathlons” though, and keep coming back to break that rule. It is still one of my priority races”.
While the Hawaii Ironman signals the end of the season for most professionals, Vabrousek is unique in that he continues to compete until December. After finishing the 2010 edition of the sport’s “holy grail”, Petr competed in a standard marathon at home in the Czech Republic before finishing seventh in Ironman Mexico and Florida! Does he ever fear burnout or damage to his body?
“Everyone is individual and I am no exception. I just love to race and almost hate to train. Many people have indicated that this will be my final season before total mental and physical breakdown occurs, but they have been saying that for twelve years. Racing all the way through November means that I have a complete break in December and enjoy a peaceful Christmas with my family.”