The Mentor: ‘Crowie’ guides Olympic Silver Medalist Lisa Norden

Craig Alexander has taken up a new challenge: coaching. The Aussie is working with Lisa Norden as she works toward long-course success.

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This article was originally published in the Nov./Dec. 2014 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.

One of Craig Alexander’s favorite rides is the 35-mile round trip from his summertime home in north Boulder up the tree-lined roads of Left Hand Canyon to the small mountain village of Jamestown. It’s a climb the three-time Ironman world champion from Sydney does frequently in the months before Vegas and Kona. As the first athlete to win the Ironman 70.3 and Ironman world championships in the same year — a feat he accomplished in 2011 when he broke the 15-year-old Kona course record, finishing on Ali’i Drive in eight hours and three minutes — Alexander is no stranger to overcoming athletic challenges. But this year, he has taken on a different sort of challenge that will test his mettle and ability to handle unforeseen problems in another: coaching an Olympic silver medalist and short-course world champion to her first long-course world championship while having a target on his back as the athlete to beat at both Vegas and Kona.

As he rides up the winding mountain road to Jamestown with Lisa Norden — the blond wunderkind from Sweden who won last year’s ITU World Triathlon Series world championship and came within a hair’s breadth of winning Olympic gold in London — he dispenses advice for the summer ahead: The way to win a long-course race in September and October, he tells her, is to make sure you’re training and not racing in July. Alexander doesn’t offer any secret formal or magical solution for long-course success. Relentless consistency is what brought him to the top of long-course racing and he’s imparting that same basic wisdom to Norden. We’re not going to do anything crazy in terms of training, he tells her, we’re going to build your strength and keep you injury-free.

It’s their first ride together and the beginning of an eight-week training camp for Norden, who arrived in Boulder in late June to prepare for Vegas, ITU WTS Stockholm and the Hy-Vee Triathlon under Alexander’s watchful eye. As the pair rides into the Colorado foothills, Alexander sizes up his powerfully built pupil and takes note of her future in the Ironman. “If you look at the people who do well at the longer races, they have great technique, like the people who do well at the shorter distances,” he explains to me after their ride. “There’s good posture, there’s good efficiency and she’s got it. I’m licking my lips at the prospects of her stepping up in distance. She’s the new breed. It’s exciting.”

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Their relationship began last October, when Norden flew to Hawaii on her way to Auckland, New Zealand, for the 2012 World Triathlon Series Grand Final. While in Kona, she met Alexander at a breakfast for Specialized-sponsored athletes a few days before the Ironman World Championship, then sent him an email later that day wishing him good luck in the race. In that note, she mentioned she was burned out after five years of racing on the stressful ITU short-course circuit and wanted to take a shot at winning the Ironman 70.3 world title the following year — and one other thing, as well. “I asked,” Norden says, with the proud grin of someone who had just landed a prize fish, “if he had an urge to do some coaching or perhaps be a mentor to someone like me.”

Alexander was “floored,” he remembers. “She approached me with such forthrightness and honesty it caught me off guard a little bit, to be honest. My first thought was how flattering — that someone so accomplished would see me as someone who could advise her and help direct her career.” But Alexander knew the true weight of this request. In addition to preparing for and coaching himself to take another run at winning two world titles, he would have to devote enough time and energy to adequately help one of the best endurance athletes on the planet. “It’s a massive responsibility to help someone like this,” he recalls thinking while mulling over what to do after Kona. As one who likes to control all of the variables, who meticulously prepares for each of his key races, could Alexander put his faith and reputation in the hands of another athlete? Then again, could he walk away from the opportunity of a lifetime — the chance to be the long-course coach of a world champion as consistent and dominant as Norden, an athlete who will likely raise the bar in Ironman racing? “There’s no question from a marketing standpoint that if I’m coaching a world champion that’s a great calling card,” he says. “But the success or failure of how I work with Lisa will be based on her results.” Norden was just as aware of the implications of her request. Darren Smith, her ITU coach who had overseen her training around the clock for the previous five years, had encouraged her to take the year off and look for a long-course mentor. Norden not only wanted to take a break from the grind of ITU racing and group-training camps before returning to Smith’s squad next year, but to spend the year focusing on her time trialing, then see if she could add a 70.3 world title to her ITU world titles at the sprint and Olympic distances.

At the beginning of the year, she hired both a swim coach and a run coach in Stockholm to write her daily swim-run workouts for the season. But she needed someone to put everything together — an experienced long-course athlete, preferably one who had figured out on his own, just as she needed to do, how to make the transition from the ITU to long-course racing and would share with her the crucial details of how to win. Who better, she and Smith thought, than Alexander? “If she hadn’t asked him,” Smith says, “I did have one or two others in mind, but he was right up [on] top of the pile.”

Alexander began coaching Norden by phone and Skype while she was in Sweden and he in Sydney at the beginning of this year. The chemistry between the two world champions clicked immediately. They started by building her endurance and cycling strength to peak levels. She won her first two half-iron-distance races by large margins — the Challenge Fuerteventura half-iron-distance race in April and Ironman 70.3 Syracuse in June, a race in which she beat all but five of the pro men. She also tested her cycling prowess in June at the Swedish National Time Trial Championships and placed second. At the end of the month she moved from Stockholm to Alexander’s summer base in Boulder to spend July and most of August training with Crowie in a hot, dry and hilly environment similar to Vegas.

Observing the way two of the world’s greatest triathletes trained and worked together as teacher and pupil drew me to Boulder soon after Norden’s move. Norden was adjusting to her first week at altitude and Alexander was celebrating his 40th birthday — a turning point for any athlete having to confront the prospect of life after sport. I listened to them discuss the game plan for their eight-week training camp while relaxing at an Italian coffee house, Amante, near Crowie’s home, watched their first swim, bike and run workouts together and probed them about their motivations and what each hoped to gain from the other. It was obvious from the outset that Norden and Alexander’s close working relationship was fostered by mutual respect. The traits they admire and try to project in themselves are similar in many ways.

Neither Norden nor Alexander regard themselves as gifted athletes, in spite of their world championship titles, but as individuals who learned to succeed. “Craig has always been a smart person, not a natural talent,” explains Norden. “If you want to tell someone how to do it, you have to have that kind of mentality, where you can break things down, analyze your results and figure out how to improve.”

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Norden shares Alexander’s ability to honestly assess herself. “I like when an athlete has self-accountability,” says Alexander. “I can see why she’s had the results she’s had. … She thinks things through, doesn’t make excuses, doesn’t blame anybody else.” These intangible traits have helped both athletes in their careers, but effective self-reflection alone isn’t reason enough to write a magazine profile about someone.

When the pieces come together, Alexander and Norden have the tools to win when it counts. “A lot of people win Ironmans,” Norden says, “but there are only a few who can get it together to win the big ones. Traditionally, that’s always been my focus. I’m not a great athlete when it comes to random races. I decide which ones are the important ones and I get it together for those. I want to continue to do that, so it’s great to have someone with that same mentality.” Alexander similarly saw in Norden some of the same qualities he saw in himself when she disclosed to him the reasons she wanted to test herself at Vegas this year and then move to the Ironman distance after the 2016 Olympics. “She wasn’t resting on her laurels,” he says. “It was a risk on her part to change a winning formula like that. I liked that. That’s progressive thinking and all of the great athletes I’ve ever met in this sport and outside of this sport have had that.”

Where the two athletes differ is in how they’ve been coached. While Darren Smith has looked after Norden for much of her professional career, Alexander — whose training has been guided by his formal education as a physiotherapist — has never had a coach, but acknowledges he’s benefited greatly from the advice he sought from top long-course athletes. The opportunity to return the favor to another up-and-coming long-course athlete was one reason Alexander jumped at the chance to mentor Norden. “I feel an obligation,” he explains. “Triathlon is a young sport and I got a lot of help from people like Greg Welch and Michellie Jones when I was young. They were at the top of their game, but I could walk up to Greg and ask him a question and he would answer it. And so would Michellie, and they’d check in with me every now and then and ask, ‘How’s it going?’”

As Norden’s long-course mentor and coach, Alexander emphasizes that he’s not simply overseeing her training, but developing her ability to tap her own experiences to coach herself for long course when she leaves the ITU, something that she wants from Crowie. “I think the great athletes make smart decisions and are accountable for their own training,” he says. “They don’t just defer to a coach all of the time. So I said to Lisa, ‘Let’s come up with the plan together. I want to empower you to make smart decisions.’”

“Craig is not a replacement for Darren [Smith] by any means,” adds Norden when I pose the same question after she finishes a solo ride. “I’ve learned so much from Darren and now I want to take that knowledge and see what I can do, to step up and make decisions for myself instead of letting someone else make them for you all of the time. Darren says, ‘You know a lot of stuff, now you have to know how to utilize it as well. If you can do that, you’re going to have a long career ahead of you.’”

When I ask Alexander over coffee, after his first run with Norden, how he’s able to coach another high-level athlete while maintaining the focus on his own training for two world championships, he nods and says it’s a question many of his friends have asked as well. “People say, ‘How can you do both? One has to suffer at the expense of the other,’” he says. “I think the fact that Lisa is up here and that we’ll be training together I don’t think anyone will suffer. She’ll see how hard I’m training, and that doesn’t mean I won’t have time to do due diligence for her training. In some ways it’s a nice distraction because it makes me also think about my own training. With the things I’m asking her to do, I’m reminding myself — am I doing that in my own training as well? In some ways I think helping her will help me. There’s no question that it’s made me think a lot more about the things I’m doing this year, things that maybe I could be doing differently.”

By coaching Norden over the summer, Alexander admits he’s also gained a formidable training partner, one of the few females in the world capable of swimming, riding and running with the top male pros. “She’s a great bike rider,” he adds. “She’ll be able to hang in there with a lot of boys around here, probably serve it up to them as well.” Eliminating the impromptu testosterone-driven hammer-fests that often break out when some of the men ride together has been one of the keys to Alexander’s consistency. “In 2011, when I won Vegas and Kona,” he adds, “my two main training partners were Julie Dibens and Mirinda [Carfrae]. I prefer training with the top-line girls because I find it’s a nice training environment. On the hard days, we go hard and on the easy days, we go easy and we’re not trying to beat each other on the head, which is the key to a great program. What happens when a lot of the top guys get together is the lines get blurred and the easy rides tend to become a little too hard and then when there’s a hard ride you’re not fresh enough to go as hard as you should.”

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When I ask him about turning 40 and whether he thinks this might be his last run at a double long-course world championship, he takes a few sips of his double cappuccino before he answers: “Like everyone else, you wonder, ‘Is this the year I start to slow down?’ But I’ve thought that for five or six years. I did my first Ironman Hawaii at 34 and I thought, ‘Is that too late?’ Then I got second, then I won two in a row, then I thought, ‘I’m obviously getting better.’ But you wonder.” Alexander is already the exception to the supposed rule about slowing with age. He is the oldest champion in the history of Ironman Hawaii, but chasing another title after his 40th birthday is unknown territory even for Alexander.

“If I don’t perform in Kona this year the way I think I can perform, it’s got nothing to do with age,” he says. “I feel I still have the same body and certainly the things I’ve seen in my training week to week and month to month are indicating to me that I have the same body and the same heart and lungs that I did two years ago when I did 8:03.”

Alexander and Norden not only see eye-to-eye and are training together for the same world-championship race, but she’s fit in seamlessly with Alexander’s family — his wife Neri and their three young children — and he’s not spending the time planning every detail of her swimming and running workouts. “My role is to make sure we bring it all together as a triathlon program,” he explains, “because triathletes are not single-sport athletes, and to help her step up in distance. There are a few nuances to it. It’s not rocket science; I’m not going to say there are any great secrets. … The secret is in doing it consistently, staying injury-free and doing it in a way that the sessions complement each other rather than counteract each other.”

Injuries to her feet, however, plagued Norden’s build-up to Vegas, a problem she suspected might have been caused by her tough ITU racing schedule before and after the London Olympics. Following her training camp in Boulder, in which Alexander limited Norden’s running to heal the injury in her right foot, she flew to Stockholm to do her first ITU race of the year. It was intended to be a homecoming celebration of sorts for the returning Swedish Olympic medalist, who had won the race last year. But halfway into the 10K run, Norden felt a searing pain in her left foot and hobbled in to finish 19th. “After the race, it was incredibly sore and it took me a couple of days to be able to walk on it,” she says. “I had an MRI done on the Monday [after the race], which showed a partial rupture of the tendon. The doctor told me pain has to be my guide; he didn’t think I was able to endanger the foot by racing. Just prolonging the rehab time.”

Norden’s next test was the Hy-Vee Triathlon in Des Moines, Iowa, a race she had won the two previous years and qualified her for Vegas. While it was only a week after Stockholm, Norden says her foot “was actually doing quite well until I attempted a run-in start from the beach on the Saturday evening [before the race]. It went from barely noticeable to very sore again. So I called Craig and we discussed the options and decided to pull my name from the Hy-Vee race.” Norden arrived in Vegas the following week with her foot taped and tried to maintain her run fitness by water jogging. Her “A” race of the year began on an unusual rainy and humid desert morning. Norden overcame a slow swim with a strong bike, riding her way to the front of the women’s field, but had to serve a drafting penalty that put her four minutes back. The hard and hilly run course then took its toll on Norden’s feet, and despite running in obvious pain, she finished eighth in 4:31 and was taken from the finish line in a wheelchair.

Alexander had problems of his own in Vegas: a four-minute drafting penalty during the first two miles of the bike that effectively put him out of contention early in the race. “I wasn’t paying attention. It was near the start, it was real wet; it was slick,” he told me shortly after finishing a disappointing 19th in 4:06. “I nearly ran up the back of Tim Don once and I swerved to miss a manhole and then I was looking down trying to get my foot into my shoe. And I was right up on him,” adding, “I was doing the wrong thing. I’m not going to complain.”

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Alexander and Norden are well aware world championship titles aren’t easily won. Things often don’t go according to plan. Excuses don’t mean much. Norden put a positive spin on the day, tweeting, “Lots have been learnt — and looking forward to another crack next year!”

“Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but Stockholm was probably not a good idea,” admits Alexander. “But she had to do it for her federation. You live and learn.” When I ask him in Boulder how he will judge his success as a coach, he says presciently, “For me, the ultimate test is the race. They say sport is a bottom-line business.”

Although Norden didn’t win the 70.3 world title she was hoping for this year, she remains steadfast in her determination to learn the intricacies of long-course racing and go all the way to the Ironman.

“It’s already on the plan,” but it will have to wait, Norden says about her plans to race Kona after the 2016 Olympics. Alexander believes she has what it takes for any distance. “I think Lisa will change the women’s race in Kona. I think she’s the prototype.” And that’s her objective. “I want to win the world championships at all of the disciplines,” she says, adding with a confident grin, “That’s the humble little plan that I’ve come up with.”

The Game Plan

Coach Crowie’s prescription for long-course racing success

Crowie’s overall game plan for Norden was to get her riding and swimming to her fastest times by the time she came to Boulder, then divide her eight-week peak training block into two four-week phases — a base period that focused on longer rides and strength sessions to allow her to adapt to altitude, followed by a speed phase that included some brick sessions that incorporated fast runs after a long ride to make sure she was ready for the half-marathon run in Vegas. Not everything went according to plan. After Norden developed plantar fasciitis in April from doing too much volume combined with speed work in Stockholm — a mistake caused by miscommunication with her running coach — Alexander was visibly upset when I talked to him at St. George, Utah, in May at the Ironman 70.3 U.S. Pro Championship, a race Norden had to withdraw from because of the injury. At that point, he had given himself “a grade of five out of 10” as her coach. But he closely monitored the rehab on her foot and her running mileage and, by the time she arrived in Boulder, made sure she was running no more than every other day.

“I don’t want you to get injured,” he told her during their first week together in Boulder. “Your heart and lungs are strong. I think you can get some running form back by just running and getting the neuromuscular leg turnover. Even though you’re doing a half-marathon, you don’t need to do the mileage a pure runner would do. You’re going to get the aerobic carryover from swimming and biking.”

Although there was little time for recovery in the weeks between Norden’s Stockholm WTS race in late August, Hy-Vee, the following weekend and Vegas, the weekend after, Alexander believed it was a prudent schedule because each race built her fitness for the next one. “You’ve shown you travel well, you come down from altitude well,” he told her. “Stockholm will be a hard race and hopefully you’ll be a little bit sore, but then the travel is not going to let you overtrain. By the time you get to [Stockholm], it’s just logistical decisions: How much do I eat? How much do I sleep? The training’s done.”

RELATED: Alexander On The Next Generation Of Ironman Athletes

Lessons Learned

5 tips on 70.3 racing from short-course world champ Lisa Norden

1. Don’t pass an aid station on the run on a hot day without getting water or nutrition.

2. Be patient — find your rhythm and stick to your pacing plan. Don’t get too caught up in other people but let them make their own mistakes.

3. Make an eating plan and stick to it. Don’t let yourself renegotiate during the bike; if you need to, set an alarm to remind yourself to eat on schedule.

4. The speed on the first quarter of the run should feel relaxed and not fast. It will be tough enough sooner than you wish for anyway.

5. If you feel like you are dying, slow down a little bit and make sure to take on some calories. If you haven’t screwed up your pacing you are probably just running low on energy. You can definitely find your legs again.

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