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Second Act: Luke McKenzie

Last year McKenzie started completely over, did things his way and had the professional breakthrough he sought for nearly two decades.

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Luke McKenzie spent his first 19 years in triathlon working his way to the top. Then last year, facing a stalled career and the end of his marriage, he started completely over, did things his way and had the professional breakthrough he sought for nearly two decades. All he had to do was suffer like he never had before.

The crowd is roaring on the streets of Kona as Luke McKenzie strides calmly out of transition into town. He holds his shoulders high, with great purpose, into the first steps of the marathon in the 2013 Ironman World Championship. He just pedaled a furious 112 miles through the Hawaiian lava fields, leaving nearly all the race favorites 10 to 15 minutes behind. Most of them are having a bad day at the office, mired in the humidity and having been left for dead early on by the top cyclists. Yet he feels fresh. Several minutes later, Luke overtakes super-cyclist Andrew Starykowicz as the two are still shaking the four-hour bike ride from their legs, and is all alone in front.

Luke considers giving Starky a bit of encouragement on his Kona debut, admiring the way Andrew pushed the bike so hard. But he thinks better of it, looking straight ahead as he blows past, choosing to keep his tank as full as possible.

He remembers last year, when he finished a disappointing 24th after a labored 3:20 marathon. And 2011, where he again smashed the bike leg yet left himself with nothing for the run. Hold back, he thinks to himself. Save something. Be patient. He glances at his watch. If I hold this pace, they’ll have to run a 2:45 marathon to beat me.

He speeds out of town on Ali’i Drive at a six-minute-four-second mile pace and is back on the Queen K Highway to endure the heat and desolation of the lava fields once again, one shoe in front of the other for 26.2 miles. Even among all the bold race-day kits worn on this most-watched day of the triathlon world, Luke stands out. His hunter green, wind-tunnel-tested kit (with sleeves) envelops a muscular yet sinewy, racing-tuned physique, with a broad swimmer-like torso that looks precariously balanced above two legs in constant motion. Atop his clean-shaven head is a tall green trucker’s hat made by PowerBar, a sponsor of his, which reads “GO LUKE.” Sports sunglasses shield the tropical sun from his pair of piercing blue eyes, which rest above a prominent nose that, in the context of triathlon, makes him look all the more aerodynamic.

Everyone is elated for him. Luke McKenzie leading Kona is a feel-good story. The one-time teenage phenom blessed with a speedy swim and a devastating bike is a fixture in the triathlon world as the outgoing Aussie with an easy smile who’s got time for everyone. The guy who trains ultra hard but also surfs several times a week. The 32-year-old six-time Ironman winner who maybe, just maybe, is putting all the pieces together in his seventh try on the biggest stage.

Today, he’s poker-faced while in motion. He restricts his thoughts to the mechanical. Nutrition? On track. Pace? All good. Meanwhile he’s doing everything in his power to outrun that dark place—the all-consuming condition in which overtaxed muscles, extreme physiological strain, Hawaiian-islands humidity, the pressure of the occasion and the toxic effects of self-doubt all conspire to overtake an athlete’s head.

As helicopters buzz overhead and an NBC crew rolls alongside him, he’s staying within himself. But he’s also got his entire year on his mind: key training sessions; mental and performance breakthroughs; a year that began in the middle of a stalled career and at the end of his two-year marriage to Australian pro Amanda Balding, in which he moved continents, parted ways with his coach of 18 months and started everything over. Yet now here he is, leading the biggest race of his life. The question now was: Could he hold on for 26.2 miles?

• •

As with so many great athletes, Luke spent his entire childhood around sports. In the late ’80s he would assist, starting at age 7, at an aid station at mile 24 of the marathon at Ironman Australia near his home in Forster every year, along with his entire family. Just when his parents started wondering where he was the first year, they turned and saw him running down the last kilometer of the race with the top athletes—guys he’d recognized from watching the Hawaii Ironman on TV. Luke was the type of kid, his father, Peter, says, who would mimic every sport he saw on TV—cricket, Australian-rules football, golf and especially triathlon. One time, after the 12-year-old Luke saw a race on TV, he decided he needed to go on a long bike ride. His parents assumed he was at a nearby friend’s house until they got a call from the mom of another friend of Luke’s—one who lived 15 miles away.

He was always into sports, and, after his family moved to Australia’s Gold Coast when Luke was 13, he was surrounded by greatness: He went to high school with future pro surfers Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson, who have become two of the most dominant surfers in the past 10 years. And it just so happened that Australia’s triathlon epicenter at the time was on the Gold Coast. All the top athletes, guys like Chris McCormack and Miles Stewart, came to train with local coach Col Stewart. “They were swimming at our local pool,” Luke says. “You’d see them out on rides. I’d be getting dropped off at school and see Col’s group ride by. I was so jealous. I wanted to be out there riding with them, you know? Not going to school!” At the same time, Luke, busy in the uniquely Australian surf-club culture, was a keen swimmer—promising enough, in fact, to train with an Olympic coach. Right away, though, he realized he wasn’t cutting the mustard. But there was a triathlon club that trained at the same pool at the exact same time. “I was into my running, and I’d always wanted to do triathlon,” Luke says, “so I went over to the lady running the session and said, ‘Jenny, I’d love to join your squad.’ She said, ‘I’ve been watching you swim, and I think you’d be a great triathlete.’ From then on, I was hooked.”

Luke was not only in the right place; he was growing up at just the right time, too. In hindsight, the late ’90s turned out to be triathlon’s golden age in Australia: Greg Welch had recently won the Ironman World Championship, the first non-American male to do so; domestic triathlon race series were on TV nearly every weekend; and with the sport soon to debut at the country’s own Olympics in Sydney in 2000, Australia’s Olympic committee and plenty of sponsors were investing heavily in triathlon. Though Luke played almost any sport he could, including soccer, cricket, football, water polo, basketball and BMX, in an environment like this, it was triathlon that naturally stuck.

It helped that he won the very first race he entered, a junior sprint that lasted no more than 15 minutes. “Coming from swimming, where there was lots of following the black line and I was getting my butt kicked, to actually winning, was awesome,” Luke says. “So I continued doing it.”

From there he kept going up. Australia had created a national performance center for triathlon (similar to those in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Clermont, Fla.) and handpicked Luke to train there, alongside notable fellow juniors Mirinda Carfrae (future two-time Ironman world champ), Emma Snowsill (future Olympic gold medalist) and Annabel Luxford (future ITU World Cup winner). He reached his first world junior championships, for duathlon, in 1997 in Germany. One week later he was called up as a reserve to Australia’s junior triathlon team at the world championships in Lausanne, Switzerland. Although he didn’t get to race that year, he was the youngest member of the team, at 16. By 19, he came third at the ITU World Junior Championships at Edmonton, Canada. It was there he met a young Australian triathlete named Craig “Crowie” Alexander, along with one of the top stars at the time, the Ironman, Xterra and ITU world champion Michellie Jones—both of whom were on Australia’s senior team.

His road looked to be paved, and in lieu of university, during the gap year between high school and college in which most other Aussies choose to backpack throughout other corners of the world, Luke spent the summer of 2001 racing for the Mont Lausanne team on the French Iron Tour. He was 19 years old, racing two to three times in a week, traveling all day until 2 a.m., then waking up at 6 a.m. to compete against his idols: McCormack, Alexander, Simon Lessing and others. “I learned to harden up,” Luke says. “Everything from that point was easy if you can get through those years of basically racing like racehorses! But as a 19- or 20-year-old, I was living the dream. I was fresh out of high school, and I got to see the world and meet all these people. They’re the good old days.”

He was putting in his time—though getting his butt kicked, he admits—and impressing all the right people. He raced the televised Australian Grand Prix during the tail end of triathlon’s gravy train in Australia (where his family remembers watching him sprint out of transition one time with his running shoes on the wrong feet). He was Olympian Craig Walton’s training partner, and followed along with the top dogs whenever he could on rides. He was wise enough to realize this opportunity was one that not every junior had access to. And they didn’t seem to mind. “They never saw me as a threat back in the day!” Luke says. “I was just that young kid who would tag along on rides.”

Eventually in 2002 he reached a point where he realized that staying on the ITU, draft-legal, Olympic-distance path might not lead him to the Athens Olympics after all, which were two years away. He was still living on the Gold Coast, and training often with Michellie Jones during the Australian summer. He was weighing whether to go the non-drafting route—a path that eventually, for almost everyone, leads to Ironman. Jones suggested to both Luke and Crowie that they spend the American summer in Carlsbad, Calif., just north of San Diego, where she and her husband at the time, coach Pete Coulson, lived part of the year.

And so in 2003, Luke and Crowie, the future three-time Ironman world champion yet then still on the cusp of really emerging, moved into a two-bedroom apartment in a sketchy neighborhood of Carlsbad. When they weren’t training by day or sleeping on inflatable Wal-Mart mattresses, they were cruising the neighborhood for abandoned furniture on the side of the road. It’s their own just-scraping-by tale that’s central to the making of so many great athletes. “We lived right on the Amtrak lines,” Alexander says. “That train would come through and blast its horn and wake us up every day. It certainly wasn’t the PGA Tour. We were trying to cut our teeth in the U.S. and make our names for ourselves. We’d often have other Australian athletes coming through town staying with us. At one point we had seven people in our little two-bedroom apartment. Yeah, very fond memories.”

It only lasted a summer, but they trained every day, their hand-to-mouth existence providing extra motivation in races. For Luke, it was a chance to spend a whole summer watching and learning from a guy whose star was on the rise—and went on to become one of triathlon’s all-time greats. “Luke wasn’t known as a runner,” Alexander says now, “but he could more than hold his own in our tougher run sessions. He was never scared of hard work and stepping out of his comfort zone and his perceived weaknesses. I saw the work ethic and desire in him to work very hard and be good, and he was patient.”

To hear Luke tell it, he gave it his all. “I raced as hard as I could, but Crowie was always that one step better,” Luke says. “I got a couple on him back in the day, but he was the more dominant athlete.” I ask how Alexander took losing to his roommate. Was Crowie competitive back then? Luke throws his head back in laughter for a second, then gets cagey. “I think the first race I ever beat him in sort of made him stand up and take note. But there’s no bad feeling at all—he’s always been encouraging of everything I’ve done.”

To this day the two consider the other among their closest friends, and frequently keep in touch. They often do a training session together in Hawaii, and get their families together for a pre-Kona barbecue prior to race week. Luke also remains an eager student, and Crowie, in his elder statesman status, duly offers advice.

And so it was in the 2013 Ironman, deep into the marathon. Alexander, with his final race in Kona having gone up in smoke, tried to revive his old roommate, who was momentarily falling to pieces on the loneliest stretch of the run, as the two passed each other near the turnaround in the Energy Lab with 10 words: “Luke! You’re gonna have to suffer if you want this!”

• •

As is also the case with so many great athletes, Luke has an ultra-supportive family. Athletics are literally in his genes. His father, Peter, is a former professional Australian rules football player and cricketer. But Peter gave up the promise of a sporting life (or what promise of it there was; back then, it wasn’t considered the profession it is today) and became a high school teacher when it was time to start a family. Yet he still remained a coach.

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This is what Luke was born into. If he and his sister weren’t in school, they were involved in some sporting event. He remembers hanging out in the dressing sheds with his father’s team before they’d come out onto the field. And when Peter wasn’t teaching science, agriculture and sports (“A strange mix, but it all works!” Peter says in a deep, raspy Australian purr) or coaching football, he’d be involved in his children’s athletic pursuits.

“He’d drive me to Sydney every weekend, for swimming, water polo, any sport,” Luke says of his dad. “Four hours each way. I owe him a lot because those were hard years for him. He was working his butt off, and all his spare time revolved around giving his kids an opportunity in sport.”

Peter recognized Luke’s burgeoning interest in triathlon with all his instant success. So he did what came naturally to him—he became a triathlon coach, and remains one to this day. “It’s a different role,” Peter says about coaching Luke versus his other athletes, “more of a mentoring role, being a sounding board for ideas, helping him wherever I can with the mental aspects of the sport.”

Peter charged head-on into coaching triathlon. The teacher by trade is a voracious learner, and constantly sends Luke studies he finds on the Internet, books he reads, and all sorts of inspirational and scientific information. He’s most interested—and of most use to Luke—in sports psychology.

Luke talks at length about his father’s importance to him and his career. “As coaches and advisers come and go, he’s the one person who’s been there the whole time. No one knows me better than my father. He knows everything there is to know, how everything has evolved to this point. He’s my biggest supporter and I can’t do it without him.”

In early 2013, Luke sure needed the help. His entire life had seemingly entered one of those dark places that athletes endure on the race course. Though he experienced a fertile professional period starting in 2008, in which he racked up five Ironman wins in three years, his last victory was at Ironman Brazil in 2010. Shortly after that race, he began battling chronic sacral pain. It seemed to have ripple effects. Over the next two years, with nearly 20 years in the sport under his belt, Luke found himself increasingly going through the motions, and distracted by details. He’d travel to a race in Sardinia, then get invited to a training camp, then onto a race in Chile, becoming progressively apathetic. As most pro triathletes necessarily keep a fastidiously organized life, things had fallen out of order. With persistent pain and an unfocused mind, the race results were worsening. And things were spiraling out of control in his personal life: By February of 2013, he’d separated from his wife for reasons he keeps to himself.

Luke trudged on. A month later, on St. Patrick’s Day, he lined up at Ironman Los Cabos. Predictably, it did not go well. He had trained hard for this race yet was mentally and physically drained. With no desire to compete that day, he pulled the plug early in the bike leg. It was there, standing on the side of the road, alone and miserable, that he felt he had finally, truly hit bedrock. As he watched the race literally pass him by, he questioned what he was doing, and what he wanted out of triathlon.

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The next couple of weeks were no easier. His misery was compounded by his guilt at giving up on himself in the race. But slowly, with the help of his dad, he began to see daylight. Questioning everything in his life, Luke was talking to Peter every day on Skype. “Luke was quite confused and emotionally down,” his dad says. “We adopted the approach that the best thing that could happen was we had to examine where he was and what he wanted to do in the future, draw a line in the sand and say, ‘From this day forward, I’m gonna concentrate on being the best I can be in the sport.’ My view of it was that the best thing he could do would be to get on with his life, not dwell on what had happened, but work on being better at what he was doing from that point forward.”

Luke vouches for his father’s effect. “He’s my ultimate motivator,” he says. “The football coach in him really comes out.” I ask about his father’s coaching style. Another spontaneous laugh as his eyes light up. “He’s pretty unforgiving! He doesn’t want to hear the sob stories. He’s tough love. At the same time, he’s very sympathetic.”

Though he was adrift, Luke was also in the unique position of being able to scrap everything and start over. He assessed all parts of his life. With a clean slate, he was able to choose exactly how and where to apply himself, and make decisions based on what his 20 years of experience and thousands of hours spent learning from top coaches and fellow athletes told him would work. His ultimate goal, ever since he was a boy, was Kona. He thusly put all his energy into producing his best effort for Kona, and nothing else.

He decided to move full-time to the funky San Diego beach suburb of Cardiff to live among some of his familiar friends and faces there, where he’d previously been splitting his time. And he parted ways after 18 months with acclaimed coach Siri Lindley, relinquishing the squad environment and daily guidance in favor of training himself. “That was a tough one for me,” Luke says. “I enjoyed everything. I’m not a selfish athlete, I feel like I’m very giving within a squad environment, but I enjoy my own space and training by myself.”

Now that he was doing things his way, he decided to put cycling back front and center into his training. It’s always been the ace up his sleeve, but he felt in 2012 that he’d lost his bike strength. He also shed a lot of training sessions he considered junk, focusing only on quality. He ate better. And he became fastidious about doing his strength sessions.

“Hard knocks toughen you up,” Peter says he would tell Luke. “They can either toughen you or they can crush you. There’s an old saying that it’s not what happens to you that matters, it’s how you react—which is something I said to Luke a few times. And I think he was on a mission to prove a point that he wasn’t done and dusted in the sport, that he had a lot more to give.”

By June, Luke touched down in Australia for Ironman Cairns as an outsider. Nobody could have guessed what he had in store. He was fast out of the water, pedaled to the lead in the early stages of the bike and proceeded to leave everyone in the dust. By the time the chase pack had their running shoes on, Luke had put 20 minutes between him and them. If there remained any lingering doubts, he eviscerated those with a 2:44 marathon. Afterward, the always-candid McCormack, who finished third, told the media when asked about the winner, “Luke, take that to Kona. That is the way you win an Ironman. Very impressive.”

Back in Cardiff, Luke had started dating local pro triathlete Beth Gerdes, who also traveled to Australia in June and came in fifth at Cairns. They had known each other for a couple of years, and over the summer had started hanging out as more than friends. They traveled together to Bend, Ore., in July for a six-week build session in the high elevation without the extra noise and distractions of the San Diego triathlon scene.

“I love running on the trails up there,” Luke says of Bend. “The environment is very rugged. You won’t see cars for five hours—it’s a really good environment to get training done. You can ride one direction into the mountains, or the other direction is high desert, which is very similar terrain to Kona in some areas—elements that get me in the mindset when I’m training for Kona.”

Gerdes says that, free of distractions, Luke was able to focus on all the little extra things. They were diligent about hitting their strength sessions twice a week, and eating right. She saw how organized, detailed and farsighted Luke’s training plans were. And she saw that his running was improving. “Just from running together day in and day out, hard brick sessions and hard sessions at the track, I kept telling him it’s gonna be impossible for him not to break three hours in Kona the way he was running,” she says.

The self-coaching also meant Luke could spend his time in a couple of other crucial ways: With the blessing of his shoe sponsor, Saucony, which designs his kits, he went to the Los Angeles Velodrome to test and determine the most aerodynamic race apparel; and he sought the help of a nutritionist in Oregon. He was focused and looking at his ability to perform from every angle.

His confidence in his training might have been put to the test with two wildly disappointing results at the Olympic-distance Hy-Vee 5150 Elite Cup in August, and at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Las Vegas in September. But instead he stepped back, wrote off his results as simply bad days, thought no more of them, and remained assured he was on the right track for Kona. In late September, he arrived with Gerdes on the Big Island three weeks before the race, as he does every year. His parents were already there. As the two former roommates do annually, Luke and Alexander talked every day while they were both in Kona, and completed several key brick sessions together, just as they did in their broke summer together 10 years before. (Luke’s parents came out and handed them drinks along the highway.) As they both pulled up at the end of one grueling workout, Alexander looked Luke in the eye and said, “Luke, you can really have a good crack at winning this race.”

• •

All the buzz on race morning in Kona involves super-swimmer Andy Potts pulling out at the last minute—which for Luke and everyone else means they could save a little more energy than usual for the ride. Sure enough, the swim is slow and cautious. On the bike, Luke starts a bit farther back than normal, but the first 20 to 30 miles, he says later, feel effortless. Everyone waits for the breakaway. Starykowicz, holder of the Ironman bike leg world record, pulls away early in the ride. Several miles later at the base of the course’s biggest climb, 2012 and 2013 Ironman 70.3 world champion Sebastian Kienle, another strong cyclist, does the same. Now Luke is faced with a choice: Let them go, measure out his own effort and cross his fingers that Kienle blows up later in the race? Or commit, roll the dice a little and ask the same questions of his rivals with more than 60 miles remaining?

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Luke goes for it. He lowers his head for the next 10 miles and mashes on the pedals, recalling certain breakthrough sessions spent in the Oregon Cascades in the summer. You have to commit to making a move if you want to win here, he reminds himself. He knows from the past that without the confidence to commit to making a move, you leave yourself vulnerable to self-doubt. The breakaway is on, a troika of super-cyclists each anteing up early and trading the lead. At one point, Kienle temporarily overtakes Luke, revealing in his Teutonic English as he passes, “Aha, we haves a gap.” Luke finally looks over his shoulder and sees only empty road.

By the end of the bike, Luke is starting to see the first signs that he has played his cards right. He reads the splits scribbled on a chalkboard displayed by the race motorcycles and draws confidence from seeing the time gap blowing out to the guys he’d considered to be contenders, just like in Cairns.

By the time he arrives in transition, Luke feels so energetic that there’s nothing daunting to him about running a marathon. His pre-race plan called for a strong second half of the bike, but not swapping leads with Starykowicz, who was hell-bent on chasing the bike course record. Yet having done so, he feels great. He’s ready to run, and the pack is 12 minutes or more behind him. All that remains is fending off Kienle, three minutes behind, and the Belgian, Frederik Van Lierde, who took third in 2012 and is four minutes back in fourth on the day.

As Luke passes through town and leaves Starykowicz in his wake, the hordes of Aussies on the sides of the road roar. He shakes the tension out of his shoulders. Beth and Peter are leapfrogging each other on the course, giving Luke feedback on his competition.

Eventually his support duo has to fall back as the course turns into the hot, unsettlingly noiseless, ironically named Energy Lab around mile 15. It’s the telling three-mile stretch of the marathon course, where the plot often thickens, placed just perfectly to really test the runners. Luke will be all alone for the next few miles. Deep on the highway now, surrounded on all sides by black, hardened lava and solar panels, and nothing in his ears but the wind, the aid stations feel farther apart. His nutrition plan is on point—so much so that he briefly considered refusing calories at mile 16—yet here he is, one mile later, and his body is waging war. Underneath that big green trucker hat, his face is taut. His arms are flailing. His legs look ropy. His feet appear heavy. His pace slows. His stride looks knock-kneed, like two drunks leaning against each other for balance. He feels like hell. He’s fully shrouded in that dark place. Luke says to himself, ad infinitum, Just stay calm. Keep moving forward. It’ll pass. Meanwhile, Van Lierde, having overtaken Kienle minutes before, is closing in, Terminator-like, and has Luke within his sights.

Just as Luke had said nothing to Starky as he overtook him, in the solitude of the Energy Lab, Van Lierde accelerates nimbly past Luke in total silence. Without a friendly word or a pat on the back, Van Lierde makes a statement by not saying anything, hoping to strike the killer punch as he sees Luke struggling.

Luke remains lost at sea until he reaches mile 18, where his and everyone’s special-needs bag—a perfectly appropriate name for it right now—awaits. He guzzles the Red Bull and awaits the surge of caffeine, sugar and B vitamins to jump-start his sputtering engine. There, on opposite sides of the turnaround, he and Alexander cross paths, and Luke gets that earful from Crowie, a word about suffering to be taken as both encouragement and a warning. Van Lierde is just 45 seconds up—Luke can see the helicopter and NBC truck just ahead. That’s all there is to realizing his yearlong—lifelong—goal. The veil lifts, and he feels light again. He wants it. He wants it more than ever before. He’s going to have to suffer.

Luke pushes the throttle to the floor over the next two miles, running the tank down to empty. He’s staying positive. He wants to stay as close as possible. Maybe the wheels will come off for Freddie, he thinks. You’ve seen it happen so many times before at mile 23 or 24. You never know. He’s heading back into town, and the crowds return. But Van Lierde’s running faster. He’s now a minute up, and now a minute fifteen. Van Lierde’s running a relentlessly flawless race. With Kienle a few minutes behind, Luke simply has to hold on.

In the gauntlet of spectators along Palani Road after the turn off the Queen K, especially the boisterous contingent of Australians, he sees friends, acquaintances and seemingly everyone cheering him on. The last mile feels like mile 1. As he dashes toward the finish chute, his sister, Jacque, passes Luke Australia’s official flag, as well as its unofficial one with a boxing kangaroo. He gives her a kiss, takes a flag in each hand, runs the rest of the way with his arms high and throws a huge haymaker in the air as he crosses the line. He gives a sporting hand slap and a hug to Van Lierde, who’s already wearing the crown of palm leaves. Then he collapses in a sweaty green heap to the ground, reclining, with his head held high and a smile on his face nearly as wide as the finish line.

There are the embraces with his parents and Gerdes, a post-race interview with his idol Greg Welch, and soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the euphoria, his dopamine receptors still barely flickering. But then the adrenaline and the endorphins start to dry up, and the real pain comes roaring in. Luke gets wheeled off for an IV and some fluids. On this side of the finish line he weighs 146 pounds, down from his pre-race 154. His arches are cramping hard. So are his calves. As well as his quads. He is, literally, exhausted.

• •

It’s a cool, gloomy, damp morning in Cardiff a couple months after the Hawaii Ironman. Luke arrives at an ocean-view café, stepping off of a black and white fixie adorned in Wayfarer-type shades, hoodie, red denim and Vans. He flashes a friendly smile and elicits a sincere apology for keeping me waiting no more than a minute.

As he sips his macchiato, he describes his off-season. Surfing, relaxing, building out the gear room and workout room in his new home he’s moving into with Gerdes in Encinitas. There’s been no training to speak of—nothing more to do till Jan. 1, besides a two-day charity ride to bring clean water to Cambodia while he’s home in Australia for the holidays. The hard work has been done. And it’s paid off, earning him new, non-endurance-industry sponsors: Holowesko Partners hedge fund, and an as-yet-unannounced food-industry brand.

His runner-up finish in Kona is universally recognized as a breakthrough—and goes some way toward explaining why a podium finish in Hawaii, due to recent history, is heavily leaden with expectation for the following year. Van Lierde finished third in 2012, Pete Jacobs was second in 2011, Alexander was second in 2007, and McCormack as well in 2006. On their next trips to the Big Island they were all breaking the finish tape.

“Freddie last year got on the podium and realized mentally that he could do it,” Luke says. “Lots of us are physically capable; it comes down to how much, how deep you want to suffer. Crowie saying I had to suffer if I want to win was a bit of a no-shit moment, but I realized now more than ever I’ve got to put suffering aside and dig deeper than I ever had. When you realize that potential, tapping into what it takes to win—that light-bulb moment—that’s something I’ll take into next year’s race.”

Kona champions either taste instant success or make a slow progression. Alexander is clearly the former; Luke, having first broken into the top 10 two years ago, can be part of the latter group if he can put it all together.

“He’s always been focused,” Peter says, “but sometimes I think he didn’t quite have the belief that he could perform at the very top level. This year he took the race in Hawaii down the road, and more or less said to everyone, ‘If you wanna win this, you’ve gotta beat me.’ And one guy did!” Peter laughs. “But it was the attitude that he went in with. I’m really proud of the way he raced.”

This spring he’ll look to earn his invitation to Kona by lining up at Ironman Melbourne in March. From then on, it’s all Kona. And he’s probably wise to keep an uncluttered schedule: He and Gerdes recently announced they’re expecting a baby in late May.

Five months after that, in October, all eyes in the triathlon world will be on Luke. He’s 20 years in, with recent history on his side and a revelatory race last year in which he tapped even deeper abilities to suffer—his road to Damascus moment. He appears tantalizingly close to solving the puzzle.

“Triathlon’s probably one of the most difficult things you can do,” Luke’s dad says. “You’ve got to be really well mentally prepared for it, and be able to deal with issues as they come along.” A pause. “He’s getting better at that.”

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