Coming off more than a year of training specifically for draft-legal Olympic-distance racing, Chris McCormack headed into Sunday’s ITU Long Course World Championship intending to test his bike fitness at a longer distance. After not making Australia’s Olympic team for London he decided to go back to long course and return to the Ironman World Championship in October, where he is a two-time champion.
“The bike is definitely not where I thought it would be, but I came at this a lot later than I thought I would—I thought I would have an extra two months,” McCormack said before Sunday’s race in Vitoria, Spain. “I saw Dirk [Bockel] and Eneko [Llanos] were going to race, and they’re the strong bikers, so it’s a good test. It’s one thing to hit your numbers in training but there’s nothing better than seeing how the guys are really moving.”
Despite questioning his current bike fitness, McCormack felt good about his run speed after spending time on the ITU circuit. “I’ve always said when I went to do ITU I just couldn’t keep up,” he says. “They were just flat-out too fast. With this long course stuff, it’s whoever slows down last wins. You can always do the pace—just don’t slow down doing it.” McCormack says at his age (nearing 40) he feels more comfortable at the longer distances, but even surprised himself with some of the numbers he could hit during short-course training. For instance, he was doing 8x1K repeats comfortably under 2:45 at training camp. “I was like, wow! But that doesn’t cut it anymore! I ran 31:02 off the bike at a world cup and was 1:20 behind—I used to win with that. But that’s the evolution of the sport. Even though I wasn’t as fast as the Brownlees, I still got faster than I thought I could get. I’m hoping that speed will help come back to Ironman.”
Sunday’s ITU Long Course World Championship, which featured a 4K swim, 120K bike and 30K run, was McCormack’s first real test at the longer distances in nearly two years, and it went well. He beat out several top athletes to take his first ITU Long Course World Championship.
If his 30K/18.6-mile run off the bike in Vitoria is any indication, his speed will make him as much of a contender in Kona as he ever was. He started with what he says was a “terrible, terrible swim,” exiting the water around three minutes down from the leaders feeling a bit discouraged heading out on the bike. “It’s so different coming from world cup racing where you just go go go go go,” he says. “I just kept saying to myself, ‘Be patient. They’ll come back. They’ll come back. Just ride your race.’ I held the distance on the bike and then in the headwinds I was very strong.” He spent the last month training in the Alps in Switzerland, which seemed to play in his favor. He stuck right with power-house cyclists Bockel and Llanos, coming into T2 in sixth, not far behind. “I got off the bike and just thought, ’I’m going to let it all go and let’s just post the fastest time I can on this course.’”
He caught Llanos at the start of the third lap of four and stuck with him for a while before he decided to surge ahead. He admits he apologized to the local favorite when passing, understanding the pressure of winning on home turf. Every time Llanos ran through a crowd, they went ballistic—his face is plastered on ITU posters all over the city and his celebrity creates quite a scene. After Macca passed him, Llanos stuck 10-15 seconds behind at first, but the gap continued to open. (Macca even sat out for a 15-second penalty during the third lap, apparently from not putting his wetsuit properly back in the box in T1.)
Drawing upon his world cup experience, Macca changed paces frequently, surging then settling then surging, describing his run as feeling “amazing,” “incredible” and “fluid.” He ran away from Llanos and won by over a minute in 5:29:47, instilling plenty of confidence going into Kona. “I’m sure a lot of guys sat at home—they say they won’t—but they watched this race and that’s a real statement,” Macca says of his latest world champion title.
After a holiday in Paris with his wife, Macca goes to Kona for training camp to prepare. He admits that his initial reason for coming back to Ironman may have stemmed from a certain Tour de France champion’s return to the sport. “I definitely want to win Kona,” he says. “But the whole Lance thing was just so motivating. I was alive again; it was like the Olympics for me! I was going to wind tunnels, I was speaking to Fabian Cancellara [and other pro cyclists] about what I need to do with this guy. All of them said, ‘This guy’s a freak.’ Every single one of them. ‘This guy is remarkable.’ Sometimes you need that motivation.”
As far as his other competition at this year’s race in Hawaii, he lists off the usual suspects—Raelert, Crowie, etc. “It’s not that Crowie doesn’t excite me, they’re just different beasts,” Macca says. “For me, I often need to get motivated by something. Kona is a special race and I also took a lot of solace racing back in the ITU realizing I can’t keep up anymore. They’ll come a time in Ironman where that’s the case and maybe I should embrace it, that should be my motivation. To take it while I can.”