Matt Trautman is gunning for the podium of the ironman world championships

The Iron Captain

PHOTOGRAPHY: Kelvin Trautman

South Africa’s Matt Trautman has transformed himself from a sailor and canoeist
into a world-class Ironman triathlete. Now he’s gunning for the podium of the Ironman world championships

Eight hours, 12 minutes and 29 seconds. That’s the time it took Belgium’s Frederik van Lierde to win the Ironman world championship in Kona in 2013. He completed the 3.86km swim, 180.25km bike ride and 42.2km run a few minutes ahead of Luke McKenzie from Australia and Germany’s Sebastian Kienle. Coming home in 30th place was South Africa’s top amateur racer, Matt Trautman. 

Trautman, an ‘age-grouper’ (as the amateurs are called, classed by the age bracket in which they race), had completed the notoriously brutal course on Hawaii’s beautiful Big Island in a time of 08:49:12. To the uninitiated, being 37 minutes off the pace may seem like a lot, but if you consider that competitors have 17 hours to complete the race, it was a blistering performance. It’s also worth noting that not only do the pros make a living from racing, but because they train full-time they are significantly physiologically and mentally stronger than the amateurs. And when they’re not training, they have the freedom to rest and recover. 

So it was no mean feat for Trautman to finish in the top 30 at the most physically demanding single-day sporting event in the world. It also was no fluke. 

Matt Trautman on the run

RUN 42.2km

Trautman’s stats for the run during Ironman 70.3 South Africa, an event which he won (and which is half the full Ironman distance), were 13,500 steps (for both feet), at an average pace of 3m 38s/km

Fast-forward two years and the man they call ‘The Captain’ has two professional wins under his skintight trisuit (Ironman Wales 2014 and Ironman 70.3 South Africa 2015) and a Kona podium now fixed firmly in his sights.

Triathlon is one sport which is really three: each discipline (and its distance) would be a challenge if it was tackled alone – think about swimming for more than an hour, riding back-to-back Momentum 94.7 Cycle Challenges, and then running a full marathon. As the sum of its parts, Ironman is all about managing your weaknesses while playing to your strengths. 

Trautman’s meteoric rise through the Ironman ranks surely reflects a set of extraordinary physiological traits – he might just be the ultimate advocate for the theory that we all carry some hidden talent. Trautman was fortunate enough to discover his, but talent alone doesn’t get you far in professional sport, especially in endurance events. Trautman no doubt possesses an ideal mix of genetics combined with a huge capacity for suffering and plenty of discipline to train, but his biggest attribute is that until recently he wasn’t a triathlete at all. If there is a commonly accepted route to Ironman glory, Trautman certainly hasn’t followed it.

“The solo sailing where you have to stay awake and focused has helped with staying in the zone on race day or even just grinding out a four hour session on my indoor trainer” 
Matt Trautman

“At junior school level I was into all the usual sports as a South African kid - cricket, hockey, rugby. I also swam and ran cross-country and athletics at provincial level,” he says of his formative years. In high school he focused more on kayaking and completed numerous Dusi canoe marathons, before going on to represent South Africa at the wild water kayaking world championships, where a 10km course of raging rapids tends to reward those endowed with both endurance and strategic nous.

Trautman spent most of the following decade at sea. “I became a sailor,” he says. “I started off in Mozambique doing diving and fishing charters and got into the yacht racing scene from there.” Trautman worked his way up to skippering the 46-foot Tonnerre, one of the most successful IRC racing yachts in the world and an environment where victories were built on attention to detail and a ruthless, constant quest for improvement. 

SA's Matt Trautman

SWIM 3.86km

It’s the shortest discipline in an Ironman event, but getting the swim right is still crucial to your race. “You need to be as relaxed and efficient as possible,” says Trautman

Searching for a new challenge beyond crewed sailing, Trautman embarked on a two-year mission to become the first South African to complete the Mini Transat, a punishing single-handed Trans-Atlantic event raced on 6.5m yachts. 

“It’s a completely mad – predominantly French – race across the Atlantic on very powerful and unpredictable little boats,” he explains. Trautman finished ninth out of 85 starters. This was an achievement that owed as much to discipline, self-reliance and a serious lack of sleep as it did to an ability to get the job done and push through, no matter what.

Matt Trautman training hard

calories burned up to 8,000

Nutrition is a vital component for Ironman victory. Trautman starts race day with oats with banana and honey and two boiled eggs on the side. He has half a can of Red Bull for extra energy 30 minutes before the start

Trautman returned to South Africa in 2012 and teamed up with his brother Kelvin, an adventure photographer, for the Non-Stop Dusi canoe marathon, the world’s most gruelling one-day canoe ultra-marathon. Inspired by their third-placed finish and with a rekindled love for endurance sport, Trautman started training in earnest for Ironman South Africa 2013.

“I was looking for a new challenge after I had sold my single-handed boat and racing an Ironman seemed to fulfil those criteria,” he explains. “And after that result in Kona, I figured I should give it a go as a pro triathlete for 2014.” It’s a remark that hints at humility as well as a steely self-confidence, built up over years of successful competitive sport. There’s also a sense of all those lessons accumulated without realising how valuable they would later prove in iron distance triathlon.

“Kayaking could have helped me from a physical point of view; certain canoeing races also have a fair amount of portaging involved, but I’m not sure how much of that carried through over the years,” says the 30-year-old, who originally hails from Pietermaritzburg, but now calls Cape Town home. 

“Having said that, I don’t think your mind forgets what it’s like to put in all the training hours and push through tough sessions and races. As for the sailing, it’s very much a mental game, and at times a physical one. The solo sailing where you have to stay awake and focused for long periods of time has helped with staying in the zone on race day or even just grinding out a four-hour session on my indoor trainer. As my coach jokes, though, my biggest asset is that I don’t know any better and just have to listen to him.”


Matty on the bike

BIKE 180.25km

Frame: Falco V (medium). Wheels: Darkhorse. 
Aerobars: Profile Aeria T4. Components: SRAM Red 22. 
Tyres: Continental Grandprix TT (23mm). Gearing: 55/42- 1½6. 
Crank length: 172.5mm. Pedals: Look Keo Blade 2. Saddle: Sella Italia SLR tri gel. 

By coach, he means the legendary Brett ‘The Doc’ Sutton, who has trained dozens of champion athletes, including Chrissie Wellington, winner of four Ironman world titles. Trautman trained under South Africans Clair and Kent Horner as an amateur but enlisted the services of Sutton when he turned pro. “I looked at all the coaches’ performances,” Trautman said to Sutton. “Results told me you were the best. I need the best because I want to be the best.” 


Pro racing as yacht hand, including winning the Cape to Rio, and 9th on the Mini Transat

Pro yacht racing as captain of the Tonnerre

3rd, Non-Stop Dusi Canoe Marathon
2nd, Triple Challenge Multisport race
1st, West Wight Quadrathlon
2nd, Cotswolds Classic Middle Distance triathlon

20th, Ironman 70.3 South Africa
20th, Ironman South Africa (1st in age group)
3rd, Big 5 Challenge Knysna
5th, Ironman 70.3 World Champs
30th, Ironman World Champs
1st, Jailbreak Olympic distance triathlon

(first year as pro triathlete)
5th, Ironman South Africa
3rd, Ironman 70.3 Austria
1st, Ironman Wales

1st, Ironman 70.3 South Africa
4th, Ironman South Africa
6th, Ironman Brazil

Sutton is pragmatic, even old school. He breaks down why he thinks Trautman’s unusual history will be the key to him becoming an extraordinary triathlete: “Solitude – Matt doesn’t feel the need to hang out with other triathletes. He can work on his own and is at ease doing what he needs to do for himself. He doesn’t fall into the trap of doing others’ training. When he is in camp, he is also a perfect team man. He can adapt to both worlds with ease. Sailing teaches that.”

Sutton also believes professional sailing, much like Ironman, is measured solely by results. “It is only a lifestyle event for the owners of the yachts. The people who work on them need results – if the performance is not there, you’re not there. Simple. That’s my kind of logic,” he explains. “Matty also knows that having one captain is everything on a ship. You take orders. You don’t like them? Tough. You still do them to the best of your ability and find yourself another boat when you’re back in port.”

But Trautman isn’t about to jump ship: an example of his trust in Sutton came a few weeks after he won in Wales last year. He was on the startlist for Ironman Barcelona, his travel and accommodation already booked and paid for. Mentally he was ready to race, buoyed by the confidence from his first pro title. “Physically, however, we decided that Matt hadn’t fully recovered from his maiden win,” Sutton says. “Better to return home, regroup and start planning for the 70.3 in South Africa (which he went on to win). For fledging pros this can be a very tough decision, so I was very happy that Matt took the professional option.”

Trautman’s major goal is a podium finish in Kona by 2018. “I always like to aim big, even if it seems a bit naive at times,” he says. To do that, he and Sutton have mapped out where he needs to improve over the next two seasons.

Single-minded. Unwavering. Resilient.

“My swimming is probably the discipline that still needs the most work,” Trautman admits, but he also identifies plenty of other gains to be made over an entire race. “It helps just by being fitter, more experienced and better adapted to racing hard for the entire event.” Originally, the plan for 2015 was simply to qualify as a pro for Kona. “Now I’ve come to the realisation that a top 10 is achievable,” Trautman says.

Amazingly, he mentions this less than a fortnight after he managed to break his shoulder blade in a bike crash during a training session. Undeterred by this setback, he is soldiering on. “I’ve still managed to put in some good sessions on the indoor trainer and I’m doing plenty of one-arm swimming. I’m also starting to build the mileage up on the run again, so hopefully I can get back into it again properly at some point over the next few weeks. That way, I wouldn’t have lost too much in my build-up to the Kona event.”

Single-minded. Unwavering. Resilient. All these are qualities that Trautman honed very far from the mantra of swim bike run, but all will prove decisive come October 10.

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