Here’s the first part of our interview with three-time World Ironman Champion Craig Alexander. Here, Crowie give us a blow-by-blow account of his race at Ironman Melbourne.
220: How’s the post-race recovery going?
Craig Alexander: Yeah not too bad, I’ve been very busy and not focused as much on recovery as I would have liked with a lot of sponsorship commitments and media, and that’s cool. The legs feel all right, they’ve been a bit sore but, where are we now, Thursday? So it’s three, four days after, they’re feeling okay.
What were your pre-race expectations going into Melbourne?
My expectations are always high, but I think realistically – there’s all this positive self-talk with athletes but I’m incapable of bullshitting myself – and I’d felt that training had been good if slightly interrupted. I’d been busy with a lot of things since winning in Kona. I had a couple of overseas trips in January, including two to the US, but I felt, however, that training had been good, and the training I’d done had been to a very high level but I guess I was just a little apprehensive about the fact that I hadn’t raced since Kona. Normally I would have done at least one Olympic-distance race or a half, or a couple of races. I was meant to do Abu Dhabi but I was well short on training, and didn’t feel that I could fly 15hrs to Abu Dhabi, do a race there and then fly back and have the week recovery. I thought it was gonna be too much time out of the lead into Melbourne. So I ended up canning Abu Dhabi which was disappointing.
But, you know, it was funny – I went in with mixed emotions because I’m always confident that I can perform well, although I’m also realistic. I knew it was my first race and I thought that there might be a bit of ring rust. I felt a bit sluggish in the swim, but after that, really, I felt great all day.
It’s an early-season race compared to usual for you, was there a reason you chose to race so early this year?
I think to just knock it out early, get it done six months before Kona and obviously it was in Australia – you know it’s nice to race at home, we hardly get to race at home any more – Sydney’s my home but Melbourne’s only an hour flight away. It was good. You know, the media back here [in Australia] obviously report on what I do in Hawaii and Vegas and whatnot, but I think it was nice for them to see me first hand, so that was part of the reasoning as well.
And it meant that I got to do the build-up at home and the recovery at home. And our daughter’s in school so we felt that by racing in Melbourne the pressure’s off and we don’t have to go to the US for another couple of months now so she can stay in school here a lot longer. So there were a lot of factors pointing towards Melbourne.
Can you talk us through how the race went for you?
Well it was a great field, obviously, that was the first thing. I think the new Kona points ranking system – and obviously Melbourne was a new race and a regional championship – so it’s on a par now with Frankfurt and New York City as the regional championships and only Kona has more prestige, more money and more points. Those next three are, I guess, the next level [down] so you saw a lot of the Europeans coming down on the men’s and women’s side.
On the men’s side we had [Eneko] Llanos come down and [Frederick] Van Lierde and on the girl’s side we had Rachel Joyce and Caroline Steffen so there was a strong European contingent, even though Caroline trains here in the summer. I think when the Europeans travel this far this early in the year you know they’re gonna be in great shape and I always expect nothing less from athletes like Eneko and Frederick anyway, they’re always very well prepared.
Plus, you know, a combination of things, the start list – Cameron Brown was on there – and he would have done Ironman New Zealand but that was shortened because of the weather so I knew he was gonna be tough to beat from the get go. In March every year for a decade he’s won Ironman New Zealand and he’s beaten all comers at that race, you know, Pete Sandvang, Tim DeBoom – whoever’s been rolled out in Ironman New Zealand, he’s beaten them. [Norman] Stadler went down there. So he’s always in great shape, he prepares very well in New Zealand so I knew he’d be tough, and a whole lot of Aussies, you know, Luke Bell, Paul Matthews, Joe Gambles, guys who have won 70.3s and mightn’t have been on the tip of everybody’s tongue but are certainly in great form. You know, names don’t count for much when the gun goes off, particularly in Ironman, what mainly counts is your level of preparation and I knew all the boys were fit, they’d done a few races, some had done Abu Dhabi, some had done a few 70.3s.
So yeah, the race, it was a very quick swim, I missed the start a little bit – it was pitch black when the gun went off, actually, yeah it was really dark! The sun didn’t come up for twenty minutes and you couldn’t really see much. I just had a very slow start, no one’s fault really but my own, and the front group so of gapped me a little bit. I was off the front of the second group but behind the front group – only by about 20m – but I sat there for probably 1500m and couldn’t shut the gap. Then about halfway into the swim I was probably only about 15ses down, 20secs down, but definitely off the back [of the group] and just started losing time from there, because obviously they’re swimming as a group and I was about a minute off the front of the second group so I was sort of in no-man’s land, as the poor start cost me a little bit. I ended up losing about five minutes to Clayton Fettell – who’s an unbelievable swimmer – and about three-and-a-half minutes to the group that had most of the big names, Van Lierde, Llanos, Greg Bennett, Luke McKenzie, Luke Bell, Marko Albert – so I was a little bit concerned but I looked around, took a little inventory and I saw I had Cam Brown with me so I thought I’d have a good working partner, a willing ally.
I just jumped on the bike and went for it from the gun, I thought, you know, ‘I’ve got to shut this gap quickly’ and we caught them at about 45km, took back three-and-half-minutes on the front group, just after the turn, actually, it was just after 45km. I must say I was pleasantly surprised, I felt very good but like I said, they had all the firepower in that front group but we caught them. I felt amazing, I went straight to the front of that group and sat in the first two or three for pretty much the rest of the bike ride and we pretty much shared the workload. Frederick Van Lierde did a mountain of work as he always does, so did Llanos, he did a lot of work, Cam Brown came to the front a few times, Luke McKenzie did a lot of work, and I think a lot of the other guys were pretty much just content to sit in and let the pre-race favourites or the ‘big names’ do the work.
We picked up Fettell at about 135km. When the two groups initially merged after about 45km there was about 25 of us together, but after the third turn there was only eight of us, and the pace was pretty solid so people were getting dropped. Even at the end, a group of four of us got away – myself, Llanos, Van Lierde and McKenzie – but we never got more than 200-300 metres on the other four and they caught us right in the last 10km, I guess, coming towards T2 and it was evident it was going to be a running race and that’s what ended up happening.
I think eight of us got off the bike together. We were all together initially [on the run] and then there were four of us together; me, Frederick, Eneko and Cam, and we stuck together for about 10km or more, we went through 10km in about 35-and-a-half minutes I think it was, it was under 36mins so it was a pretty solid pace. Shortly after, Cam and I were able to unhook Eneko and Frederick, but they never really got dropped, they stayed 20-30secs back for the next 20km, and Cam and I stayed shoulder-to-shoulder. We went through 20km in 1:12:00 and through halfway in a tick under 1:17:00, so it was a good pace and Cam was looking smooth. Like I said, I knew he would be in form, he’s trained all summer down here – all southern hemisphere summer – for Taupo, and that race was shortened, so I just felt ‘Im gonna have to dig in’. He had me on the ropes a few times, I wasn’t super comfortable, I wouldn’t say I was totally in control, as that’s far from the truth. I was the one doing most of the surging, but he would respond to my surges very easily, from about 20-30km I think I threw in three, I opened up a couple of gaps but he always ran back on and looked very comfortable.
After about 30km I starting feeling a bit rough, to be honest, and I thought ‘maybe I’m just gonna have to hold onto him now and hold it for a sprint finish’. So a couple of times I consciously really slowed down because I was struggling and I wanted him to run on the front, and I don’t know if he was keen to do that, I’m not sure, but the pace seemed to slow a little bit and that really helped me as I went through a real rough patch from about 30-33km. And even before that, it was probably about 26-34km, it was about a 40min period when I thought he could run away from me at any point. But I hung in there and he didn’t.
We got to 35km and he sort of slowed down, or pulled off to the side of the track a little bit and I wasn’t sure what was happening. We had an entourage of about 100 people on bikes following us, and I heard people yelling at me ‘he’s 50 metres back, he’s 100 metres back’ so I thought ‘this is my opportunity, I’ve been waiting the whole marathon to gap him and I’ve finally done it’ – although I don’t want to claim it too much, I don’t know if it was me gapping him or him just going through a rough patch there, but whatever it was I seized the opportunity and just went with everything I had, I thought ‘the next 4km, just go with everything’.
So, I ran from 35-39km, and it was possibly the most painful 4km of my career. I must say though, it was hurting but it was a nice hurt, if there’s such a thing, it was a sweet pain not a sour pain, you know, when you’ve finally broken someone of gotten away, the pain is nice because you know you’re getting a return on your investment. I still never thought I had it because Cam is such a savvy racer and such an experienced guy, he doesn’t blow up, if he slowed down it would only have been marginally and he could come back at me at any time – that’s certainly what I was thinking, anyway, so that’s why I though it was important to do a sustained effort for that 4km.
Then when I got to 39km, I heard someone say – cos we didn’t have lead car or a motorbike or anything with a clock, so I wasn’t sure what time I was on – obviously I had my watch on for the marathon, but I didn’t know what the overall time was but I got to about 39km an people were yelling ‘it’s only 7:44:00’ or 7:45:00 or something like that, and I thought ‘I’ve got a chance to break 8hrs here’. It’s a long finish there, but it’s very flat, though, and you can see around the edge of the bay, so I could see St Kilda, I could see the finish area and I knew the organisers had barricaded the last kilometre, so the finish chute was a kilometre long. So I though, ‘I’ve just got to knuckle down for another couple of kilometres’ and that’s what I did. It wasn’t easy and it certainly wasn’t pretty – you know, I pride myself on my running technique and my technique in all of the disciplines, I think, in a longer race, efficiency is very important, and technique’s very important, and I’ve always worked a lot on that and prided myself on the fact that I can hold my technique together, but I think it was pretty messy, it felt messy at the end, it didn’t feel like pretty running, but it was effective, I guess, so that was the main thing!
Check back on monday for the next part of the interview where Craig talks Macca, Lance, and the rest of his season
pictures credited to Paul Phillips, Competitive Image