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Interview: What Is It Like to Experience an Extreme Triathlon?

By WeLoveCycling

Several months ago, Martin Gabla won a contest for the starting fee reimbursement at Livigno ICON Extreme Triathlon, and at the beginning of September he did appear at the starting line. He tried to stack up to international competition and conquer 3.8 km of swimming, 200 km of biking through four Swiss and Italian mountain passes, and run 42.2 km with an elevation difference of 1,500+ in the beautiful nature in the surroundings of Livigno. Martin Gabla is no greenhorn and he knew far too well what he’d got himself into. He had successfully taken part in some of the hardest (not only in Europe) extreme Ironman series: the Swissman in Switzerland and the Scottish Celtmen. Martin enjoys life with all its pleasures and pitfalls. To him, the Earth is just a giant playground where he can goof around. The following quote describes his attitude towards life and sport: “When you know what you want from life, you just go get it!” He’s restless, always “in action”, always making new plans and doing new things. Better to take part in two events at once than in none at all. When everyone else is having their rest, he goes for it again.

Martin, can you introduce yourself to our readers? We know you’re not just a great triathlete…

If I should choose one word to characterize myself, it would probably be “centiathlete” J. If there was a Centiathlon World Championship, I may win it after all J. I like sports that include several different activities. That’s why I do triathlons, paraski (combination of giant slalom on ski and parachuting with exact landing), but I also do paramotoring. There was a time in my life when I surfed a lot. I also enjoy motor sports; I used to be obsessed with motorbikes. But a centiathlon wouldn’t be only about sporting, but about music too. For example playing the drums, guitar, bass guitar… I’m not perfect at all these things, far from that, but I would get some points in all of those disciplines.


Do you come from a sporting family?

Yes and no. My dad was a shot putter in his youth. My aunt was a stunt and she still has a caravan in Nechranice where she surfs. But in my case, the obsession with sports got a little out of hand.

What brought you to triathlons?

I kind of felt that triathlon could be the right thing for me. It was about 15 years ago when I first started in a triathlon competition, Xterra in Hluboká nad Vltavou. During the race, I thought I would die there because I went really fast, which was a mistake. But I finished the race and started crying good and proper from the joy that I did it. After that, I started racing regularly because I thought it was great when somebody told you what to do where and how, put you at the starting line and you just went through the track enjoying yourself. There’s no need to think something up yourself and you still have a great time. Cool way to spend your weekends. And in fact, that’s how I see it even today.

Now let’s talk about Livigno ICON Extreme Triathlon. How would you describe the race in one sentence?

ICON Extreme Triathlon is a race that was devised by some Italian masochist who completely lost his sound judgement. In other words, it’s an incredible adventure offering the most experiences in one day.


Racers can’t do such extreme races on their own because there are no refreshment points on the track. How big is the role of a support team, and what is it needed for?

The support team experiences the whole race with you. And not just the race. They participate in preparations for the race, such as planning and logistics, they must conform to the racer’s pace, must know how to help him recharge the much needed energy, etc. It may not be that obvious, but a member of your support team (there may be one or more) works hard the whole day, just like you do, and even if he runs for example only the second half of the marathon with you, he’s just as tired afterwards as you are. Every support team feels incredibly responsible for their racer because if they make a mistake, it can cost the racer not only time and place, but also loss of energy, which mustn’t be wasted.

Is there a fundamental difference between an Ironman race and an extreme long triathlon, like the one in Livigno?

The difference is mainly in the demanding track profile which means a lot of time spent on the track and a big amount of energy that you expend and must recharge regularly. The water was 10 °C colder than at Ironman events, and we were swimming in complete darkness in a high altitude. The biking part had a high vertical elevation difference (5,000 m) and it was 20 km longer than a standard track of 180 km. More than a half of the run took place in a terrain with a total elevation difference of 1,400 m, and the finish was in an altitude of 3,000 m. The ICON Triathlon in Livigno can really be called extreme because of the strenuousness of the individual disciplines. But I don’t want to exaggerate because there are also some much more extreme races.

You had to get up before 4 am. What was on your mind at that time?

There’s not much on my mind in the mornings. I’ve kind of come to terms with what’s ahead of me, and at the same time it’s exciting somewhere deep in my soul. Guess it’s a little perverse, but it’s true. That’s probably the reason why I do it. Guess I’m a little scared too because every race is different, new, and you never know what such a demanding track profile combined with the fast racing pace is going to do with you. But I’m always looking forward to this kind of races a great deal because it’s a big adventure. In other words, I was quite calm in the morning. I was looking forward to jumping in the water and starting to come closer to the finish line.


The swimming took place in a relatively warm lake in Livigno. How did you enjoy the 3.8 km of swimming in “complete darkness”?

The “relatively warm” temperature of 15 °C was refreshing, and it was a great swim. I’ve never before enjoyed a view of stars and darkened mountain tops all around me every time I surfaced for a breath. I was a little confused in terms of orientation because the light of the turning buoys had the same colour as the light of escort boats and rescue kayaks, so I swam a little more than was needed. Still I finished fourth, which was a big surprise to me as I’m a “non-swimmer”.

What followed were “only” 200 km of biking with an elevation difference of some 5,000+ through four passes in Italy and Switzerland. Was it painful? (One of the passes was the Stelvio Pass with a 27km+ profile and an average gradient of 7.4%.)

Surprisingly, it wasn’t that painful. I took the biking easy, didn’t freak out and didn’t hurry because there are 42 km of mountain marathon waiting for you after the biking part. I kept recharging my energy, drank a lot, and admired the nature and the beautiful views, which gave me the most energy, together with the adrenalin from the endless downhill riding. The Stelvio Pass was a little painful, I have to admit. But at the top, I did 30 press-ups to break the stereotype of the repetitive movement of biking, and that helped me regain my strength J. I finished 9th in the biking part.

How can you follow up with a mountain marathon with a 1,500+ elevation difference, that is beyond us…

You start running, drink enough fluids and keep the pace as long as you can J. The run was a goody right from the start as the first 7 km led down a steep incline on rocks and through forest paths. A perfect terrain to let your legs recover after the cycling part J. What followed were about 20 km on a relatively flat surface of tarmac and gravel. The remaining 13 km went up, up and up to an altitude of 3,000 metres above sea level. My support runner Martin Roman enjoyed this final mountain section with me, and I want to thank him very much for making it to the very end with me. I finished the running part with the second fastest time, and considering there was a competition of 50 guys from 14 countries of the world, I was extremely happy about that.


After about a half of the track, the runner “finally” sees his support team member. Were you glad to see him?

That’s a delicate question J. Of course I was glad I didn’t have to puff on my own. I overtook a few runners and there were no faster contestants to be seen. On the other hand, I like running at my own pace, and when there’s someone accompanying you, you tend to adapt to him. But in the end, my selfishness prevailed and Martin had to adapt to me J. But to tell the truth, in a hard terrain in the mountains, when you’re really tired after the whole day, the support does come in handy. So, thanks a lot again, Martin. And a big thank-you to Lukáš and Pepa who were members of my support teams during the previous extreme marathons.

What feeling do you have at the finish line of such a race? Was this race somehow different from the ones you’ve experienced before?

A release of tension. During the last kilometres, you become really tense, you push yourself to the limit. The minute you don’t “have to” keep pushing, the tension dissolves inside you. Your body is a little shocked from that as it worked extremely hard during the last 15 hours, and suddenly it stops. You feel like crying, you’re happy and kind of stupefied. The lack of oxygen was obvious. And how was the race different? Swimming in the darkness in a high altitude, biking with such a vertical gradient you would normally never dare ride in one day, and a marathon with the finish line on the top of a 3,000-metre-high mountain makes this race one of the hardest I’ve ever participated in. But just like with the other races, it gave me so much energy that I feel you can do anything you want to do.

How do you sleep after such races? Did you celebrate?

You’re pumped up after the day, so it takes a while before you fall asleep. I celebrated with my support team and a beautiful waitress in our hotel. I only drank water and didn’t eat anything because the stomach also likes to take a rest after such a day.


The landscape around Livigno and the nearby Switzerland is marvellous. Is there time to admire it during the race?

There is. And that’s what it’s all about. There is more time for everything during these demanding races. You can’t go at full blast, or you wouldn’t make it to the finish. And that’s what I like about those races in the first place. Competing at such wonderful places and having time to enjoy it.

Do you have an idea about how much you ate and drank during the race?

I didn’t count it up, but when I was preparing everything the night before the race, my support team member Martin said it looked like I was going to stay in the mountains for three days. There was nothing left after the race.

You train all year round… Can you advise our readers how to participate in such a race (maybe in their next lives)?

Do sports regularly and train hard. Each hour of your training must be worth it! Plan varied trainings to enjoy them. Make enough time for relaxation and don’t stress yourself with the race. We do it out of joy. Follow your heart, listen to your body, and pursue your goal.


It took over 15 hours to finish the race. Didn’t you ever tell yourself, “Enough with that suffering and pain”?

No, not even once. But I was really glad at the finish line that I didn’t have to keep running.

You took the incredible fifth place in the competition of contestants from 14 countries. Did you expect such a good position?

I know what shape I’m in and what result I can expect. But you never know who will be next to you at the starting line. My wish was to be placed in the first half of the pack; the guys are quite tough. The fifth place is really surprising to me and I kind of still don’t believe it.

Where did you stay and what did you like best about the mountain resort?

If you know Livigno, there’s no need for me to say more. Livigno is a paradise in the middle of the Italian Alps. Every time I was in Livigno, it was beautiful, and this time it was no different. We stayed in the middle of Livigno, surrounded by wonderful hills, not far from the race start. Everything was perfect and I would like to thank everybody who enabled me to take part in this race and to everyone who rooted for me.