Richard Thompson Ultraman Record Breaker
Wicketkeeper and goalkeeper turned ultra endurance athlete, Ultraman record breaker, Richard Thompson chats to AT’s Aimee Johnsen about his early beginnings in triathlon, turning Pro at just 23, his racing highs and lows, Ultraman, coaching and more. He is the definition of a never give up attitude – be inspired by his story.
You started triathlon at 17 years of age and by 23 were crowned the Ironman Age Group World Champion. Why triathlon? How did you get started and what kept you interested back in those early days?
Throughout school, I was a chubby wicketkeeper and goalkeeper – wonderful hand-eye coordination but zero fitness. That resulted in not having the greatest of figures going into year 12. So, with the emphasis on losing weight and looking better, I did my first triathlon. It was a sprint distance triathlon – I came last.
After my debut outing, I started to tinker with my training and quickly saw the improvements. And like most, I became hooked on those gains. As my riding was a lot better than my swimming, I found results were easier to come by in the long course format. From the beginning, however, it was always about self-improvement and knowing I wasn’t the slightest bit gifted, the work ethic required to bring out those gains kept me focused.
Off the back of becoming Age Group World Champion, you qualify for a Pro licence. The next three years you race in the professional field – were you full-time Pro at that time or working/studying throughout? I’ve read/heard an interview where you think, in hindsight, perhaps that was too early to turn Pro. Can you tell us a bit about your experience, racing Pro?
Yeah in hindsight I do think I should have returned to Kona and defended my age group World Championship. Unfortunately, the allure was too strong to a 23-year-old to ‘turn Pro’. It is easy in hindsight, but I think another 12-24 months to develop further without the pressures associated with professional racing would have been a great idea.
Over those three years, while I was racing professionally, I was studying and working part time. I always viewed that as a positive as it gave my life balance whenI wasn’t training or racing.
You eventually walk away from Pro racing, and racing altogether, for a little while – can you talk us through that decision.
I had some success when I raced professionally. A couple of 70.3 podiums and a few small race wins. But my ability to replicate on race day, what I was doing in training was frustratingly inconsistent.
I knew my strength was in Ironman racing, so that was where I had put my focus and attention. My first two attempts at Ironman racing were absolute misfires – DNF (dehydration) and DNS (pneumonia). My third preparation resulted in a Top 10, and although my performance was underwhelming, I was happy to have finally finished one as a professional. We then put everything into preparing for an Ironman, nine months later. I put together the perfect preparation, and although I had the greatest swim of my life, the bike surprisingly didn’t go well for me, and I grovelled home outside of the Top 10.
Arriving home I had just been admitted to practice as a lawyer, and my mind had had enough of training so hard with little reward. So I made the decision at the end of 2011, to sell everything and start my law career.
Motivated after watching a friend race Kona 2014, you become re-inspired to get back to racing and put together a two-year plan to return to Kona in 2016. Despite a finish time – 9:17 – that would impress plenty, it wasn’t quite the race you had planned or hoped for. Was that disappointing for you?
The feeling I had from seeing his progression and ultimately achieving his goal, and being involved in such a life changing experience, was a much greater feeling than I had ever felt achieving something personally as an athlete. — Richard Thompson
It was immensely disappointing, although I wasn’t upset on the day. I knew it wasn’t going to plan, but I was very grateful to be out there racing again on the Big Island. I had arrived at the start line almost as fit as I was as a professional. I swam well and biked to the lead of the age group field within 40km. Unfortunately, I didn’t follow my own race plan and went way too hard – I didn’t feel like eating, and by 110km I was toast. I was very happy to have finished given the state I was in at Hawi.
The disappointment wasn’t because I didn’t make the podium etc., but was because it, again, didn’t reflect what I knew I was capable of doing in training. Ironically, what I wanted to do and what I did, reflected my two different approaches in my past. I wanted to race the way I did in 2008 – just solely focusing on my own day. What I end up doing was racing how I raced as a professional – focusing on who was around me and what they were doing. I paid the price, and it took me close to six months before I was able to review the data from that day.
How long did it take you to start thinking about getting back to racing again and when did Ultraman enter the conversation? Why Ultraman?
It had taken about 48 hours before my attention turned to racing again. The sole reason for coming back to racing was to see what my body could do as an early 30-year-old and to have a performance that actually reflected my ability, and what I was able to do in training. The performance that I hadn’t really been able to do as a professional.
The second half of this year was out for me, so it was either Ironman Cairns or Ultraman Australia (UM). I swore I would never do UM due to the 10km swim, but given my 53-minute swim in Kona, I thought that that first leg might not be so bad. I wasn’t inspired by doing an Ironman just for the sake of it, and the idea of racing over a different format really excited me.
To be honest, though, I didn’t really care what race that would be in 2017 – I just needed it to be something. My wife Lisa was with me through qualifying and racing in Hawaii in 2008, and all through my three years as a Pro, so she was also the one sacrificing for a performance that never really came – so the desire grew even more after Kona didn’t pan out last year.
I understand you were on the waitlist to enter the race and just days before you eventually got the call up that someone had pulled out, you had thought up taking your name off the waitlist –you must be pumped that you waited just a few more days?
So lucky. When I had planned to race UM, I knew I wanted to be at a certain fitness level by mid-January. As I hadn’t received a call up from the race organisers, my impetus to get out any sort decent training was low. So, I told Lisa that I was going to pull out. I didn’t get around to emailing the organisers and then got the call-up. I had to break the news to my wife that, despite our chat a day or so before, we were now all in for Ultraman 2017.
So, you get the call up late January (the race is in May) – how much prep and how fit were you at that point? Were you concerned you had just four months to prepare for this mammoth event?
I certainly wasn’t fit. I had planned on doing Hell of the West and Mooloolaba Triathlon in the lead up to Ultraman. But due to having such a relatively short build and the need to focus on training, I pulled out of both races. I was probably only training about 10 hours a week over December and January.
What I did have going for me was a very consistent 2016 of strength and endurance. So, I hoped that with a bit of hard work, it wasn’t going to take too long to get back into decent shape.
To prepare for Ultraman, you self-coached but did seek out former competitors including the 2016 winning Dave Kalinowski for their advice. How important was their advice in helping you create your plan to prepare and do the race itself? Did your plans change after
I think it is vital to seek advice from people who have experienced something you haven’t done before. Dave, Pip Holland, Tony Bryan and Robbie Andrews were all so generous with their time. From training philosophies and tips on selecting your crew to race strategies and recovery techniques – I would have really struggled without their guidance. They are all really lovely people, and I am still so thankful for their openness and support not just initially but throughout the preparation and the race.
You battled a knee injury in the months leading up to the race. How bad was the knee and what impact did it have on your prep and during the race?
I was pushing the boundaries as to how much running I was able to handle. The weekly volume was nothing outrageous but I was trying to condition my legs as best as possible, so I stacked the running in over a few days (rather than evenly spread it out over the week). After three big days of running, six weeks out from the race, my knee became very sore. A week of rest didn’t work, so a trip to the sports doctor and an MRI later, I had ITB friction syndrome, which was curable with three months rest or with a cortisone injection.
Once the injection settled, I had exactly four weeks until race day. I had run a total of 50km in the previous three weeks, so I had to be careful with planning my running into the race. I decided to ‘reverse taper’ the running. So, when my riding and swimming were reducing, I would be increasing my running into the event. My longest run I did for the entire preparation was 40km, a week out from race day. It was still really painful, but it was time in the shoes that I needed.
Going into the third day, the double marathon, I had no guarantees the knee would hold up. The pain only started around 40km, and by 45km it was immense. My form went out the window as well, causing the hip flexor on the same side to overtake the knee in the pain stakes. After some quick thinking from my crew at around 50km, I had an ice pack on my hip flexors and pain relief for my knee. My form returned to some extent, and I managed to get through the rest of the run relatively smoothly.
I understand you live just 10km off the bike course so that meant you could train for months on the course. That must have been a big confidence booster that you knew those roads like the back of your hand?
Absolutely. Once I had been accepted to race UM, every ride I did was on the course. It made me ride roads that I hadn’t ever been on, which was really neat.
The course is quite a hilly too – a combined elevation gain of 3600m meant plenty of climbing in training (and working out the associated gearing ratios required) as well as plenty of technical descents (I am usually a very cautious descender). I felt that that was a big advantage over others who may only get to drive the course once or twice if they were coming from interstate or overseas.
The only time you weren’t leading over the course of the three days was after the swim leg (where you were second) but ended each day in the number one position. Going into the race, did you set goals for times, or positioning – for a lot of people, just finishing that race is the goal in itself, how did you approach this?
I was definitely there to race it, not just to participate. But there is also an immense respect for the distance and event that you can’t lose sight over.
As this event was the substitute to my misfire in Kona – a time or place was never the focus. Primarily, I wanted to have three days that represented what I knew I was capable of and be proud of what I was able to do. I felt like I owed that to the friends and family that have supported me, my UM crew, my wife and our son and myself.
At what point did you think I’ve got the win here, and then I’ve got the world record? Did you know during the race where you were positioned timing wise?
Having had day one and day two go exactly to plan (and favourable weather conditions), we were told that I needed to run a sub 7:23 double marathon to claim the world record but obviously, this did not guarantee the win.
My plan all along was to run seven hours. But we had no idea how my knee would handle running 84km. I had a bit over an hour lead to Andrew Vicary, in second place. So, if I had the run I knew I was capable of (which was a big ‘if’), Andrew would need to run sub six hours to beat me.
I implemented a run/walk strategy from the beginning. My lack of run strength meant I wasn’t very confident running a straight marathon, let alone two. Andrew soon hit the lead on day three and was running beautifully. I got the first proper time check at 21km, and while he was a ways up the road, he wasn’t on sub six hour time, so at that point, it was my race to lose.
With my knee/hip trouble, the furthest I slipped back was to fourth and 15 minutes behind Andrew. But once the pain relief kicked in and with ice packs in place, I slowly brought that margin back – ultimately hitting the lead on the run with six kilometres to go. It was only then at that time that I thought both the win and the world record were a possibility. You are really exhausted so there isn’t much energy available to think too far ahead, but I do remember a deep sense of satisfaction, especially in the final couple of kilometres.
I am fully aware that there are plenty of faster long course triathletes out there, but I do feel incredibly honoured to be in the right place at the right time and to have the race go so well to claim the world record. Ridiculous really.
Unlike ‘regular’ triathlon and Ironman, where it is 100% athlete only on race day, in Ultraman, your team can be a key element to success – who made up your team, on and off the race course? And how vital are they to your win?
Integral. While triathlon is an individual sport, you have a team of people helping in the background to get you to the start line. This is almost exaggerated in Ultraman.
So many people behind the scenes had helped me to the start line – my wife Lisa, lots of our family helping out with care for our son Teddy, all the T:Zero athletes with their support, the body maintenance team. All in all far too many people to list but all playing such an integral role.
My crew during the event – Scotty Farrell, Nick Quinn, Nick Rinaudo, Steve Wehlow, Brett Kerwick, Andrew Perry and Cam Cole. All seven of them were simply amazing. Never would I have thought to have a team so selfless in supporting this singular goal for me.
I have received a lot of praise from so many people since the event, and I honestly feel selfish and awkward receiving it as I know that without my crew and my support team, I would not have been able to race the way I did. It is that simple. The result is as much theirs as it is mine.
So, away from racing, you’re a triathlon coach and founded T:Zero Multisport in 2010. What made you want to get into coaching and then set up your own business?
After being inspired by my wife doing a one off Ironman back in 2009, her cousin (Steve Wehlow) came to me to see if I could train him to do an Ironman. I coached him for 10 months and not only did he lose 20kgs, but he also finished Ironman WA and loved every moment.
The feeling I had from seeing his progression and ultimately achieving his goal, and being involved in such a life changing experience, was a much greater feeling than I had ever felt achieving something personally as an athlete.
It was obvious to me then that I would be coaching for a long time in the future. So I started T:Zero Multisport. As an athlete, I had very high expectations for what I wanted from a coach, so I started there. I made sure that at all times the focus was to establish and foster a great coach-athlete relationship, to continually develop a super customised program for each athlete to allow them to reach their goals and never just increase athlete numbers for the sake of it. I am proud to say that over the past eight years, we haven’t stopped focusing on these things.
You’ve been coaching part time as T:Zero Multisport for many years, but you stepped away from your career in law late last year to focus on coaching full time. That’s a big step and a big career change. How has that transition been?
It has been an incredible experience. Everyone has been wonderfully supportive, none more than my beautiful wife. She married a lawyer and now has a triathlon coach as a husband! Jokes aside, I am ridiculously passionate about coaching, and while I am always learning and striving to be a better coach for my athletes and for T:Zero, it fills me with so much joy waking up each morning knowing I am in a position to do this full time. To be able to run the business with such a good mate in Scotty Farrell makes it all the better.
What do think is one of the most satisfying things about being a coach?
For an athlete to reach out and give you their trust to help them achieve their goals is something very special. I do not take this for granted and it is something that I feel honoured to do.
Whether they are a professional trying to qualify for Kona or whether they want to do their first Ironman and just make the cut-off – when it boils down to it everyone has the same goal – getting the most of themselves and living their potential. To be a small part of that journey is truly satisfying.
I understand you’re not the only active member in your household- your wife is currently preparing for the Ultra-Trail race in Mont-Blanc in August of this year. Do you take it in turns of being the supportive partner for these epic endeavours?
My wife is truly amazing. She took up trail running late 2015 and immediately set her sights on one of the hardest trails runs in the world! We are off to Europe soon, which is really exciting.
She was on track to qualify for the blue ribbon event (UTMB-171km) but came down with pneumonia weeks before her final qualifier late last year. So she had to settle for the next race down, the TDS, which is still 120km with a crazy 7200mof elevation gain!
Admittedly, 2017 was supposed to be her year. She raced a lot last year to qualify for Mont-Blanc but this year was all about her preparation and race. So for her to be so accommodating with my Ultraman endeavours was a testament to how supportive she is of me. She also has a funny Instagram account of all things trail running – @trail.runner.mama.
Ironman Age Group World Champion/ Ultraman World Record Holder has a lovely ring to it – you must be very proud of your achievements thus far? What’s next?
Both performances give me an immense sense of pride and satisfaction. They came at very different stages of my life, but I feel very grateful to have had such amazing experiences in my life so far.
I haven’t really given too much thought to 2018 and beyond. To be honest, I am having a bit of time to breathe and not have any lofty goals to aspire to just yet. I am really enjoying spending lots more time with our son, seeing Lisa train for Mont-Blanc and of course helping the T:Zero athletes live their potential. Lastly, I really want to thank AT for bringing some attention to Ultraman Australia. It is such an amazing event, run by truly wonderful people and I implore everyone to give it a go at some point in their life.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Eyes Wide Open Images