Digging Deep with Ben Hoffman

Ironman Champion Ben Hoffman recently returned from the trip of a lifetime to South Africa where, before touring the country for some hard-earned R&R with fiancée Kelsey Deery, he scored a brilliant victory at Ironman South Africa. The performance was quintessential Hoffman – a window into the dogged discipline that drives him to push the limits of his potential, day after day, year after year in training. In the marathon, Hoffman and fellow pro Tim Van Berkel ran stride for stride until the halfway point, picking off a succession of rivals before an unfaltering Hoffman ultimately pulled ahead to clinch the win. We sat down with the newly crowned champ to learn how he manages to dig deep under pressure and maintain focus when it matters most, and to get a sense of his outlook for the season ahead.

In your post-race recap from Ironman South Africa, you mentioned looking at your watch at the half marathon mark, seeing the time of 1:20, and making “a decision in that moment to end the pain as quickly as possible... no groveling home, no struggle street blues, just suck it up and win this damn thing.” That’s a risky place to be, when you’ve gone out a bit harder than you might have intended and you’re on that precipice where you’re either going to have a breakout success or a massive blowup. What tools – whether internal or external, physical or mental – did you use to dig deep and ensure the end result was a good one? 

“I think a lot of that stuff happens before you get into those moments. It’s in the training you do. You practice hurting yourself over and over again while you’re training, and you practice not quitting and not giving up. I go out and train really hard, so I get my body used to dealing with that pain. Part of the game plan also – and it always is with an Ironman – is to stay focused in every moment. I remember specifically in South Africa, Kelsey was on the course and every time I saw her she said, ‘Run in this moment.’ You have to do the best thing you possibly can in each moment, because that’s all you can do. Even when things get painful, you just have to make the best decision to deal with that pain right then. We’ve incorporated some meditation this year, which I think has been really helpful. It’s about being mindful and practicing being aware of what you need in any given moment. If your muscles cramp a little, maybe you need a little more food or a little more electrolyte. It’s about paying attention to those small cues. You have to be peaceful in a way, and focused in the moment, because if you allow yourself to get overwhelmed by how chaotic it is in a race setting, you’ll start to unravel.”

When you finished second in Kona in 2014, was that a similar experience of feeling aware and in control?

“It was. I remember people on course kept telling me, ‘Jan [Frodeno] is right behind you!’ He got within 15 seconds – it was really close – but I thought, I can’t do anything about Jan. I can only do what I can do right now. I remember my coach Elliot saying, ‘Don’t listen to these people. You know what to do. Take care of yourself and get what you need from the aid stations.’ I had been really conscious that entire race about cooling and I remember – even as Jan got within 15 seconds – I got to the next aid station and I slowed down to get all the ice and water I needed. I knew I couldn’t go ripping through to try and get away from him or it was going to blow up in my face. You need to have that laser focus on yourself and what you need, regardless of what’s happening around you, in order to get your best performance. I think that’s evidenced when you finally get across the line and can really let go – the relief and emotion is obvious, because the focus has been so intense.”

How does your experience in Kona 2014 and at Ironman South Africa add to your arsenal heading into Kona 2016?

“I have a better idea every year that I do Kona of what I need to perform well out there. One of the things that’s really important is what’s going on in your life outside of the sport. I’ve found that to be the final critical key. I’m really consistent in my training – I feel like I always come to an Ironman in physically good shape and ready to race – but that extra five to ten percent, or even more, comes from what’s going on in your personal life and where your head is outside of the sport and outside of the training. In Kona 2014 and this year in South Africa, I knew that I was in a really good state mentally. I almost knew I was going to have a good performance just because of that. This year I keep saying to myself in training, ‘This is the year to make it happen.’ I feel that in my heart right now, and I think we have the pieces in place to make it happen, from sponsor support to Kelsey’s support and just where I’m at mentally. Plus, the fact that I punched my ticket to Kona early is really good. I can truly focus the season on that race. It’s a nice feeling that no matter what, between now and October it’s really only about Kona. It’s a good place to be in, and now it’s just about capitalizing on that position and making sure we do everything right.”

How does Sound Probiotics fit into that plan, and why are probiotics important to you?

“My initial interest in gut health and using probiotics for boosting health was the recognition that around 70 percent of your immune health is based in your gut, which to me was eye opening. I don’t know how I didn’t know that before! I’ve struggled over the Ironman distance with GI issues, and I think you really have to come to the race with optimal gut health. To do an Ironman properly and have good nutrition and be able to deal with the struggles that happen in the race, you have to come into it with your gut in the healthiest place possible. It’s also important when you travel to the race – your immune system has to be in optimal condition when you board the plane and travel, for example, to South Africa for 35 hours. I didn’t have any health issues the entire trip, and we had really crazy travel. We were stuck in middle seats with a guy coughing all over the place, and we had a stressful situation on one of our layovers with an airport official wanting to take our passports, plus a bag that didn’t make the connection. That sort of stuff really stresses you out and takes a toll on your well-being! It’s also important to make sure you get probiotics in right after a race when your body is shelled. Everyone walks away from a race in kind of a rough spot in terms of how much it taxes your body, and probiotics protect you from getting sick afterwards so that you can hit the reset button and get going again. For me, they’ve been really helpful.”

One final question: You often talk about the pursuit of “ideal execution”, of seeking that elusive perfect performance. Do you think a perfect performance is actually possible?

“No, I don’t. But I still think there’s a lot of value in talking about it. Because it makes you cognizant of chasing your best, all the time. I don’t believe in perfection as a concept necessarily, but I think there’s something noble about chasing perfection, even when you know it’s not possible. And I think that if you want to continue to be the best when you’re at a high level, that’s what you need to do to make it happen.”