Marten Van Riel’s victory in Brazil was a long time coming

Marten Van Riel is racing like his old self after two seasons derailed by injuries

Marten Van Riel’s win at Ironman 70.3 Fortaleza on Sunday had been a long time coming.

When we last saw Van Riel at a half-distance Ironman, he was turning in a world record performance in Dubai in March, 2022. That was off an excellent 2021 that included a fourth-place finish at the Olympics.

But an ankle injury largely shelved his big plans for the rest of the year, and a broken scapula and bruised ribs suffered in a crash this past summer delayed his comeback even more. Van Riel, one of the most energetic and upbeat triathletes in the world, was forced to quietly work his way back up to speed while his peers competed.

Marten Van Riel popping bubbly on top of the Fortaleza podium.

That is, until he went to Brazil. Van Riel led from start to finish in Fortaleza, entering the first transition after the swim with a 50-second lead, and extending it from there. At the end of his bike leg, Van Riel led by 6:08, and when he crossed the tape, he had scored victory by nearly three-and-a-half minutes over Spain’s Antonio Benito Lopez.

“It’s the lows that make the highs feel even higher,” Van Riel told Trek after the race. “All the disappointments, all the hard work I’ve put in the last few years haven’t been for nothing, even though I haven’t been able to show a lot because of the injuries. Winning now means even more than just a little win. It’s kind of a reward for all the struggle and for the journey that I’ve had.”

It's the lows that make the highs feel even higher.

Van Riel’s win completed a clean sweep of Fortaleza by Trek athletes. Ellie Salthouse dominated the women’s race, winning by more than 12-and-a-half minutes.

Many of the biggest names in triathlon weren’t in Brazil, but Van Riel’s fitness was put to the test by the high temperatures and humidity of a South American summer. He didn’t take the competition lightly, and earned a reinvigorating win as a result. He has now won all three Ironman 70.3 races he has entered in his career, which includes a win in Xiamen, China, in 2019 along with his victories in Dubai and Fortaleza.

“The weather did make me a little bit afraid, and very careful and respectful of the competition,” Van Riel said. “Maybe the biggest names weren’t there, but the South Americans that were there are always training in those conditions.”

Marten headed for the finish line.

Van Riel couldn’t have received a much warmer welcome back to the podium. South American crowds remain unmatched in terms of hospitality and energy at major sporting events. Van Riel said he received dozens of messages welcoming him to the race, and offering him help and restaurant recommendations. He even received a major assist from a local Trek retailer, Visual Bike, when one of his shifting cables broke. 

“I think that I took, on the day before and after the race, probably more than 1,000 photos with people,” Van Riel laughed. “They are really crazy about their sports and they have a big triathlon community. That makes it extra fun. The atmosphere was incredible. The people were as warm as the weather.”

The atmosphere was incredible. The people were as warm as the weather.

Fortaleza’s sunny streets were a sweet relief after Van Riel’s dark days of injury recovery. He admits that he struggled with doubt as he spent more than a year trying to get back up to full speed. His ankle injury didn’t prevent him from going on long bike rides. He said he did dozens of rides that were 200 kilometers or longer. But Van Riel was unable to run for a six-month stretch, which meant he couldn’t train what he believes is the weakest leg of his racing.

Fortunately, he has built a tight circle around himself, which includes his coach, medical professionals, fellow triathletes and friends. They reminded him how lucky he is to be a pro athlete at all.

Marten on the bike leg of his 2022 Ironman 70.3 world record win in Dubai.

“The run is still kind of an insecurity of mine, like I know that I have to work very hard for it,” Van Riel said. “I am a professional, and that makes it an even deeper low when you can’t do what you want to do, because it’s also my job, my livelihood, everything. But you have to remember that this is just what I love. I would not want to do anything rather than be a professional triathlete, and swim and bike and run every day.”

Van Riel will race Ironman 70.3 Bahrain, along with Salthouse, on December 8, and try to keep his half-distance win streak alive. After that, he’ll enter the “off” season like many of his peers, though he’ll be training hard throughout that period after having spent more time recovering this year compared to his competitors.

I would not want to do anything rather than be a professional triathlete, and swim and bike and run every day.

He will be taking a much-needed mental break, however. Instead of structured training, he’ll pursue activities he loves. He’ll spend long days in the bike saddle again, racking up kilometers while exploring new places, including gravel trails. 

Van Riel has big plans for 2024, starting with the World Triathlon Series opener in March, which will also be preparation for the Paris Olympics in July. But for now, he’s taking time to bask in a sun-soaked victory. He earned it.

“All these different things just have me super stoked,” Van Riel said. “I just can’t wait to start training again for next season.”