The day before Daniela Ryf competed in her first Ironman competition, she did everything you’re not supposed to do.
She decided not to rest that Saturday in July 2014 for the 3.8km swim, 180.2km cycle and 42.2km run she faced in less than 24 hours’ time. Instead, she chose to do the Olympic distances of a 1.5km swim, 40km cycle and 10km run. Her mental preparation was winning that race on Saturday, and seeing how her backside handled it (“Would it be killing me after five hours in the saddle?”). For dinner, she had pizza, fried sausages, spaghetti Bolognese, ice cream and chocolate.
As Ryf stood on the starting line the next day, her coach, Brett Sutton, told her, “Just think of it as a training run. If you don’t finish, it doesn’t matter.” “OK,” said the 5ft 9in athlete, who still thought of herself as a specialist over the shorter Olympic distance.
Nine-and-a-quarter hours later, she crossed the finish line at the Zurich Ironman competition in first place.
“That’s when I began to believe that Ironman could be my thing,” she says.
Just to get through an Ironman – let alone go on and win one – you have to have an unusual relationship with physical torture. Most athletes manage to overcome it or hold it at bay. But this 28-year-old from Switzerland does things a little differently - Ryf uses the pain to her advantage. “Pain is the sign that I’m taking things to the next level,” she says, “It tells me that my body and I are crossing a threshold I’ve never reached before.”
In other words, Ryf is motivated by pain.
If it hurts, then she tries to take it up another notch. Why? Because she wants to know what her body – “this lazy machine”, as she calls it – is really capable of. “Because whatever doesn’t hurt is just your comfort zone.”
When Ryf leaves her comfort zone, it’s not just her muscles begging and pleading for her to stop all this torture. Her rivals suffer, too. Since 2013, she’s been crowned European champion twice and world champion once over the middle distance, European champion over the Olympic distance and European Ironman champion. Ryf trains for up to seven hours a day to make that happen. A quick Sunday marathon or a bike ride from Bern to Zurich are standard for her.
Does the pain that goes with training also motivate her when she’s competing? “No,” she says. “I push myself to the limit in training so that I don’t have to when I’m competing. Competing is just like a university exam where you show whether you’re well prepared or not.”
Although Ryf’s life revolves around training, the bubble that so many top athletes live in is, in her case, full of holes. She’s not all that interested in sport, for example. Or, to be more specific, interested in talking about it.
“I talk to my friends about the state of affairs, politics and personal stuff, but never about sport,” she says. She follows Banksy, JK Rowling, Maria Sharapova, and the Frankfurt Stock Exchange on Twitter. She studies Food Science & Management in Bern and “definitely” wants to do something in that area in the future – “preferably healthy eating for people who aren’t at all bothered about healthy eating”.
She once spoke to Dave Scott, a legendary triathlete who has won Ironman Hawaii six times, for a quarter of an hour without realising who he was.
That compulsion to move, which means that Ryf is out on her bike or on the running track after every university lecture, is something she inherited from her family. Her father is a mountain guide, her mother a marathon runner and her stepfather a triathlete.
She scraped together the money for her first racing bike herself when she was 14 by working on the conveyor belt at her stepfather’s tool-making company during the school holidays. “I worked 10-hour shifts,”she says, “pushing the same button 60 times a minute, just so I could earn as much money as possible.”
In 2000, Ryf competed in a school triathlon, and then joined a junior team. The triathlon suited her. “There are no tactics and no tricks. The quickest person wins. That’s all there is to it.” In the same way that Ryf is opposed to clever tactics and tricks, she also eschews eschews another basic cultural nicety that is common in the world of top sportspeople: diplomatic drivel. Instead, she says things like, “I want to be first,” and, “Sometimes I compare my body to my fellow competitors and I’m intimidated when they look fitter than I do.”
Ryf was heralded by the experts after her debut appearance at the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii – the most prestigious event of the year – in October 2014, where she finished second in what is effectively the world championships. Only three-time world champion Mirinda Carfrae of Australia finished ahead of her. And all this just a few months after making her Ironman debut in Zurich. But the plaudits were no consolation to the rising star. “I’m disappointed,” she said truculently when interviewed afterwards. “I wanted to win.”
Thoughts of revenge are a motivating factor every time Ryf trains. She thinks of that moment last October when she lost the world championships. She’d finished the cycle a couple of minutes ahead of the second-placed rider, and for 35km of the run she was out in front on her own. But then her main rival managed to surge past her and, in the end, was too fast to catch.
When Ryf goes on training runs now, the pace she sets for herself is the speed at which she was overtaken by Mirinda Carfrae that crushing day.
And when the pain comes, she takes it up a notch. Then she keeps up that pace until the pain subsides.