The Agony of the Feet: Pain as a Liberating Force
Both the interview with Sebastian Kienle and the resulting video are the prelude to Polestar's "Motifs" series. Motifs present unique personalities whose lifestyle and day-to-day life is deliberately shaped by sustainability and performance. More about Polestar and the whole video by Sebastian Kienle can be found here.
Mr. Kienle, You’ve won everything there is to win, and yet you keep going. What motivates you?
Sebastian Kienle: Good question. To be honest, I think my motivations have changed over the years. At the beginning of my career, it was probably winning in itself, the incentive to be the best. As an adolescent, it was a way to define myself as a person – the feeling of being successful naturally bolsters one’s self-confidence. In addition to my goal of winning races, I also realized there are few other jobs that offer as much freedom as mine: the opportunity to decide everything for yourself; being able to see the world and meet so many interesting people. And then there are the simple things: I really enjoy what I do. So winning is no longer the only motivation – though I’ve got to say that the feeling doesn’t wear off either.
Triathlons are one of the toughest sports on the planet. Do you derive any pleasure out of taking on tough situations?
Sure, I do. It’s all about going beyond your limits. The Ironman is actually about preparing for that moment when you don’t want to go on anymore. And being able to overcome that makes me incredibly proud. If you look at a swimmer at an Olympic competition, the first thing she does after touching the wall is to look at the clock. And if the time isn’t right, it almost doesn’t matter whether she’s won or not. With us it’s the other way around: triathletes achieve eighty percent of the reward effect simply by crossing the finish line; winning accounts for only twenty percent. And you can repeat this feeling of accomplishment again and again in your daily training. When I come back home after six hours out on my bike, I can better enjoy the little things. My sofa is a little softer and the food tastes a bit better. It’s like a drug.
When do you get to the point you were just talking about? Is it predefined or is it variable?
It’s true that the timing can vary considerably. And it is always accompanied by another type of feeling. People often call it pain, which has negative connotations, but I wouldn’t compare it to the classic sort of pain. You feel your whole body, notice that all systems are at their limits. But your perception changes as well. If you’re having a good day, you feel almost ecstatic when things get really tough. Though that always depends on where you are in the race.
Are you completely focused on body awareness and mental concentration during a race, or do you also allow your mind to wander?
In a race that lasts eight hours, it is important to let your mind wander. You have to think in advance about why you are running the race and record a kind of video in your head. So if you reach a point during the race where you’re not feeling so positive, you can insert that tape at the crucial moment and press play.
“The Ironman is actually about preparing for that moment when you don’t want to go on anymore."
And what’s on that tape?
Images from successful races or rewards like a beautiful hotel in Hawaii where we always relax for a few days after the race. But the best-case scenario is that after a race you don’t even know what you were thinking about anymore. Then you’ve managed to always be in that one moment that was important at the time.
How would you describe your style?
If you asked my wife this question, she’d probably say that I’ve been living in a complete lockdown for over a decade. It’s a form of sustainability. Karl Lagerfeld once said that sweatpants were a sign of defeat. That wearing sweatpants shows you’ve lost control of your life. I disagree. Being able to wear sweatpants at all times, I think I’ve gained maximum control over my life.
You mentioned the concept of freedom earlier. Besides sports – and sweatpants – do cars also give us more personal freedom?
Let me put it this way: doing sports can be very self-contradictory. On the one hand, I spend a lot of time outdoors and get to appreciate nature, but I also spend a lot of time in places where you can see the damage we leave behind: roads covered in litter on Fuerteventura, beaches on Hawaii that keep getting smaller and smaller. On the other hand, cars give me the possibility to always get in and go someplace where it’s nice and where I can train. And I have a lot of luggage and often two bicycles with me, so I can’t take the train. I lead a very mobile, but also very resource-intensive life.
“If you’re having a good day, you feel almost ecstatic when things get really tough.”
But you enjoy driving?
Absolutely. I have a fear of flying because in a plane I have no control. And I’m afraid to admit that I’m also a terrible passenger. You could almost say that I drive for a living, because in my job I usually drive everywhere myself. And when you spend as much time riding a bike as I do, you’ve always got to be totally focused – the same thing goes for driving a car. I’ve never had an accident, even though I’ve easily driven over half a million kilometers by car.
How important is performance?
I believe that by doing sports you can approach other areas of your life with a focus on performance. Though by now it’s the other way around for me. When I drive, I always try to achieve a high score. I practice gamification in my car.
How sustainable should cars be today and in the future?
One hundred percent. If you look at what has happened in Germany in the last fifteen years, it’s clear that there has been a dramatic shift in how we think about energy. We have two options: either we change the way we live entirely, massively restrict our mobility or even give up the freedom of mobility; or we try to solve the whole thing with better technology or at least improve it to such an extent that mobility can be justified.
**How could you bring the issue of climate protection and the environment into the world of triathlon? **
Many triathletes are concerned climate offenders. We know about the problem and we have a standing in society from which we should and must address such concerns. With sports comes a great responsibility. Many triathletes have a relatively high income that enables them to consume. And when it comes to consuming, we have to ask ourselves how to do it so that our economy works without leaving our children a completely burned-out planet.
You will soon be driving a Polestar 2. Why?
Because you can’t help but smile when you press the . . . I call it the play paddle. That’s performance and something you can inspire your passengers with. And the beauty of it is that the Polestar doesn’t require making any sacrifices and you can still have a reasonably clear conscience. We have a fairly large solar array on our roof and a local utility company that enables us to recharge the Polestar with one hundred percent renewable energy. Okay, so cars don’t grow on trees – but it is a step in the right direction. And I can enjoy driving a bit more again because I don’t have to have such a guilty conscience
**How important is the design of the car to you? **
I’ve always been a fan of Swedish design. Functional and cool, but not aggressive. The design language of some German manufacturers is more aggressive, and maybe this has an effect on people’s attitudes while driving. The Polestar has got a very nice touch here: it looks good, moves forward, but doesn’t come across as overly aggressive. It does what I think a great car should do: you get in, it’s quiet, your heart rate goes down ten beats, you listen to good music and it sounds even better. And you don’t feel guilty about going for a spin on beautiful, winding country roads if that’s what you want to do.
Last question: What can we learn from a triathlete for our own daily lives?
Perseverance. That is probably the most important thing. I’ve seen lots of athletes who were more talented than I was come and go. Simply because the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long. And let me say this: if you want to succeed at something, you have to glow for it. Because you’ll last longer if you glow rather than if you burn.