TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent
I recently had the pleasure of meeting TCSD member Lars Finanger. Lars is everything triathlon! But he’s also a great, down to earth guy. I know you’ll be entertained by reading of his many diverse experiences racing triathlons and making the sport we love his career.
Craig: What was your athletic background before you started doing triathlons?
Lars: When I was two years old my parents moved from Stavanger, Norway to the ARAMCO expat community of Ras Tanura, Saudi Arabia. I spent the next 13 years in the Middle East where I participated in every sport imaginable, with the exception of American football. We only played what the rest of the world called football: soccer! My father was a Physical Education teacher as well as the school’s cross country and track coach so I started running around at his practices at an early age. My first swim meet was at six years old and I swam competitively on and off through my freshman year of college.
However, baseball was my life. Saudi Arabia had a strong tradition of playing in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA as our all-star team consisted of Americans playing against Europeans and other teams with fewer opportunities. Unfortunately, my team was beaten by the American military kids living in Ramstein, Germany so we didn’t make it to the LLWS. I played ball through college, at St. Olaf College, and was a varsity starter on three consecutive conference championship teams. As a first baseman and left-handed power hitter, I was always in the gym lifting weights and eating as much as possible to pack on more weight. My junior year of college I tipped the scales at 225-pounds! I still ran 45-60 minutes every day but it was typically to sweat off the beers consumed with my teammates from the previous night. After my junior year of college I realized I would likely not get drafted to play professionally so I signed up for Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, MN for a different kind of challenge. My weight came off quickly and I completed that first marathon at 200-pounds. I was hooked on running again, and I convinced the cross country coach to allow me to train and run with the team during my senior year. By the end of the season, I weighed 170-pounds but suffered from stress fractures due to overtraining!
Craig: What led you to do your first triathlon?
Lars: Being injured and unable to run with stress fractures prompted me to buy my first road bike. I had a daily paper route as a kid in Saudi Arabia and always rode my mountain bike to deliver the Arab News to subscribers throughout our town but had a bad spell of a few mountain bikes being stolen so made the decision to buy a road bike. I thought it lacked the cool factor and would be less likely to get stolen. My brother attended a boarding school in a town 20 miles away from the St. Olaf campus and I would ride over, visit him, and ride home, everyday. My first triathlon was the summer of my junior year of college and it was a 4th of July event in a rural Iowa town called Maquoketa. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit it was not even a true triathlon but consisted of an 8-mile canoe paddle, 14-mile bike and 3.1-mile run! I was the only individual who used a rented, two-person canoe, and it was a disaster trying to keep the canoe level while moving forward in the water. I ended up placing second overall behind a guy who had an ultra-lite carbon fiber one-man canoe!
Craig: What motivated you to get serious about triathlon and race professionally?
Lars: I was hooked after that first event and jumped into triathlon head first as soon as my arms unlocked from the horrendous canoe paddling technique! I raced as many events as I could find in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin that summer. In 2002, after graduating from college, I took a job with Gear West in Minneapolis, Minnesota in their running store (they also owned a triathlon/bike store but I was too intimidated by my lack of cycling knowledge to ask about employment there) and worked odd jobs, anything that would keep me in the door. I caught my break when the triathlon store needed a sales catalog created to showcase their product lines and I jumped at the opportunity. Shortly after, I joined the shop team and was lucky to receive price breaks on equipment and race entries that allowed me cut my teeth in a competitive regional age-group triathlon scene. I got dusted by top national caliber age-groupers like David Thompson, Brian Bich, Tony Schiller and Jared Berg but I learned a lot from those guys about how to train and race. A few months later I got a job offer as a school intern at the International School of Brussels in Belgium and moved overseas. I spent most weekends that next year traveling by discount European airlines and by train to as many races across Europe as I could afford, including a particularly memorable trip to Nice, France to race the last ever edition of the prestigious Nice International Triathlon!
Craig: What triathlon racing accomplishment are you the most proud of and why?
Lars: I finished 5th place at Boulder 70.3 a few years ago behind the likes of Tim O’Donnell, Tyler Butterfield, Leon Griffin and David Thompson. I beat a few big names, including women’s winner Julie Dibens! I particularly remember defending champ, Australian Simon Thompson, got off the bike something crazy like ten minutes behind me after serving a drafting penalty, and I ran scared the entire half-marathon. I asked everyone I saw on the course (including super swimmer Wolfgang Dittrich and 6x Ironman Kona winner Dave Scott, who are both still coaches in Boulder) how far back he was and they said to stop worrying. But Thomo was an Olympian and ran down O’Donnell in the final mile the previous year so I couldn’t relax. I really earned my paycheck that day, which was also probably the only one I ever earned at an Ironman event!
Craig: You have done a lot of races all over the world. What is one of your most favorite destination races?
Lars: Ironman Lanzarote in the Canary Islands was incredible. The island sits only a few hundred kilometers off the coast of Africa but is Spanish owned so has a very unique culture. It is a volcanic island and the bike course winds along narrow roads in the south past lava fields through the Fire Mountains as well as over twisty alpine climbs in the north, including the remarkable Mirador del Rio, which offers a breathtaking view of the neighboring islands. The run is entirely along the ocean boardwalk and Spanish fans are crazy!
Craig: What was the dumbest thing you have ever done as a triathlete?
Lars: I was naive when I first started racing and was completely ignorant of anything technical with bicycles. I have always considered myself a student of the sport and I had read about the battles between Mark Allen and all his challengers – including the great Simon Lessing – at the Nice International Triathlon. In my mind, that event seemed every bit as prestigious as Ironman Hawaii, not to mention it was in Europe, which romanticized it’s legendary status even more. I flew from the flatlands of Brussels to the Maritime Alps in Southern France and didn’t think twice about needing any special equipment to traverse the mountainous course. After the 4km ocean swim, the bike started climbing up the Col de Vence, the first of three mountain passes on the course, and the climb used as the time-trial in the Paris-Nice ProTour cycling stage race. I stayed in the big ring and mashed away at the pedals and racers I passed kept saying something along the lines of, “Oh, strong like Jan Ullrich,” which I understood later they were referring to the big gear and slow cadence I was pedaling. By the time I got to the top of that climb, I was wobbly-legged, cross-eyed and must have appeared inebriated as a Race Official demanded I remove my sunglasses to gauge by my eyes if I had departed planet Earth for La-La Land. Needless to say, I learned a few valuable lessons including it is not a sign of weakness to spin in the small chain ring up mountains and to always have a larger option than a 21-tooth cassette available.
Craig: We know this person is clearly not you. Please tell us about the best triathlete in your household.
Lars: I am constantly reminded at races that I am only the second best triathlete in our household. My wife, Emily Finanger, has been racing triathlons since she graduated from University of Minnesota and has won races on some very tough courses including Superfrog (3x) and Norseman Xtreme. Her collegiate swimming background makes her a shoe-in at most races to be at the pointy end of the field and she was an equally impressive cyclist. When we were dating, one of our early race trips took us back to Nice for Ironman France (WTC purchased the event and made it an Ironman in 2004). As an age-grouper in her first Ironman, she led out of the 2.4-mile swim and remained in second place overall, including all pros, through the bike leg and through the first half of the marathon. She had French TV crews mobbed around her and following her out on the course. She often gets extremely shy and each time we crossed paths on the course she told me she wished the other girls would hurry up and pass her so the video cameras would leave her alone. We got married in 2006 in Kona after we both raced the previous day. We don’t often get a chance to train together, besides the occasional run pushing our baby daughter in the stroller, but I have learned from her how to still be competitive off high quality, low volume training.
Craig: What was your endurance sports career path like before you arrived in San Diego?
Lars: I cut my teeth in the endurance sports industry when I moved from Belgium to Boulder, CO. I had read that all aspiring endurance athletes needed to make that pilgrimage and I was eager to spend time training in the mountains for a change of pace! I applied for a job at Inside Communications, the former owners of VeloNews and Inside Triathlon magazines, in their customer service department working with their seasonal VeloGear catalog. Most of my colleagues focused on selling Lance Armstrong posters and US Postal Service team beer koozies, but I asked every person I spoke with over the phone if they wanted a subscription to Inside Triathlon magazine and sold over 20 subscriptions in 1 month. Somehow the Ad Director at Inside Triathlon heard about it and asked me to take an Ad Sales position with the magazine. Over time I graduated to Associate Publisher and Ad Sales Director, positions I held with Competitor Group when I moved to San Diego.
Craig: What is your career focus now that you have arrived in San Diego?
Lars: My current career focus is delivering incredible race experiences for athletes. I am able to do this through Fearless Races, a unique race format and fun race series featuring double super sprint triathlons, and as Age-Group Race Director for the ITU San Diego event. My work with the ITU is exactly what I imagined it would be as they are the most professional race organization in the sport and I can only hope to offer a fraction of the tremendous production value they offer at our future Fearless Races events on October 25-26th and in the future.
Craig: You have shared with me that you read these interviews that I do of TCSD members long before you became a TCSD member. That’s really cool. When and why did you start following the TCSD?
Lars: When I was still living in Colorado, I would travel to San Diego every other month in order to meet and visit with industry companies. I always picked up a Competitor Magazine and TCSD newsletter and read them cover to cover. Those two publications, coupled with the urging of guys like Emilio DeSoto, served as my guide book to San Diego and steered me towards La Jolla Cove for open water swims (my Colorado friends thought I was insane for swimming with sharks!), club aquathlons and local cycling group rides like Swami’s and Camp Pendleton.
Craig: If you could waive a magic wand over the sport of triathlon, what would you like to change?
Lars: I think we are an Ironman-obsessed culture here in San Diego and in the US. Maybe it is because the weather and year-round training options are so abundant we want to stay outside and train long hours all of the time. With the Ironman craze, we have a higher rate of one-and-done athletes who leave the sport after ticking that event off their life’s bucket list. I want to continue to support and promote events that showcase innovative new formats, making the sport more accessible to the masses and more appealing to the general public as a healthy, and not an extreme, lifestyle, and finally to continue to offer opportunities for more youth to get out and experience this great sport at an early age. I also believe draft-legal racing for age-groupers is going to make big waves over the next decade here in the US. These races are in every city throughout Europe and are a big reason athletes are able to learn and practice important bike-handling skills. Here in the US, the challenge is to showcase why draft-legal racing can be fun and does not have to be considered a form of cheating and only for elites. It opens up the opportunity to introduce fun and exciting new race dynamics and new spectator-friendly venues too.
Craig: Professional triathletes sometimes act as if they are above joining the local club, but not you. You actually pay for your membership. What is it that makes the TCSD special to you?
Lars: This club is chock-full of resources whether you are an out-of-town visitor looking to find the must-do group workout, a beginner in the sport looking for a training buddy, a discount offer on premium products offered by sponsors, or the intense effort from the summer club aquathlons! I don’t believe there is another club in the world that offers a fraction of what TCSD offers their members.
Craig: Lars, thank you for sharing your story. You have quite a journey and I’m thrilled you and Emily have made San Diego your home. Our community and club are because of your contributions. Good luck with all of your future endeavors!
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.