6th Aug 2018
Fabio Spiteri has just completed the Triple Ultra Triathlon, held in Lensahn, the first Maltese triathlete to ever do so. Forty five gruelling hours consisting of 11.4km swim, 540km cycle and a 126 km run. All done in short loops and intense heat. The achievement is immense. But what goes behind such a feat? What makes an athlete go through the taxing and arduous preparation for such a challenge?
Q1. Fabio, you very well known in the sporting circles but for the sake of those who might not be familiar with Fabio Spiteri, give us a brief intro on your sporting background. From athletics to triathlon....tell us more.
Its been a long 22 years of competitive sports from running races of less than 2 mins up to triathlon races that last 2 days. Back in my early years, from 1998 onwards I was a very keen 800m runner – I was on the scene for some six years of which I performed consistently well, representing Malta in the Games of the Small States of Europe in Leichtenstein (1999), and San Marino (2001). My participation in these Games saw me bring home two medals in the 4 x 400m relay, as well as breaking a National record in the process, in San Marino.
Due to several calf injuries, the result of years of track running, I slowly switched to triathlon. Nevertheless, triathlon is a very challenging sport where you can either choose to go faster in the shorter distances or else choose to go for longer distances. Am pleased to say that I managed to switch from sprint distance races (750m swim, 20km cycle, 5km run) to the longer distances that now have reached Triple Ironman distance.
Q2. The long hours of training, the potential lack of a social life. The amount of hours alone spent training. What makes you undertake such gruelling challenges?
Despite the long hours, I have been able to balance out my life....my life is not all about sports otherwise it would be too boring. I do go out with friends too and the occasional party. I remember, Triathlon Coach, Race Commentator and Journalist Steve Trew telling me life needs to be like a an oil rig with four equal legs ...representing family, work, training and entertainment –(ie going out and socialising) ....all equal ...if you have too much or too less of one of the mentioned four pillars , the legs will not be equal in size and will be unstable.
Long hours of training yes .....Triple Ironman is a brutal race, mentally and physically ....so one would expect to do sessions that last between 14 and 16 hours. The good think about ultra racing is that you need to back off from training for a few days to recover and that’s where your social life kicks in. All in all that is not that bad...I adapted quite well !
Q3. The Triple Endurance Triathlon in Lensahn saw you compete in a field of athletes that have, similar to you, built a strong reputation in their respective countries and the world – in fact the winner of the race was Robert Karas – who also established the world record time for this race. How does that make you feel?
In these Ultra races , there is no first and last ...there is a finish line ....The fact that you are there on the starting ling aiming to finish this kind race is already a big milestone.... these were the World Championships and only 54 had the courage to do this race...why ? because it is so tough !!!
Robert Karas is to Ultra as what Jan Frodeno (Olympic Medallist and former World Triathlon Champion) is to Ironman. These guys dominate, they break world records ....I was super excited to have been chosen to be in the same swim lane ....I think the excitement of being so close to Karas spurred me on and I came out of the swim in fourth place. Karas is a down to earth guy ...we spent some time chatting after the race and at the hotel and for someone like me who is new to Ultras, was a great opportunity to get tips and experience directly from the world champion. Karas has a young team working with him to assist him in his racing strategies, nutrition etc. I will definitely put into good use the tips shared when next year I do the double ironman again – with a target of shaving off two hours from the time I registered last year.
Fabio Spiteri (Right) with Triple Ultra Triathlon Record Holder and Champion - Robert Karas
Q4. What was the hardest part of the Triple Endurance Triathlon (your lowest moment) and how did you get through it?
Let’s be frank – it was hard from the start, knowing that you need to race a total distance of 678km, with a cut off time of 58 hours is definitley no joke... but I had trained for that. The heat and wind on the bike was physically challenging, and we had 3000m of elevation on the bike route, which is not exactlyflat. Couple that with the fact that in Lensahn they registered record heat days that week. Nevertheless, my lowest part was after 21km in the run. I had been racing for some 30hrs and I hit zero levels of energy. The heat was unbearable, I was feeling dizzy and felt at my lowest ebb. I almost gave up there. I knew I had to stop, sit down, regroup and cool down – ice on my head helped. In these occaisons just a friendly word will work miracles – a fellow athlete and friend of mine, Sarath Chandra, who I got to know last year at the Double Ironman, came over and pushed me to start moving – a mental push that really came at the right time. I took some salts and electrolytes and push myself to finish the last remaining 105km of the run.
Q5. What gets you through these types of events mentally?
Experience....and gradually moving from Sprint to Standard to Half Ironman and so on. It is important to give yourself enough time to adapt physically and mentally ....it is not a matter of waking up one morning, dream of a long distance race and you go race one. You need years and years of racing and maturity. Mentally is also something personal. Sometimes I do long sessions to test my mental ability like ten hours on an indoor cycle or 50km on a treadmill or 300km cycle on a 4km loop on the Å»ebbuÄ¡ By Pass.
Q6. A few years back you quit your full-time job and with it a sense of financial security to follow your dream, that of being a professional endurance athlete. Any regrets?
No regrets. I got my life back as shift work is so unhealthy and I can train in peace. Crazy? I don't know time will tell. On the financial aspect, I am lucky to have roped in a number of loyal sponsors and I also coach a number of athletes, which definitely keeps the wheel spinning. Racing such races does not come cheap. Just to give an idea, the Deca ( (Deca Triathlon consistis of 2'260 kilometers - 10 ultra triathlons of 3.8km swim, 180km bike and 42.2km run each) registration fee will cost me €1600 and I also need to pay flights and accommodation for the persons who will accompany me as a crew. So one ultra race can vary from €4000 - €8000. I am hoping that, having reached this stage, help from government, local authorities and more sponsors will be more forthcoming. I do not want to stop here. I am confident that with the necessary preparation I can get a few podiums in double ultra triathlons as well as attempt to go for longer races such as the Quintuple and Deca.
Q7. You are synonymous with endurance racing, of going where no other has. You are an inspiration to many, what would your message to budding endurance athletes be?
My real message is not actually for endurance athletes in general, as taking up endurance sports also depends on the amount of time one has on their hands to train – if you have a family and full time job then this becomes more difficult. My message will be directed towards those over 40. I am 44, but I feel 20 on the inside. If your first 40 years were spent not taking care of your body through drugs, booze, cigarettes or over indulging in food, then it is time to take stock of your like and look ahead to the next 40 years. Start eating heathily, quit smoking and start with 30 minutes of exercise 3 times a week. Totally doable!
Q8. There is definitely no doubt that you have something up your sleeve as we cannot imagine you sitting down and resting on your laurels – so what is next?
2019 will see me undertake three major challenges.
May – Cycling non-stop round Sicily - I have already done this previously – in six, four and three days. This time round it will be non-stop in under two days.
June – Second Double Ironman – I’ve already learnt alot and am confident of being able to shave off two hours of my time and establish a new national record of sub 25 hours.
August - Quintuple ( 5 Ironman race in 5 days ) - this will be my first attempt but am aiming for a podium finish
Q9. As an athlete and a coach you are exposed to various levels of sporting abilities and activity in Malta. What is your opinion of sports in Malta and how do you see sports evolving in Malta in the next five years?
I don't want to be too harsh but in most sports athletes lack determination and discipline, some expect to achieve results within a short period of time, without the effort and sacrifice. Then we lack sport facilities – a 25m pool and a proper running track are missing in Gozo – where there are a good number of athletes producing great results. And what about a cycling velodrome? I do believe that the Government is working towards installing better facilities however the pace is quite slow. If we want Maltese athletes to excel in sports, we need to invest more in athletes to enable them train on a full time basis, on a professional level. Similarly, the athlete also needs to be committed to give 100% to sports and not waste government funds. Professionalism and dedication will lead to results !!
Q10. What would you say is the biggest misconception about you?
I like to think I am very approachable and easy going, though admittedly I can be a bit shy. I do get some strange looks at times due to having quite a lot of tattoos, which at time comes across as being looked at negatively.
Q11. What is the one thing you want to achieve in your life?
I live day by day, no big plans, as long as am healthy and happy, life goes on.
Q12. If you could invite any three people, dead or alive for dinner, who would you invite and why?
Mum, dad and my son. My parents died at a young ages, so it would be great to have a family reunion. My dad used to be present for all my races, whether locally or abroad. So, now it is quite hard not to see him at the finish waiting for me. There was no doubt, had he been alive, he would have been in Germany for the Triple Ultra Triathlon.
Fabio Spiteri would like to thank Garmin Malta, Eurosport Malta, Wheel Wizard, Millennium Clinic, 24/7 Fitness, Go&Fun and Festina Watches for their ongoing support.