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Pascal Bleys

Pascal and me met during a Stand-Up-Paddle competition and I nicknamed him right away ‘The hulk from Belgium’ and he’s still in my phone under that name. I decided it was time to do a catch-up with him about a fairly new competition called Hyrox, basically, because I had no idea what he was talking about.

 

What is HYROX?

Hyrox is a new sport, I think it’s been around for about 4-5 years. If you don’t know what it is, there’s a very nice documentary on YouTube about the world championships in Las Vegas, it lasts 40-50 minutes, you really should watch it as it explains what Hyrox actually is (the link is below this interview). I got to know it last year and I thought it was some kind of CrossFit, but that’s not the case at all.

I’ve done competitions in CrossFit, but with Covid, I wasn’t able to go to the gym anymore. CrossFit is in fact a sport, very prone to injury. You have to do repetitions, all the movements are very technical and you have to do as many repetitions as possible within a certain time. But what happens, when your technique is not good (anymore) because you’re exhausted, you compensate on other muscle groups and then you get injuries. And at a higher age, you don’t want this. I will still CrossFit for fun, but I will ignore the competitions. I feel it in my shoulders, I feel it in my lower back, that’s not really healthy.

And then suddenly I saw Hyrox pass by, in a movie. Hyrox is an indoor fitness competition for everyone. The slogan is: The fitnessrace for everyone. So if you train in the gym, or do any kind of fitness, there’s now a competition where you can measure your fitness level with other athletes in several different categories. You run a kilometer, do a workout in the Rox zone, which is in the middle of the venue, you run a kilometer and so and that for 8 times. The work outs between the running are SkiErg, a sled push of x number of kilos, pull a sled, Burpee Broad Jumps, rowing, then it’s the carry of kettle bells (Farmers Carry),  Sandbag lunges, the weight of the bag depends on which division you compete in, like 24 or 32 kilo and then to top it off 100 wall balls of 6 or 9 kilos. That’s a killer, but apparently I’m good at that, I’ll tell you later why.

In total you have to run 8 kilometers, so 52% of the race is running, if you want to win prizes you have to be able to run well. Hyrox is a combination of running and strength and the movements are all pretty easy. The only thing that is technical, are the Wall Balls, you have to get them high enough and you have to squat deep enough. The judge looks whether you are doing the movements correct, with a burpee, your chest should touch the floor, while with lunges you bring a knee to the floor.

So that’s the competition, you can do it solo, or duo male-female, male-male or female-female and you can also do a relay with 4 people. I compete in the heavyweights, that’s instead of pushing a sled of 125 kilo, you’re pushing 175 kilo + the weight of the sled, so that makes a lot of difference.

What’s interesting about the competition, there is a league for everyone, if you train for football, you can play football with your friends on the weekend, play with your buddies, you can play volleyball, you can do all sorts of things. There is nothing in fitness, if you go to the gym, you will build muscle mass, but for those people there is nothing to test their fitness level and do something with it.

 

In 2021 you won the 5-day 11-city tour Stand-Up-Paddle (SUP11City, Grand Masters Men) AND you won in Las Vegas in the Hyrox Pro, age group 50-54, I want to know more about how you got there.

But first things first, tell something more bit about yourself!

I’m Pascal, 53 years old and I’ve been doing sports all my life. I don’t come from a sports family, my mother couldn’t cycle and my father couldn’t swim, he taught himself at a later age, so I don’t really come from a family where sport comes first. However, my parents encouraged me a lot from the age of 5, when they realized I was good at it. For example my dad went to the States and he brought me my first skateboard, I got my first surfboard from him, so I’ve had every opportunity. I also rode horses between the ages of 7 and 12. I’ve been riding my BMX. In football I was pretty  good, I even got scouted, but I had too little insight to really get to the highest ranks because I started too late.

I really got into fitness when I was 17, but the real trigger was already when I was 12. We all know the Rocky movies and when Pumping Iron came in the cinema I was all hyped up and I wanted to be like that. I even had a tattoo of Rocky Bilbao done on my leg last year, it’s not finished yet though. A bit cheezy, I know, but he has been the trigger for me to do strength sports. Back in the days you had those stretchers, with three springs and I had a punching bag, that was not appreciated at home, but they couldn’t stop it. I’ve always been quite powerful and always had a predisposition for hypertrophy, for muscle building.

Oh yes, between my 19th and 21st I did 2 years of bodybuilding. I was in the gym and my muscles were growing faster than anyone else’s and the gym owner took me to a competition, he made me put on pink swimming trunks and pushed me on the stage and I became second! That was a trigger, gosh, I’m good and I did that for 2 years until, at a certain point, I looked at myself and thought: What am I doing? That’s not athletic anymore, that’s not who I am. But you roll into it and before you know it, what’s important is the scale and your looks, the more muscles the better. Fortunately I was able to get out of this sport, I consciously reduced it. Most bodybuilders stay with it and they continue to struggle with the scales. It’s basically the reverse of anorexia. With a bodybuilder it is ‘I weigh too little’.

After this I went down a very athletic road, I did a triathlon only because everyone was doing triathlon, it was hip and if you hadn’t done a triathlon, you wouldn’t be a full-fledged athlete. I like to run, I like to mountain bike, but I don’t like to ride a road bike and I certainly don’t like swimming. I actually hate water, and yes I do SUP, but there I’m on a board, that’s at least the intention, and I don’t go underneath it. To improve my swimming I took a swim coach and ended up at 1,900 meters 42 minutes, that’s like one of the last ones out of the water, I’ll never be a good swimmer, I’m like a brick. So after a few years it was time for something else.

Then I started to SUP and in recent years doing obstacle runs (OCR), the latter because I think it is nice to have the combination of running, strength and technique and you can find that in those obstacle runs. It used to be very common, to do an obstacle run, people went there, finished it and that was it. Whether people took those obstacles well or not didn’t matter. In recent years it has become very professional. There’s real competition with serious athletes in different age groups.

That makes it interesting for me, because sport is always fun, but if you have to measure and compete with athletes of 25, that doesn’t work anymore and that is also not motivating.  A lot of sports events haven’t understood it, that they have to split the competition into age groups. Then we can compete with other people in the world of the same age and that’s motivating. Because in the end it’s all about motivation in sport. If you don’t have motivation towards a certain goal, you usually don’t see the point and you quickly skip a workout or not do a workout. So motivation is basically, motivation is the most important thing to be on the way to a good performance.

 

Can you tell me something more about the age groups?

There are more young people, the number is always greater than when you are older. But, what I do notice, is that those who still participate in the competition in the older age groups are usually very good. Those who are not good drop out, they have more ailments, the motivation is gone or there are grandchildren or whatever. The group gets smaller, but the ones that remain are serious athletes, it’s not like you say, it’s a bunch of old men, I can easily compete for the prizes. The ones that remain are really good and motivated, there is tough competition.

A friend is now in the +60, I run with him now and then, he does all kinds of things, like the Spartan races. He thought yes, I’m coming into a new age group, I can win something there, but that is a very strong group, those are still very fast trail runners, that is a very good, very strong group. He has to train hard and perform well, but he is getting there.

 

What did last year (2021) look like for you?

First a competition in Maastricht in February, the European Championship Hyrox, where I came 2nd, and then on to Frankfurt. In between I’ve done an obstacle race and the Spartan race, I won the SUP-11 city, but the highlight of last year was becoming world champion in my age group in Las Vegas.

I wanted to perform there, because I think there’s a big future in Hyrox and if you want to mean something in this world, it’s help if you do well. People only take you a little seriously if you are in the newspaper or if you won or are a champion somewhere. So I was like okay, I have to do well there!

After Maastricht I was selected, I registered and made the trip to Las Vegas. But it was a very long journey, I lost my luggage, I ended up in the wrong terminal, but I finally you got there on the Wednesday and the match was Saturday. I thought I would only need 2 days to recover from the flight, but that was not enough. When it was Saturday morning I realized I was not quite as fit as I should be, there was  still fatigue in my body, Normally I’m ready, I go to the game, I pop and that’s it. But now I was like ah, I don’t feel 100%, the fatigue, the time difference and the heat, it was 30-35 degrees.

It was a very big event, a lot of people from all over the world were there, there was an unbelievable atmosphere. I started doing my warm-up, all the equipment is available, I looked around and then saw the selected ones from around the world. About 25 men were selected in my age group, but I’ve learned, it doesn’t matter what you look like, you have to do your own race and you should not let yourself be fooled by others, I stay a bit in my cocoon. I usually also look down, instead of checking what is going on around me. And then you hear the starting gun and hop, all are on the way, run run run and then first was the SkiErg, I can do that pretty well.

 

What is a SkiErg?     

It’s  a kind of cross-country equipment, I have one upstairs at home and one downstairs. The movement is somewhat similar to cross-country skiing or supping. But it is also technical, I try to save as much energy as possible, you can go all out, but then your heartbeat goes through the roof and you can’t get it down anymore, so you really have to know what you are doing. It’s a trick too, to look for the long stroke or do the short stroke, I’ve tested this all beforehand and I’ve tested my heart rate. If you really want to go for a good result, then you have to focus on micro gains: Nutrition, supplements, sleep, recovery, your movements, the transition from running to doing a workout.

Like with the Burpee Broad Jumps: Do you jump all the way straight with two feet, step one with one leg, do it on the left leg, I’ve figured it all out what works really well for me. Maybe that will not work for someone else. But I’m now at the point where I roughly know what really yields the maximum result for me.

So yeah, first the SkiErg then the second was the sled, this weighs about 175 kilo plus 35 for the sled, so it‘s over 200 kilo, which you have over a carpet and it doesn’t give! It’s not like in the gym, you really have to push hard for 3-4 meters and then the art is not to go completely into the acidification and to regulate your breathing. Then I had to run again and then pull. That all went well, the 4th was the Burpee Broad Jump, which went well too, but then I got to rowing.

That’s usually my recovery phase, I can keep a good pace keep, compared to the rest. But halfway I was already struggling and I thought: Shit, my tank is empty, I’m out of energy, I’m compensating, I’m really messing up, it’s not going to be okay. I was tired, the trip didn’t do me any good, it’s not going as it should and after I finished rowing I had to stop for a while to get my heart rate down, do a reset.

I pulled myself together, ran and then did the Farmers Carry, which went well, the Sandbag also went well and then I had to run to the last workout, and when I arrived there I saw there were 3 Americans ahead of me and I was like okay, did I do this whole journey for 4th place?? It’s not about the money, but I didn’t take that trip and put all that energy into getting 4th here! But I already knew, if I would pick up that ball, and it’s 9 kilos, I have to do the Wall Balls without stopping.

I was like, okay, I don’t know how many the others have done, but I almost saw them tripping by 12, by 15, by 20. I was like, okay, if I don’t drop that ball anymore, I might still have chance to win. So I picked up that ball, I looked at my judge and I gave him a fist pump. Normally you can do 20, 25 or 32 maximum Wall Balls, but I did those 100 Wall Balls, almost in one go, which is very hard, but I had no choice and then you go to 3rd place, to 2nd, to 1st  place and then you run over the finish and then you are champion!

You rise above yourself for a while, because if I wanted to do that at home, I wouldn’t be able to do that. I always think about a story I heard about a woman who was cycling with her daughter, she gets hit by a car on a bridge and the daughter ends up underneath the car. You cannot lift a car, but that woman just lifted that car. You rise above yourself and suddenly you get a primal power. I always have to think about that. In Vegas I had such a primal power. You don’t do that every week. But then again, that’s proof that sometimes your body and the mind are capable of a lot. That’s a nice story isn’t it?

And then came the sponsors?

I have a few partners who help me out a bit, which is great. But I’m now an official Hyrox ambassador, I’ll be introduced soon. But I also went to Las Vegas with a mindset that Hyrox will be bigger than CrossFit. It’s going to be global and big. If I wanted to surf along with the Hyrox success story, then I had to go to Las Vegas and do well there. So I trained for 6 months and hoped to become world champion there.

One last question, which athletes do you look up to?

I am a fan of Kilian Jornet, I think he is incredible. And in the Hyrox story, the elite world champion is Hunter McIntyre and he is a very special guy. He is very likeable, very approachable, but a bear! I thought he was 1.75m./1.80m. was, but he is 1.95! I looked like a little boy besides him. He’s a super athlete, he pulls 200 kilos like it’s nothing, so Hunter is someone I look up to at the moment.

But it doesn’t always have to be the winners, all athletes work hard for it. In fact, everyone achieves something and has to do a lot for it. So yes, everyone deserves respect.

Check out the calendar on our website to see if the next Hyrox competition is in a city near you.

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