by Chris McCormack
"Who's better?" and "What's possible?"
You don't “play” triathlon or endurance sports. You do them. They are tough and hard and there has to be a reason why you intend to suffer for a result. It is in you as part of your character and being. What separates the winners from the others is a matter of just how much. This does not need to be filtered or hidden.
There has to be a reason behind a professional athlete’s desire to pursue this sport at its highest level, giving up so much of their productive years to dedicate to an ambitious dream.
In Part 1, I wrote about the career necessity of winning, the internal desire to win, and the emotional pain of losing. In Part 2 I want to explore the desire to prove oneself against the best, and that urge to keep pushing the boundaries.
They Thrive on Competition
I know at the start of my career I’d said I want to win Kona titles like Mark Allen. It was a broad youthful statement that stayed with me my entire career. It was part of my dream since I watched triathlon as a boy, and my motivation was driven in those early years of trying to “Be like Mark” (to crib the “Be Like Mike” slogan used by Nike in the 80’s) because I thought he was the best and that was what you had to pursue if you wanted to be like him.
What I really wanted was to feel what it was like to win at the highest level. The biggest influence on my career was Sebastian Coe winning the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles in the 1500 meters (watch here). The world media had written Coe off and turned their back on him to embrace a new champion, Steve Cram. Then Coe crossed the line first, beating Cram. He showed a big “How do you like that” gesture, raising his two arms out parallel to the ground and pointing at the media. This gesture was rich with emotion and honesty and authenticity.
Coe won on the biggest stage in the world, and his emotion was so inspiring I had my father buy me running shoes so I could experience that same thing one day. These unfiltered displays of human emotion are so powerful, they changed the course of my life by me just seeing them on a TV screen.
When I won Kona again in 2010, it wasn’t about how many titles I won. I realised I was personally motivated not just by the competition and inspired by the champions who came before me, the standards they set, but more so by the honesty with myself of pursuing my own Sebastian Coe moments through preparation and belief, and the drive to push and achieve that, no matter what others think. It was my Sebastian Coe moment in so many ways.
I always saw it as a responsibility to at least pursue a better outcome to my career than the athletes before me had achieved. I wanted to race the best at every opportunity and sought that type of competition my entire career. Unlike many of my peers, I was not a single-continent racer who would set up a training base and race locally for a season. For me the sport was all year and on every continent. If there was an athlete star or a talent I heard about, I had to race them. I subconsciously treated every race I ever did with the same intensity I saw in Sebastian Coe when I was a child. I was driven to race, and I fed off that adrenaline.
During my Ironman racing days especially early on it was imperative for me to race the world’s best at every opportunity. The sport was then owned by the Germans, so despite residing in the USA, I was drawn to racing in Europe as this was where the talent was. I would go to Germany, Switzerland, or Belgium and race the world's best every year in their home country. I would try and beat them despite their home court advantage. I found strength in challenging them when the momentum was on their side. Being an underdog motivated me immensely, and I thrived on European racing for this reason. Titles were important, but to me head-to-head combat was the most honest answer to the question every athlete indirectly wants to answer: “Am I better than him/her?” I would seek answering that question all year. Titles were just a product of this.
Today this is not done as much. Many athletes are very selective with where and who they race in a season. The sheer volume of races available allows many people to shape a shadow career on the back of races that no one competes at. They have the number of branded titles in their racing resume, but because they don’t race the best and refine their craft enough, they stand no chance at world championship level.
At times it seems more important to accumulate a bunch of wins than to take on your peers every chance you get. But when you retire, you seriously don't look back at titles. You reflect on races -- those races that test you and are a showcase of character of your competitors and yourself. Most of these are not title races. Some of my toughest battles and most memorable wars had nothing but pride on the line. No world titles, no regional championships, no national title; just a pure racing battle against another competitor.
To give Jan Frodeno absolute kudos, he is one of the only athletes in the modern era that continues to choose races around competing with the best. Most of the events he selects are stacked. And I have to give it to him, Daniela Ryf and Alistair Brownlee. They race people; while they are accumulating titles, they do it on the biggest stages and not in a controlled environment. Roll out the “Next Big Star” and it won't be long before one of these athletes goes head-to-head with them.
The sterility of today's racing has robbed us of this in some way. In championships we do see some amazing racing, but the importance of strategy intertwines with competition and you often never see athletes pushing each other. The fact that we only get to see these head-to-head races nowadays at championship races is a tragedy for the fans and for these athletes who thrive on this type of motivation to push themselves and establish new limits.
They Continually Push the Limits
What if we could push the envelope by bringing the best together and have them race freely?
In other sports it is often outside of championship racing where we see the best competitions occur. It is when athletes take chances and go for it. What would happen then? What could happen when you get a mix of the best chasing a new impossible?
This happened in Roth in 1996, when Lothar Leder and the world's best came together and smashed the magical 8-hour mark in the ironman for the first time. Stoking a competitive environment, taking away the title chase, and just bringing an event with the world’s best throwing down without consequence would be amazing. Then this could set the tempo for the next generation to build upon.
This may be to some youngsters their Sebastian Coe moment: one of those races where both the time, the competition and the result all blend into the perfect race. Just what is the current crop of athletes capable of achieving if they just all threw down and let go?
At some point it’d be great, like in athletics, to see these guys go for an actual endurance mark that shows what is humanly possible. What could Jan Frodeno, at his peak, be able to achieve? How fast can he go? What if we pitted him against a youthful, dynamic, half-his-age athlete like 70.3 record holder Kristian Blummenfelt -- or an Olympic champion like Alistair Brownlee who has had Jan’s measure through all their ITU years, is a lot younger than him, and is now migrating to this long-course racing?
Let’s build a project where the world’s best go after it, and may the best individual win on that day. It doesn’t shape or influence who they are or take away their titles and what they’ve already accomplished. It is a raw head-to-head battle where we throw caution to the wind and we push barriers of what is and isn't possible.
How can we create a racing environment that creates a battle we all want to see? That’s why everyone watched that 2018 70.3 world championship race in South Africa. It was seven men off the front including Javier Gomez, Ben Kanute, Sam Appleton, Jan Frodeno and Alistair Brownlee -- all going for it. And that’s what made that race spectacular, especially when Jan, Ali, and Javi took off after the bike. They threw caution to the wind and ran a 67-minute half-marathon. We talk about those three dominating the race, but if you watch closely it was actually Ben and Sam who set up much of the pace from the onset. The three champions who took the podium benefited from the pacemaking of the others. The outcome of that race was next level.
They rewrote the books.
And now that most of these athletes have all started racing ironman, I’m intrigued to see just how fast someone could potentially race this distance using and controlling all the conditions. What is the limit if every other factor is perfect on one day? Just how fast can you go? What are you able to do? What can your human body produce?
Is taking more than half an hour off the current record and breaking 7 hours possible? Seven hours is almost mystical, requiring an athlete to swim at Olympic open water medalist pace, ride a bike with the fastest professional cyclists on the planet on their best ever day, and then drop a marathon quicker than any ever delivered in an Ironman. Can it be done?
Pacemakers in running have existed for years. It in no way eliminates the competition or the drama of a race. In fact it amplifies it. It removes to some degree the strategy and the race head, and gets us quickly down to the rawness of the emotion and physical capabilities of the athlete. There is simply nowhere to hide. So let's set the swim, bike, and run pace with pacemakers, and put the world's best athletes in an environment where they have to compete and hang on. It would sure make for some incredible viewing.
I’ve had conversations with Jan and Alistair on this exact thing. Interestingly, both had very different answers. One said it is not possible and the other says, it is not impossible. Both athletes agree that only the mind would be the limiter, and the pain and suffering of an attempt like this would be like nothing else ever done, almost barbaric in its rawness and severity.
Alistair is the greatest Olympic distance athlete of all time, and his arrival on the circuit reshaped the way athletes raced this distance. He is the greatest disrupter to ever race the sport and along with his brother is responsible for the way it is raced today: aggressive from the gun. The Brownlee brothers dropped this racing style and mindset on the sport and made the champions before them, even the current Olympic champion at the time, look obsolete and pedestrian very quickly.
The athletes that have come through in their mould almost singularly focus on perfection in each discipline. You will hear many triathletes say “triathlon is one sport,” but the new generation are world-class in each discipline of the sport. They benchmark their goals off the best in each discipline.
The outcome is what we now see with tremendous talent in short-distance racing at Super League Triathlon and ITU/Olympic level. It is absolutely remarkable that many of these athletes qualify for the Olympics in both triathlon and also the individual sports within it. This mindset is yet to truly migrate across to the long course ranks. It is coming with Jan Frodeno, but this next younger generation will hit long-course racing like a tidal wave.
As the reigning Olympic champion, Alistair believes he can break 7 hours for the ironman if the conditions were set perfectly and the same rules in cycling applied to the bike leg. A lot of people may say well, “that’s not triathlon” -- but it’s part of ITU triathlon, which is still triathlon. Ali is motivated by the X factor of trying to understand just what he is capable of doing. This is what makes him stand out in this sport. This is why when you ask him something like this he doesn't give you a quick, off-the-cuff response. You can see him truly ponder the question. It is like you can see him calculating what he thinks he is capable of doing against the current standard. You can see why he disrupted the sport the way he has and changed it forever. He is a champion with a “let’s do this” attitude.
I’ve spoken with Kristian Blummenfelt about it as well. Without hesitation he said he doesn’t see the current records as anywhere near human potential, and cheekily hinted that he was very eager to mix things up and establish faster times. His response was typical of the new wave of athletes' mindset: “I would really like to find out what that feels like.” You have to love the enthusiasm of the young guys.
Kristian came across to Ironman 70.3 racing and smashed the world record by two minutes. He came back a year later and did it again, setting a mark almost seven minutes quicker than anyone had done before him. He put that call out to the universe in the weeks before the race, and everyone laughed. The guy ran a 66-minute 21km run off a sub-1:58 bike split. In his own words he said he swam average and was disappointed he had to take up so much of the riding pace early. He thinks he can go “much faster.”
Of course what is typical to the status quo is that after he broke the record, his peers and others came out trying to justify why they haven't done it themselves or tear down why the record was established. It couldn't be that Kristian just raced like he always does and has now changed the way we race this distance. Admitting this would mean admitting that many of the athletes racing now may have a use-by date unless they step up their game. So it is much easier to say the course was short, or the conditions were perfect, or the Norwegians who were all over this race at the front worked together.
What Kristian delivered is next level, but more so it is his mental belief that the current established marks are there to be broken which is the point of discussion. It is the winner’s mindset we talk about: bring me your best, bring me your targets, and I will go after them. That attitude is authentic and inspiring. The average will find excuses and reasons, while the exceptional will continue to raise the bar.
When Lothar Leder became the first man to go under eight hours for the Ironman in 1996, that sub-8 became a mystical mark. Now we have the technology to measure and maximise exertion to go faster (power meters, aerodynamics, bikes, wheels, shoes) and the talent has stepped up to racing Ironman resulting in a bumper crop of sub-8 times in the past five years. It also wasn’t that long ago in 1956 when Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile was the mark of running prowess, but now even high school kids are doing it.
Back in 2009, which is not that long ago, the best marathon runners of the time said we would never see the breaking of the two-hour mark in this century. It happened less than 10 years later because one man opted to not believe what his competitors saw as the limits of human potential. I guess he was “ahead of the times.” Eliud Kipchoge’s Breaking 2 near-miss and his subsequent INEOS 1:59 success show that limits exist only in our minds, and the boundary of what is humanly possible continues to push outwards.
So, is 7 hours possible in an ironman? Many say no it isn’t, and “who cares?” Maybe that is so, but what is most interesting is that the younger generation think it is possible. I love the fact that they don't see the current standards as barriers, and I would sure love to witness an attempt at it.
When we view times or targets as limits, these become a wall to progress because they sneak into our psyche and subconsciously restrict us. It takes courage and often a laissez-faire, almost childish ignorance or inexperience to break from the mold and “chase the crazy.” These champion athletes have that, but is it that they are crazy, or is their view of what’s possible different from ours?
That is the attitude and the style of racing I love, and I just love that this type of racing attitude is shaping our sport’s future. That would be true endurance racing at its core, pushing the boundaries of what the human can endure. Bring it on guys. As a fan of sports, that is one race I would love to see.
Chris "Macca" McCormack is a four-time triathlon world champion with the biggest winning percentage in the history of the sport. He is a co-founder and partner in Super League Triathlon, CEO of the Bahrain Endurance 13 team, founder and executive director of MX Endurance, and CEO of MANA Sports & Entertainment Group.