by T.J. Murphy
Olympic gold medalist Alistair Brownlee will bring his comprehensive triathlon speed and signature tolerance for pain to the world of Ironman. Now 28, Britain’s Brownlee—winner of Olympic gold in both London and Rio—told the BBC in December that his future energies are being directed toward the Hawaii Ironman.
“All triathletes have the ambition to do the almost mystical Ironman World Championships in Hawaii,” Brownlee told the BBC.
Brownlee had previously suggested he was leaning this way, but the BBC report immediately heated up interest and expectations in the draft-illegal tri world. How will the re-targeting unfold for Brownlee? In a blaze of glory? Or some sort of slow-mo, spectacular meltdown on Ali’i drive?
The immediate thought is that he could be a record-breaking force at the Ironman distance. This is applying the long-supported logic from the track and field universe: That speed is the ultimate currency of athletics. Given the right training, the world’s best miler is the greatest threat to breaking a marathon record. In other words, Brownlee’s universal speed is the foundation for dominance in Kona. Not unlike it’s been for the transition of 2008 Olympic gold medalist Jan Frodeno.
That said, changing emphasis from Olympic distance racing to Ironman has shown mixed and sometimes explosive results over the years. Great Britain’s Simon Lessing—a five-time ITU World Champion (in the years before triathlon made the Olympic slate)— performed consistently well at the 70.3/Half-Ironman distance, but at the Ironman World Champs in 2004, after qualifying at Ironman Lake Placid with an 8:23, Lessing dropped out during the bike leg. In an interview afterward near the med tent, Lessing told me he wasn’t interested in risking physical injury in Kona by pushing on to finish during a bad day. “I want to be able to play with my kids,” he said with a smile.
In one of the most dramatic storylines in triathlon history, Australian Chris McCormack—also an ITU World Champion blessed with fierce running speed— famously struggled to deliver on pre-race promises steeped in confidence (if not sheer arrogance). After winning Ironman Australia in 2002 (his debut), he dropped out in Kona that year. In 2003, he finished 59th. 2004, he dropped out, and in 2005 (talk about hanging in there) he finished 6th. In 2006, he captured second place behind a chief rival of the time, German Normann Stadler.
In 2007, he laid down a 2:42 marathon for his first Ironman World Championship. That had to be a pretty sweet feeling. McCormack earned a second crown in 2010.
But then of course Brownlee has his country-woman, Chrissie Wellington, to consider. Wellington got into triathlon after she noticed no one could keep up with her on high-altitude mountain bike rides in Nepal. Curious, she decided to try triathlon. She was good enough to start thinking about the Olympics. Discovered by Brett Sutton, who saw that she had a thoroughbred engine, her talents were simultaneously refined in training under a veil of near secrecy. In 2007, Wellington happily bounded through her first Hawaii Ironman victory at her first try. She would win again in 2008, 2009 and 2011.
As mentioned, Brownlee also has the model of Germany’s Jan Frodeno to follow. Frodeno flawlessly shifted gears from earning Beijing Olympic gold eight years ago to collecting his second Hawaii Ironman in 2016.
Is Brownlee willing to push beyond the boundaries that racing for eight hours requires? Little doubt on that one. As Simon Whitfield— another Olympic gold-medal-winning triathlete—put it, “Alistair is the mentally toughest athlete I know of.”
Think back to 2010. Brownlee was 22, on a winning streak and sharing the lead in an Olympic test event in Hyde Park, when something gave. He fell off the pace like a bird hit by buckshot. He staggered and weaved to the finish line, finishing 10th. “Exhaustion” was the official diagnosis. That experience had little sway on his racing style. In Rio, he raced from the gun as if he’d just stolen a car.
Watching Brownlee compete with such pure and fearless abandon, as he did in Rio, is interesting to consider. Will he just beat the living tar out of himself in training and racing? Or will he follow the super-pragmatic strategy and game plan of the thoughtful, well-coached Frodeno. It’s going to be a fun 2017 watching it unfold.