Scotland’s David McNamee finished seventh in last year’s Commonwealth Games and looked a genuine contender to make the British team for next year’s Olympic Games.
Yet the 26 year old has taken the decision to abandon the Rio goal and the lottery funding that accompanies it to turn his attention to Ironman racing and qualifying for the 2015 World Championships.
What makes the switch more surprising is McNamee’s 2014 results suggest he has not yet peaked. His 14th place in the ITU Grand Final was set against a bike crash at the start of the year that meant he missed critical months of training and left him with a permanently damaged wrist.
In his first in depth interview since the decision, 220 columnist Tim Heming caught up with him to find out why….
220: Hi David, good to catch up. How’s the training going?
I’m currently in Spain avoiding the cold weather. Scottish Triathlon come out here every year and I’ve tagged along with them for a couple of weeks. I fly to Mallorca on Sunday and join Joel [Filliol’s] squad. I also won the 10k Boxing Day Ayrodynamic Turkey Trot in Ayr in 31:39, which is ok.
If we rewind to winter training last year, describe what happened with the crash in February and the rehabilitation that followed?
There was a touch of wheels and it was just unfortunate the way I landed. I managed to snap and dislocate both my radius and ulna and also damaged the joints. I had a follow-up operation in September and all the bones have healed now.
I’ll never have proper range of motion in my wrist again but it’s something I’ve adapted to. I don’t have the same strength and range of motion for the catch when swimming, and for biking the saving grace is electronic gears. I can use mechanical shifters a little but after a while it hurts too much, so now I just use Di2.
Despite the setback, your 2014 results were not a disaster. Talk us through the racing…
The European Championships in Kitzbühel was my first proper race back and I came sixth, the best result I’ve had at the Europeans and that was off just two months of training. I came seventh in the Commonwealth Games, which wasn’t the result I wanted back in January, but [given the crash] I was happy with it.
Regarding that race in Glasgow, when you reached T2, the Brownlees were away and clear but did you feel you had a chance in the race for bronze [South African Richard Murray who came third is a training partner of David’s]?
I suppose, knowing the run course and how good Richard is when it comes to running up short hard climbs – which isn’t my strength whatsoever – I realised that I’d always struggle. I also knew the shape Richard was in. It was still a tremendous experience, even if the result wasn’t what I dreamt about.
From there you finished 44th in Stockholm and 14th in the ITU World Series Grand Final in Edmonton…
After Glasgow, my aim was Edmonton. Stockholm was the week before and sprint distance races have never been my strength. I went into that race mentally defeated.
The result in the Grand Final, in the highest quality race of the year, wasn’t bad having missed key months when I should have been ramping up the training.
Then came the bombshell to abandon your Olympic dream. At 26, is that not a premature decision?
I’ve been racking my brains over why and there are 100 different little reasons combined. I waited until the Olympic selection policy came out, read through it and asked people I trust to look at it objectively.
From my viewpoint it was going to be extremely difficult to make the Games in my own right. I would never want to go as… I think it’s called a ‘pilot’ now, not a domestique to the Olympic Games, but the underlying issue is I no longer have the excitement and drive to go to to Olympics that I used to. I realised I needed to look elsewhere and see what drives me.
Spain’s Mario Mola and South Africa’s Richard Murray are in your training group under Joel Filliol. As two of the quickest runners in the sport, did you find it hard to match up, and did this influence your decision?
At times it is hard to train with some of the best athletes in the world, but in training I do pretty damn well. It’s not as if I’m going to track sessions and getting my arse kicked by them. It’s maybe not translated as much – especially during this last year – to racing, but when I see the excitement they had for the new ITU calendar, it was an infectious enthusiasm that was missing for me.
Training was still going well, but if you don’t have the same drive, something is going to be missing. Ultimately, when you get to 7km on the run and everything aches and everybody around you aches, nobody is enjoying themselves. But that’s where races are won and lost.
I could easily blag it for another season or two, get my UK Sport lottery funding, still go and get respectable results, still get some top 10s in the World Series, but I know I’m capable of doing better. No-one else would though, and that would haunt me.
Our interview with Scottish triathlete David McNamee (part one
So if you have lost the spark for draft-legal racing, why do you have more passion for Ironman?
Going long, I could look back in two or three years and say “that was a disaster,” but at least I’ll have tried whilst I’ve got passion. Change is always good. I was a swimmer as a youngster and I knew what Ironman was before I knew what triathlon was.
I remember being 12 years old watching crazy men on TV in the early hours on Transworld Sport before I went to do my early morning swim training. I’ve always said I wanted to do long course at some point. It’s something that intrigues me.
But rather than take a gradual step with a year or two of middle distance racing, you’ve jumped straight in to try and qualify for Hawaii this year?
I sat down with Joel in Portugal after I decided I didn’t have the motivation for another year of ITU. I said I’d probably do 70.3s and try Hawaii in a couple of years. It seemed the sensible option. Joel asked me what I wanted to achieve and felt if my dream was to get on to the podium in Hawaii, that’s the dream I had to chase.
Most people advise becoming used to 70.3 racing and then go up again, but having the faith of Joel made me think: ‘Why not try it?’ And if I want to go to Hawaii and perform I need to get there this year to find out what it’s all about.
So starting from scratch to qualify, how do you propose to do it?
I’m going to get my WTC licence and do Ironman South Africa [African Championships] on March 29. I need points and that’s the best place to get them early on. I chose it because I know it will be a good field and I want to know how I stack up, can move on and improve.
I’m not going to be the best prepared on the start-line, but I have been training full time for six years so won’t be unfit. I’m not going to be used to a time-trial bike, or know whether my nutrition strategy or pacing will work, but if I blow up and have to walk for 20km on the run, next time I can produce better.
I’ll hopefully make Hawaii this year and aim to be at competitive by the end of next year. I’ve always been someone who does well off a lot of high volume training. The 180km doesn’t faze me, but 180km in a TT position holding a fixed pace is completely different and I have no idea how my legs will cope over the marathon.
Have you been running long in preparation?
I ran 32km last week, that wasn’t too bad, but doing it fresh on a Sunday morning is one thing, it’s quite another after racing for five hours. That’s what excites me about South Africa. Anything can happen.
Have you built in any warm-up races?
I’ll probably do Challenge Dubai next month. The organisers said they’d give me a start. Then I’ll fly straight to South Africa for four weeks, so there is some sort of progression there.
Dubai will give me the chance to see whether I’ve thought of all I need for non-drafting racing and a taste of running off the bike after 90km in a time trial position. I’m assuming my swim will be fine; 3.8km is absolutely fine for me.
Another of Joel’s athletes is Uplace-BMC team member Helle Frederiksen, a former ITU racer who won the big money races of Hy-Vee and Challenge Bahrain last year. Has her success given you a boost?
A little. It’s good to see you can leave the draft-legal racing and transfer, but Helle has her own training set-up.
Most of Filliol’s group are short course racers, will this alter your training structure?
It’s quite a nomadic existence. I go to Mallorca then come home for a few days before I’m off to Dubai then South Africa for a month. I’ll swim with the guys in Joel’s group and do some running and riding.
When I’m back in Stirling, Fraser Cartmell has a spare room he rents to me. I think he’s racing Dubai and South Africa and it’s good to have someone to race and train with.
Do you think you’ll finally be able to help British men challenge for honours in Hawaii?
We seem to do embarrassingly badly at Kona every year, but looking at Tim [Don] and Will [Clarke] doing it [in 2015] it has to change. The girls have done so well and there is no reason that the guys cannot step up and deliver. We’ll soon find out. If we have three or four high quality athletes competing, somebody is going to crack it.
How well do you handle the heat?
I’ll find out in Dubai. I’ve never had a problem with heat or humidity, but then I’ve never been out and raced for eight-and-a-half hours in it either.
This decision means you will no longer be a funded triathlete. Is that liberating or frightening?
Before I made anything public, I contacted the federation and let them know I no longer wished to be considered for the programme. It is scary but if you back yourself and have confidence, you should be fine.
It’s nice having some guaranteed money in the bank every month because you do not have to worry if you are injured or sick, but hell, I’m 26, and it’s time to fend for myself.
Finally, would you ever rule out a return to ITU short course racing?
Maybe after two or three years of Ironman, ITU will seem exciting again. The Gold Coast Commonwealth Games are in 2018 and we’ve seen Chris McCormack come back and try for an Olympics. I know he ultimately failed to make the Australian team but he gave it a good effort and enjoyed the process.
It’s not unimaginable for me to step back down again. A lot of people say it’s a one-way street but I think it just takes someone to come along to challenge that thinking and we’ll see that maybe it was a load of b******* all these years.
(Images: Delly Carr / Janos Schmidt)