It’s not just his rivals who know that if Alistair Brownlee’s in a race you don’t take your eyesoff him. On the start line his mind remains as sharp as the acceleration he so often delivers. Come the biggest stage, Brownlee, like no other triathlete, has found a way to win, again and again. Now, he’s finished a four-year quest to pick the minds of kindred souls who do the same: rise to the top of their own sports, and stay there.
Relentless – Secrets of the Sporting Elite is the result. It’s been a passion project, and you don’t need to flick through many pages or spend long in the company of the double Olympic champion to be convinced of his insatiable curiosity for sporting excellence. As Brownlee says in the introduction when addressing the value of standing atop an Olympic podium: “For a sports obsessive such as myself, there’s one perk that beats all others: the access gold medals give you to the sporting elite.”
We catch up with the straight-talking Yorkshireman after a troublesome ankle cut his training camp in USA short and before he was disqualified at WTCS Leeds for ‘ducking’ fellow competitor Chase McQueen on the swim. The event marked the end of his hopes for a final Olympic outing, with brother Jonny and Leeds winner Alex Yee carrying the hopes for British Triathlon at the end of July.
But we’re here to chat about how the world’s greatest sports stars relentlessly achieve their goals, and Alistair’s latest injury troubles are a reminder that not everything is within their gift. After early domination, the 33-year-old’s pro career has been defined by moments of world-beating excellence in between frustrating spells on the sidelines. It’s a reminder that fortune always plays a hand, but it’s not always to the detriment.
“Mum and dad sent me to a certain school [Bradford Grammar] for academic reasons, but it happened to have the best running programme in the country. Then to have a home Olympics in 2012, as a carrot from a young age, and being there when I was at my best, well, there’s some luck involved in that.” His one lament? “I just wish Beijing had come three months later.”
Alistair is referring to his first Olympic Games in 2008, where, as a fresh-faced 20-year-old, he pushed the pace before fading in the latter stages of the run to finish 12th. By the following summer he would win five from five World Triathlon Series races, the most dominant season of his career. Perhaps that’s the thing about extreme achievers, they’re never quite satisfied.
It was also luck, or serendipity, that meant the hedonistic aftermath of 2012 success sparked the idea for Relentless. “I was meeting athletes from other sports and was fascinated by how similar their outlooks were,” he explains. “Whether they were doing equestrian, double-trap shooting or marathon swimming. The why, what and where in terms of athlete performance.”
Relentless could also extend to Alistair’s persistence to get this book published. It eventually became a four-year project after the Rio Olympics, squeezing in interview after interview with the likes of Chris Froome, Mark Cavendish, Ronnie O’Sullivan, AP McCoy, Ian Thorpe, Adam Peaty, Michael Johnson, Michael Owen, Ian Botham and Alastair Cook. Names so exalted they don’t need introducing by sport or achievement. The list, like trail runner and interviewee Kilian Jornet, runs on and on.
“At times it was a lot of effort, but it was genuinely fascinating,” Alistair continues, having completed the final manuscript with the help of Sunday Times journalist Duncan Craig. “Our initial idea was to have chapters on themes such as competition and motivation, but the human interest stories were the best bits.
“Interviewing is hard work, so hopefully I’m a better interviewee now. I was conscious that when you have a crap interview it sounds like 10 questions read off a sheet of A4. I had things I wanted to ask, but was keen to build a rapport and get things I didn’t know. That’s kind of the whole point of the book.
“The key was getting interviewees to talk as much as possible. With one in particular, I got talked at for the whole time.” And that individual? “Ian Botham.” Naturally. “I don’t do stressed” was the Aussie-crusher’s response when Alistair did manage to squeeze in a question about carrying the hopes of a nation.
While meeting football legend Denis Irwin in a Leeds’ shopping mall, having tea with the O’Sullivans and being visited via helicopter by former Formula One driver Mark Webber had their attractions, it was pedalling the cycle path between Knaresborough and Bilton in West Yorkshire with one of the lesser heralded interviewees that holds special memories.
“There’s something really special about Denise Burton-Cole,” Alistair explains. “We’ve lots in common being from the same kind of sporting communities in Yorkshire.” Denise is no mean cyclist herself, but the interview is mainly about the push-iron exploits of her mum, Beryl, and the almost as extraordinary mother-daughter dynamic when Denise also took to competitive cycling.
Ahead of the times
Beryl’s cycling career saw her win seven world and 96 national titles over five decades from 1959, as well as 25 consecutive Best British
All-Rounder titles, awarded to the cyclist with the highest average speed in time-trial races over a season. In 13 of those years, she was faster than all the men.
“She was way ahead of her time in terms of sports performance,” Alistair eulogises. “But I loved how Denise told the story, essentially saying she got thrown out of a car on the way to a race! Imagine if I did that to Jonny! But Denise was completely neutral about it: ‘That’s who mum was, and that’s how it was.’ There was no bitterness, just a tale of an incredibly determined and motivated person.”
Being competitive is one thing, but making your child find their way to a race start because they’re your biggest rival takes it to another level. In Relentless, Brownlee also touches on the story of golfer Tiger Woods who trained with Navy Seals but refused to pick up the restaurant bill afterwards. To win year-on-year, are these social flaws just – as might be apt for Woods – par for the course?
“We’ve all done things we regret,” Alistair muses. “There are times where you have to be super dedicated and ultimately really selfish to get the best out of yourself in sport, but I believe you can compartmentalise that to some extent. I put a hell of a lot of time, effort and money into children’s sport, for example, and that’s time I could be doing something selfish for myself.”
Choices not sacrifices
What about the sacrifices that must be made for elite sport? “I always thought it was more that I’d made choices. It might be slightly nuanced, but not going to the pub with my friends wasn’t a sacrifice. I made a choice so I could train better the next day. For three-to-four month periods I’ve excluded everything to the point where I didn’t go to friends’ weddings. That might sound brutal, but the choice I made was to train hard. Outside that it’s possible to be a normal human being and do other things.”
Two of the interviewees who had little choice but to prioritise their sport because they were racing almost every day were champion jump jockeys Richard Dunwoody and AP McCoy. After more familiar chats with Froome, Cavendish, Thorpe and Peaty, horse racing was an alien world.
“I’d been to the races a few times and put a few bets on, but to learn about the intensity… AP raced year-in year-out for 20 years,
4,500 winners; the numbers are phenomenal. Just an incredible mindset. But there were also lessons in never getting too high or too low, not celebrating too much or being too upset by losses – or horrific injuries. AP said one other thing that stuck with me: ‘It doesn’t matter how good you are, you’ll always be followed around by an ambulance, and at some point you’re going to end up in it.’”
If never getting too high is an aim, then no-one told Kilian Jornet. Both the trail running legend and Alistair have scaled great heights in the name of endurance sport, but while Brownlee tops out at Kilimanjaro on a charity trek, the Catalan ascended Everest at speed, twice, in a week.
“I enjoyed talking about his outlook on life. A lot of the time it’s about experiencing play and exploration, but with Kilian it’s
also decision making. It’s something that’s interested me in my career: How do you make the right decision in a race? Climbing Everest, how do you decide whether to keep going? He says make it completely binary. ‘If I go on, will it kill me? Yes or no?’ If no, you go on.
“Relying on instinct becomes important. Kilian was saying that thousands of hours in the mountains means he instinctively understands the weather conditions. When I’m in a breakaway, I’m looking at the time gaps, the wind direction, course profile, weighing it up and making an instinctive decision.”
Know your real strengths
There’s also the example of Shane Williams, the 2008 world rugby player of the year, who for what he lacked in size at 5ft 7in made up for on the scoreboard. Wales’ record try scorer spent a period early in his career trying to bulk up to compete in an ever more physical game,
yet realised he was forgoing the dexterity that made him such an attacking threat. The lesson was not focusing on your weaknesses to the detriment of your strengths.
“I realised early on that every time I saw someone who said they were going to improve their swim, over the next three months two things happened,” Alistair explains. “Number one, it was at the expense of everything else, and number two, about a month after they’d finished trying to improve their swim it was back to where they’d started.
“Something I was keen on early in my career was that my strengths were real strengths. Granted, I was relatively consistent across all three disciplines anyway, so probably an easy thing for me to say, but I do think it’s important.”
Each character’s developed their own psychology. Alastair Cook’s was “treating every ball the same”, all 26,562 of them, but there’s also Anna Hemmings, a former six-time world champion kayaker, whose career focus has become the transferable benefits of high-performance sporting mentalities and methodologies to business.
“Sports psychology isn’t cut and dried,” Alistair says. “It can be fantastic or terrible, work for some and not others. I’m not saying it would never work for me because I don’t think I have that innate confidence Beefy has, but I’ve developed my own methods.”
The mind has to be focused to stay on top of the world. In Relentless, Alistair retells how a 21-year-old Ronnie O’Sullivan rattled in a 147 maximum break Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre in 5:20mins in 1997. The perfect frame of snooker. For Alistair read August 7, 2012, Hyde Park, London, and the almost perfect race. Where do you go from there?
“Ronnie’s moved the goal posts as different things have motivated him, and to an extent that’s happened to me. In triathlon, we’re reinventing ourselves every year. The body’s a bit different, we’re a year older, training with a different chassis, and working out how to maximise it. It’s a bit less volume now and I treat the intensity a
No silver bullet
Having completed the book, does he agree with Chris Froome’s coach, Tim Kerrison, that we are ‘nowhere near the limits of human capability’, and if so, where are the advances coming from? “It’s a bit of an ambiguous answer, but from a combination of doing the basics very well and using tech pragmatically. In lots of ways, sports science is still in its infancy, but it’s getting there, and the data allows people to understand where they’re at and where they need to be on a regular basis. The gains will come when it’s used appropriately by very clever people, along with athletes understanding ‘why’ they do their sport and keeping themselves on that level. Triathlon specifically is still a relatively young sport and with lots of room to improve.”
As for the ‘secrets’ promised in the title of the book, those searching for a silver bullet might have to keep looking. “I’ve always felt that the biggest secret in sport is that there is no secret. It’s ordinary people doing things consistently over a long period in a dedicated manner to produce extraordinary results. The number one question in triathlon is: How do I run faster? There isn’t really any shortcut. You’ve got to do quite a
lot of running over a long period.
“Consistency is key. That’s boring but people can take hope from it because, actually, if you do the things we all know already,
set goals, work hard, look after yourself, achievements are possible – and those I interviewed are all examples of it.”
Alistair Brownlee’s favourite motivational quotes
“You ride the torpedo to the end of the tube” – Ian Botham
“I’ve not got the foggiest what it means, but I like it,” Alistair says. Even Botham isn’t quite sure where it comes from, but the explanation appears to be along the lines of: make your choice and stick with it because having conviction in top-level sport is critical to performance.
“You need to make things really, really simple. Over 8,000m, it’s only two choices: if I continue, will I die or not?” – Kilian Jornet
The Catalan ultra-endurance athlete’s answer to decision-making is stripping away all emotion and rapidly processing any predicament to make it a straightforward, binary choice.
“If you’re walking out to an Olympic final and there’s seven other guys there – in your head you’ve got to be willing to knock them out” – Adam Peaty
The world’s greatest breaststroker describes both his mindset and demeanour as he walks on to the pool deck to face the world’s best at the biggest swimming meets.