He’s the most successful Olympic Games triathlete who ever lived. A two-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist, multiple ITU world champion, and the face of Aldi and Yorkshire Tea. But Alistair Brownlee is at a crossroads.
From quitting Cambridge University to focus on triathlon to that brief dalliance with qualifying for the Olympics 10,000m, he’s been here before. But this feels bigger. It could define the final chapter of his storied triathlon career. So should he go fully for Ironman in 2019 or attempt one last Olympic fling in 2020?
The ‘Will he, won’t he?’ question has Ioomed large over Brownlee since he sparked the Ironman rumours at the
post-race press conference at the Rio Olympics in 2016. If he moves to Ironman, Alistair could join that very select band of athletes – including Mark Allen, Greg Welch, Chris McCormack and Jan Frodeno – who have conquered both ITU and Ironman racing. The other option is winning an unprecedented three consecutive Olympic triathlon gold medals at Tokyo in 2020 (four if you count the new Mixed Relay) and then make the later move to Ironman racing.
The decision could establish the Yorkshireman as the greatest triathlete of all time. Or his post-ITU racing career could fade out in the vein of 2000 Olympic champ Simon Whitfield, with the passion for racing replaced by the lure of a paddleboard.
The answer won’t be taken lightly by the 30-year-old. “I literally don’t know. I have to make that decision in the next six months,” he says to 220 ahead of racing September’s Beijing International Triathlon. “It’ll either be Olympic qualification or I’ll be trying to win Kona in 2019. The key thing is what gets me out of the bed when the hail is sideways, it’s 3°C and I have to ride for four hours. It comes down to what motivates me and what I love doing.”
Image above courtesy of OTE
Ali Brownlee won’t be the first British ITU World Championship-winning male to make the move to full Ironman racing. Tim Don, Spencer Smith and Simon Lessing have all experienced 226km racing with varying degrees of success (see panel right).
“On a selfish note, I’d love to see Alistair have a crack at Ironman just to see how much he would shake it up,” says Smith from his Florida base. “But the most pertinent question should be; what excites Alistair? Is he ready for a completely new challenge or does the chance of a three-peat Olympic gold get his competitive juices flowing more?”
When polled on Brownlee’s choices, over 60% of 220’s readers would prefer to see Brownlee go down the Ironman route in 2019.
Speak to Simon Lessing, however, and he celebrates the appeal of a final shot at the Olympics. “Once you’ve been to the Olympics and, in Alistair’s case won there twice, you’re never going to top that. The Olympic Games is the biggest sporting event in the world. There isn’t a direct comparison to anything else in our sport in terms of the recognition and pressure. People will shoot me down for this, but Kona doesn’t come close. But Alistair needs to be true to himself and doesn’t need to prove himself to anybody.”
Lessing’s belated Ironman career could act as a cautionary tale for Alistair, with stomach and back issues, and a loss of desire (plus a young family) proving roadblocks to Kona success. “For me, Ironman racing was always the cherry on the top of the cake of my triathlon career,” says Lessing from his home in Boulder, Colorado. “You certainly need to have that inner drive to commit not just to the racing, which is the easy part, but to the hours and hours of training you’re spending on the bike and run. It’s very different to short-course training.”
Lessing’s battles with Smith took triathlon to new levels in the 90s, with their intense rivalry captivating audiences in some of UK triathlon’s earliest televised clashes. Their classic encounters would stand in stark contrast to Lessing’s long-distance career. “The truth is that I found Ironman quite boring,” admits the 47-year-old. “Hours and hours of slower workouts not at the intensity of ITU racing, and rare one-to-one combat with fellow athletes. There’s excitement and adrenaline in those battles, whereas the Ironman track is a lonely path. You’re racing yourself as much as you’re racing everybody else. It’s a very different mindset.”
Seeing Alistair’s intermittent ITU racing schedule over the past few seasons, it’s clear a whole season spent racking up points in the World Triathlon Series holds little appeal. “I’ve spent the last couple of seasons not being committed to the WTS and being flexible with my racing,” adds Ali, “and it’s enjoyable to mix up different kinds of racing.”
This mixing up of racing saw Alistair win his middle-distance debut at Challenge Gran Canaria and smash the course record at Ironman 70.3 St. George in 2017. 2018 has also witnessed victories at Ironman 70.3s in Liuzhou, China, and Dubai, the latter after a time of 3:35:32 – just one minute slower than the Ironman 70.3 world record.
Arguably Brownlee’s most memorable 70.3 race came in South Africa this September where he resumed his rivalry with former ITU foes, Germany’s Jan Frodeno and Javier Gomez of Spain. The result was probably the greatest 70.3 race of all time, and saw Brownlee finish second to Frodeno and ahead of the reigning Ironman 70.3 world champion, Gomez, after an epic battle on the run.
“I was pleased with that race as I’ve had a terrible year with all different kinds of things,” recalls Brownlee, who had hip surgery in late 2017. “But I threw everything at it in the weeks before and I couldn’t have hoped for a better performance. Obviously I wasn’t happy with the result, but I did all I could on the day. Jan was good on the swim, great on the bike and that was the best 70.3 run ever.”
That instant classic on the shores of Port Elizabeth would have an impact on the 2018 edition of the Ironman Worlds in Kona, with Frodeno pulling out of the race with a stress fracture. Gomez, meanwhile, would come in 11th after one of the most-hyped Hawaii debuts of all time.
“I watched Kona with interest with my old rival Javier doing it,” Ali adds. “The dynamics of the race changed a lot with Javier being there, likewise if Jan was. And someone like me could change the dynamics of the race a lot. I was disappointed that Jan was injured, as he was clearly in great shape coming off that 70.3 victory. I’ve had a lot to do with him over the years, but we don’t speak a lot. We’re very cordial when we spend time together but I won’t be ringing him up for Ironman advice. And he probably shouldn’t give it to me!”
Alistair wasn’t the only multiple British ITU world champ watching Kona from afar. “While I was disappointed with Gomez’s first attempt in Hawaii, I believe Alistair has more natural talent and endurance than his counterpart,” says Smith. “The one thing that I do question is Ali’s ability to perform in the unforgiving heat and humidity over eight hours in Kona. Can he win many Ironman races? Yes, of course. But there’ll be only one Ironman he wants to win if he goes this route. So this will be continued in Hawaii.”
Heat acclimitisation work and fuelling in higher temperatures has already begun with his nutrition partners OTE, at their Performance Centre in Leeds in prep for Tokyo or Hawaii. But could an Ironman career hasten a move from Yorkshire to warmer climes? “We spend time in Spain during the off-season, but Yorkshire is home,” says Ali. “We’ve got fantastic training locations and great friends that I can train with. It’s important that I keep doing things slightly differently each year, but without changing too much.”
BRAVE NEW WORLD
Jan Frodeno’s two most recent attempts to add to his two Ironman world titles have been halted by injury, highlighting the fragile nature of having to peak for one major Ironman event every October, especially when, like Alistair, he’s been training and racing hard in triathlon for two decades. To refashion that old Indiana Jones adage, both the years and the mileage can rear their heads.
“There’s definitely a degree of wear and tear,” reflects Alistair. “I remember saying in interviews a decade ago that I’d prefer to be the best I could ever be and train as hard as I can, even if it shortens my career. When you say that as a rather confident 20-year-old, you never think it’ll actually shorten your career, but I now have some perspective on that!”
Something that won’t be lost on Alistair is the declining age of the Ironman Worlds’ winners. Since Craig Alexander’s win in 2011 aged 38, the ages of the (mostly German) winners have been 31, 34, 30, 34, 35, 31 and 32, with Patrick Lange’s latter two victories suggesting time could slip away from Alistair if he attempts to race Kona in 2021 (or later) when he’ll be 33.
Gomez and Brits David McNamee and Tim Don have also shown that Kona success rarely comes at the first bite. Don moved to full Ironman at the age of 36 after failure to qualify for the 2012 Olympics. While he’s forged a successful Ironman career, it’s often seemed like a battle against time (and cars) for Don, now 40, to find success in Hawaii. Yet he’d still like to see Brownlee opt for Japan over Kona in 2020.
“I’d love to see Alistair win a third Olympic individual medal in Tokyo,” says Don. “You have to choose ITU or Ironman nowadays if you want to be the best of the best, which Alistair surely does. The dynamics of both forms of racing have changed and are so specific that you have to go all in.”
When Brownlee does make the move to Ironman, Don is convinced of his chances of success. “Alistair has some smart people around him that advise him on most levels of the sport, but Ironman is very different to ITU and 70.3 racing. Kona especially is a beast. I’d be focusing on nutrition, pacing and slowing everything down. Efficiency and running economy are key, and I found that hard, especially in training. But, without a doubt, he could win any Ironman he starts, even from his first go. You don’t win two Olympic gold medals by chance. He could win Kona with the right mindset, patience and prep.”
So if he opts for Ironman over the Olympics and the injuries stay away, we could be looking at a Brownlee, Frodeno, Gomez, Lange and McNamee showdown at Kona in 2019. And come 2021, they could be joined by another Yorkshireman…
TEARS AND TRIBULATIONS
Image above courtesy of OTE
From toils at the Commonwealth Games to tears in Leeds, 2018 was largely a season to forget for Jonny Brownlee. “It’s been the worst season of my career,” says Jonny before a confidence-inspiring victory over a strong field in Beijing. “I made mistakes and have had some bad luck along the way. I’ve a tried-and-tested way of peaking for August, so this year was different for me as I’m not used to getting ready for a race as early as the Commonwealth Games in April. I panicked, trained too hard and got a stress response in my femur.”
A disappointing seventh at the Commonwealths was followed by an emotional DNF in front of the home crowd at the WTS Leeds event in June. “I went home and set the reset button for Leeds and was feeling good, until I got sick from a stomach bug just before the race. I didn’t feel quite right on race day, but athletes are the best people in the world at lying to themselves. I quickly realised I wasn’t fine in the race and was on an IV drip as soon as it finished. I’m hoping to get all my bad luck out of the way in 2018.”
Rediscovering that racing mojo against the likes of Mario Mola, Henri Schoeman and Vincent Luis will be the primary goal in 2019, with Olympic qualification and winning his first ITU world championship since 2012 being two objectives. Jonny hasn’t won a WTS race since August 2017, which is a far cry from the man who put together one of the greatest-ever streaks in elite triathlon from July 2010 to July 2013, hitting the podium on every occasion and scoring nine victories in his 19 races. So how does the younger Brownlee rediscover that winning feeling?
“Instead of trying to fix things quickly, I’d actually take some time off and methodically go through what, why and when it started to go a little pear-shaped,” says Smith on Jonny’s attempt to win gold in Tokyo after his Olympic silver and bronze medals in Rio and London, respectively. “Giving yourself rest and recovery is always a good way to refine some hunger and love for what you do, and Jonny will probably be no different. But you don’t achieve what he has without being a remarkable athlete, and he absolutely has more to give. He will be back and he will win big races again, with or without his brother.”
While Alistair faces his career quandary, Jonny’s career path seems more clearly defined. “I’ve been to the same races for many years now with the WTS. I still enjoy it and it’s still hugely competitive. My goal is to go to Tokyo and get an Olympic medal. And I have to do the ITU racing to achieve that. But after 2020 I’ll definitely be ready for a change to the longer stuff.” Our spectator spot on the Ali’i Drive finish line in 2021 is already reserved.