Triathlon’s two Aussie Lukes—Ironman Port Macquarie and Ironman Mont Trembant champ Luke Bell and Ironman Cairns and GoPro Ironman World Championships runner-up Luke McKenzie—sit for breakfast in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Calif. for a Kona redux.
McKenzie: Obviously, it was mayhem in the swim. I didn’t feel the pace was on. We all came out pretty bunched. No one really wanted to push the swim, which has been different than in years past. So we all piled onto the Queen K pretty close. Andy Starykowicz really wanted to go for it early.
Bell: Yeah, halfway through the swim you look up, take a sight and it’s not often you see four guys spread across the front of the pack. Normally, you’ve got Andy (Potts) trying to limit his gap. The rest of us assumed Fettell would bust out a swim with people trying to go with him, but it just didn’t happen. It was a different day from the gun.
McKenzie: And on the bike, we never ever see a tailwind like we did. The whole way out ot Hawi, we were sitting on 50kph at some points. The pace was really high. I tried early to get to the front of the pack as early as I could, and Pete (Jacobs) seemed eager to lead at the front. He and Faris did a lot of work on the front. I was actually pretty happy to let them do what they were doing.
Bell: Do you reckon Pete’s efforts on the front made for his day? We know he rode well last year, but he’s not renowned as a super cyclist. I looked up and it was interesting; you’re at the World Championships against the best guys in the world, and to think you’re gonna ride away from them—when you’ve got to run the way he does—I was quite shocked to see him putting his nose out there so early.
McKenzie: I felt like I learned that exact lesson last year, trying to go too hard at that part where everyone’s still fresh after the swim. Obviously, you’re not going to break away from the best athletes in the world in the opening 50 kilometers. Everyone can ride well. I think Pete suffered a bit of his own poison, because he was really driving it on the front. Everyone else was dictating off his pace. Everyone knew Sebastian (Kienle) was gonna come. Andrew had already gone up the road. It was a matter of being smart and keeping your nose out of the wind at that point, and seeing if you could make that up-Hawi split that seems to happen.
Bell: Two miles before Hawi is where it happens. You, Sebi, Freddy and Starykowicz had already gone by then. We were coming back over the crest when the main chase group was coming in to Hawi. It was myself, Tim O’Donnell and Crowie. That elastic band was stretching, stretching… to 40-odd seconds, then to a minute. I knew where I was, but what was going through your head when you were going through that turn, saying “alright, this is it, we’ve got a break here.” Did you go full-gas, or did you say “I don’t want to go too early, should I wait until Kawaihae?”
McKenzie: I was really wanting to wait until Kawaihae. Going up Hawi we got that gap. Sebi was sorta egging me on, and I pulled a few turns on him going up Hawi. But my real concern was exactly what happened last year; Sebi’s really good at that high power, high-speed descending. I was trying to make sure I was on the front or dicatating. Last year I suffered really bad when I got to Spencer Hill and pinged off the back. I was trying to go with Sebi and Marino there then. This year, I think it was a matter of being careful and not blowing my legs up.
But when you see that opportunity with it strung out, your descending, while everyone’s still going up, I thought ‘let’s go for it.” Even at that stage, we didn’t think Starykowicz was going to stay away. We hadn’t eaten up a lot of time on him, but because Sebi’s such a good descender, we went from down two minutes to 45 seconds by the time we got back to the rollers. That whole time, we could see him a roller or two ahead all the way back to Spencer Hill. So when we got to Spencer Hill, I thought I’m gonna try to get across to him. I rode it at 350 watts for 3 minutes. It was big match to burn, but it ended up unhitching Sebi. But I give him a lot of Kudos, because he burned a lot of matches to ride up to a whole group going 50 kilometers per hour earlier in the morning! Everyone said I was the aggressor, but I don’t think it’s as impressive as what Sebi did, to ride 2:02 for the first 90 kilometers. Of course, he’s gonna get to that point an feel it. He road really, really well.
Bell: Yeah, you guys were out of sight, out of mind. Crowie, TO and myself were detached. Freddie, Tyler. Timo, guys you still worry about. We started the descent and Crowie said. “we’ll bring ‘em back slowly.” At that stage, I was nearly getting detached from them. Just keeping the pace. We could see the guys in the rollers ahead as well at 40 to 60 seconds as well, and as it got closer to Spencer, by this point TO . You talk about burning matches; we all laid it on the line saying we had to get back to that group. Just past Waikoloa it was just Crowie and myself getting onto the back of the group. But I was a bit deficient after chasing for about an hour; I hadn’t eaten or drunk much.
McKenzie: And that’s a pretty crucial part of the course.
Bell: I remember shoveling in calories as quickly as I could, but I spent all that time chasing, two miles later I got detached. I couldn’t maintain it, and dropped to 220, 230 watts. That’s as hard I could push. Five or ten minutes later I could see Crowie up the road getting detached. For the next 20 minutes, it was trying to get calories in, refocus and turn it from being disappointed to “Alright, it’s still a long way, you can salvage a top-10 or top-15.”
At that point, O’Donnell came by both of us. That just shows even-pacing works. Talking to him afterward, he said the best thing that happened was Crowie and I taking off. He went back to riding his wattage. He got off 40 second behind Freddie and Tyler—by riding a steady pace. He ran up into fifth. For us, it was get calories in and wait for the next big peloton by. It was mentally nice to come into T2; swim and bike are done, throw them out the back window and concentrate on having a good run.
McKenzie: When you get in that no-mans land in the race, I think it’s a blessing in disguise. The tendency of the groups wanting to attack each other, the power tends to fluxuate. You are either going harder or easier than you want. When you get detached, you have to stay mentally in the race. You’ve had races like Port Macquarie when you’re off the front alone dictating the pace all day—and it’s a lot easier
Bell: A LOT easier.
McKenzie: I caught up to Andrew and we swapped the lead several times. Then we got to the Airport and all of a sudden—I guess maybe he thought he could get the bike course record still—he started to push some big watts. I was seeing over 300 watts for well over a minute or two. I thought, “well, this is not my race plan.” It was 10k to go, what’s the worst that can happen—he’ll get a minute on me?” At the same time, you gotta make sure you’re going your own pace. I decided to drop back into my own zone and started to think about the run. Looking back at splits to Sebastian, I wasn’t going to lose much time to him at two to three minutes back, and Freddie at three or four minutes back.
Bell: At that point, who were you most worried about? Freddie or Sebi?
McKenzie: Both of them were in the back of my mind. I knew both were capable of that low 2:50 marathon. I knew I was capable of it as well, but it was whether they were playing it smarter on the bike. Because when you’re pulling away from a guy like Sebastian, you’re thinking “He’s a good cyclist. He’s the best cyclist in triathlon right now. So am I doing a smart thing?” I felt confident, training to my watts, and felt I could run well off it. So I had to give myself a chance. We ran behind Sebi at 70.3 Worlds—a lap down, mind you—but got a sense of what he’s capable of. I thought, if he’s three minutes behind, he’s going to be close all day—and he was. That was what I was thinking; I was glad to have that little buffer going onto the run.
Bell: Going onto the run, everyone has those races when it takes three miles and the legs come around. Sometimes you have fantastic legs right away. Getting off the bike and running out, once the adrenaline from the crowd settled down a bit, did your legs come around quick? Did you know you had good legs from the get-go, or wait for them to turn up?
McKenzie: They were good from the start. The other thing about leading the run, is you again, get to dictate the pace. So I was very cautious along that Alii Drive section. I didn’t want to run into that Marino problem of last year, hugging a Coke bottle at the Energy Lab. That was a blessing in disguise. When you come off with other guys, you’re racing, dicated by other guys’ paces. I ran my own pace, and honestly didn’t look at splits all of Alii Drive. I thought “even if Sebi’s made up a minute on me at this point, I’m running the pace that I know will get me the low 2:50 marathon.” So he’d either have gone out too hard, or go low sub-2:50. Which would be incredible.
Bell: You had to be tempted to look at your Garmin at some stage?
McKenzie: No, I was looking at my pace. I was just trying to not think about where they were. What about you? You came out with a bunch of guys. Did they all go busting out of transition?
Bell: The run was relatively controlled. Rana was with us, and he had a blinder of a race. There’s one every year, I guess. We know his credentials. But his first mile, I thought he was back in an ITU race! That first couple miles, once past Lava Java, we spaced out. A few of us hooked up together. Initially it was Jordan, Crowie, Pete, Ben Hoffman and Ben Jammaer. Ben and Jordan, the nice thing about running with them is they’ve got a race plan, they’ve got their pacing.
McKenzie: You know what to expect, whereas with Pete, you don’t know what you’re gonna get.
Bell: We settled in on Jordan for the first eight miles. Everytime I found myself nudging ahead I thought “hold on, is this a wise move?” The Alii Drive section, obviously Crowie was having a bit of an off day, as was Pete. I could hear them breathing quite heavily. I figured I’m in better shape, I felt good coming back through town and up Palani.
But then, I guess an accumulation of whatever it was, but at mile 15 I went from feeling great to all of a sudden the hip flexors went, the knee ached. It wasn’t energy, it was just a couple things. It went from being in the race to “well, we’re in Hawaii, could be a hell of a lot worse.” This past year I changed things around and thought it’s a process. When things go wrong, you get angry—and that’s human nature. Once you let that happen, I allow myself a K or two to be cranky, then I turn around and start solving the problem. A DNF is never a good thing. You ultimately go home angry and go into the next race wondering. Out there, I ended up with Pete, we had a lovely walk talking about daisies and the love in the world. (laughs) Everyone appreciates the love in Pete. Seriously, it was good to have someone else there, a credible athlete, and see they have off days as well. It was like a train; we tried to pick up Dirk Bockel but he never made it out of the Energy Lab. We were about to pick up Docherty and same for him. But we were like we were 10k from the finish, we’d come this far, may as well get the medal.
McKenzie: And often you owe it to your family, friends and supporters. They know it’s tough and you didn’t have the day you wanted. I’ve got a lot of admiration for the guys who get it done when it’s going tough. A guy like Crowie, going out on top was his ideal scenario but it didn’t go that way. Crowie, yourself, Pete, that get it done on those days… my hats off. I mean, it in no way reflects on the amazing season you’ve had. You won one of the biggest races outside Hawaii at Ironman Mont Tremblant. There’s no doubt you have the ability, but on the tougher days, I have as much respect for that as the days you’ve won.
Bell: It is nice. You have messages from people on Twitter and Facebook, people you don’t even know, and it’s a good reminder why you do this sport. We all do it because we love the sport. We’re never gonna retire off it, but we love the sport, the passion, the people in it.
McKenzie: That’s just it. When you’re racing at the top level, you’re on the rivet. If it doesn’t all click, this is what ends up happening to us. It’s something we need to expect more of.
Bell: This is 100 percent respect to Crowie, but folks say he had a bad day. But he still finished 22nd or 23rd in the world. Mention that to anyone if they’d take that and they’d say yes. It was the same last year. The guy finished 12th, the first bad race I’d seen ever, and we sit here and call it a bad race because we expect to see him at the top of the podium every time.
I think he copped a bad rap at the beginning of the year when he finished third at Ironman Melbourne. People quickly forget that a few days before he was welcoming a baby girl into the world. He hadn’t the ideal prep. When everyone expects him to win, anything less is a failure. These are the pressures in a very competitive pro field. We gotta step back and realize that folks aren’t going to have that consistent win all the time.
Bell: Welcome to that pressure! (laughs) You’ve nearly achieved that lifelong dream in Kona; one step from it. You’d probably be still tingling, and I imagine that’ll run another month or so. You always knew the ability was there, but we all talk about the mental. There’s 20 guys on the start line that can win it. Mentally, you know only a handful, maybe eight guy, that can really control winning it. Last year with Pete, we knew Pete believed he could win.
Now you’ve got that belief. You’ve mixed with the guys, spat a lot of guys out the back. The most interesting thing is the carnage that you, Sebi and Starykowicz created, was amazing. Where to from here? Where does the confidence take you for next year?
McKenzie: It’s been a matter of building that confidence, to have the race. Ironman Cairns was a stepping stone; I feel I had a similar race there where I rode to my potential.
Bell: Yeah, I had a few tell me that one, it was a phenomenal performance and two, that course record will never be broken for decades!
McKenzie: Haha… well, we were blessed with good conditions. I had Macca come to me at the finish line in Cairns and he said “mate, if you race like that in Hawaii, you will win.” And I thought “y’know what, that’s right!” I feel like I had one of those days on the bike, and if I prepared myself I could have a good crack. Now, I didn’t expect to be able to detach Sebi or ride up to Andrew. That all just came through the day. But that’s how I wanted the race to pan out of I was going to win. I got myself to that position.
But really, I was able to keep my head. I’d been at the front of the Hawaii Ironman the last few wears at various stages, but I went through the . I went through the lab. Seeing Crowie physically stopping and yelling at me “mate, you can do this!”
Freddie had passed me and the whole way back, I was thinking, “that’s the winner of the Hawaii Ironman right there—if I don’t do anything about it. I was focused; don’t give up. If I get to two or three aid stations and he’s walking, I can make that gap up. I just kept pushing all the way. Obviously I didn’t get there, but I took a lot of confidence from it. If I hadn’t had a little low point, I can see how I could have won. Now I can look into what happened to me nutritionally to give me that dip that cost me the race.
Bell: It was amazing to think you kept your head and kept fighting for the win. Most would have looked around, seen a big gap on third place with six miles to go, it would have been easy to say “I’m happy with second and control it in.”
McKenzie: I thought, “if this is your one and only ever shot at winning the Hawaii Ironman, if this is your shot, well, then you’ve gotta take it right now. I couldn’t get back to him, I was doing everything I could.
Bell: You risked yourself blowing up in that last 10k
McKenzie: Exactly. But I thought I was in that zone where I could get into too much trouble if I kept eating and drinking. But if this was the one and only day to try, you gotta go. I’m still gonna take second obviously. It’s still a dream come true to make the podium!
Bell: A lot of guys go there and if they make top 10, it’s a very successful day. Now you’ve got one in the top 10 and one at the pointy end of the top 10.
McKenzie: Well, I had to try to keep up with you, mate!
Bell: How was it afterward? You talked to Freddie, and one of the guys we expected to be up there like Andreas?
McKenzie: I actually shared a plane back to San Diego with Michael and Andreas Raelert. It was humbling to have those guys, two-time 70.3 World Champion, and Andy, everything he’s done, consistently on the podium, they were congratulating me. And I was very taken aback by that. It’s hard to even picture being put up with those guys now.
Bell: Looking at the footage, Mark Allen was one of the first guys to congratulate you.
McKenzie: This is the guy I grew up watching and idolizing, and I had goosebumps ;all of a sudden he was congratulating me on a great day. I was like, “is this happening?” We’re all on this journey to try to win this. If this is the closest I get, I can’t be content with it, but I gotta say I had a very great experience.
Bell: As one of the athletes who saw how you raced the race is that the accolades are deserved. We always talk about Hawaii as the ultimate; the best swimmer, cyclist and runner comes across first. In the last few years we’ve had some big groups, but you’re one of the first out of the water, you took the race on. You didn’t hang back. It was a true triathlon race, equal in all disciplines.
McKenzie: I think you’re gonna see that more in the future in Hawaii. With Seastian and Andrew, these are the guys with the tools that can destroy the field like that. They’ll turn up and everyone’s going to have to be on their game to be in the race. We all take that away this year.
So where to from here for you? Back home to Australia?
Bell: Back home. It’s been six months hanging out in sunny San Diego, California. I’m handing the keys to town over to you for the winter. With the points system. I said I’d do Busso and Western Oz. The guys who do
Looking back at this year, I put all my eggs in the Melbourne basket to get points. I strained my back, and that canned that.
McKenzie: Isn’t it interesting how your year can turn focus. Ultimately you won Port Macquarie, and that was a stepping stone to win the other biggest race of the year, Mont Tremblant.
Bell: It’s been interesting, and a year I wouldn’t change. I got two Ironman wins, I’ve loved the racing, I’ve loved traveling around. The only glitch was Kona, but hey, I was in Kona for two weeks, and I had just one day that was slightly off! I look forward to next year. With those wins, whether that’s a monkey off the back or not, I always felt I raced to my potential. It’s nice to tick that box.
Next year will be Melbourne. I can step out the door onto the course. Big points. But the early part of the season I won’t stack with races as much. This year, I started in January with Auckland 70.3. It’s been a long year. By the time Busselton rolls around, that’s 12 months of thinking about racing. Not racing continuosly, but mentally, that’s the draining part. It’ll be nice to have December off to re-focus. Once Busselton’s done, the main race will be Melbourne then a couple short races and reassess where the points lie, to see if I need to do another Ironman or just do some 70.3 to get enough points.
McKenzie: I think with the two Ironman wins this year, it’s opened a good can of worms for you, to keep going from strength to strength. You’d be a very red hot crack to win Busso, and that’ll put you straight back into the drivers seat for next year. I think we’ll be seeing you on the podium a lot more.
Bell: You talk about the mental confidence; it’s a new energy. I knew I had the tools to win a race, but it’s getting into that situation, truly believing in it and and going for it. It’s the two percent you’re looking for. It takes a lot of stress and pressure off. It’s just laying it on the line and giving it your best shot, and stack up for next year. I guess for you it’s going to be a new experience not having to stress about collecting a lot of Kona points?
McKenzie: Yeah, it’s gonna be new that way. I’ve always fought for my points for Kona. Now, this allows me to pick a race next year, try to do well and focus on Hawaii. I’m really looking forward to a different approach to Hawaii next year, maybe more along the lines of how Freddie approached it this year. I reckon I’ll have a bit more sponsorship commitments like Pete seemed to have this year. I’ll be sure I have a look at the way I approach it all as well, being sure I’m getting everything done and not getting too overwhelmed with it.
Bell: It’s gotta be good. After Mont Tremblant, that was something I looked at. Realistically going into Kona, I was looking at getting somewhere between eighth and 12th or 13th. A six-week block after Mont Tremblant, to think I was gonna be challenging at the pointy end of the race was unrealistic, and in a way, you have to take into account athletes have done a 12 or 15-week blocks. Freddie, Andreas, Crowie, all these guys that have gone well in Kona all these years race a bit less. I was realistic with my goals. For you, it has to be nice knowing you don’t have to wear your body out over the year. Even the old-school guys from a decade ago they still argue you can still have one truly good Ironman each year. The confidence that must give you to know you can save your body and energy for later in the year, allows you to be more specific with your training.
McKenzie: I enjoy doing a lot of short-course racing, and I’ll probably still do a fair bit of that. They’re easier to recover from. I’ll be able to plan my year around events like that, which is exciting.
Bell: I’m off home to Oz, so I’ll let you hold down the fort.
McKenzie: Hopefully San Diego stays our secret!
Bell: It’s funny; we’re sitting here at Pipes. Boulder’s the new Mecca and this was the old Mecca in years past. I struggled with altitude a bit, and my wife Lucy loves the ocean, so I know I can get in good training here and she can go surf and hang out. It’s about life balance. No point in getting too strung up on anything. The training around here has been magic. We’re sitting here 10 years down the track. Me, Crowie, Kahlefeldt was here, Clarke, we were all here 10 years ago, living in the club at Del Mar Heights. Welchy, Brad Beven all lived there. There’s a bit more traffic here, but the training is still amazing. If you know where to go, you can find 5,000 feet of climbing up Mt. Palomar. We’ve got rolling terrain, we’ve got chip path horse trails that keep you off the pounding roads. It’s an amazing place to train. Hopefully it all remains quiet. (laughs)
McKenzie: For me, it’s the most similar lifestyle you can get to my home in Noosa. It helps with the homestickness. If I can replicate that in the States, this is the exact area, right here in Cardiff. I know a lot of people love Boulder but it’s not for everyone. You do have to enjoy where you live and have that life balance. For me, I love to go surfing after a training day to have that mental release. To walk here, grab a coffee and get away from the triathlon scene.