A podium ever-present, Belgium's Bart Aernouts is known for a fast finish. Case in point: When the men's Ironman World Championships saw the eight hour mark smashed for the first time in 2018, Bart was one of only two men to break that barrier.
Tenacity is a basic requirement in the world of Ironman. But even in this ultra-competitive and demanding environment, Bart Aernouts is more tenacious than most.
An ironman of iron will, he’s been a podium ever-present throughout his career. At Kona’s 40th outing last year, his graft and sacrifice was properly rewarded.
In the fastest race in the event’s history, the previously unassailable eight-hour mark was broken for the first time. As usual, Bart was at the front pushing the pace, blazing to a silver medal.
But despite eventually finishing nearly five minutes ahead of third place, his route to glory was anything but simple. After the first 2.4-mile (3.86 km) swim section, he was lingering in 40th place. In typical fashion, he would decide when his race was run.
Clawing back precious time on the 112-mile (180.25 km) bike segment with a respectable 4:12:26, Bart then smashed his marathon leg in a blistering 2:45:42 to secure an incredible comeback, legend status, and an overall time of 7:56:41.
On any other year in Kona’s entire existence, he’d have been a record-breaking champion.
"Watching Bart race, he never makes a mistake," says Bob Babbit, in the third episode of the On Storied Run documentary series - which you can watch above.
Everybody else is playing checkers out there and he's playing chess.
A relentless competitor, Bart is composed and never one to get down on himself. Perhaps his greatest quality is his mental strength - if not his perseverance.
A Kona veteran, 2019 will be his eighth outing at the World Championships and, on the back of his stunning result last year, he returns with high hopes.
“I'm not a very emotional guy. I'm not a superman or whatever, I don't feel like I did something amazing - but that's just how I am,” Bart says.
“I'm an ambitious athlete and I want to aim for the highest, so for me it will always be the most important race of the season, and it will always be my goal to qualify and race Kona because I want to race the best guys.”
We sit down with Bart to get the inside track on how he’s preparing for his return to Kona. A man of focus and intent, he doesn’t mix his words.
In a wide-ranging interview, he discusses everything from topping podiums and mental fortitude, to tapered training, spying on competitors, and facing new pressures.
It meant a lot. It was the reward that I wanted. I go back every year and, at some point, you have a perfect day and then you're on the podium. I think some guys after three, four times maybe start thinking the shouldn’t come back next year or focus on other things. But for me, the biggest thing was it's sort of worth it if you keep trying and keep working on your dream, that one day it works out.
So I think it's the message to other athletes as well. Even if it didn't work out five, six times, just keep trying because at some point you will be rewarded for your hard work.
For us (athletes) it's more about the result. I mean, the time is something - to break the eight hours, this is amazing. But in the end somebody will probably beat my time in the future. A first or second place finish will be there forever. A time will always be beaten - on a perfect day with even better conditions maybe five guys beat eight hours this year. You never know.
So second place was, for me, more special, and I think the time is something that makes it probably even more amazing for me. Nobody expected to break the eight hours in Kona, and then there were the two of us. Unfortunately I was second. I would rather win the race in 8:30!
Honestly, it didn't change that much for me. I was always a guy that kept believing that one day it would happen. It hasn’t changed a lot, it's a reward for believing in yourself. I think it's also something that can motivate you in the future to keep doing what you did. And that even if it takes a few years, just keep doing what you feel good with.
I think experience in triathlon, especially full distance, is maybe the most important thing. Because it's a race where a lot of things that can happen. It's not just race experience in the race, I was talking to more people about this, it's also experience in how you prepare for the race. It’s Kona, it's a special race, people have a lot of respect for it. But they think racing against the world’s best means they should do something extra.
Maybe they take too many risks in the preparation and maybe they're not 100% on race day. They think they have to step it up to win.
I know that I need to be in the best shape ever. And I think experience helps you to be a less stressed and prepare better. Maybe be more confident that what you did was enough to be good on race day, And then experience in the race helps to make the right choices - if it doesn't go 100% your way.
No, I think it's a mistake to watch others or try to copy others, because everybody is different. And I think the most important thing is that you're confident in what you do, and that it’s the right thing for you. If you copy, you're always behind. Everybody has a different way of working, in the end it's about the result, it's not about how you got there.
You need to find out what works for you and just keep doing it. Try to not get distracted by what the others are doing. It's important to focus on yourself. These days on social media, you don't know what's real and what’s fake anyway.
I'm not sure. It's the one event that nearly every person has heard about. And it’s something that inspires a lot of people. I think a lot of athletes started triathlons because of it. Maybe it's not the goal for them to get there, but it's why they got into triathlon.
It's an amazing race in a special location. For me it's one of the biggest events in triathlon. I think it's something special to our sport and it will always be.
Before the race, I knew I had been there six times and had good races, but I didn't feel like I had an exceptional day. I always thought I could do better. So, I thought maybe I need a different coach that has some experience in Kona because it's a special day, special event.
I started working with Luc Van Lierde. He won as an athlete, and he wants to win as a coach. I think he has the experience to win Kona, and that's maybe what you need. It's back to the experience. You have so many good coaches, but then it's a special race, at the end of the season. If you have somebody with a lot of experience, who knows how to win the race then maybe you have an advantage.
So close to the race, I think you can't do that much to get better in training, you can only make it worse. For me, it’s about a few key sessions, then the rest is just trying to recover and mentally prepare for the race. I think a lot of people don't get this 100% right. For an eight-hour race, you need to be mentally ready and hungry. The physical part is important but the mental part I think is even more important.
You need to be ready to give it your best for eight hours. Everybody's fit on race day. What makes the difference, is the guy that has the right mindset, and who is mentally ready to suffer for eight hours. And even if it goes bad for two hours, you still have six hours to get it together again and fight.
I like to be the underdog, I think it suits me better. But in the end, you can't change it. I will probably be busier before the race which will maybe be a new challenge for me, but I usually don't feel the pressure from other stuff. I'd rather put myself under pressure to perform on race day, when it matters. It will be the first time for me that I was on the podium the year before in Kona, so I can't talk about it too much. I'll just try to go with the flow.