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A trip across the pond reveals Britain’s greatest threat to triathlon.
This story was originally published in the May/June, 2011 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine. It has been edited for the web.
Alistair Brownlee, 23, gives new meaning to the phrase “I’d rather die than lose.”
The 2009 ITU short-course world champion raced so hard at the ITU World Championship Series event in London in 2010 that he drove himself unconscious. In fact, you could argue he nearly killed himself.
Nearing the final straightaway, he was in a familiar position: primed to outkick Spain’s Javier Gomez. But suddenly and unexplainably, he let up. His face drained of all color. He began wobbling.
“My last memory was being right behind Gomez with about 300 meters to go and [my brother] Jonny just coming past me, and at that point I thought if I just hold on to Gomez, I can outkick him the last 100 meters. I’ll win and be fine,” Brownlee said. “And then my memory goes blank, like literally blank.”
Unconscious for nearly 30 minutes, he says, with his temperature rising to about 109 degrees Fahrenheit, his next memory is waking up on a hospital bed, covered in ice and with wires coming out of his chest and drips in his arms.
“I just remember asking, ‘Where did I come? Where did I come?’” Brownlee said. “And someone was like, ‘I think you came in 10th. I’ll just check.’ I’m like, ‘How the hell did I come in 10th?’”
As far as anyone could tell—because no one really knows what went wrong—he hadn’t absorbed any food or water in the previous several hours, perhaps because he had some sort of stomach bug. So he had started the race already dehydrated and depleted of fuel.
That he was able to almost win that race on that summer day in London in 2010 is a frightening thought for all those who are looking for a weakness in Brownlee’s armor.
“He’s not afraid of blowing up, [of] making things happen,” said Joel Filliol, who worked with Brownlee while he was head coach of the British Triathlon Federation from 2009 until he resigned from the position in March of 2011. “He’s not afraid to do that, [which is] a fantastic way for spectators to watch, but equally it shows he’s just not afraid—that’s a real asset.”
And what is perhaps more frightening for the professional triathletes out there who are gunning for gold or a medal at the 2012 Olympics is that Alistair Brownlee’s brother Jonathan—the last person he remembers running past him in London—is primed and ready to join him among the ranks of the world’s best short-course racers.
For those who don’t follow the ITU, Alistair Brownlee burst onto the scene in 2009, when he won every race he entered in the ITU’s premier World Championship Series. What was so fascinating about Brownlee’s dominance was that he established it while racing against Spain’s Gomez, a man whose profile on the ITU’s website resembles binary code, given that there are so many “1”s in it. It was difficult to imagine that someone could so swiftly establish dominance over the “almighty dominant one.” And yet that was precisely what Brownlee accomplished.
In 2010, Brownlee faltered a bit, as it was a year marred by injury and illness. After winning the first World Championship Series race of his season, in Madrid, Brownlee placed 10th at the series’ race in London and 40th at the race in Kitzbühel, Austria. But he came back with a vengeance, outkicking Gomez for the win in the final stretch of the 2010 ITU World Championship Grand Final, in Budapest, Hungary.
“[After T2] Alistair started to run really, really fast. I just tried to keep up the whole time,” Gomez told an ITU reporter after the race. “I gave everything.”
This from the man who is known as the Michael Jordan of triathlon.
Alistair’s brother Jonathan, 21, also put his stamp on 2010, coming in second at the World Championship Series race in London, behind Gomez, by posting the second-fastest run split of the day (29:33). It was a podium spot at one of the most competitive races of the year.
Jonathan, who goes by Jonny, also became a double world champion in 2010 by winning the Under-23 world title in Budapest and the ITU Elite Sprint Triathlon World Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Jonny’s coaches were particularly happy with his Under-23 win, as he went into the race as the heavy favorite and came out on top.
“I was really pleased with how [Jonny] handled going into Budapest,” said Malcolm Brown, who works primarily as Alistair and Jonny’s running coach. “I think he won because he performed well. It wasn’t a fortuitous thing. He took it by the scruff of the neck and handled the pressure.”
Both Brownlees are consummate triathletes—they are top 10 swimmers, two of the best cyclists on the ITU circuit and among the handful of the fastest runners. (Alistair’s fastest run split yet is 28:43.)
“[Alistair’s] strongest point is that he doesn’t have weak points,” said Gomez, who is Alistair’s rival on the ITU circuit and teammate on the French Grand Prix circuit.
“He’s one of the best swimmers, a more than solid cyclist and, well, we all know how fast he can run. So if you want to beat him, you need to have the race of your life and run under 29:30, which is not easy. Jonny is kind of the same, but he is still very young. He has already shown a couple of really amazing performances, and I have no doubt that he is going to be at least as good as Alistair.”
Contrary to the reputation that ITU athletes have for dogging it on the bike, the Brownlees like to make each race a “full-on triathlon,” as they would tell you, and hammer the swim, bike and run.
For Alistair, his racing style is a personality thing—he thinks it gives him the best shot at winning.
“I think it’s quite risky, isn’t it?” Alistair said. “You know, if you take it on and really kill yourself on the bike, which you can do—Jonny did it this year, at the European champs in Athlone [Ireland]—you can then come 50th. Whereas if you don’t take it on, and sit in the pack, then you’re pretty much guaranteed a top 10/15 because you’re a good enough runner. That’s a bit safer, but then you’re never gonna win like that either.”
Alistair isn’t kidding. Many of his major victories have been off of breakaways on the bike, including his win at the 2010 Athlone ETU Triathlon European Championships, where he took off with Gomez, Jonny and two other athletes and essentially time-trialed it through brutally windy conditions.
“I ran about 40 minutes because the bike was the hardest bike I’ve ever done in my life,” Jonny said of the race.
Alistair ran 30:54, 36 seconds faster than Gomez.
The Brownlees grew up in the outdoors, in Yorkshire, a region in northern England. They spent many weekends walking in the countryside—a striking patchwork of steep valleys and moorland, crisscrossed by stone fences and dotted with sheep and farmhouses—with their parents, who are both doctors. Their mother put them in swimming when each was about 6, and the cross-country races weren’t far behind. As children, they also took up “fell running,” a discipline that consists of running over fells, which are essentially steep hills in northern England and Scotland.
“We spent weekends walking and coming back from a long walk on Sunday and going straight [to] swimming and that kind of thing—so [we were a] really active family,” Jonny said.
Alistair decided to give triathlon a go when he was 10, and he and Jonny soon began participating in a national triathlon series that took them all over England. When Alistair turned 14, he began training with a development squad in the city of Leeds, England, that was headed by Jack Maitland, a man whose training philosophy can be summed up in four words: “Get on with it,” according to Alistair.
Jonny wasn’t far behind.
Their lives are very much the same nowadays. They still train with Maitland and his squad, which is based out of Leeds Metropolitan University. They typically train 30 to 35 hours per week either together or with large groups of athletes, and they are almost always outside, running or even mountain biking through snow if necessary.
Those who know them will tell you that they do what they do simply because they love it.
“They’re not too bothered by high-tech bits or fancy training kits—they really just love to be outdoors and train,” Filliol said. “There’s something sort of raw, like, if you took away the racing part, they’d still be out there running in the trails and hills and cycling around North Yorkshire.”
I first met Alistair and Jonny in February, after they had finished their weekly Monday morning run and before a session of stretching and running drills with a physiotherapist. The drills are part of a program headed by Brown, who has been working with the Brownlees for several years, helping them with their foot plant, stride frequency and length, and other aspects of their running form.
Their training revolves around a consistent structure—they almost always do intense track workouts on Tuesday nights and long swims on Wednesday mornings, for example—and each day is filled with what seems like an unending stream of various activities: running, cycling, swimming, weights, drills and eating.
Despite their status as hardworking professional triathletes who are famous within the triathlon world, at home they act like regular boys in their early 20s.
They show up to practice at Leeds Met with trash bags full of recyclables stuffed in the back of Alistair’s BMW. And Alistair isn’t afraid to have a beer (an American brand, in my honor) with his friends, just as Jonny isn’t afraid to go home to his parents’ house to seek coddling for a cold he’s been nursing.
Unquestionably related, the two share the same ivory skin tone, and a mop of curly brown hair sits atop their heads. Alistair is taller and lankier than Jonny, and while both of them are trim and sinewy, their build belies their world-class athleticism. They have disarming, genuine smiles and intelligent eyes, which match their personalities. It doesn’t take long to realize that both Alistair and Jonny are extremely bright.
At one point during my stay in Leeds, I asked Jonny about the “northern England/southern England” rivalry among the British, and to begin explaining it to me, he launched into a history lesson about his county, Yorkshire, and its rivalry with the neighboring county of Lancashire.
“It dates back to the War of the Roses, which is just before the Tudor times, like the 1400s,” he begins.
He spoke to me like a historian would, which isn’t surprising, as he had just finished a two-hour seminar on Thomas More, one he’s taking as part of his bachelor’s degree in history from Leeds University.
Alistair, who studied medicine at Cambridge University for a term before deciding to transfer to Leeds University so he could concentrate on triathlon, is also working on a degree: a master’s in finance from Leeds Met. His work at Leeds University earned him a bachelor’s in physiology and sport.
In what little spare time he has, Alistair is an avid reader; at the moment, he’s reading books on philosophy.
Alistair also has a tendency to answer questions about triathlon and racing with a wisdom that is common among the veterans of the sport, men with years of professional racing behind them.
When I ask him where his renowned mental toughness comes from, he says that he doesn’t know, but that if he could answer my question he probably would “not be able to do it anymore.”
The boys live together and with a roommate in a house that Alistair bought in 2009. Prior to buying the house in the village of Bramhope, outside Leeds, they lived with their parents.
“Neither of us lived away when we went to uni [university] because we went to uni in Leeds, and it was best,” Alistair said. “It was probably good for us because that’s a really difficult move, I think, for loads of athletes. It was really good for us staying at home.”
The house they live in is surprisingly clean for one that is occupied by three college-age boys. Yet their age still shines through—their television sits atop a “table” of bricks and wooden boards. There’s a beanbag in the middle of the living room. Their stereo is wreathed in jumbled wires.
But there are soft touches to their home as well. They’ve hung framed posters from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which Alistair qualified for by beating all of the British athletes at the ITU’s 2008 Madrid BG Triathlon, where he placed third overall. He was barely 20 years old at the time and would go on to place 12th in Beijing. They’ve hung collages of pictures in their dining room, and the pictures include one of Alistair, Jonny and Gomez crossing the finish line as a team at a race on the French Grand Prix circuit, as well as one of Alistair and Jonny showing off the medals they earned at Budapest. Their bookshelf is bursting—its books include the “Lore of Running” and “Running Legends”—and it harbors a few awards from Great Britain’s 220 Triathlon magazine.
Although Alistair and Jonny are brothers, training partners and, technically, rivals, they are, above all else, friends.
“We’re good friends, not just brothers,” Jonny said. “Because we live together. And we do a lot of other things together, like go to cinema together, go out for meals together, spend lots of time together, travel to races together. So we’re really, really good friends.”
When they ride together, they ride side by side, their mouths moving almost incessantly as they pedal. And they never say an unkind word about the other, even when they are goaded. And if they do complain about one another, it is always with a laugh and never in malice. Alistair even lets his brother stay at his home rent-free.
When I asked Alistair about Jonny not paying him rent, something that Jonny “can’t face” doing, Alistair responds by saying: “He’s supposed to pay rent, yeah, indeed, but he hasn’t paid for a while. We’re going eight months now at least without any rent.”
“How come he doesn’t pay you?” I ask.
“Because he’s stingy. That’s why. … Jonny doesn’t even pay for the bills at the moment,” Alistair answers, laughing.
“Yeah. That’s how stingy he is.”
“But he says he does other things, like shopping.”
“Yeah, but he doesn’t,” Alistair says with an air of lightheartedness and humor. “No. He thinks he goes shopping, but he only goes shopping the same amount as everyone else.”
Curious to get more insight into their relationship, I ask Alistair, who is one of the favorites, if not the favorite, for gold at the London Olympics, how he would feel if Jonny beat him out for the sport’s most coveted medal.
“Yeah, uh, [I] might be like, ‘Oh, well done.’ You know? It’s like, if I wasn’t going to win, I suppose in any race, I’d prefer he’d be the next best thing, you know. I prefer him to win than anyone else,” Alistair said. “He’s a great athlete, and I think, living so close to him, you realize more than anyone else, you know how hard he works and how much he deserves [it]. It’s very easy to accept. He trains equally as hard as me.”
If Alistair Brownlee can accept being beaten by his good friend and brother, it’s not something he will take lying down.
Indeed, if there is one immutable constant that runs through the personalities of champions in every sport it is that they are fiercely competitive.
But Alistair’s will to dominate his opposition takes this ethos to unheard-of heights.
This ferocious will to win, however, only comes out at certain times, such as in races, or when you talk to him long enough about triathlon.
His everyday demeanor is akin to California cool. Beginning a run 30 minutes past schedule is no big deal, or cutting a ride short when the weather is particularly cold and wet doesn’t bother him much either. It’s not that he doesn’t get his training done—he always does, because that’s what he loves to do—but he doesn’t seem to let life’s little annoyances get him down. Just like he doesn’t let the pressure of expectations and the press and the upcoming Olympics in his home country concern him.
“I find [pressure] quite hard to worry about, really. … It is so cliché, but, really, the most important thing is the pressure you put on yourself,” Alistair said.
But underneath Alistair’s laid-back disposition is a dominating spirit and desire to win that is unparalleled in triathlon.
It is startling.
“Put me in a race, and I’ll race anyone,” Alistair said.
During a long conversation with Alistair, he told me that when he stood on the line in Beijing during the Olympics—a race he was surprised to just qualify for, given he was so young—he wanted to win.
Most people in his position would just be happy to be there, to participate. Not Alistair Brownlee.
“By the time you get to the start line, that happy-to-be-there attitude turns to ‘I-want-to-win’ attitude, even though it’s probably quite unreasonable,” he said.
He raced like he wanted to win as well. He went for it on the run and was leading for a portion of the race. With 3K to go, he was in a position to win, and he probably could have if he were just a bit older, with a little more training under his belt.
Initially, he was disappointed with his 12th-place finish.
“I was like, ‘What did I do? What an idiot. With 3K to go I was right there. What the hell happened?’” he said.
But when he reflected on the experience, he realized that it was the best he had ever raced up to that point in his life, and he felt proud.
Alistair says that one of the keys to triathlon is learning how to get good results when you’re having a bad day.
To him, London was one such day where he proved he could do this, as he was “nearly winning” until the final straightaway, even though he was “massively overheated, massively dehydrated [and] had no energy [because] I hadn’t absorbed any food,” he said.
Another such day was Madrid in 2010. It was the first race of his season and he was “pretty unfit,” he said, as he was coming off a stress fracture in his femur that allowed him very little training during the winter. Despite his lack of preparation, he pulled off the win.
If you want to get a taste of Alistair’s ferocity and will to dominate, watch this race in Madrid.
After being instrumental in a breakaway on the bike that goes into T2 more than a minute ahead of the chase pack, he finds himself in a duel with Courtney Atkinson of Australia. They ran the entire 10K together, with Alistair matching every surge that Atkinson made—always answering each surge by putting himself at least a half-step in front of Atkinson.
With about 500 meters to go, Alistair surges a final time, and Atkinson breaks. But it is Alistair who was the most spent—as he crosses the finish line, he is so depleted of energy that he can’t raise the finish tape above him. He collapses to the ground and lies in a corner of the finish straightaway while his defeated competitors file past him. Atkinson has no trouble standing.
“It’s scary that a guy with that kind of talent is also that tough and can push himself into collapse,” said Cliff English, a high-performance coach and obsessive observer of the ITU.
Alistair’s ferocity comes out in training as well. During a recent training camp he participated in in Tenerife, Canary Islands, the only thing that could stop him from riding to the top of an 8,000-foot peak was a police officer.
Neither darkness (his coach followed behind in headlights) nor temperatures cold enough for snow nor a long line of cars waiting behind could prevail over him—only the law.
“I didn’t want to get off,” Alistair said. “Malcolm was following behind with the headlights on and there’s snow on the side of the road and I had hardly any clothes, and I just don’t want to get off—I don’t want to get off. And then I got pulled over just before I got to the top.”
Maitland remembers an open water elimination session around a buoy several years ago. At the start of every round, Alistair, not the strongest swimmer among the group at the time and the smallest physically, insisted on taking the shortest line around the buoy, even though he was getting pummeled by his teammates. To him, the beating didn’t matter. What mattered was ensuring he wasn’t eliminated.
After I got home from England, I asked myself if perhaps I had misinterpreted Alistair’s ferocity, so I set about confirming it with the coaches and athletes who know him best.
They all agreed with my interpretation.
“Ali is very competitive and it can come out in [training] sessions as well as races, for better and worse,” said Oliver Freeman, a professional ITU athlete who recently retired and who has known the Brownlees since he was about 16. “He is the best and he knows it, and he does not tolerate people beating him. Whether this is from pride or self-respect, I’m not qualified to say, but either way it provides an amazing capacity to drive himself to places that many athletes struggle to replicate.”
At the time of this writing, Alistair’s Twitter profile contains a picture of him in what looks like some sort of fell race or cross-country race. He’s young—probably in primary school. His knee is bloodied and his face, arms, legs and clothes are covered in mud. And the look in his eyes says, “I am going to destroy you.”
This picture was pointed out to me by coach Filliol. He mentioned it to me when I asked him for an explanation as to why both Alistair and Jonny are so good.
Fingering the fierce look on Alistair’s face, he says, “If you could bottle up that attitude, then you have your answer.”
As to whether Jonny has a similar ferocity, that’s a question that will be answered in time. He hasn’t raced as many senior races as Alistair has and it’s too early in his career to tell.
But those who know him think he has what it takes to be a champion.
“Jonny is equally driven, but in a more introverted way,” Freeman said. “I think this is because Jonny grew up being used to his brother always beating him, and Ali is the other way around.”
Despite the boys’ talent, drive, work ethic and willingness to race hard, there’s no guarantee that either of them will win gold or even a medal in London.
That’s precisely what makes the Olympics so special—anything can happen on a day that only comes around once every four years, especially with both of them having gigantic bull’s-eyes on their backs.
But that Alistair and Jonny are friends and brothers means they have a weapon none of their competitors possesses.
“If there are 10 favorites or whatever, if already me and Alistair are in the 10 favorites and not working against each other, then we’re already going to be stronger than the rest,” Jonny said. “Well, hopefully.”
And regardless of what happens at the Olympics in 2012, there’s no reason that the Brownlees can’t have long and prosperous careers in triathlon and go down as two of the greatest triathletes of all time.
For the sake of our sport, let’s hope they do.