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, Brownlee—winner of Olympic gold in both London and Rio—told the BBC yesterday that his short-term plans 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 suggested that he was leaning this way, but the BBC report immediately heats up interest and expectations in the long-distance tri world. How will the re-targeting unfold for Brownlee?
The transition from specializing in 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—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 said that 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.
Obviously, Brownlee also has the model of Germany’s Jan Frodeno to follow. Frodeno flawlessly shifted gears from being able to win an Olympic gold medal 2008 to winning his second Hawaii Ironman this year.
Watching Brownlee race with such pure and fearless abandon, as he did in Rio, is interesting to consider. Will be 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.