We recently caught up with world famous endurance athlete Mr. Johnny Van Wisse. He revealed his latest training tips and intense preparations for the upcoming solo ENDUROMAN 483k London to Paris Arch to Arc Triathlon and opened-up about what makes him tick.
Johnny arrived to the Brighton Baths Health Club at 10:00am on the nose sporting blue jeans, brown leather thongs, and a big smile. Coming to the baths is almost like coming home. “I used to work here when I was a kid. I’ve done so much training here, preparing for events and doing the 5k race that used to be on here every year, it was a big race back in the 90’s. It’s just been a part of my life.”
His laid back demure automatically puts you at ease. To a passer-by he might seem like a normal bloke. In his words, “I’m pretty boring. What you see is what you get, I think.”
But Johnny is a far cry from a normal bloke…and he is anything but boring. Although he bashfully shies away when you mention the term…the guy is superhuman. In 2014 Van Wisse ran 144 kilometres from London's Marble Arch to the Dover coast, swam the English Channel to the French coast, and hopped on a bike to complete the triathlon in a 291 kilometre cycle to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. For some this alone would be the accomplishment of a lifetime, but Johnny didn’t stop there…he beat the world record and completed the entire race in an extraordinary 61 hours, beating the previous record by 12 hours.
Two years later Frenchmen, Cyril Blanchard, completed the Arch to Arc a full 2 hours and 31 minutes faster than Johnny…and the title was lost. This is where the interview begins.
At the mention of defeat, Johnny takes it with stride. When speaking about Blanchard he says with a chuckle, “He’s actually a really nice guy, which makes it worse. He’s always emailing me wishing me well. He’s a really nice guy.”
At this point, I’m sure to interject and inquire, “Was he under the same conditions as you?” Back in 2014 Johnny’s race was nearly cancelled. Johnny got lost in the streets of London, was mistaken for an illegal immigrant, and was pounded by the brutal sea on the back of a hurricane. “I had terrible conditions. The day I swam, nobody else swam.” After a 140k run, and repeated warnings from his sister and fellow competitor Tammy…Johnny defied all odds and successfully crossed the channel. In the 2014 documentary Crossing the Line, someone is heard saying, “He’s probably the only person in the world who could have gotten across that day.”
Johnny recalls, “It seemed like everything was conspiring against me…even during the ride I was against massive head winds. I didn’t have the right gears on the bike. So Cyril ended up running 3 hours slower than me, but he cut the rest down (referring to his break times). He swam 3 hours slower than me on a perfect day, but he cut the rest down. So I’m going to try to do the same thing, but do every leg faster and cut my rest right down.”
In addition to the horrible weather conditions, there were a few additional blunders that added time to the race. After learning a few hard lessons, Johnny and his team are preparing to expedite the journey.
During the 5k run in London, “We’re bringing another person over, so I’m going to have two guides to make sure I don’t go off course.” Additionally, during the 2014 race Johnny’s accommodation was 40 minutes from where the run finished, nearly wasting 1 ½ hours of potential rest time. “This time we’ve got accommodation right were the run finishes, so I’ll be able to walk 50 meters straight to have a bath, have a feed, and a sleep.” The team have also made modifications to the post-swim accommodations. “This time hopefully I land near the bike start. We’re going to have a camper van, so I can go straight to bed with the bike in the camper van. The plan is to cut 6 hours off the rest there and have a sleep in the camper van while they drive me to the start.” All in all, Johnny plans to cut 10 – 15 hours off his total time.
Johnny has also developed a unique training style and has adopted a form of running he refers to as shuffle style. “I bring my legs through really low, so I don’t lift my legs very high. I found at 50km when I was getting tired my legs would end up shuffling anyway. It looks pretty silly. People see me and think I’m tired at 5km. But it’s made my 70km runs a lot faster, and more efficient and I’m not as sore. I’m pretty confident I can run a lot faster over the 140km this time and also not be as tired.” Moreover, Johnny is doing barefoot running on the grass to strengthen his feet and every third week he runs 70km on the concrete with a racing flat.
After we talked racing, Johnny opened up about his personal life…kind of. He seems like the type of guy who keeps things close to his chest and he is very humble. We had a lot of fun, a lot of laughs, and as we got to talking I realized how human and relatable Johnny really is.
Q: You’ve got quite a grueling training routine. Do you have any relaxing rituals?
A: Not really. I just watch tele. I love watching tele and movies. I actually go to the movies a fair bit with Matty (the Director of the Brighton Baths). Laughs. Yeah, nothing romantic. I love the Vikings series, Game of Thrones…I am waiting for the new series to come out. Footy, History Channel - “I love docos.” I love the 30 for 30 docos. They generally do it on basketball or Grid Iron or sometimes boxing. Love to go the boxing too. I have a few mates that are boxers, so I go watch them fight.”
Q: Fill in the blank. I am happiest when _________.
A: I’m sleeping. More laughs. I love sleeping. I go into deep sleeps. I love opening the window and letting the cold air come through. I often fall asleep with the tele blazing. I sleep right through it.
Q: How do you define success?
A: I don’t really have a definition of it. You always do something, and you think I could have done better and you’re always picky. As soon as I did the Arch I was thinking geese I could have done this better and this. You’re happy for a little bit, you’re kind of relieved if you do well…and then you think oh geese I stuffed this up or I stuffed that up. I’m never really satisfied.
Q: Is that what you think drives you?
A: Oh maybe. It’s just something to do. I need a goal.
Q: Do you find you always need something to focus on?
A: It keeps me training, otherwise you get lazy. The older you get, the more stuff you’ve done. You never want to go back to smaller things. You want to look for something bigger. That’s the only problem.
Q: What qualities do you most admire in another human being?
A: Determination. Everyone suffers setbacks. People go back if they haven’t finished the job. I have coached a few Channel Swimmers, so I see all kinds of shapes and sizes attempting it. People that haven’t made it the first time have gone back and finished the job and I reckon that’s always a good story.
Q: What was one of the most defining moments in your life?
A: When my father passed away, that was a big one. That as a shock.
Q: How did that change your life?
A: It was kind of unexpected, well he got cancer, but he was diagnosed late. He was such a tough man, so I never expected him to pass away. He was such a great supporter of mine. He would work to pay for our swimming fees (referring to him and his sister Tammy), training fees, for us to go around the world and race. I was hoping he would see me do more stuff. It was his idea to do the Arch to Arc before anyone had done it. When I did it, it was really nice. He was a great influence for me.
Q: What do you think about for 61 hours?
A: I think of lots of things, and sometimes nothing. It’s best when you’re hardly thinking because time goes by quickly. If you’re thinking too much it’s like when you’re hungry and you’re waiting for food to cook in the microwave. One minute feels like an hour, but if you switch your brain off the minute goes quick. The best time is when you’re in a rhythm and you can kind of switch off and go some other place. I don’t know where you go, it’s that zone. Then you have bad patches. I had plenty of bad patches during the Arch to Arc. Endurance sports are like a metaphor for life because you have every emotion, but it’s all compacted into 61 hours and you just hope that more of it is good than bad. You don’t know when the next punch is coming. It can all being going really good and then suddenly you have a bad patch and you have to try to get back into your rhythm or get food into you and try and get through it again. You never know what punch is coming around the corner.
Q: Do you have a mantra? I use, “I am strong.”
A: Laughs. Nooooo. That’s American, that’s you. You Americans. Lots more laughing.
Q: If Hollywood made a movie about your life, who would you like to see caste as you?
A: Ahhh geese…long pause. Chuckles. [I jokingly suggest Brad Pitt]. Nooo, he’s too girly. Who do I like as an actor? Clint Eastwood. He’s great. A young Clint Eastwood. Dirty Harry era would be good.
The Q&A continued on and Johnny was such a good sport.
A big thank you to Johnny Van Wisse for taking time from his busy schedule to have a chat with little old me on the board walk at the Brighton Baths Health Club. On behalf of the entire family we’re in your corner Johnny and we look forward to wishing you huge congratulations when you return from Europe in September.
To hear more follow us on FaceBook, Instagram and Twitter where we’ll be sharing additional questions and answers, audio clips, Johnny’s training updates, and much more. To learn more about training with Johnny visit his webpage at http://johnvanwisse.com/. @brightonbathshealthclub #brightonbathshealthclub
Article and Interview by Katrina N. Leavitt, Brighton Baths Health Club staff - June 29th, 2017