The Malta Independent 17 September 2019, Tuesday

The living dnegel... an exclusive interview with athlete Fabio Spiteri

Raymond Scicluna Wednesday, 22 May 2019, 11:42 Last update: about 5 months ago

The Spotlight today is on Fabio Spiteri, the Living Dnegel, age 44, a Triathlon coach who manages circa 50 athletes, some of them paving way to the elite of Triathlon. Fabio, who 6 years ago left a 21-year old secure job at Malta Freeport as a Foreman for the abyss! Triathlon was still an alien sports discipline to many, yet by time thanks to his continuous effort to promote the sports, Triathlon is highly esteemed nowadays by many local sports followers. Fabio, a former 800m runner who used to delight the track with his outstanding performances. His credo is if you cannot go fast, go long and that is what Fabio is doing. Last year, he made history by being the first Maltese finisher who competed in the Triple Ironman. Races which demand not just the strongest of mind and health, but they are highly expensive too. Freshly acclaimed by the public as the People's choice award. Fabio is the father of well-known 22-year-old DJ Caro. His son forms part of a new hip hop group called 512. He made a huge hit with his latest single called "waves" as it remained number 1 for 3 weeks on One and Bay radio....

 

1. Fabio, first and foremost I am grateful for acceptance of my interview and for taking yourself to task to invest time in replying to my questions which as you know, are not the typical stereotype of performances but more in depth and it gets personal and goes back in years. People out there need to know the roots of your passion, the sacrifices endured, the persons if any who accompanied you throughout your journey in sports and finally to express your feelings and thoughts of your present. When did you start practising sports and how? What were the sports that you ventured in prior to the present Triple Ironman?

At a very young age, my physical activity was playing street football with friends in front of my house and running around with a BMX bike. In my late teens, I was more involved in going out with friends and partying but having said that I still used to go for an "occasional" jog around my home town. Like a lightning bolt striking on a sunny day, at 21 years of age I got to know I was going to become a dad and that it was time for me to get a grip on my life and move forward. I started frequenting friends involved in sports and I was hooked since then, training almost daily for all these years. My early years were track events namely the 400m, 800m and 1500m in which I won several local races and also some podiums abroad. I was also coached by a former 800m Olympic finalist and Italian record holder Donato Sabia in which he accompanied me in two of my fittest years in middle distance, winning also 2 bronze medals in 2 Small Nation Games editions. Year after year, session after session took its toll on my legs and at some point, after 6 years of track, I was having some trouble with my right calf resulting in so many injuries that in 2003 had to fully quit track racing. Rested for a season, I bounced back to Triathlon, which only involved running 3 times a week together with swim and bike which gave my calves some time to breathe and less impact due to slower speed. Eventually I moved from sprint races to Triple Ironman this year.

2. Fabio, to a certain extent, I consider you as an all-rounder. Statistics never lie so when I see your achievements in your different sports events, they prove me right. You have so many enviable PB's which so far very few people can match. Please be brief but without hindering any achievement in all your performances and identify one or two which are most at heart and why?

Yes, I have ran all the Olympic middle and long distances and more. The following are my personal records. Subsequently, I embarked on Triathlon.

  • 400m --> 50.1
  • relay 4 by 400m --> 49.5
  • 800m --> 1'52"9
  • 1000m --> unofficial but ran in 2'28 paced by Gerald Grech
  • 1500m --> 3'57
  • 5000m --> 16'12 (road)
  • 10000m --> 34'52 (road)
  • 21km --> 1hr 17
  • 42km --> 2hr 47
  • Sprint Triathlon --> 1'00"26
  • Olympic Triathlon --> 2hr 01'24
  • Half Ironman --> 4hr 24 min
  • Full Ironman --> 9hr 35min (2nd best Maltese time)
  • Double Ironman --> 26 hrs 38 min (National Record)
  • Triple Ironman -->45hrs 44min (National Record)
  • 11.4km swim in pool--> 3hr 20(4th in Triple world championships)

3. Fabio, unfortunately very few people know that the sports duel in the 800m with another Maltese legend Xandru Grech were, on home track, almost if not always won by you, yet locally the 800m is more associated with Xandru rather than Fabio since Xandru has the National Record which withstood the test of time. For the past years, the 800m seems to be an arduous event to match former time records. Matthew Croker is one of the most prominent athletes who runs this race, yet at times his continuous efforts and dedication are not congruent with his performances. As the second fastest 800m local athlete of all-time what advice can you give to Matthew and other fellows? What were your statistics and achievements in the 800m?

Yes, 800m always produced some fast runners the last 20 years, but never within the same year. Xandru was at his prime well before me, he broke the national record at the time when I didn't even dream of sports. In 1999 I took over the 800m races and when Croker came along I was already doing triathlon. If we were to assess the recent 10km at Marsaskala ... Luke, Andrew, Charlton all ran sub 32 and Dillon a few seconds away. When you have stiff competition, times will fall. Now that I am a coach myself I often reflect upon what I could have done better to be faster in 800, and this relates well to Croker. The 800m race is a sub 2 min race, so in physical terms we can run as many 800m races as we can, even 2 per week for example. I remember once I ran 3 races in 1 week in Belgium and my times just fell, 1'54, 1'53 and 1'52. Croker needs more races in legs! Unfortunately, in Malta races may be distant; as far as 3 to 4 weeks from each other. He also needs good pacers, someone who can run 400m in 54 sec and 600m in 1'23, with Crocker to run last 200m on his own. I remember I ran 2'28 for 1km in training and didn't feel that hard. I was paced by Gerald Grech, he passed 800m in 1'59 and me in 2 min... then I ran last 200m in 28ec with Donato Sabia shouting to kick harder at final stretch! Pacing works miracles!

4. Fabio, you are a good communicator and thanks to proper use of social media, you raised various issues which were not tackled the way you do now. You promote and to a certain extent strive to educate drivers to drive safely and to consider cyclists riding their bikes both for training or for leisure, the introduction of bicycle lanes, keeping in mind that on a bike, there could be anyone of your relatives, friends, known or unknown where the least distraction or negligence could translate into a disability or worse, fatality. The victims' families will have to change their lives because of others. You know more than this, please specify why in Malta riding the bike is extremely perilous whereas for instance in Sicily is by far safer...

Competitive cycling, I see it as a dying sport due to the huge number of cars in the streets since we have to cycle fast (intervals, etc...) but commuting is on the increase, as some people are getting fed up waiting in traffic. Commuting is safer because they use secondary roads or side streets while competitive cyclists must cycle in main roads. Regarding cycling, we often select days....mid-week I tend to train indoors (Zwift / indoor cycling) but on the weekend we hit the road. Saturday's roads are still busy and Sunday a bit less. Less frequented roads by cars are Freeport - Airport road, Maqluba 10k loop and Xemxija - Golden bay but, sessions need to be ready by 9 am because after that motorbikes and sports cars start their Sunday fast rides on the roads. So, in a few words cycling is very limited on these roads. However, I choose Sicily as my second home to cycle. I often go for 1 day, weekend and once a year a full week training on Sicily roads. There is much more countryside and sometimes it can take more then 30min to encounter the first car. Sicilians have the Giro culture so they respect cyclists. 

5. Fabio, that you are kindhearted person and assist people in need tangibly is proved and tested. The story of 9-year-old Jake Vella, is known to many. It's a heart-breaking one especially when some months ago, he was admitted urgently to hospital. Thank God, Jake is back, livelier than ever. Jack suffers from a condition called Rohad, a very rare condition affecting only 70 cases worldwide. Jake has become loved and supported by many and much of the merits goes thanks to you. Nowadays, Jake is seen as a hero battling it out every single minute against his tough condition and yet keeping positive by training for Triathlon. Above all, thanks to your contacts you managed to fulfil his dream. Tell us more about your relationship with Jake.

Jake is a special person. He caught my attention 4 years ago when he started triathlon and he was so fired up at the finish line lifting both his arms and pointing to the sky. His dad Josie introduced me to Jake and we have become friends since then.  Throughout the years, Jake's condition is more visible, but this does not put Jake off training. I often phone him, or we talk private on messenger and discuss training. In fact, for his age, he is so mature that sometimes I don't realise that I am talking to a 10-year-old. To give you an idea, since he has watts on his bike, he also trains with zones (watts) followed by an ftp test he does every 4 months after I send him the zones. Yes, Jake is loved by everyone especially by professional triathletes like the Brownlees and Vincent Luis who have given him personal trisuits from the Super League, a track suit from Rio Olympics and also a gold medal from Super League. I was over the moon when I saw Jake chatting face to face with the Brownlees as this was his dream which I have worked so hard to achieve. Jake has much more to offer and he is an inspiration to most athletes including me, despite his condition, he's always training to improve!

6. Fabio, I can tell that training for competition demands above all Time! Running to me takes me on average over an hour and a half 6 days a week. I cannot imagine how long triathlon sessions are! Let's discuss your present training in view of your forthcoming Quintuple Ironman scheduled end August. Describe a week of training for such a demanding event. Here we are talking about big numbers: 19km swim, 900km bike and 211km run! Am simply impressed by the numbers let alone once the mission is accomplished in full. My question is this. Last July, you managed to be a finisher in the Triple Ironman and with a good overall final placing, you swam 11.4km of swim, you biked 540km of bike and ran 126.6km. In so doing, you wrote history, with the greatest challenge ever tackled by a local athlete. What went through your mind in those lengthy hours of physical activity? Where there moments where you were discouraged to proceed? Apart from being an excellent athlete, I can surmise that your mental strength is unlimited and does not falter. What are your views on this?

Training for Ultra can vary from 20 hrs up to 30hrs a week. Intensity is low but spread over long sessions sometimes even 15hrs long.

Triple and Quintuple are 2 different races which all require lots of training and lots of rest. Triple is 3 ironman races (11.4km swim, 540km bike and 126km run at one go. Managed to finish the race in 45 hrs and Quintuple consists of 5 Ironman (3.8km swim, 180km bike, 42 km run) in 5 days, so 1 a day. Obviously in quintuple I will go for speed /endurance. 

Training for Ultra, my number 1 rule is patience and you need to train the mind to be able to withstand the volume whilst also going in multi loops. The training consists of 3 principles:

1.       Principle of overload (you train volume and break your body)

2.       Principle of rest (back off training for a few days to recover well) 

3.       Principle of adaptation (when body is rested and adapts to the training load...overload again)

The Triple swim was in a 50m pool, the bike on a 10km loop and the run on a 1.5km loop. So, I tried to train as much as possible in same scenario. 

Some training consisted of ==>

  • several 42km runs on a treadmill
  • cycling round Sicily's coastline in just 3 days (I became the first Maltese to accomplish this)
  • several long bike rides in Zebbug bypass 5 km loop, rides varied from 200 - 300 k, just imagine a 9-hr ride in Zebbug bypass
  • an Ironman session 3.8km swim, 180km bike, 42 km run
  • Night runs starting at midnight to 5 amto adapt to night training
  • running the length of Gozo, swimming from Gozo to Malta and running from Cirkewwa to Birzebbugia in under 6 hrs (I set another first!)
  • So, training for triple was just long interminable sessions.

During the race I suffered mostly during nights.  I started the race at sunrise and almost saw 3 sunrises in total before termination of the race which included 2 nights. The nights were the toughest: I felt cold, tired, hungry, slightly depressed, knowing people are sleeping and the mind starts playing tricks on you; as if the pain will disappear if I stop. Then when the sun starts rising again amazingly the body revives and puts on another gear to continue the journey. The triple was physically and mentally brutal. It's a 100% mental test on the human being.

The training for quintuple will commence in May. For the time being am still on speed sessions as I want to defend my half Ironman title which I won in Sicily on the 5th of May. Then will commence training for quintuple. 

Since the quintuple is spread over 5 days, I will train lots of sessions spread on 5 days.

Example 

  • 5 by 21km on 5 days
  • 5 by Olympic distance (1.5km swim, 40km bike, 10km run) on 5 days
  • 5 by half Ironman (1.9km swim, 90km bike, 21km run) on 5 days
  • 5 by 180k bike on 5 days
  • 5 by 42 k run on 5 days
  • and so on! The sessions will be followed by 4days' rest.

I have high hopes for quintuple and even targeting a top 3 podium!!

7. Fabio, SportsMalta together with the Malta Sports Journalists Association nominated you for the People's choice award. Justice and common sense prevailed. For many who practice physical sports, it was almost obvious that you were the outright winner. I reiterate, here we are talking about a new achievement in Maltese sports. We are not comparing Triathlon with Motorsport, Ten Pin Bowling, Golf etc... but a new challenge. I was ecstatic when you were declared the winner but when I noted other sports disciplines which I respect but that demand much less physical effort this greatly saddened me. Here, it's the typical case of missing the bark for the trees. Believe it or not, during such awards the most prolific winnings go to Sports categories like Motorsport, Billiard, Snooker, Ten Pin Bowling, Double Trap, Air Pistol etc. Physical Sports like Athletics, Football, Basketball, Triathlon, Rugby etc... they rarely make it to be the overall winner. Do you agree with this kind of treatment or is it just my idea which might be an insignificant voice in the dessert?

There are several types of Sports. Some sports require sweat, some sports require patience, some sports require mind games. To be honest I think they should be segregated into categories as you cannot compare ultra-triathlon with Subbuteo or Bocci for example. Don't get me wrong as by no means do I want to discriminate against other sports but yes sports should be categorised.  Even human powered sports should be segregated from motor sports. My legs and my heart are my motor. I don't press the gas and speed off. I just have to train my lungs, train my mind, train my legs to be able to go as fast as I can.  All I remember is that my training involves sweat, bike crashes, blood, muscle tears, rain, sun burns, wind, hills, speed, pain, nutrition during the race itself and mental strength to be able to push harder in long distance events. 

8. Fabio, DNF's are not the most pleasant experience to any living athlete who practises Sports, yet it can happen to anyone and without any pre-advice. To my knowledge, you experienced this bitter taste three times. There is an old Japanese saying which goes: "Fall down 7 times and get up 8". It takes a strong person like you but with an enviable mental strength to start afresh and double up the challenges! Do you recall what went into your mind post such experiences and how did you manage to find the right motivation to be mentally and physically prepared for the next one?

Yes, DNFs are part of the game which you need to accept. Racing an hour event is one thing, racing an Ironman or ultra-race is another thing and anything can happen. I had 3 DNF's over countless races but which were out of my control.  I got injured on 3 occasions:  twice during the run and once after a bike crash. Indeed, the sudden feeling is anger with every DNF since my blood is still boiling and I am by nature very competitive. After a few hours, life goes on and I just convince myself that it wasn't meant to be, so my priority will be to nurse the injury, get fit and race again. 

9. Fabio, even though your races and challenges are extremely tough, your character is otherwise. You are very sensitive to loads of issues which affect the man on the street almost every day but let's talk about your love for pets. You are owner of 2 cats and 2 dogs, but you go that extra mile. You vent your views for stray and abandoned cats and dogs. You collect money for the Association of abandoned animals and you give a helping hand too. What does this love for animals and pets come from? Isn't it demanding on you coping with 4 animals at home when you spend loads of hours out training? Is it so rewarding being a pet owner?

I've always been surrounded by pets only for the simple reason that they fill my life with happiness.  Cats are really no work at all. I just change the litter in the morning and put food in their plates and change water. They are very independent, and they do come around for cuddles and patting in their own time. As regards dogs; I just have to walk them 20min in the morning and 20min in the evening and I take them out on weekends. Tuesdays and Thursdays, I take dogs to the track with me while coaching. Bella the Yorkshire is better behaved than the pug so I take her out mid-day with me to the restaurant where I eat lunch.  

Regarding the Association of Abandoned Animals (AAA), I try my best to help on my free time, like collecting used clothes from friends to be used as bedding for the kennels and also try to fundraise money for the shelter. AAA runs on donations and there are over 100 dogs, some on medication, which bills run into thousands for food, vets and medicine. The situation in Malta is shameful when it comes to dogs. There are cases of people leaving their dogs at the shelter for the simple reason that the dog is mature and needs medication. Also, the calls they receive pertaining to small abandoned puppies is very alarming. 

10. Fabio, you have just participated with success in the Tour of Malta. Given that you are a tri athlete and not a proper cyclist, your performance was remarkably well. What are your impressions post the event? What is the purpose of doing the Malta Tour in relation to ultra triathlon?

Every year I take part in the Tour of Malta as part of preparation for the upcoming season which boosts my performance in cycling. This year I participated in the over 40 better known as the Masters category which in my opinion reached the highest ever level. It included cyclists in the names of Colin Sturgess, an ex pro, with World titles to his name and a 4th place in 4000m pursuit in Summer Olympics, last year's red jersey Dave Mitchinson and Etienne Bonello one of Malta's top cyclists. After 4 races I was only 2 mins behind the overall leader Daryl Maffey and finished in 7th place overall and 2nd Maltese after Etienne. Few seconds separated the top 10 cyclists. I did a good job keeping up at this level, bearing in mind I am an ultra-triathlete and not a full-time cyclist.

Fabio, I am indebted for usurping much of your time. Your lengthy training sessions ill allows free time but let's say I was lucky to avail of such an interesting interview from a living legend. I feel proud to be an eye-witness of much of your success. May many years of success will follow. Fabio, you are a formidable athlete indeed and your statistics speak for themselves, however, you deem fit to mention the following sponsors who make your journeys in sports possible:

Garmin, Attrans, 24/7 Fitness, Wheel Wizard, Go&Fun, Eurosport, Uncle Matt's kitchen, Lawrence sofa cleaning, Millenium Clinic, YES

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