What gets you up at five in the morning to go for a swim, a ride, or a run most days of the week? For many athletes just starting out in the sport of triathlon, it’s the thought of getting fit enough to finish their first race, as well as the camaraderie you build with like-minded people and the mix of experiences that you find as you begin to discover multisport. As you grow in the sport, it might turn out you actually enjoy swimming, cycling, and running as part of a healthy lifestyle, and the people in the sport become good friends. It has a way of positively infecting your life from a social and physical perspective.
I think it starts like this for everyone, whether you end up as a pro or not. At some point, especially for myself and my peers in the professional ranks, the goal of laying claim to a title and beating the competition soon supersedes any desire to be just fit. Fitness is simply a product of the workload that comes with pursuing competitive goals.
For myself this evolution happened over time. When I was in college it was a huge part of my social fabric, but my life focus was directed elsewhere. Triathlon was a great way to be healthy, hang with friends and satisfy my competitive drive. I enjoyed a very nice balance of life, study and sport. At that point, triathlon was not my business or profession; it was an outlet that gave me freedom from where I thought my responsibilities lay, which was to find success in school and then work.
When it became my profession, it started to envelop a larger portion of my life, which meant I drew on other things within my life to get the outcome that I was looking for. Soon enough it was my occupation, it was where my friends were, it was what consumed all my time, it was everything.
Taking the path of professional athlete was not a common one in Australia, and most certainly not the life my parents had envisaged I would pursue. To some degree, the pressure of pursuing this direction in my life came with disappointing the vision my family had for me. The way I engaged in sport as a child was how sport was perceived in my family: it was something you did on the weekend as an outlet of fun and friendships.
So what motivated me to change my life that much and pursue it as a full-time profession, and what motivates champions in the continuous pursuit of winning for a living?
You don’t “play” triathlon or endurance sports. You do them. They are tough and hard and there has to be a reason why you intend to suffer for a result. It is in you as part of your character and being. What separates the winners from the others is a matter of just how much. This does not need to be filtered or hidden.
There has to be a reason behind a professional athlete’s desire to pursue this sport at its highest level, giving up so much of their productive years to dedicate to an ambitious dream.
“Everybody loves a winner.”
As a professional athlete you just don’t get paid if you fail, so you must care about the outcome. We all like to say in those interviews we give that we are process-driven individuals, but I have yet to meet any professional athlete who is not influenced or moved by race-day outcome to a great degree. Failure has trickle-on effects: maybe your bike or shoe sponsor drops you to go with the new winner, maybe you needed that race success to be selected for a team or qualify for a championship that influences your future racing and income-earning capacity.
My father once said to me, “Don’t be the fittest guy in the unemployment line, son. If you are going to call this your profession, then treat it as such.” Pushing for success was paramount if I was going to be a professional athlete, considering what I was walking away from: a stable and secure job with potential to climb the corporate ladder. Triathlon came with significant risk and unknowns, but at a young age, it also filled my aspirations and dreams and was the path less taken. I wanted to do this more than anything, and I wanted to be successful at it.
In my head I knew I had a finite amount of time in the sport. It’s not like a corporate career that can span 40 years. For professional sport it can be a fourth of that. I could either be in it to make friends, or be in it to win titles and commercialise any success I had. So I took it very seriously. It was in every sense my profession, and I treated it like a corporate start-up from the beginning.
While age groupers can be ridiculously competitive and just as driven and motivated as professionals, they’ve got multiple outlets through which to let the steam out and it’s not all singularly focused on triathlon. They can be personally disappointed, but it doesn’t dig as deep because they go back to work on Monday.
A whole bunch of things are attached to competitive outcomes for professionals, as opposed to those for age groupers. Sure they are similar, but without being melodramatic, there is a lot more skin in the game once you get your pro card.
I always believed in putting your ambitions and goals out to the universe, of going after what you want, openly saying you want it and how you intend to get it. There is a lot of power in this. It makes it real — in your own head, to the people around you and it holds you accountable to an outcome (which can be quite overwhelming).
This concept was the driving force behind everything I did, and I needed that. A lot of the time by putting it out there I wasn’t picking a fight; it was just a matter of taking ownership on something before I’d actually achieved it, which obviously upset the other people who also saw themselves as potential owners of that title or that goal.
I would often read that I was a confidence athlete, almost cocky, because I was ambitious. I did find it odd that this behavior was shunned in an environment where we were chasing perfection, excellence and world titles.
For some reason the sports world is not as receptive to a person stating intentions openly. Being ambitious (and to some degree impatient) is scorned, especially if the status quo believes you haven’t “paid your dues.” It was very different to international banking where ambition and impatience led productivity. In the corporate world this is part of the operational DNA of any company, woven into their fabric as a road map to where the organisation is going. Name a single company in the world that doesn’t state what they intend to do, and how they hope to shape the market.
I recall being interviewed after my first ever World Championships as a professional in 1996. I had finished just outside the top 10 and was asked if this was “better than I hoped for.” My reply took the interviewer back a little because I said, “I don’t hope for anything. Hope is not a strategy. Hope is an emotion. I didn’t train all year and quit my job to come 13th place. If anyone is happy with 13th place, then maybe they should look for a new occupation. I don’t intend to build a career on 13th place finishes. I want to win, and won’t be happy until I do.”
I needed a certain desperation and flight-or-fight type response to racing to keep me engaged and active. I needed that mindset and hunger in order to deliver in training what was needed to beat athletes who were highly talented and successful athletes in their own right. I went on to win that ITU World Championship final the following year. I stated my intentions to the universe, and the universe answered. Chris McCormack, World Champion! Funny how that happens.
I needed to pretend as if those titles I wanted were mine already. That’s what got me up every day to train, that’s what made me do what I was doing, that’s what made me say the things I said, that’s what made me race as hard as I raced. In my head I was the winner of Kona before I’d actually won it. In 2006 even though Normann Stadler went on to win it (besting me by 71 seconds in one of the closest-ever race finishes), I treated that as if it were mine. I spoke about it like I already owned it, I defended it like I already owned it, and I did that every race I ever did.
I truly believe that most athletes think the same way, but keep that inside their tight-knit group or family and don’t state their ambitions. I just went about it differently and vocally. I like to talk things out, instead of privately whinging to a group of friends and publicly pretending winning or losing doesn’t matter. It most certainly does; that’s what gives champions the extra edge to execute a race strategy with confidence, or close out a sprint finish.
I was bewildered that to many of my peers, being openly ambitious was considered a negative. I saw this as a huge weakness on their part, almost a spotlight on their internal nervous energy or fear of failure. If you are too scared to admit it openly, then it is going to be tough to deliver it on game day.
It’s a killer instinct, and I think all champions in any sport have that. They may publicly portray it differently but when you know them personally and you’ve been in those private conversations with them and there’s no one listening, it’s there.
People paint a public persona of themselves, which is fine; back in my racing days we used to have to use the media and engage certain individuals to help us shape our tone and brand. Nowadays you have social media platforms to build it for yourself, which has its strengths and weaknesses.
Garnering Likes and Followers for the pretty pictures seems very important these days, but a bunch of comments and a few thousand followers do not replace an athlete’s results. Winning and success are what brands and potential partners buy into, and the framework you build around this both in a social media sense and an authentic sense is critical.
When you try to present a perfect facade because you believe this is how you can show your commercial value or what you think people want to see, you hide the warts and scars of battles, and the uniqueness, passion, and emotion of yourself as an individual. The long-term outcome of this is a disconnect in the understanding of the reality of what success looks like and what it takes to pursue it. Sure you have a Hollywood-perfect snapshot of a life, but none of it is reality.
To get to the top of any mountain is not easy; it can be ugly and problematic. But beauty and inspiration can be found in the honest telling of that journey, and that should not be filtered or self-censored.
Still I do feel that beneath what many of these star athletes portray themselves to be, there must exist a killer competitor. Those emotions that at times can be ugly and almost brazen (but exist within every one of us) are the main fuel to the mongrel that drives every endurance athlete.
There are competitors like Kristian Blummenfelt, Javier Gomez, Daniela Ryf, Katie Zaferes, Jan Frodeno, and Alistair Brownlee (to name just a few off the top of my head) for whom losing hurts. You see that in the way they finish when they have not broken the tape first. That fake smile they give and that almost-rehearsed post-race interview when they say, “I was beaten by the better athlete today and I am happy with the result…” But you can see how the loss marks them.
Hiding from this is acting, and if you look for it you can see why they are athletes and not actors. I know this is part of the game, to put on a brave face. They say all the right things to the press and congratulate their competitors on the media feeds, but trust me when I say they are devastated. In that inside circle, in those after-race conversations where the disappointment or elation pours from the heart, unfiltered and raw, this is the magic. This is when you see the ingredients and authenticity that make up a champion. I just wish we saw a little more of that today.
A loss is like a tattoo or a scar; you bear it for a long time. It is not in any way disrespectful to the athlete that beat you. Sure your friend might have won and you can feel happy for them, but it still hurts when they win at your expense. Never in your visualisation of your success do you place them ahead of you. The perfect outcome is your friends finish just behind you, but you are the winner. It is always that. For champions, it burns inside.
Any athlete that doesn’t feel that sting is never going to be a world beater. I think even the publicly-perceived world’s nicest athletes like Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal still sting when they lose, and behind closed doors are mortified by underachieving against their own expectations and perceived potential. If you get a chance, watch the 2017 Australian Open Final between those two and watch Rafa’s face at the podium celebration. Despite having played one of the greatest tennis matches ever, he lost in a five-set thriller by literally a single mistake. Rafa is not much of an actor, and these two are best friends. The pain is real. It says everything about why he is who he is. It is why they are champions.
I know at the start of my career I’d said I want to win Kona titles like Mark Allen. It was a broad youthful statement that stayed with me my entire career. It was part of my dream since I watched triathlon as a boy, and my motivation was driven in those early years of trying to “Be like Mark” (to crib the “Be Like Mike” slogan used by Nike in the 80’s) because I thought he was the best and that was what you had to pursue if you wanted to be like him.
What I really wanted was to feel what it was like to win at the highest level. The biggest influence on my career was Sebastian Coe winning the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles in the 1500 meters. The world media had written Coe off and turned their back on him to embrace a new champion, Steve Cram. Then Coe crossed the line first, beating Cram. He showed a big “How do you like that” gesture, raising his two arms out parallel to the ground and pointing at the media. This gesture was rich with emotion and honesty and authenticity. Coe won the battle on the biggest stage in the world, and his emotion was so inspiring I had my father buy me running shoes so I could experience that same thing one day. These unfiltered displays of human emotion are so powerful, they changed the course of my life by me just seeing them on a TV screen.
When I won Kona again in 2010, it wasn’t about how many titles I won. I realized I was personally motivated not just by the competition and inspired by the champions who came before me, the standards they set, but more so the honesty with myself of pursuing my own Sebastian Coe moments through preparation and belief, and the drive to push and achieve that, no matter what others think. It was my Sebastian Coe moment in so many ways.
I always saw it as a responsibility to at least pursue a better outcome to my career than the athletes before me had achieved. I wanted to race the best at every opportunity, and I sought that type of competition my entire career. Unlike many of my peers, I was not a single-continent racer who would set up a training base and race locally for a season. For me the sport was all year and on every continent. If there was an athlete star or a talent I heard about, I had to race them. I subconsciously treated every race I ever did with the same intensity I saw in Sebastian Coe when I was a child. I was driven to race, and I fed off that adrenaline.
During my Ironman racing days especially early on it was imperative for me to race the world’s best at every opportunity. The sport was then owned by the Germans, so despite residing in the USA, I was drawn to racing in Europe as this was where the talent was. I would go to Germany, Switzerland, or Belgium and race the world’s best every year in their home country. I would try and beat them despite their home court advantage. I found strength in challenging them when the momentum was on their side. Being an underdog motivated me immensely, and I thrived on European racing for this reason. Titles were important, but to me head-to-head combat was the most honest answer to the question every athlete indirectly wants to answer: “Am I better than him/her?” I would seek answering that question all year. Titles were just a product of this.
Today this is not done as much. Many athletes are very selective with where and who they race in a season. The sheer volume of races available allows many people to shape a shadow career on the back of races that no one competes at. They have the number of branded titles in their racing resume, but because they don’t race the best and refine their craft enough, they stand no chance at world championship level.
At times it seems more important to accumulate a bunch of wins than to take on your peers every chance you get. But when you retire, you seriously don’t look back at titles. You reflect on races — those races that test you and are a showcase of character of your competitors and yourself. Most of these are not title races. Some of my toughest battles and most memorable wars had nothing but pride on the line. No world titles, no regional championships, no national title; just a pure racing battle against another competitor.
To give Jan Frodeno absolute kudos, he is one of the only athletes in the modern era that continues to choose races around competing with the best. Most of the events he selects are stacked. And I have to give it to him, Daniela Ryf and Alistair Brownlee. They race people; while they are accumulating titles, they do it on the biggest stages and not in a controlled environment. Roll out the “Next Big Star” and it won’t be long before one of these athletes goes head-to-head with them.
The sterility of today’s racing has robbed us of this in some way. In championships we do see some amazing racing, but the importance of strategy intertwines with competition and you often never see athletes pushing each other. The fact that we only get to see these head-to-head races nowadays at championship races is a tragedy for the fans and for these athletes who thrive on this type of motivation to push themselves and establish new limits.
What if we could push the envelope, bring the best together, and have them race freely?
In other sports it is often outside of championship racing where we see the best competitions occur. It is when athletes take chances and go for it. What would happen then? What could happen when you get a mix of the best chasing a new impossible?
This happened in Roth in 1996, when Lothar Leder and the world’s best came together and smashed the magical 8-hour mark in the ironman for the first time. Feeding a competitive environment, taking away the title chase, and just bringing an event with the world’s best throwing down without consequence would be amazing. Then this could set the tempo for the next generation to build upon.
This may be to some youngsters their Sebastian Coe moment: one of those races where both the time, the competition and the result all blend into the perfect race. Just what is the current crop of athletes capable of achieving if they just all threw down and let go?
At some point it’d be great, like in athletics, to see these guys go for an actual endurance mark that shows what is humanly possible. What could Jan Frodeno, at his peak, be able to achieve? How fast can he go? What if we pitted him against a youthful, dynamic, half-his-age athlete like 70.3 record holder Kristian Blummenfelt — or an Olympic champion like Alistair Brownlee who has had Jan’s measure through all their ITU years, is a lot younger than him, and is now migrating to this long-course racing?
Let’s build a project where the world’s best go after it, and may the best individual win on that day. It doesn’t shape or influence who they are or take away their titles and what they’ve already accomplished. It is a raw head-to-head battle where we throw caution to the wind and we push barriers of what is and isn’t possible.
How can we create a racing environment that creates a battle we all want to see? That’s why everyone watched that 2018 70.3 world championship race in South Africa. It was seven men off the front including Javier Gomez, Ben Kanute, Sam Appleton, Jan Frodeno and Alistair Brownlee — all going for it. And that’s what made that race spectacular, especially when Jan, Ali, and Javi took off after the bike. They threw caution to the wind and ran a 67-minute half-marathon. We talk about those three dominating the race, but if you watch closely it was actually Ben and Sam who set up much of the pace from the onset. The three champions who took the podium benefited from the pacemaking of the others. The outcome of that race was next level.
They rewrote the books.
And now that most of these athletes have all started racing ironman, I’m intrigued to see just how fast someone could potentially race this distance using and controlling all the conditions. What is the limit if every other factor is perfect on one day? Just how fast can you go? What are you able to do? What can your human body produce?
Is taking more than half an hour off the current record and breaking 7 hours possible? Seven hours is almost mystical, requiring an athlete to swim at Olympic open water medalist pace, ride a bike with the fastest professional cyclists on the planet on their best ever day, and then drop a marathon quicker than any ever delivered in an Ironman. Can it be done?
Pacemakers in running have existed for years. It in no way eliminates the competition or the drama of a race. In fact it amplifies it. It removes to some degree the strategy and the race head, and gets us quickly down to the rawness of the emotion and physical capabilities of the athlete. There is simply nowhere to hide. So let’s set the swim, bike, and run pace with pacemakers, and put the world’s best athletes in an environment where they have to compete and hang on. It would sure make for some incredible viewing.
I’ve had conversations with Jan and Alistair on this exact thing. Interestingly, both had very different answers. One said it is not possible and the other says, it is not impossible. Both athletes agree that only the mind would be the limiter, and the pain and suffering of an attempt like this would be like nothing else ever done, almost barbaric in its rawness and severity.
Alistair is the greatest Olympic distance athlete of all time, and his arrival on the circuit reshaped the way athletes raced this distance. He is the greatest disrupter to ever race the sport and along with his brother is responsible for the way it is raced today: aggressive from the gun. The Brownlee brothers dropped this racing style and mindset on the sport and made the champions before them, even the current Olympic champion at the time, look obsolete and pedestrian very quickly.
The athletes that have come through in their mold almost singularly focus on perfection in each discipline. You will hear many triathletes say “triathlon is one sport,” but the new generation are world-class in each discipline of the sport. They benchmark their goals off the best in each discipline.
The outcome is what we now see with tremendous talent in short-distance racing at Super League Triathlon and ITU/Olympic level. It is absolutely remarkable that many of these athletes qualify for the Olympics in both triathlon and also the individual sports within it. This mindset is yet to truly migrate across to the long course ranks. It is coming with Jan Frodeno, but this next younger generation will hit long course racing like a tidal wave.
As the reigning Olympic champion, Ali believes he can break 7 hours for the ironman if the conditions were set perfectly and the same rules in cycling applied to the bike leg. A lot of people may say well, “that’s not triathlon” — but it’s part of ITU triathlon, which is still triathlon. Alistair is motivated by the x factor of trying to understand just what he is capable of doing. This is what makes him stand out in this sport. This is why when you ask him something like this he doesn’t give you a quick, off-the-cuff response. You can see him truly ponder the question. It is like you can see him calculating what he thinks he is capable of doing against the current standard. You can see why he disrupted the sport the way he has and changed it forever. He is a champion with a “let’s do this” attitude.
I’ve spoken with Kristian Blummenfelt about it as well, and without hesitation he said he doesn’t see the current records as anywhere near human potential and cheekily hinted that he was very eager to mix things up and establish faster times. His response was typical of the new wave of athletes’ mindset: “I would really like to find out what that feels like.” You have to love the enthusiasm of the young guys.
Kristian came across to Ironman 70.3 racing and smashed the world record by two minutes. He came back a year later and did it again, setting a mark almost seven minutes quicker than anyone had done before him. He put that call out to the universe in the weeks before the race, and everyone laughed. The guy ran a 66-minute 21km run off a sub-1:58 bike split. In his own words he said he swam average and was disappointed he had to take up so much of the riding pace early. He thinks he can go “much faster.”
Of course what is typical to the status quo is that after he broke the record, his peers and others came out trying to justify why they haven’t done it themselves or tear down why the record was established. It couldn’t be that Kristian just raced like he always does and has now changed the way we race this distance. Admitting this would mean admitting that many of the athletes racing now may have a use-by date unless they pick up their game. So it is much easier to say the course was short, or the conditions were perfect, or the Norwegians who were all over this race at the front worked together.
What Kristian delivered is next level, but more so it is his mental belief that the current established marks are there to be broken which is the point of discussion. It is the winner’s mindset we talk about. Bring me your best, bring me your targets, and I will go after them. That attitude is authentic and inspiring. The average will find excuses and reasons, while the exceptional will continue to raise the bar.
When Lothar Leder became the first man to go under eight hours for the Ironman in 1996, that sub-8 became a mystical mark. Now we have the technology to measure and maximise exertion to go faster (power meters, aerodynamics, bikes, wheels, shoes) and the talent has stepped up to racing Ironman resulting in a bumper crop of sub-8 times in the past five years. It also wasn’t that long ago in 1956 when Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile was the mark of running prowess, but now even high school kids are doing it.
Back in 2009, which is not that long ago, the best marathon runners of the time said we would never see the breaking of the two-hour mark in this century. It happened less than 10 years later because one man opted to not believe what his competitors saw as the limits of human potential. I guess he was “ahead of the times.” Eliud Kipchoge’s Breaking 2 near-miss and his subsequent INEOS 1:59 success show that limits exist only in our minds, and the boundary of what is humanly possible continues to push outwards.
So, is 7 hours possible in an ironman? Many say no it isn’t, and “who cares?” Maybe that is so, but what is most interesting is that the younger generation think it is possible. I love the fact that they don’t see the current standards as barriers, and I would sure love to witness an attempt at it.
When we view times or targets as limits, these become a wall to progress because they sneak into our psyche and subconsciously restrict us. It takes courage and often a laissez-faire, almost childish ignorance or inexperience to break from the mold and “chase the crazy.” These champion athletes have that, but is it that they are crazy, or is their view of what’s possible different from ours?
That is the attitude and the style of racing I love, and I just love that this type of racing attitude is shaping our sport’s future. That would be true endurance racing at its core, pushing the boundaries of what the human can endure. Bring it on, guys. As a fan of sports, that is one race I would love to see.