A trip across the pond reveals Britain’s greatest threat to triathlon.
This story was originally published in the May/June, 2011 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine. It has been edited for the web.
Alistair Brownlee, 23, gives new meaning to the phrase “I’d rather die than lose.”
The 2009 ITU short-course world champion raced so hard at the ITU World Championship Series event in London in 2010 that he drove himself unconscious. In fact, you could argue he nearly killed himself.
Nearing the final straightaway, he was in a familiar position: primed to outkick Spain’s Javier Gomez. But suddenly and unexplainably, he let up. His face drained of all color. He began wobbling.
“My last memory was being right behind Gomez with about 300 meters to go and [my brother] Jonny just coming past me, and at that point I thought if I just hold on to Gomez, I can outkick him the last 100 meters. I’ll win and be fine,” Brownlee said. “And then my memory goes blank, like literally blank.”
Unconscious for nearly 30 minutes, he says, with his temperature rising to about 109 degrees Fahrenheit, his next memory is waking up on a hospital bed, covered in ice and with wires coming out of his chest and drips in his arms.
“I just remember asking, ‘Where did I come? Where did I come?’” Brownlee said. “And someone was like, ‘I think you came in 10th. I’ll just check.’ I’m like, ‘How the hell did I come in 10th?’”
As far as anyone could tell—because no one really knows what went wrong—he hadn’t absorbed any food or water in the previous several hours, perhaps because he had some sort of stomach bug. So he had started the race already dehydrated and depleted of fuel.
That he was able to almost win that race on that summer day in London in 2010 is a frightening thought for all those who are looking for a weakness in Brownlee’s armor.
“He’s not afraid of blowing up, [of] making things happen,” said Joel Filliol, who worked with Brownlee while he was head coach of the British Triathlon Federation from 2009 until he resigned from the position in March of 2011. “He’s not afraid to do that, [which is] a fantastic way for spectators to watch, but equally it shows he’s just not afraid—that’s a real asset.”
And what is perhaps more frightening for the professional triathletes out there who are gunning for gold or a medal at the 2012 Olympics is that Alistair Brownlee’s brother Jonathan—the last person he remembers running past him in London—is primed and ready to join him among the ranks of the world’s best short-course racers.
For those who don’t follow the ITU, Alistair Brownlee burst onto the scene in 2009, when he won every race he entered in the ITU’s premier World Championship Series. What was so fascinating about Brownlee’s dominance was that he established it while racing against Spain’s Gomez, a man whose profile on the ITU’s website resembles binary code, given that there are so many “1”s in it. It was difficult to imagine that someone could so swiftly establish dominance over the “almighty dominant one.” And yet that was precisely what Brownlee accomplished.
In 2010, Brownlee faltered a bit, as it was a year marred by injury and illness. After winning the first World Championship Series race of his season, in Madrid, Brownlee placed 10th at the series’ race in London and 40th at the race in Kitzbühel, Austria. But he came back with a vengeance, outkicking Gomez for the win in the final stretch of the 2010 ITU World Championship Grand Final, in Budapest, Hungary.
“[After T2] Alistair started to run really, really fast. I just tried to keep up the whole time,” Gomez told an ITU reporter after the race. “I gave everything.”
This from the man who is known as the Michael Jordan of triathlon.
Alistair’s brother Jonathan, 21, also put his stamp on 2010, coming in second at the World Championship Series race in London, behind Gomez, by posting the second-fastest run split of the day (29:33). It was a podium spot at one of the most competitive races of the year.
Jonathan, who goes by Jonny, also became a double world champion in 2010 by winning the Under-23 world title in Budapest and the ITU Elite Sprint Triathlon World Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Jonny’s coaches were particularly happy with his Under-23 win, as he went into the race as the heavy favorite and came out on top.
“I was really pleased with how [Jonny] handled going into Budapest,” said Malcolm Brown, who works primarily as Alistair and Jonny’s running coach. “I think he won because he performed well. It wasn’t a fortuitous thing. He took it by the scruff of the neck and handled the pressure.”
Both Brownlees are consummate triathletes—they are top 10 swimmers, two of the best cyclists on the ITU circuit and among the handful of the fastest runners. (Alistair’s fastest run split yet is 28:43.)
“[Alistair’s] strongest point is that he doesn’t have weak points,” said Gomez, who is Alistair’s rival on the ITU circuit and teammate on the French Grand Prix circuit.
“He’s one of the best swimmers, a more than solid cyclist and, well, we all know how fast he can run. So if you want to beat him, you need to have the race of your life and run under 29:30, which is not easy. Jonny is kind of the same, but he is still very young. He has already shown a couple of really amazing performances, and I have no doubt that he is going to be at least as good as Alistair.”
Contrary to the reputation that ITU athletes have for dogging it on the bike, the Brownlees like to make each race a “full-on triathlon,” as they would tell you, and hammer the swim, bike and run.
For Alistair, his racing style is a personality thing—he thinks it gives him the best shot at winning.
“I think it’s quite risky, isn’t it?” Alistair said. “You know, if you take it on and really kill yourself on the bike, which you can do—Jonny did it this year, at the European champs in Athlone [Ireland]—you can then come 50th. Whereas if you don’t take it on, and sit in the pack, then you’re pretty much guaranteed a top 10/15 because you’re a good enough runner. That’s a bit safer, but then you’re never gonna win like that either.”
Alistair isn’t kidding. Many of his major victories have been off of breakaways on the bike, including his win at the 2010 Athlone ETU Triathlon European Championships, where he took off with Gomez, Jonny and two other athletes and essentially time-trialed it through brutally windy conditions.
“I ran about 40 minutes because the bike was the hardest bike I’ve ever done in my life,” Jonny said of the race.
Alistair ran 30:54, 36 seconds faster than Gomez.