Get to know the story behind the athlete in our interview series with the newest members of the HOKA team. Find out what motivates our athletes, what their passions are outside of sport and what Time To Fly™ means to them.
Professional trail running has long been regarded the domain of the older generation of athletes. Even among the HOKA ranks, Jim Walmsley hit the big ‘three-oh’ in January this year, Sage Canaday, Harry Jones and Audrey Tanguy are all into their 30s and legendary figures of the sport, like Mike Wardian and Ludo Pommeret, are beyond the age of 40.
But young French starlet Sylvain Cachard, who only turned 21 on Christmas Day last year, aims to change that as he takes his first tentative steps in the foothills of the pro ranks.
Trail running is a family affair for the Engineering student, who was born in Rouen, in the decidedly non-hilly region of Normandy in Northern France, but who headed to the more rugged landscapes further south with his parents when he was only three years old. It was here where he developed his love of running, ahead of mountain biking, in the mountains.
“I used to do lots of mountain biking with my parents on the trails near our home in Clermont l’Herault,” he recalls, before observing wryly “but unfortunately for me the trails are really technical. I was not a super rider and I remember carrying my bike on my back for a lot of the time…so that was the beginning of my mountain running career!”
“My parents, my little brother and I all started to run when I was about 10, and we joined the local athletics club” he continues. “It was there my parents fell in love with ultra races.”
It became a case of ‘how long can I run’ for the young Sylvain as he accompanied his parents on their long (“sometimes more than five hours!”) weekend training runs. A stint at a specialised track and field high school in Lozere, 150km from his home, followed, which helped develop his flat speed in order to make him better in the mountains.
Sylvain has enjoyed success in all forms of running so far in his fledgling career, including road and cross country, but it’s on the trails, where he won the French Junior title in 2017, that he is most at home.
“My favourite place to train is still the Cirque de Mourèze, near my parents’ home,” he says, adding, “for me, trail running is just about the time to fly as fast as we can in the mountains and age should not be a barrier to success.”
“I consider myself a trail runner at 21, so there is not an age issue in this type of physical activity,” he insists.
“This is something I try to show in my role as an ambassador for ‘L’Ecole du Trail’, which is an initiative for children from eight to 18 to introduce them to the sport of trail running in a natural environment.”
Sylvain does have huge respect for the knowledge which comes with experience, however, and he is keen to learn from top professionals like his HOKA ONE ONE teammate, Julien Rancon.
“Julien has been the main influence in my young career,” he is quick to acknowledge. “His advice is always really helpful, and I am now lucky to be able to call him my friend.”
Aside from his work with the Ecole du Trail initiative and his Engineering studies, Sylvain is also focusing on the big trail events beginning to come back into focus following lockdown, and he is eager to break out his Evo Jawz and get competing once again.
“My biggest dream is to become competitive in all the big mountain races,” he says. “I spent lockdown in the Alps with my girlfriend and two other mountain runners and we all supported each other during that difficult period. But now it’s almost over I am planning to train even harder and prepare for the races.
“Winning Sierre-Zinal and UTMB in the same year would be a perfect example of what I dream of and train for each day.”
Some athletes crumble under pressure. Others, like the 2012 Olympic triathlon silver medallist, Lisa Norden, thrive on it.
“I enjoy the times when the pressure is high, like in an Olympic prep,” she says, “where I can put everything else to one side and focus 110% on one goal.
“I always ask myself, Lisa, do you really want to be here, would you rather be somewhere else? And the answer is always NO!”
“I want the pressure and I want to excel under it. Giving myself the option of not having to cope with pressure makes it much easier.”
Lisa has inherited her mental prowess from her mother, who she describes as “one of the strongest women I have ever met.”
“My upbringing taught me a lot that prepared me for life as well as elite sports, and she is one of the main reasons I got into triathlon”
Lisa needed every ounce of her famed mental strength at the London Olympics where, after almost two hours of the fiercest competition, only the thickness of a vest came between her and a coveted gold. Usain Bolt won the 100m by a bigger margin!
Simply making it to the start line in London represented one of the biggest challenges Lisa has ever had to overcome. A major injury the previous year had left her seriously underprepared and lacking in confidence as the Games loomed.
“All my competitors were deep in heavy training blocks and I was sidelined with a calf injury, not able to do any running at all,” she recalls. “We cut back all the ‘fluff’, only did specific running intervals and warmed up and down on the bike. That was it.”
Despite a further setback, Lisa refused to panic, and thanks to the modified regime, she made it by the skin of her teeth. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I think the cutback in volume and the hours I would normally do allowed me to get the extra speed and edge I needed to win that medal in London,” she concludes.
Lisa rode horses rather than bikes growing up in Kristianstad in Eastern Sweden and as a result, she was a late starter in triathlon.
“I spent all my time in the stables from the age of five,” she reveals, “My show-jumping horse, Milton, was my real hero and triathlon was a fun thing I started doing to keep fit and challenge myself.”
“I was a non-swimmer at first!” she admits. “I just really enjoyed the sport, but then I won the World U23 title in 2007 and began to train with my coach Dean Smith. He made me believe I could be world class and coached me not only physically but also mentally.”
Despite a long and storied career at the Olympic distance, the three-time Olympian is constantly seeking new challenges, hence her recent move to longer distances in HOKA shoes.
“Triathlon is my passion,” she says. “It is what I live and breathe for. What drives me is to see how far I can get. I thought I had peaked in my 20s but seeing how I am continuing to improve is fascinating and highly motivating.”
Lisa describes her quest to win three world titles at three different distances as the “last mission” of her stellar career. “The Sprint and Olympic are in the bag,” she says, “only the 70.3 remains on the ‘to-do’ list.”
It’s a tall order, but as she has shown time and again over the years, if there is one athlete with the mental strength to achieve it, it’s Lisa Norden.
“Pain is just weakness leaving the body,” she says. “Having spent so much time rebuilding myself and working my way back from injury, now is the time to fly!”
Great athletes are often a product of their environment, for example, many Alpine skiers are flying down the slopes almost as soon as they can walk, and Brazilian footballers learn their trade in the favelas of the cities where they grow up.
So, how does a Dutchman become one of the best mountain racers in the world when he comes from a country whose highest point is a mere 322m above sea level? Simple. He relocates.
“Once I got to win races or make podiums and become one of the best trail runners in Holland, I wanted to race more and faster,” explains 2019 Transgrancanaria 5th-place finisher and HOKA trail athlete, Peter van der Zon.
“One of the most inspiring pieces of advice I’ve ever been given is, ‘do what makes you happy!’”
“I knew I wanted mountains, so I looked at the English Lake District and Switzerland,” he continues. “First, I moved to some hills in Germany, and from there to Switzerland, where I got a coach, and that was the beginning of getting some good results and making the national team.”
“Running in the mountains means a lot to me, and it is my favourite place to train. You can concentrate on yourself and you see a lot of nature, and I love the feeling you get when you achieve your goal of a summit or a mountain pass. It’s there that you get to know your body pretty damn well!”
Having fun also plays an important part in Peter’s running life, which could be due to his early experiences at Circus School in Holland. “It was a lot of fun and playing games,” he recalls. “I did a lot of balance training and riding unicycles, maybe that helps me with my balance on the descents in races!”
Living in Switzerland, Peter is one of the lucky ones whose training has been less disrupted by the havoc wreaked throughout the world by coronavirus.
“We had restrictions around work,” says the part-time personal trainer and running coach, who is also a keen cook and baker. “I was only able to work three half-days a week at times, but that allowed me to put in a bit more training and get some better rest!”
Now, though, Peter is itching for things to get back to normal so he can get back out onto the trails in a competitive environment.
“I want to achieve a top-five placing in the Ultra-Trail World Tour,” he says, “as that will allow me to work less and be able to live off my hobby.”
“My biggest vice is I always wanting more,” he admits. “More work, more training, more racing, but going fully professional would mean a lot to me.
“I can see that if I can put other things aside and really work for it, I can achieve my goals. I will have time to fly to the places where I want to be and fly on my own strength to summits and other locations that are special to me.”
Professionals often arrive at triathlon via other sports, and that was certainly the case with the 2019 IRONMAN® Italy champion Carolin Lehrieder. Carolin spent most of her formative years charging up and down a basketball court rather than training for the final stretch along Alii Drive in Hawaii. Her hero then was Michael Jordan rather than Jan Frodeno.
While she loved the camaraderie of team sports, it was clear Carolin was better suited to endurance events than shooting hoops. After entering several local running races, she was persuaded by her triathlete father to give tri a try.
At 18 she bought herself a road bike and, after working her way up through 70.3, Carolin decided to enter IRONMAN Frankfurt in 2013. She promptly won her age group before going on to place 3rd in the 18-24 race in Kona just three months later.
It was clear this extraordinary talent from Würtzburg in western Bavaria was ready to give it a go in the professional ranks. Having completed her teacher training studies in Mathematics and PE, she took the plunge.
“I never actually dreamed of being a pro,” she admits. “It was more a kind of smooth development from being an ambitious age-group athlete to giving it a shot in the pro field."
“After I finished my final exams at university, I thought it was a good time to focus on racing for a year before starting work as a teacher. But then I decided to go ‘for one more year’ again and again, and here I am now, racing pro for my sixth year already!”
In those six years, triathlon has become more than just a job to Carolin. “It’s a lifestyle,” she says, “and I really enjoy it. We get to train and race in beautiful places all over the world, become friends with fellow athletes, and do what we love every day.”
There is pressure however: “Everything you do impacts your next training session or race,” she explains, “so I take confidence from the training I have done to feel ready and well-prepared. When I go back through my sessions, I realise I have done the homework and then all I try to do is be the best I can on race day.”
Carolin had clearly done her homework, and was undoubtedly at her best, in Emilia-Romagna last September when she took the IM Italy title by over eight minutes in 8:48:23. She became the fifth-fastest German woman of all time over the distance in the process.
“I was very confident in the days leading to the race.” she recalls. “I didn’t care about what the others were doing, I was just very focused on myself and my strength. During the race I went for it on my own from the gun and pushed myself to the very end – successfully!”
What made the win even more special was being able to present her biggest fan, her father Gerald, with his finisher’s medal after he crossed the finish line in 10:44:59.
“That was very cool. I’m really happy that my family is always there,” she told the Tri-Oracle podcast after her Italian triumph. “They believe in my dreams and try to make it possible. They supported me from the very beginning, when it was tough, and I think that’s the most important thing."
“With our tendency towards perfection, we easily lose sight of the fact there is more than just triathlon in this world. We sometimes need to allow ourselves a break and step back from the triathlon bubble.”
Those words are more relevant than ever at the moment, but when racing does recommence one thing is certain: Carolin will be shooting, not for baskets, but for the top step on the podium in triathlons around the world.
We are living in challenging times, but if there’s one thing German triathlete Tobias Drachler relishes, it’s a challenge.
At last year’s IRONMAN European Championships in Frankfurt, after a solid swim, Tobias jumped off the bike in eighth place but scythed through the field on the run.
Despite describing the third and fourth laps as being among the toughest tests he’s ever faced, Tobias finished fourth and completed a German clean sweep of the first four places, behind new HOKA ONE ONE teammates, Jan Frodeno and Franz Loeschke, and Sebastian Kienle.
“I would say that race, and qualifying for the World Championships in Kona, are my greatest achievements so far,” he says. “I felt I was the best prepared I could be, and my ‘supporters circle’ agreed.”
But, like all great athletes, Tobias was left wanting more.
In Kona, conditions were brutal, with little respite from the stifling heat and humidity, but Tobias battled the elements to complete his first IRONMAN World Championships in 31st place.
He was looking forward to progressing even further in 2020. That is, until Covid-19 intervened.
“My whole approach has been affected,” he says, before adding a positive spin. “Previously, I was so focused and ‘grim’ about getting better and reaching my goals, but the current situation has given me the opportunity to do what I love with more joy again.”
“The restrictions have affected my training in that I’m not able to swim at the moment, and I’m forced to train alone even more than normal,” he says “so we are working on my weaknesses, like running speed and posture. We’ve also introduced rope resistance work, with a focus on strength training in general.
Tobias has come a long way from the football fields of his hometown of Cologne in western Germany, but he feels he has the potential to go even further.
“I was a footballer from age six to 19,” he explains. “Then I stepped back from football and was asked by a triathlete friend of my dad if I would like to challenge myself in a sprint distance event. I took part and fell in love with the sport right away, and my dad is now my biggest fan!”
That was 2010. Since then, Tobias has gained his MSc in Exercise Science and Coaching, and become a part owner of ProAthletes UG in Cologne, a company specialising in coaching endurance athletes and providing performance diagnostics.
A decade on from his tri debut, however, and fuelled by the title of his favourite Kontra K rap song ‘Erfolg ist Kein Glück”, or ‘Success Is No Luck’, the fire to improve burns just as brightly.
“My biggest strength is my ambition, you can lie to everyone, but not to yourself.” he says, “My main goal is to make the podium at an IRONMAN event, maybe the European Championships in Frankfurt, qualify for Kona again and hopefully produce a better performance there than in 2019. I think I can make the top-15.”
“Before that though, I’m looking forward to the simple things again, like meeting and spending time with my family, and of course swimming and training with my friends before a very busy racing season to end 2020.”
If, during the current restrictions, Spiderman happens to run past your front door in a pair of Carbon X, the chances are you live in Loughborough in the UK, and the person in the suit is none other than world-class triathlete Nikki Bartlett.
“In life, we’re all faced with challenges we must overcome, adapt to and work out ways of pushing through,” explains the winner of IRONMAN Lanzarote in 2019. “For me, a positive mindset is key.
“I tried a run dressed as Spiderman to put a smile on people’s faces and the response was epic. We need to use sport and physical activity right now to help uplift and provide purpose and joy in our day-to-day lives. I thought about doing all my runs dressed like that!”
Triathletes are facing an uncertain few months as they try and train for races they don’t know for sure will be happening, but Nikki relishes the challenge: “I see it as an opportunity to overcome, an opportunity to come out the other side a better person and a better athlete.”
A professional career wasn’t always the goal for the former international rower. It wasn’t until 2011 when injury curtailed her Olympic aspirations and ended her career in the boat that Nikki took to the water in a different way with a debut IM 70.3.
“I had absolutely no idea my life would be shaped this way,” she confesses. “I’ve gone through so many phases in my life – party kid, big drinker, multiple sports, pro triathlete – and I feel each chapter and step has shaped me into the person I am today.”
Despite having no previous background in the sport, and initially unable to swim, Nikki progressed rapidly after turning pro four years ago she has never looked back.
“In 2016 I felt I was ready,” she confirms. “I was winning my age-groups by 30, 40, 60-minute gaps in some races, and felt like I wanted to step up and perform on the biggest stage in the sport.”
This summer, the biggest stage ought to have been the realisation of her Olympic dream in Tokyo. In addition to her triathlon commitments, Nikki also guides visually impaired para-triathlete Alison Peasgood and the pair had high hopes of a medal in the PVTI class in Japan.
“Cancelling the Games is definitely the right call,” she says, philosophically. “Health always comes first, and the World isn’t a place to come together right now and celebrate athletic achievements.”
“I never knew how rewarding guiding would be,” she adds, “but as soon as I entered the ‘Guides for Gold’ campaign I was instantly motivated and passionate about being the best possible guide for Alison. To be able to connect with another athlete and have full confidence and trust in one another is something special”.
Even without the structure of an upcoming race schedule, Nikki maintains her discipline through meticulous planning.
“I love goals!” she exclaims, “weekly and daily process goals. At the beginning of every season, along with my coach Rob Cheetham (husband of fellow HOKA triathlete Susie) we write down where I would like to be, and we make a plan of how to get there, making sure we are realistic at the same time.”
“One of my biggest tips,” she advises, “is to make goals that excite you, not haunt you with pressure or unrealistic expectations. I could write a whole blog on this section alone!”
For now, Nikki is enjoying the freedom to be creative with her training, exploring the extensive countryside near her home and switching off from the pressures of global pandemics or global sporting festivals.
“I love connecting up routes and getting lost,” she says, “trying out different ways of training. For example, I did a cross-country season last winter, turning off my Garmin and just going by feel. I shared the whole process with people on social media, engaging and bringing communities together.”
At some point, sooner rather than later, it will be back to the serious business of pro triathlon for Nikki, and she can’t wait, particularly with the Olympics still on the horizon.
“How epic will it be to be a part of a sporting moment that could be so powerful that it brings us all back together again, healthy and fearless? Sport has the power to unite, celebrate and bring us together as one. It’s going to be even more special!”
Until that happens, however, you can be sure Spiderman in a pair of HOKA will be making further appearances around the running routes of the East Midlands.