The 32-year-old Aussie from Taree (about 200 miles north of Sydney) recently racked up his sixth Ironman victory, this time on home turf at Ironman Cairns. Known as one of the fastest cyclists in the sport, McKenzie did his first triathlon at age 13, and quickly climbed the junior ranks in the ITU racing scene. With the encouragement of Ironman world champion and fellow Aussie Michellie Jones, he made the transition to non-drafting racing, and started training with some of the sport’s best, including one-time roommate (and sometimes prank victim) Craig Alexander. An avid traveler, McKenzie splits his time between Australia and San Diego and enjoys bouncing around to training camps from Bend, Ore., to Kona. He’s currently prepping for another Hawaii Ironman campaign.
- I was lucky to get into triathlon early on, not as an athlete but by working at an aid station at Ironman Australia in Forster. Each year my family would go and volunteer at one of the last aid stations, and I learned to appreciate Ironman at a young age and was just really interested in it. I knew that ultimately I would like to do it—at that stage I was into swimming, cross country, and played cricket, soccer, football and was on a water polo team. I never specialized in one thing—I dabbled in a lot.
– I was very raw when I started doing triathlon, especially on the bike. I had really bad bike skills and tended to have a lot of crashes. It was fun at that stage—you were surrounded by other junior athletes, and it was fun to attend training sessions and ride and run together. It was a refreshing change from swimming.
– I recently spent the weekend in the Philippines with Chris McCormack, and back in the day he used to live right around the corner from me and I used to see these guys training all the time. I was 13 and they were in their early 20s and just starting to come onto the scene. As I started to progress I moved into training groups that had some of the best guys in the world at the ITU level—Miles Stewart was a guy that I trained with, and he mentored me a lot during my late teens. I trained with Craig Walton when he qualified and competed at the Sydney Olympics, so I was very lucky that I got a close experience of him going through that whole process. It was invaluable.
– When I got out of the Olympic-distance stuff, Michellie Jones and [former husband/coach] Pete Coulson brought me over [to the U.S.] They said, ‘Luke, you’re really good at this ITU stuff, but you should pursue non-drafting racing.’ Michellie rubbed off on me in terms of how to present yourself, how to be disciplined and train professionally. I didn’t even have a time-trial bike and she gave me one of her Giants—ultimately she was my first bike sponsor. They linked me up with Craig Alexander—this was before Crowie had done anything major in the sport and he was still up and coming. Living and training in those early days with Crowie, just being around him, was a very positive influence. There’s no one that prepares to the level that he does. I came over here with nothing to my name—it was living race to race. We had blowup mattresses from Wal-Mart and it was a joke every night to run in and let air out of Crowie’s mattress.
– Ever since I started I’ve said I wanted to win the Hawaii Ironman. I think it’s going to take a certain circumstance for me to win. I don’t see myself as the fastest athlete out there, but I think I’m a mentally tough athlete. I definitely have the swim and bike to be competitive with anyone in that race. I’ve got to be opportunistic if I want to win it. At the race I had in Cairns I went back to my philosophy of laying it on the line in the swim and bike and holding on in the run. I’ve seen Normann [Stadler] and Faris [Al-Sultan] win it that way. In the last few years I’ve tried to improve my run and sort of lost my advantage in the bike leg of that race. If I want to have a really good crack at winning there I’m going to have to go that Chris Lieto, Marino Vanhoenacker sort of approach and see what I can do on the run to hold off a Pete Jacobs or the Raelerts—guys that are charging.
- Last year I did try to go for it on the bike, but I wasn’t doing the training to warrant the level of effort I was trying to ride at. I was in the top five for most of it and came off seventh. I blew myself up. I know the level I can sustain on the bike, and I think the training I did last year going into Kona wasn’t at the level I had the year before, when I came off second. It was a big learning curve. I’m training myself now and back doing bike work. It helps me ultimately not only ride well but puts me in a better position as a front runner. I think I’m better when I’m running scared.
- You can always go deeper than you think you can. So much of Ironman is mental, that’s something you’ve got to prepare for just as much as the whole training process. I enjoy the psychological battle to keep pushing. There haven’t been that many races in my Ironman career where I’ve thought, ‘I’m hurting, this sucks, I want to give up.’ I really love to feel that hurt and try to push on. I think you have to have that if you want to do this as a career. There are easier ways to make a living.
- My father helps me prepare really well with the mental aspect. He was a football coach back in Australia for 30-odd years, and that’s the part of the sport that he really enjoys and it rubs off on me. If I’m doing a long run with some efforts, he’s there helping me through that and making sure that I’m not only preparing with the actual training part but thinking about putting myself in a race situation—running side-by-side with Crowie and going to that level that I need to go to when I’m racing. When I’m preparing for Hawaii he comes out each year for three weeks and we do our runs out to the Energy Lab. It’s really fun to have my father as part of the whole journey because he got me into the sport and has been my biggest supporter. Dad will come out and ride the mountain bike next to me and give me water and encourage me with the harder sessions. When I’m racing in Kona I’ll see him out on the Queen K on a stretch of road where no one else is. He reminds me of the days we were out there by ourselves preparing.
- I think I’m a lot more transient than other professionals. I’ve always tried to pick races I can do well in but that are also in a place I’ve wanted to go and see. I’m very fortunate that everywhere I’ve been able to travel and race I’ve established good little social networks, and I think it keeps it interesting and motivating. If I start to feel myself stale in an environment, I just move. I’ve always felt Noosa was home but I don’t tend to get homesickness and feel like I’ve got to be back there all the time.
– I enjoy having a balanced lifestyle—to get out and have a surf some days, go out to dinner with friends. That balance is something that I’ve always embraced and enjoyed. It keeps you fresh and motivated to keep going. If you have tunnel vision it narrows the window of how long you can enjoy it. I couldn’t have lasted so long in the sport if I hadn’t kept a really good balanced lifestyle. Some people are ultra driven all the time, but I don’t think you’re an unfocused athlete if you like to go out for a beer.