He might have set a new Ironman World Championship course record, joined Peter Reid in the Ironman record books with his third win and won an historic world championship double (Vegas and Kona), but to do all that Craig Alexander had to take some major chances with his training and preparation this year. The results came, but not without some stress.
“What hurt about last year was that I had a good race and got smashed, basically – well beaten, anyway,” Alexander says. “I was never in the race after Hawi. If I wanted to come back to this race and be competitive, I had to make some changes. I didn’t want to waste my family’s time or everybody else’s time. That’s why it was a rewarding victory because you saw the fruits of 12 months of labor today. That’s not always the way it works.”
“I think coming into the race last year as the two-time defending champion, the boys had had enough of it. They put together the blueprint. I think Chris (McCormack), Marino (Vanhoenacker) and Andy (Andreas Raelert) raised the bar, and that was continued this year by what Andy and Marino did in Europe. I was serious about not coming back and wasting everyone’s time. That doesn’t mean I was going to win – you’re not always going to win – all you want to do is give the performance that you’re capable of and you’re proud of. I was certainly motivated by what happened last year.”
Alexander compared his analysis of last year’s race to a basketball or football game. If he’d had a bad race here in Kona and come fourth, he might not have realized that he needed to make changes in his training and preparation if he was going to get to the top of the podium again.
One of the key components to Alexander’s preparation in 2011 was a strength and conditioning program prepared by Dave Scott, the six-time Ironman world champion. Alexander also ramped up his cycling training, too, and even rode a new bike (he recently signed with Specialized) in Kona. The result saw Alexander, renowned as one of the sport’s best runners, win last Saturday’s race thanks to his cycling. His bike split was a 13-minute improvement on his previous best time and was enough to keep him in touch with even the fastest cyclists on Saturday. While he trailed Chris Lieto off the bike, he was amongst the second group off the bike and ahead of German star Raelert. After facing a huge deficit to his main rivals into T2 in 2010, suddenly Alexander was amongst the leaders in 2011.
Earlier this year, though, it didn’t look as though Alexander’s preparation was going well at all. Thanks to a virus that kept him out of Ironman Australia, Alexander managed to break a rib from coughing so much. He was forced to rest and validate his Kona slot at Ironman Coeur d’Alene, which he won, before ramping up his training for Kona.
Alexander also becomes the oldest man to win the Ironman World Championship – he’s at a stage in life that offers some additional challenges. He credits his wife, Neri, for providing the support that made his win all possible.
“As you get older there are things in life that are much more important than triathlon,” he says. “We lead a charmed life, but it’s not without it’s challenges. Neri is the one who deals with all of those. I’m just the dad and trainer … she organizes everything else. If she wasn’t prepared to do that, it doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen without my family and sponsors – I’m really happy for them today.”
“There was a lot of stress because you make changes that are risky and are different to what you’ve done in the past that have led to success,” he says. “It’s kind of a leap of faith, in a way. I had said I was going “all in” for Kona and Vegas and I exceeded my expectations. When it pays off it’s very satisfying.”
Like so many of his fellow Australian triathletes, Alexander is a keen historian of the sport and is humbled by his achievements this year.
“It’s exciting, to have my name in the record books, I’m not going to lie. To see Dave (Scott) and Mark (Allen) at the finish, that was a treat. I can’t believe I beat Luc’s record. I can’t believe I tied Pete’s record … his consistency was unbelievable.”
All of us who witnessed Alexander’s race at the Marine Corps Ironman World Championship 70.3 in Vegas last month were hardly surprised to see him win in Kona, nor to see him break a record that had stood since the mid-90s. None of that would have been possible, though, had he not been willing to take some chances and change his training.
“The athlete you become is dependent on the athletes that you race,” he says. “I thought I had the recipe last year – I had a second and two firsts here – but I wasn’t in the contest last year. The ball was in my court to make adjustments. That’s why this was so satisfying. It was a lot of work and it paid off.”
You can reach Kevin Mackinnon at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can hear Kevin’s post-race interview with Craig Alexander here.