One of the few pro triathletes today who is capable of leading a race through all three events, Faris Al Sultan is a major force to be reckoned with. The 2005 World Champion recently took the time to sit with us, discussing everything from the type of music he listens to before races to the state of sports in the Middle East, in his typical direct manner.
1. Tell us about yourself – where you grew up, if you have any siblings, what kind of student you were in school?
I grew up in Munich, have no siblings and was a good student (1,8 Abitur that means among the top 20%)
2. Can you tell us how you got involved in sports? When did you figure out that you were pretty good?
I was a pretty active kid although I ate too much. I did basketball, judo, climbing, swimming and soccer - none competitive. After a crash weight loss at the age of 14, 15 kg in 8 weeks I started with swimming. I became better fast but it was obvious that I wouldn’t be a good swimmer. I looked for new challenges and ran a marathon at age 16 and did open water swimming. I took part in the German 25k Champs in 1996. Before I won races in 2000, I knew that I was good but blamed it on the high volume of training.
3. What made you decide to do a triathlon? What was your first race and what was it like?
I saw a TV coverage of IM Hawaii was impressed by Thomas Hellriegel and decided to take part at an Olympic distance race close to home. There I was third out of the water although I had no wetsuit and swam a detour. I was overtaken by the women on the bike and suffered through the run but I was third in the junior class.
4. Your first ever Ironman was at Lanzarote in 1999 (at the age of 19). What made you choose one of the most notoriously difficult races for your first Ironman? How’d it go for you?
I couldn’t race in Roth as you had to be 21, and saw some advertising in the German tri-mag for Lanzarote. It went well. I was top 15 out of the water - still no wetsuit - biked it in 6 hours with three stops to relieve the belly and ran 3:39, the slowest time I ever had in a marathon. It took me 10:33 and I was 6th in my agegroup.
5. You’re one of the very few pro’s who does not employ a coach (and obviously that’s worked out well for you). Has this always been the case? Did you have a tri coach earlier in your career? Do you use any plans as a guideline now, or do you just really do your own thing?
There are several other athletes that don’t have a coach. I do my own thing but of course I’m influenced by how other Pro’s train and I work with the guys from 2peak.com.
6. You mentioned that you just finished a bike race in Pakistan (Tour de Pakistan?). What was that like? Have you done this race before? And how did you decide to do this bike race? Were you the only triathlete racing?
It was the tour of Islamabad, which is a non UCI race for charity. I was the only triathlete there and I’ve never done a three-stage road race before. It was really good training. I’ve never been more on my limit on the bike before. Most of the other athletes were Continental or Ex-Continental riders; some Iranians were in good shape and made it though.
7. How did you come up with your trademark racing style: speedo, unshaven with a bandana around your head? It makes you instantly recognizable among all other pros. When did you adopt this style? Is it just the most comfortable for you? Is it good luck for you to race unshaven (since you’ve been spotted the day after a race clean-shaven)? Do you get chafed from the speedo?
I don’t get chafed, it’s simply how I feel most comfortable and of course I’m inspired by history. Hellriegel and Allen won in Speedos.
8. What kind of music do you listen to? Do you have a favorite type of music for training?
Pretty much everything besides Techno&House, I hardly listen to music while training, before racing it’s Xavier Naidoo and Eminem (“Till I collapse”)
9. What’s a typical training day for you? What’s your biggest training week in terms of volume? What’s your favorite/hardest workout?
There is no typical day (wouldn’t make sense by the way). Biggest week, although I don’t train as much as I used to when I was young, is maybe 40 hours, 800 km bike, 80km run two times Gym and 15-20km in the water. The hardest workout is speedwork on the track or a two hour run with hard 20 minutes towards the end.
10. Are there any training/racing mistakes you made in your earlier days that you can tell us about?
Almost too many to tell, from bad food (only cookies) to too many km (up to 1100 bike and 110 running in one week)
11. Being German/Iraqi, have you received a lot of positive feedback from Middle Eastern countries? Triathlon is still a relatively unknown sport in most parts of the world; would you say it’s a little more popular in this region now that you’ve become so successful? Also, what are your thoughts on the U.S. involvement in Iraq?
Unfortunately most people in Middle Eastern countries have other problems than pursuing sporty goals. The general interest in doing a sport yourself isn’t as big as we wanted it to be. But starting from the UAE, the most developed country, we try to encourage people in the Middle east to take up endurance sports. I don’t overestimate my influence there.
The involvement in Iraq went the wrong way. I still believe that without the U.S invasion there would have been no way for the Iraqis to get rid of Saddam, but the situation now is bad for everyone. I have no super solution.
12. How do you organize where you train and when? For instance, I know you train for part of the year in the UAE as well as Southern California. How do you decide when you will be in a certain place? Do you have a favorite training location?
Al-Ain in the UAE during winter & spring, San Diego before Hawaii, the rest is decided on short notice and of course depends on the racing schedule.
13. What’s your 2007 season look like? I see that you have a couple of XTERRA races on the list. Do you do these to spice things up? Do you add mountain biking into your training for fun?
I just do Xterra Germany. I need not to be the favorite at some races and it’s fun.
14. So it’s established now that you’re a guy who races your own race, out in front from gun to finish. What goes through your head at a race like Kona when someone like Lieto passes you on the bike? I’m sure you’re confronted by the temptation to “stay” or “go.” What do you do? And will you be more tactical in any of your races this year, or will you stick with the formula that’s worked so well for you so far?
I was already on the start line so exhausted from a very tiring season last year that I didn’t have the option to go with Chris. But even if I had the option it’s always my feeling that tells me how fast I can go, not my competitors.
15. Are there any races you haven’t done yet that you’d like to do?
Many - IM Klagenfurt, IM Malaysia, IM Australia.
16. What book are you currently reading? Do you have a favorite movie?
I was busy with my own book (“Triathlon” Faris Al-Sultan & Christoph Dierkes) the last movie was “Am Limit” about the Huber brothers (famous climbers).
17. You’ve taken a hiatus from your graduate studies in Near Eastern History and Culture to focus on triathlon. What are your plans for when you retire from the sport?
Many ideas but I hope to race on top for a few more years.
18. I’ve heard that you eat “normal” food rather than obsessing about proper nutrition all the time. So what’s your favorite indulgence or junk food? Do you have a favorite post-race treat?
First of all I do not eat only fast food top level performance is not possible without proper nutrition. I like pasta with tuna sauce my typical training camp food. As fast food I like Burgers and of course Burritos. After races in Germany the whole crowd usually meets at the next fast food place.
19. What are your non-tri related hobbies/talents?
Playing cards, watch movies, go out.
20. Shout out to your sponsors!
I don’t have to shout their products speak for themselves.