KickAss Squad

From top runner to triathlon pro

Franzi • 19. January 2022 • 9 Min.

I’m Franzi, and from now on I’ll be taking you along with me on a regular basis. This leads me through the triathlon circus, in which all impressions are lively and colorful for me, but above all still very new. At the moment I’m roughly somewhere in the middle distance region, still quite close to the border area to long distance running. But before I continue to write so cryptically, I’d rather introduce myself a bit more precisely. Then you will surely understand better what I actually mean.

To stay with geographical information: I was born and raised in Regensburg (here we say “Rengschbuag”) and somehow I still haven’t left there. This has different reasons. Primarily, of course, because it is quite pretty here (some people call Regensburg the northernmost city in Italy) and I therefore feel quite comfortable. Unless it’s late fall and the fog is back in the cathedral city. Then you can’t see a hand in front of your eyes here for weeks, let alone sunlight. 

However, this depressing state improves noticeably at the turn of the year and by March at the latest, I’m usually quite happy again with my Upper Palatinate home on the Danube. I would like a bit more mountains, but otherwise you can find quite respectable conditions here. The reason why I haven’t moved away after 25 years is also to be explained by my sporting past.

© Marcel Hilger

The Eldorado for long-distance runners

As some may know, Regensburg is a small Eldorado for ambitious long-distance runners. Many athletes come here especially to study in order to benefit from the large and powerful group of LG Telis Finanz, my home club. In addition, there are some runners who train outside the club and who also know about the advantages of strong internal support for top athletes and therefore join the team. In principle, you can be as successful as you are internationally, there is always someone to look up to.

I myself was “discovered” by the obstacle course specialist Susi Lutz during a talent scouting session at high school (who, by the way, also has at least a certain connection to triathlon today – but only the real freaks really know about it). At that time she invited me to the athletics training of LG Telis Finanz and I felt honored by that, but actually I didn’t have that much desire, because actually I was still active in the swimming club at that time.

Only through the encouraging words of my mother I gave myself a jolt. As a late starter in the technical disciplines such as throwing and jumping, I had a deficit that was hard to catch up with, but she knew very well that I had always had a certain talent in running. At my first running competition, a 2000m race somewhere in the Lower Bavarian countryside, where I did not do badly and even lapped one of the other boys, my later coach Kurt Ring became aware of me. I remember, as I do today, how he said to me at the time: “You’re a racing pig.”

Kurt had not been particularly interested in “those of the little ones” until then, but now the way ahead was mapped out for me: From now on, I trained specifically in the performance group of long-distance runners, where I was actually allowed to be the nestling for many years and learn from the very greats of the German long-distance scene. I took part in races and championships, won my first titles at state and national level, and was nominated for the national squad. Several participations in European championships followed, first in the U20 age group, then in the U23 and later in the adult category, twice I even came home from there with a medal. In 2016, a club colleague spontaneously took me to Barcelona, where I ran my first half marathon and qualified directly for the European Championships in Amsterdam with the time. I managed to do the same in 2017 with my first marathon. For me, the late starter with the miserable sprint qualities, who got better and better the longer the distance was, everything went somehow smoothly. Almost too smooth. Because the following year, 2018, suddenly came the bitter setback.

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The setback

At that time, I had just finished my studies and wanted to focus more on sports in the coming years. But already the start into the new year failed: I had to cancel the January training camp in Monte Gordo, Portugal. Why I was not able to complete the training consistently and reliably and constantly dropped out for no apparent reason, no one could really explain.

I got back on my feet and by the time the spring season started, I was at least in decent shape again, but appearances were deceiving. The German Half Marathon Championships, where I was actually only competing for the team in the midst of my preparation for the Düsseldorf Marathon, went unexpectedly well: I was able to surprisingly win the race for myself, without particularly exerting myself. Nobody noticed what had probably been going on for some time at that point. At the Düsseldorf Marathon two weeks later, however, the big bang finally came.

Still far beyond the half marathon mark, I was already lying next to the course. I was in a lot of pain, my body was cramping, my stomach was rebelling and nobody knew what was going on. I had never experienced anything like this before. It was all incredibly uncomfortable for me and I felt terrible. It had just gone sportily nevertheless only again uphill.

My streak of bad luck continued: Since this unfortunate race outcome in Düsseldorf, I was never to regain my footing in terms of health in my running career. I could hardly train, was constantly sick, often with fever. I remember a photo shoot that took place in preparation for the upcoming European Championships in Berlin. They were very considerate of my poor condition and made sure that everything was in the can within ten minutes so that I could go back to bed immediately. When I arrived at the parking lot, I couldn’t even make it up the stairs to my apartment. It was all too much for me. I had to cancel my participation in the home European Championships in Berlin with a heavy heart.

Of course, there were voices at that time that shouted that it was all no wonder, that my body was simply too weak and too thin to continue like that. And it was true: at that time I was certainly walking a tightrope as far as my weight was concerned. For a long time, therefore, I thought myself that this was the trigger for me feeling so bad. I tried to eat even more than when I was preparing for the marathon, even though I wasn’t doing any sports at all. I really wanted to gain weight. And it worked out quite well. Unfortunately, it didn’t make me healthy. I heard from all sides: “Man, you look so good now.” But that only referred to the fact that I put more kilos on the scales. No one had yet recognized the actual cause of my problem.

When I wanted to compete again at the end of 2018 at the German Championships in 10km road running, at least for the team, pain and the worst abdominal cramps in the run-up once again put a spoke in my wheel. I really urged my father, who is a gastroenterologist, to check everything again in detail. And what he found out was a shock for everyone at first.

© Marcel Hilger

The diagnosis

Today everything is different, I have learned to live with my diagnosis. I have known since the fall of 2018 that my body is regularly prone to inflammatory bowel invaginations. This means that the intestinal wall spontaneously and for (so far) unexplained reasons, turns into each other, provoking the development of narrowing, circulatory problems and in the worst case, an intestinal obstruction. Actually, it is relieving to know that the phenomenon occurs quasi spontaneously and out of the blue and is not based on a worse cause such as a tumor. Funnily enough, intestinal intussusception is something that tends to occur more frequently in infants. So the diagnosis is actually quite unusual. However, I feel I’m in the best of hands with my father and I know that he will do everything he can to prevent surgery and other measures that could damage my athletic career if the worst comes to the worst.

Since 2018, I have also developed some allergies and intolerances with sometimes severe reactions, which initially extremely influenced and also limited my diet and my everyday life. It took me a long time to deal with this new situation, to get to know myself and my body anew and to find out what is good for me. Because my body has changed extremely. Anyone who compares pictures of me from earlier times with today can see that. 

In terms of sports, I didn’t get back on my feet at all in the beginning. My ambition was by no means to return to competitive sports right away. But I missed running. However, it didn’t really work out that way in the first few months of 2019. I went to a training camp in Italy with my teammates and was frustrated because I couldn’t even begin to keep up, constantly needed breaks, and nothing fit together at the back and front. Instead, I rediscovered swimming during this time, as well as cycling in late summer 2019. Both sports became important supports for me at a time when I was not doing well mentally due to the frustration that my running career was now probably on hold. At the end of 2019, I made the decision for myself that I would like to keep both and, as long as my body allows me, start training that includes all three sports – swimming, cycling and also running again.

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The new beginning

After a long period of uncertainty and sadness, I suddenly felt motivated again and also wanted to make a new start in sports. The signs were not bad: I had everything so far under control that I no longer needed medication or cortisone, I felt strong and had the desire to attack once again. I didn’t know at that point how far I could go. And the year 2020, with race cancellations due to Corona, was of course not ideal for testing what the body can actually withstand in competitions.

But the year 2021 definitely showed me that I was on the right track. I have now learned to love triathlon not only in training, but also in competition. And yes, it was a love at second sight. A love that only came about because something else broke. I catch myself in moments when I ask myself why it really took an illness for me to realize how beautiful this sport is. But life so often goes in a roundabout way and not straight in one direction. I’m incredibly happy that I didn’t have to give up running, the sport I still like best. I’m also just as happy to have rediscovered a sport from the past with swimming and to have rediscovered a sport with cycling. And: I am looking forward to everything that is yet to come. 

Franzi Reng (25), part of the KickAss Squad since the end of 2021

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