In the aftermath of this year’s Hawaii Ironman, Craig Alexander announced his retirement from Kona. It wasn’t much of a stunner. At the pre-race press conference, the 40-year-old, course record-holding three-time world champion said as much:
“I’ll be racing triathlons next year, but I’m pretty sure this is my last time racing here. I love the race but you have your run and I’ve got a young family and I just can’t keep coming back forever; it impacts on them. Physically, I’m the same athlete I’ve been for two or three years but other things in life take over.”
Alexander finished 23rd in Kona, on the heels of his 20th-place finish at Ironman 70.3 Worlds, results that were in stark contrast to most of the racing he’s done throughout his long, heavily-accomplished career. I think back over the last decade and I can’t recall a time when Alexander wasn’t ringing up all sorts of podium finishes at major events all around the world.
It was over the course of the last decade that Alexander migrated from a focus on the Olympic-distance to the half-Ironman and ultimately to the Ironman distance. Part of the move was economic: Despite racing often and placing well (usually more than 10 races per year), Alexander had said he was barely breaking even financially when it came to the cost of sustaining his professional career. As a long-distance-focused triathlete, Alexander’s exceptional combination of talent, hard work and professionalism earned the kind of sponsorship income he deserved.
But Alexander’s triathlon career reaches back considerably further than the CraigAlexander.net results archive would suggest (the archive begins with a listing of his four wins in 2003). For example, Alexander cracked the top 10 in the 1995 Sydney ITU World Cup, finishing 8th, initiating his early profile as a short-distance speedster.
Another interesting note about the race results archived on Alexander’s site: Perhaps edited down for space considerations, it only lists his first-place finishes. In 2007, for example, the archive lists six races. These were his victories. The list would probably double if you listed his second and third-place finishes.
One more detail about Alexander and then I’ll get to my point. In the past he has said that a key realization for him—one that lead to his onslaught of consistent performance—was that he had a penchant for overtraining. He had been so determined to break through to the very top in Olympic-distance racing that he kept jamming the gas pedal when it came to his training, leaving his best performances to the training logbook. He figured out the tapering process and set loose the Crowie the triathlon world knows to this day. That said, it wasn’t like Alexander really took it that easy. Although he was a master of a poker-faced racing style—watching him compete it is nearly impossible to determine from his facial expression whether he is struggling or on cruise control—one could rest assured that when Alexander crossed a finish line, he had spent some time on the red line of exertion. His strength was his running, so imagine how many times Alexander dipped into the well to chase down the likes of a Chris Lieto or Torbjorn Sindballe.
To the point: As a fan of Craig Alexander, I’m glad he’s calling it a day on the Ironman. What I’d really like to see him do is retire from professional competition completely and continue being the spokesman for the sport that he is. If he wants to jump in a tri, enjoy the day and race as an age-grouper, great. But as far as pushing his physical limits against the world’s best, I think there’s a significant risk involved.
As mentioned earlier, Alexander said at the pre-race press conference:
“Physically, I’m the same athlete I’ve been for two or three years but other things in life take over.”
I hope that’s exactly the case. The truth is, we don’t know that much in terms of the relationships between genetics, nutrition, recovery practices and years of elite-level triathlon racing. It may be that someone as disciplined as Alexander in terms of going to the gym, recovering from races, and giving a total, full-spectrum level of exercise science to his job of racing and winning triathlons, will have spared himself some of the toll that surely is evolved. As two-time world Ironman champ (2000 and 2001) Tim DeBoom was reminded of after his 4th-place finish after returning to Kona in 2007. While he acknowledged that the lifestyle of being a triathlete is healthy, DeBoom, shaking his head at the amount of physical distress he had just suffered through, said at the post-race press conference in 2007 that he had been reminded how racing an Ironman at world-class speed “is not healthy.”
And there have definitely been cases where health was sacrificed. Consider the fates of some great names in the sport: Greg Welch, Ironman world champion and ITU world champion in his day, forced to retire due to ventricular tachycardia (or V-tach). V-tach hit Welch during the swim of the 1999 Ironman, catapulting his heartrate sky-high. At the time, he thought it was an asthma attack (despite several attacks, Welch finished the race). The 1994 Ironman world champion ultimately needed countless operations, including the installation of a pace-maker. Emma Carney, another Australian ITU world champ. Frustrated with her racing results at the turn of the century, racing all over the globe in that never-ending pursuit to win World Cup points, Carney started training even harder. In 2004, she suffered a heart attack at the age of 33 and was diagnosed with V-tach. A defibrillator would be planted in the right ventricle of her heart. Maddy Tormoen, an elite duathlete and marathoner, suffered a racing heart beat after a 10-mile running race in 2001 and also had to have a defibrillator placed in her heart. Erik Seedhouse, one of the greatest ultra-triathlon racers in the sport, with victories at races like the Ultraman and the Deca Ironman, was diagnosed with V-tach after he was carted off from the Ironman 70.3 world championship in 2009. He had blacked out during the bike ride and crashed, breaking four ribs and fracturing his pelvis in two places.
Seedhouse, a true NASA-level rocket scientist and exercise physiologist, was later able to comment on the condition that struck him:
“It makes sense that prolonged endurance exercise could produce a degree of cardiac stress or damage, causing deleterious consequences for cardiac health, either in the short or long term. Unfortunately, the significance of chronic exposure to ultra-endurance exercise is unknown, but it has been suggested that the development of myocardial fibrosis might be an outcome of chronic exposure to repetitive bouts of endurance exercise. It is a hypothesis supported by a limited number of studies reporting postmortem studies in athletes and an increased prevalence of complex arrhythmia in veteran athletes.”
One such study that Seedhouse was clearly referring to was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2007. Researchers compared levels of left ventricular hypertrophy in 45 elite veteran athletes against the same in 45 sedentary subjects. Results indicated elevated levels of fibrosis in the athlete, indicating that it was possible “fibrosis occurs as part of the hypertrophic process in veteran athletes.”
Whatever exactly is going on, it seems reasonable to figure that elite endurance athletes who push themselves to extremes both in their training and in their racing—an absolute must considering the depth and hunger of the competition—are at a higher risk for wearing down internal organs. The 1972 Olympic marathon gold medalist, Frank Shorter, long ago stated his belief that an elite runner has a finite number of world-class performances in which to tap into.
Pushing the heart to extreme levels is just one dimension of the damage that can be incurred from a long career at the top. One of triathlon’s iconic pioneers, Scott Tinley, raced incessantly throughout his career. I recall one of his visits to the Wildflower Triathlons Festival in 1998. In the years prior, he had been fighting against the grain of depression and adrenal fatigue that had surfaced as his race performances began to decline. Tinley was scheduled to race in the Sunday Olympic-distance event at Wildflower. His challenge was not the race; it was the challenge of talking himself out of a double by jumping into the long-course event on the day before.
In a 2012 story for Sports Illustrated, “Why Did Junior Seau Kill Himself? Exploring Athletes and Depression,” Tinley wrote the following:
“Navigating in the rear view mirror, I now realize that I retired too late, too tired. And while I left professional sports in 1999 at 42 years old with nearly 100 career victories, two World Ironman Championships and enough money to last two years, I still had no idea how hard it would be to become a regular guy.”
I am a believer that those who have the talent, commitment and dedication to spent time at the top level of triathlon are indispensable. I agree with coach Brett Sutton when I think more should be done to enable the careers of young, talented pros, and that organizations like the ITU and the WTC should roll out the red carpet for the stars of the sport. I also believe the global population of triathletes wouldn’t have a sport to enjoy if athletes like Scott Tinley, Dave Scott, Mark Allen, Scott Molina, Paula Newby-Fraser and Greg Welch hadn’t been such tremendous athletes with compelling stories, pushing themselves into realms we didn’t imagine existed.
Craig Alexander is a more recent member of this super-elite class. Same goes with two other greats who have recently retired, Chrissie Wellington and Simon Whitfield. Triathlon is still a young sport, and their contribution toward growing the sport and striking an inspiring image of health and fitness remains invaluable.
But there can be a cost when an athlete of Craig Alexander’s caliber and drive goes at it for too long. What do I hope to see in 2014? It’s the night before some big triathlon and Craig Alexander can be found hanging out at a pre-race party, signing some autographs and enjoying a well-deserved beer.