On the morning of the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, you might see Patrick Lange, one of the world’s top triathletes, tossing a leaf into the ocean. A beautiful gesture, it’s also a way of gathering vital data for one of the world’s most challenging athletic competitions.
The 140.6-mile (226.3-km) race begins with a swim in the Pacific Ocean. To plan the best swimming route, Patrick observes the Kailua-Kona Bay currents by watching how the leaf floats on the turquoise waters.
Patrick trains and races in some of the most stunning places in the world, and there are moments of beauty and transcendence in the competitions Patrick participates in. A dolphin even accompanied him (or raced him?) for a portion of one triathlon. But these grueling endurance races also require incredible levels of discipline and determination.
Patrick took a break from his rigorous training schedule to visit the adidas global headquarters. During his visit, we talked about how his professional dreams were born, how he brought them to life, and how he persists in the face of calamity.
For every weakness there is a strength
As a kid exploring sports, Patrick became aware of the ways in which he stood out from others. “I was the slowest in sprinting. I cannot throw well. I don’t think I have any fast-twitching muscle fiber in my body.”
While playing soccer, however, he discovered that he had unusual stamina. “I was the one running up and down the field and never got tired. I was pretty sure from a young age that I was an endurance person.”
His attraction to and gift for endurance sports was reinforced when he was 11. “My first memory of the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii was Thomas Hellriegel’s win in 1997. I remember thinking, ‘That’s crazy!’ It was the pinnacle of endurance sports, the best you can get out of a one-day event. That’s where the love began, I think.”
An avid cross-country runner and mountain biker, he pursued endurance sports so heartily that they even played prominently in his teenage rebellion. He forged his parents’ signatures on the consent form for a mountain bike marathon. “When I was 15, I did a 120-kilometer mountain bike race. I signed my parents’ names because you cannot compete without parental consent when you are under 18.”
Though his parents supported his athletic aspirations and even drove him to the competition, he doesn’t think they realized exactly what the race entailed. “If I’d asked for their permission, I think they would have suggested I start with a shorter race. Instead, I took it into my own hands and just decided to do it. I have always been curious to find out where the limits are and try to push them as far as possible.”
From physical therapist to professional triathlete
Before becoming a full-time athlete, Patrick studied physical therapy and worked as a physiotherapist. This background has proven to be both a blessing and a curse for him as an athlete. “The upside is I listen to my body a little bit differently than those without experience as a physical therapist. I think I can interpret a niggle in a different way to other athletes. I know exactly where to guide my physio to treat me because I have a good awareness of my own body.
“The downside is I’m also really picky when it comes to treatments. I often find myself questioning the choices of my physios, and I can imagine this might be annoying when someone thinks they know better. In general, as an athlete, though, my physical therapy background is definitely beneficial. For one thing, I avoided being seriously injured from sport until earlier this year. My lack of major injuries before my recent bike accident is largely because of my knowledge from physio studies.”
Similarly, his professional background likely played a part in his recent astonishingly fast recovery. He had a crash while cycling and needed major surgery on his shoulder. The general expectation of medical professionals is that 3-4 months after this surgery, a person should be able to lift their arm at a 90-degree angle. Instead, 3-4 months after the surgery, Patrick was competing in Challenge Roth, an endurance triathlon, which includes a 2.4-mile (3.86-km) swim.
“I think listening to the signals that are sent by the body is super important,” he said. His sensitivity to and understanding of these messages reduce injury and speed up recovery. Not only did he compete in the Challenge Roth Ironman soon after his surgery, he finished in second place.
The major role of goals
When talking about his recovery from surgery, Patrick credits his team, but he also cites the importance of having a specific achievement in mind. “It was really helpful to have a goal: I wanted to be well in time to compete in Challenge Roth.
“After winning the Challenge Roth Ironman in 2021 without any fans, there was a motivational boost to go back there and do the race with the support of a crowd. Having the goal of competing in Challenge Roth made me disregard the textbook timeline for recovery. Instead, I went at my own speed.”
In addition to the mid-term goals of winning the races he is training for, Patrick has short-term and long-term goals, too. The short-term goals can be super tiny. For instance, while on a run, he might time each kilometer and make it his goal to run the next one faster.
Longer-term goals incorporate the purpose that adds meaning to his life. “It’s amazing to be able to inspire others. It gives me a lot when I receive letters from kids that say, ‘I did a triathlon because I saw you on TV, and I think what you do is great.’ I’m happy if I can encourage young people to get time away from computers and train for a triathlon, instead.
“It’s also really cool when people tell me that reading my book made them want to try out a triathlon. Or that it makes them reconnect with their passion for endurance sports.”
Regrouping when tragedy strikes
Fans had high hopes for Patrick in 2019. He had won the Kona World Championship in 2017 and 2018, breaking the course record each time. We’d come to expect another record to be broken. But he didn’t win the World Championship that year. In fact, he was unable to finish the race due to illness. “I saw a lot of negative media about me around that time. People were wondering what was wrong with me. They thought my career was over.”
The truth was that I wasn’t competing at my highest level because my mental game wasn’t where it normally was. As a family, we were going through hell in 2019. My mother was diagnosed with cancer and then died from it. But I didn’t want to talk about any of this in public because my mom was reading all the articles. I didn’t want her to worry about my performance being affected by her illness.”
Patrick realized he needed someone to talk to. Luckily, his coach, Björn Geesmann, referred him to a specialist. “In the winter of 2019, I started working with a sports mental coach, and straight away I realized it was a good chance not only to improve my performance. It was good for my overall well-being. Talking things out with a professional is good for my personal development as a human.”
My sports mental coach asks the right questions and doesn’t give the answers. Sometimes I just wake up in the middle of the night and say, ‘That’s it. That’s the solution.’ While I’m training, I reevaluate what we talked about, and answers come naturally. I ride my bike for five or six hours a day, so I have a lot of time to think about these things. While running or swimming, my mind is free to sort things out.”
Coming back stronger
This year has brought new challenges – with the bike accident, major surgery, and COVID. Patrick is aware of the voices that are saying things like, “An injury like that at 35? He’s too old to come back after that. Now his career is over.”
One thing this year has done is affirmed his priorities. “With the injury and the coronavirus – each time where everything I was doing was stopped – it made me aware that triathlon racing is truly what I want to do. It’s what I love doing the most.”
He also points out the benefits of his age. “We see a lot of long-distance athletic careers not starting until age 30. Experience is really important for long-course racing. Often, when we are a little older our mental game is in better shape than when we were younger. The older I get, the more experienced I am and the more stable my mental state becomes.”
His mom, too, gives him renewed strength. “One of the last things my mom said to me was, ‘I know you’re the best, I know you can win, and I want you to win again.’ This is one thing that drives me at the moment. It is really motivating to know that someone is watching from above and cheering me on that way.”
To find out more about Patrick and his journey as an endurance athlete, follow him at @patricklange1, check out his website, and read his book, Becoming Ironman. Though currently only available in German, the English version of his autobiography is in process.