Ferenc Szõnyi |

46-year Hungarian wins world's toughest race

Ferenc Szõnyi is the fifth man in the world to have completed the double deca ironman competition: 76 kms of swimming, 3,600 kms cycling and 844 kms running. it took him 481 hours, 54 minutes and 10 seconds to finish this race.


Ferenc Szõnyi, 46, is the fifth person in the world and the first Hungarian ever to have completed the Double Deca Ironman competition. If you are one of those to whom this fancy-sounding name tells little: it is the world’s arguably toughest endurance race where competitors - those few who even dare to enter - undertake no less than to swim 76 kilometers, ride a bicycle for 3,600 kilometers and then run 844 kilometers. Just to put the latter into perspective, it is "only" the distance of 20 marathons. Forrest Gump has nothing on this guy!

Szõnyi, a.k.a. Racemachine, started to feel a pinch of ageing around 1997, so he thought some jogging might not hurt. After a bit of jogging - at first he could not complete more than a few laps on the course - and hiking with the family, he bought his first bike in 2000 and started touring. First for two to three weeks and then he went on a solo European tour. Soon after, Szõnyi entered a 12-hour running race in Hungary. He came in second.

This event turned out to be an "eye-opener" en emboldened him to enter more and more running competitions. "As I also loved cycling, one of my friends told me two years ago to enter the Ultra Triathlon World Cup in Bonyhad, Hungary. That wouldn’t have been a problem, but I couldn’t swim," Szõnyi told local news portal in an interview this Wednesday.

Then his friend told him he shouldn’t worry because everybody knows how to swim, they might just not know about it. Szõnyi said he had two months to learn how to grapple with the new liquid element, but "didn’t really succeed" because he climbed out of the water second to last after the 7.6-kilometre leg.

The next event was a 360-km cycling where he "pulverized" his rivals and after the running he came in fourth.

The real series of success started in 2008 and by 2009 there was no stopping for Szõnyi. These long distance competitions encompass double and triple ironman races and "some" running on the side, such as Spartathlon, a historic ultra-distance foot race (256 km) that takes place in September of every year in Greece, the Ultra Balaton, a 212-km race around the largest lake of Central Europe and 12-24-hour ultra marathons - accompanied by cycling on top (207 km around Lake Balaton).

While racing Szõnyi has remained a full-time entrepreneur in the construction business in his hometown, Komarom. Szõnyi goes swimming for an hour every day before going to work and depending on the weather he runs or cycles three hours after dinner. But all this seems to be a piece of (high-calorie) cake compared to what was awaiting him in Mexico this year.

"I am capable, I may do it and I will do it and, if possible, I will win it," he once said his motto in life was.

Szõnyi is the fifth man in the world that completed the Double Deca Ironman competition, which is no wonder considering its immense hardships for body and soul.


Just reading the distances out loud gives you fatigue: 76 km of swimming, 3,600 km cycling and 844 km running. It took Szõnyi 481 hours, 54 minutes and 10 seconds to finish this race. This is 28,914 minutes which adds up to over 20 days! Un-be-liev-able!

The Double Deca was first held in 1998 and never since until now. The world record in this event was set by Lithuania’s Vidmantas Urbonas with 437 hours. Only seven men entered this year. Uwe Schiwon of Germany won silver and Greger Sundin of Sweden came in 3rd.

But Szõnyi was not the only Hungarian that excelled in stamina and willpower. Antal Voneki finished 4th (255h:46m:34s) in the Deca World Challenge, which is "only" 10x the Ironman distances and his fellow countryman, Jozsef Rokob came in 7th (268h:12m:26s).

No fish but can sure swim a lot

"It was the hardest physical and mental challenge of my life," Szõnyi told He swam for 45 hours in a 50-metre-long swimming pool.

"If you’re in water for that long, you have to wear a wetsuit otherwise your skin will just peel off," he said, adding that the 28-30-degree Celsius water was pumped full of chlorine and "flowed into every orifice" he has. "I cannot even begin to tell you what my nose, ears and mouth had to endure," Szõnyi said, adding that the water made his gums hurt and he felt pain even in a spot from where one of his tooth was pulled out years ago.

Two years ago he went through two serious shoulder surgeries and the 100,000 strokes he had to make to finish took their toll on his shoulders as well.

Szõnyi was asked the question most people would ask: Why do you do this?

"I ask myself the same question many times during the race, but the whole thing that is happening to you is so real that you forget everything else," he replied.

Because the event is the combination of swimming, cycling and running Szõnyi says this is already a "sort of art".

"The other day a kid came up to me and asked: Mr. how much can you run? And I said: as much as I want. And this comes into my mind very often ever since. It’s a good feeling that I can run as much as I like."

Gotta respect your body

Szõnyi said it is a mind game. The secret to success is that you have to respect your body and listen to everything it tells you, he said.


"I don’t have a single part in my body that has not been injured during these three weeks in Mexico, but there are some small tricks that help you survive. If a muscle in my sole hurts, there’s no argument, I must stop, massage it and rest for three to four hours to regenerate."

He said he is lucky because his muscles regenerate really fast, something that he inherited from his parents.

"But one day I run 80 kilometers in 32 degrees, with 600 km already behind me. I had never felt before what I felt then. It was like planet Earth was glued to the sole of my shoes. I knew that if I take two more steps, I’ll pass out. I went into the base, I sat down, took my shoes off, put my feet up in a chair, ate a bowl of rice with meat, drank a non-alcoholic beer [...], closed my eyes and took some rest. And then I went on."

Nutrition is at least as important during the race as excellent physical and mental condition, Szõnyi said. He consumes energy drinks, chocolate, infant nutrition products and high-protein food, mostly chicken and rice, and also high-vitamin-content dietary supplements.

"Ultra triathlon is not like a 10,000-metre run where you put the pedal to the metal and it’s already over. On ultra distances we are on borderlands, when it’s hard to endure the strains but it doesn’t hurt yet. You must reach a balanced state by resting and diet. A lot of other competitors make a mistake at this point. They lose 10-12% of their body weight, and there is no way you can do this that way," Szõnyi told

The champion does not plan to stop here although it can hardly be denied that is some kind of top he has just reached. Szõnyi plans to achieve something worthy at the Double Ironman in Australia next June and would not settle for less than one of the first few places in the next 246-km Spartathlon


András Müller

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