Among age-group athletes, the Ironman is still the Holy Grail, but what is the real draw for a professional looking to make money in the sport? When one can win more money at an Olympic-distance race in Iowa than at the iconic Ironman World Championship, it’s no wonder we see some of our top talent stay in the short-course ranks. Sarah Haskins and Hunter Kemper are two American athletes who could definitely make a splash in Kona, but the incentive for them is just not there. Why dedicate a year to one race without dramatically more financial incentive when they can race shorter events nearly every weekend? Until the Ironman prize purse is significantly larger than any other race on the planet, we will continue to see many athletes pursue short-course careers.
The above factors are all out of our athletes’ control. There is not much the current U.S. athletes can do about the changes to the race, the prize purse, their athletic upbringing or the competition from other countries. They also cannot do much about the intangibles to be talked about later. However, there are some elements they can influence that could make a big difference in their ability to perform at a higher level. I’m not saying these changes will suddenly make our current pros into champions, but if there are things you can change that might make a difference, isn’t it worth the effort?
The biggest fault I see from our current crop of athletes is that they are stuck in their own little fishbowl here in America. None of our top athletes is racing the best athletes on their turf. If they asked me for advice, I’d recommend racing in Germany and Australia. All current and past champions were not afraid to take chances. I learned the most from my races overseas on the home turf of my biggest rivals, and that was how I gained the most confidence. Many of our top athletes have no idea how good they could really be. Mark put it well when he said, “Racing the best on their turf ups your game in an extremely competitive race situation out of the comfort zone of home.”
Another fault I see from most U.S. athletes is their choice in coaching. They put their careers and dreams in the hands of some coaches who do not have the experience in Ironman racing. Most coaches I know are textbook coaches. Ironman is not a textbook race. Crowie, Macca, Chrissie, Peter Reid, myself and probably several other champions I don’t know about all have one thing in common: We sought the advice of past champions or coaches with real-world experience on the Big Island. We were not afraid to ask for help from the people who had been there before. That was the best advice I ever received, and I took it to heart. It was invaluable to my success.
The last factor athletes can control is to start racing Kona earlier in their careers. I see many U.S. athletes waiting too long to throw their hats in the Ironman ring if that is their true goal. They build over many years from Olympic distance, to the half-iron distance and then finally to the full distance. Nothing beats experience in Kona; some of our top athletes have just started to race in Hawaii at the age of 32 or older. Since most endurance athletes start peaking just before 30 for men and a little later for women, this may be too late. There has been a rash of older champions lately, but historically, 30 years old is the sweet spot. Don’t think you’ll win it on your first attempt either. History shows that you probably need to pay your dues.
Now on to the “intangibles.” There is something about winning in Hawaii that cannot be easily articulated. Some of the greatest triathletes in the world have tried and failed in Kona—repeatedly. The “intangibles” are the factors completely out of the athletes’ control. The “luck of the draw, so to speak,” as Mark says.
Obviously, genetics play a big role in the ability to win an Ironman. Plain and simple, a huge engine is a requirement. You can tune an engine over years of work, but the big block has to be there from the beginning.
The three greatest female Ironman champions are perfect examples of being genetically predisposed for success in endurance sports. Paula Newby-Fraser, Natascha Badmann and Chrissie Wellington were essentially “off-the-couch” athletes. Going against the above notion that endurance training is vital from an early age, none of them had years of training under their belts when they embarked on their triathlon careers, yet all found success very rapidly.
To have made it to the professional level and placed in the top 10 in Hawaii, the current crop of U.S. athletes is obviously genetically gifted. What they do with this gift is what matters now.
I believe an athlete’s genetics is probably the second biggest factor to success in Hawaii. The most important ingredient is the mental edge that all great athletes possess. The drive. The heart. The anger. The hunger. The desire. The desperation. The ability to suffer. The absolute hatred of being second best. And the intense fear of failure. It’s what drives one athlete to go out and suffer in the cold rain and wind for five hours while another thinks a couple of hours on the indoor trainer will accomplish the same thing. Think of Peter Reid living in a shack in the mountains above Kona for three weeks of training with nothing but his thoughts. Think of Dave Scott on the desolate roads and winds outside Davis, Calif. Think of Chrissie Wellington battered, bruised, broken and still fighting to the point of collapse. These are the “intangibles” I am talking about.
Unfortunately, this is the factor I believe is missing in many of the Americans. There is a certain level of comfort that they seem accustomed to. Maybe they are happy with their current level of success, or maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. I do know that earning a living as a professional triathlete was secondary to my absolute need for victory in Kona. The need to win that race consumed me.
In 1999, even after winning my first Ironman race in New Zealand, I gave myself an ultimatum before the world championship. After toiling in the top 10 a couple of times, I knew it was time to either break through or find a new job. Being pack filler was not my goal. Third place gave me the confidence to continue. Several months after the race, an article very similar to this one was published. Ironically, just as in this feature, Dave Scott was asked about American chances in the coming years. I believe his quote was, “I just don’t think Tim is ready to win, yet.”
Of course, many will disagree with much I have to say here. It is only my opinion after all. However, I wonder if, like myself many years ago, an American triathlete will read this article and feel what I felt back then. Just maybe he or she will question things, or this article will light a spark and fuel one of those “intangibles” that is missing in his or her own quest for victory in the lava fields. In the end, you never know if you can win until you do.