“I still think the half-Ironman distance is my best distance,” he said.
Indeed, on the new course set in the Las Vegas area, Alexander won the 70.3 worlds for the second time in his career. A few weeks out from the Ironman World Championship, Alexander zapped his system with a long, high-altitude bike ride spiked with a race-pace tempo finish. Looking back, Alexander believes that the springtime illness that forced the unscheduled downtime may have helped set him up for the best championship season of his career.
“In 2010 I raced nine times,” he said. “This time around I had fresh legs.”
The fresh legs were a bonus to the central core of Alexander’s plan—to not allow a McCormack-led posse to drop him during the bike. While Alexander wouldn’t get the chance to test his reconstruction on the reigning champion, as McCormack was not racing (although he was on the island, ironically enough, autographing copies of his book, I’m Here to Win), he did silence the nonbelievers on race day.
With fresh legs, a 51-minute swim and relatively good conditions, Alexander took out whatever remaining frustration he may have harbored from getting worked during the 2010 Kona bike leg by unfurling a 4:24 split—faster than all but one other rider.
Out of T2, Alexander was in the realm of his greatest strength, the run, and he had three minutes on Raelert, his biggest rival.
But danger still loomed.
“I was getting splits. I was running 5:45 pace, but Andy was making up 10 seconds a mile on me. Andy was going for it. But I was all in,” Alexander said.
“There’s no guarantee in sport at all,” Raelert said, explaining why he went after Alexander hard so early. “You have to put your cards down on the table.”
“From mile 4 to 18 I was really uncomfortable,” Alexander said. “It can be like a game of chess.”
Although the wind conditions were favorable to fast racing, Alexander noticed that Belgian Marino Vanhoenacker’s black race suit was coated with salt, indicating that it was indeed as humid as it felt, and in an aid station mix-up he had missed out on some planned salt tablets. Still, he wasn’t keen on playing it safe.
“I wanted to race like I was an athlete who had won in Kona before,” he said.
With less than 3 miles to go, it appeared as if Alexander had the race won. Raelert had wilted in the humidity and was running near Australian Pete Jacobs, who didn’t appear to have enough real estate in front of him to catch Alexander. But then, suddenly, cramps cut into Alexander’s hamstrings and calf muscles. A historian of the sport, he recalled the images of previous Kona bonks. “If Paula Newby-Fraser can collapse on Ali’i Drive [in 1995], anyone can,” he said.
With a six-minute lead intact over Jacobs, Alexander took time to stop and stretch and down Powerbar Perform electrolyte drink at the aid stations—noticing, if not chuckling a bit, that the bottle’s packaging proclaimed the fluid to be “cramp crushing.”
On Ali’i Drive Alexander says he heard the voice of race announcer Mike Reilly say, “He’s going to do it!” and it was then he centered his remaining energy on breaking Luc Van Lierde’s record in Hawaii that had stood since 1996, 8:04:08.
“I went into a little sprint,” Alexander said.
It was a good thing he did: The new record is now 8:03:56.
At the post-race press conference, Alexander was thoughtful in talking about the nature of records on the Big Island course and said that all things considered, it’s hard to truly gauge how performances rank against each other over the years with the nature of the weather at play.
“Wind can change everything,” he said. “Every year is different. For me it’s about trying to win the race.”
Things happen for a reason, Alexander said. This is precisely what six-time Ironman world champion Dave Scott says when talking about the development of his coaching relationship with Chrissie Wellington. When Wellington moved on from her first coach, TeamTBB’s Brett Sutton, she initially announced she would be working with coach Cliff English, but then in the late part of 2008 she announced she’d be training underneath fellow Brit Simon Lessing. By August of 2009 the partnership disintegrated, and since then Wellington has not formally announced a new coach. But at the press conferences this year in Kona Wellington referred to Scott as her coach several times, confirming what had been observed in Boulder, Colo., where she lives, and was also highlighted in 2010, when Wellington explained that her decision to not race due to a viral infection was made after discussions with Scott.
“She has a confrontational personality and I have a confrontational personality,” Scott said, indicating just one of several comparisons an observer could make between the two legendary triathletes. “At times we definitely ended up kicking each other enough.”
Scott said the early collisions nearly put an end to their professional relationship but that they eventually helped them forge into a team.
“I think it happened the way it did for a reason,” he said.
The value of the bond was put to the test in the buildup to the 2011 Ironman World Championship, when Wellington, 12 days out from race day and 50 minutes into her last long bike ride, leaned into a corner with, unknowingly, a flat tire. The front wheel slid out and the crash resulted in severe road rash and contusions, eliciting a trip to the hospital. (You have to imagine Wellington’s trip to the X-ray room, thinking, “Not again.”) X-rays were negative, a relief, but the damage to her taper was done. Scott also said the physical pain of recovering was complicated by the psychological pain that Wellington faced because, before the crash, she was in the best shape of her career—a career that included three Ironman World Championships, a world record at the full distance, and an undefeated record at the iron distance.
The 2011 preparation had required Wellington to put full faith and trust in her new coach, and a key in this regard was exchanging an ultra-high training volume for more intensity and more recovery. Following Scott as a coach also meant adopting his long-held reverence for the power of nutrition. Hence this faith was seemingly inspired, in part, by the illness that forced her to withdraw in 2010.
“I was devastated to not start the race,” she said. “As an athlete it’s your responsibility to get on the start line healthy and fit and be ready to compete, and I wasn’t. I knew this year I had to be more diligent in my nutrition and to get more antioxidants to ward off sickness.” (Although she would later add, “No amount of nutrition is going to stop you from falling off your bike.”)
Wellington’s penchant for high volume is not a new concern. In an interview in the spring of 2008 with Brett Sutton, during a TeamTBB training camp in the Philippines, Sutton used Wellington as an example of why he believed he was incorrectly cast as a coach that drowned all of his triathletes with too much mileage, suggesting that an athlete as talented as Wellington is a “thoroughbred” and needs “just enough” volume to deliver a great performance. He added that Wellington’s overpowering work ethic could eventually be her undoing.