When Javier Gomez made the previous most-anticipated Ironman World Championships debut in 2018, he finished 11th. When Alistair Brownlee shows up this year, despite insisting it’s a learning experience and despite the aptness of Shakespeare’s wisdom for Hawaii – “caution is better than rash bravery” – there’s a sense it’ll be success or bust. It’s the way Brownlee has raced throughout his career. He doesn’t really do 11th. And it’s why so many are excited to see what he’ll achieve come Saturday 12 October in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
“Alistair has everything that’s required, but will need to make some adjustments to psychology for the length of the race,” says Malcolm Brown, who played a guiding hand in the Brownlee brothers’ rise from keen upstarts to Olympic medallists. Since winning Olympic gold in Rio 2016, Brownlee, through choice and injury, has mixed up his racing schedule, and even being in Hawaii has come about somewhat by chance.
Brownlee’s Ironman debut in Cork in June came at short notice and without specific long-distance prep. His goal had been to produce a performance in front of a home crowd to win the ITU World Triathlon Series event in Leeds for a third time. But when that inexplicably fell flat, attention turned to Ironman Ireland, and a race that would be marked by a cancelled swim, punishingly wet and cold conditions, and a successful pursuit of home hope Bryan McCrystal on the marathon run. It could hardly be further from what he’ll face in Hawaii in October, but he duly accepted his qualification berth.
History shows that male debutants in Kona must earn their stripes. You have to go back over 20 years to Canadian Peter Reid to find a men’s champion who hadn’t previously podiumed, so taking the tape first time out is a big ask.
“He’s shown that he can do pretty well as a debutant in longer-distance events,” Brown argues. “One reason is his background in endurance, but he’s also good at preparing when he decides to prepare thoroughly. I’d expect him to take three weeks to acclimatise as much as he can, but I also think he’s doing it this year to understand how he’ll react physically, to give himself the best chance in the future.”
In trying to topple 2015 and 2016 champion Jan Frodeno, and 2017 and 2018 winner Patrick Lange, who lowered his own course record to 7:52:39 last year and seems able to produce a 2:40hr marathon at will, Brownlee will need to respect the conditions as much as his German rivals. “It’s knowing where your red line lies,” Brown adds. “Alistair can bury himself, but if you do that in Hawaii you won’t finish. It requires a different mentality.”
Producing a swim and bike leg strong enough to remain in contention has to be a given, but it’s the run where questions remain unanswered, and, in truth, have been since a hot day in Hyde Park in 2010 when Brownlee flaked out approaching the finish and can’t remember the final yards. While brother Jonny’s near-collapse in Cozumel in 2016 only increased perceptions that the Yorkshire brothers might be susceptible to heat, Brown sees it slightly differently.
“Counterintuitively, a 10km can be more of a threat to athletes who are vulnerable,” he suggests. “I think there’s some good evidence that over 10km you are running much closer to your limits.”
If Brownlee is to triumph he’ll repeat the rare achievement of Brit Chrissie Wellington, who won convincingly on debut in 2007. “He can cope with the pressure, attention and expectation, and with surges on the bike,” Wellington says. “But I do think the marathon will be a huge challenge. My advice is to adapt to the heat long before you get there and develop strategies for racing in it, put spare nutrition in your special needs bag and choose your wheels carefully based on the winds.”
Brown remains cautiously optimistic: “I’m confident he’ll complete with distinction, yet I’d be surprised if he were able to know enough about the conditions without having run it before to be the top man. But I’d hope to be surprised; I have been many times by Alistair.