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Recalled: Crowie’s Record-Setting Day in Kona

The year: 2011. The stage: Kona. The star: Craig "Crowie" Alexander. As we celebrate Gustav Iden's new course record, we look back on the breakthrough race that showed us what was possible at the Ironman World Championships.

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In October 2011, Craig “Crowie” Alexander stormed onto Hawaii’s Big Island on a tear: At 38, the Australian was in his prime, having already won the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Las Vegas just the month before. He arrived at the race brimming with confidence that the fitness was there. Besides, he’d won in Hawaii twice before, in 2008 and 2009, and finished as runner-up in 2007. He knew the territory. The conditions. The competition.

Winning was the goal. And so was improvement. But he didn’t proclaim any goal of covering the course faster than any human had before, at least not publicly. In pre-race press conferences, Alexander, true to his humble and soft spoken nature, politely acknowledged his competitors and the depth of the field and kept his goals simple.  “I feel like I’ve prepared well, I’m in at least as good of shape as any other time I’ve arrived here,” he said,  “I’ve given myself every chance to perform well.”

But perhaps Crowie himself didn’t know what he was truly capable of in Kona that year. Perhaps the course record of 8 hours, 4 minutes, and 8 seconds wasn’t even on his radar. After all, it had stood for 15 years—epically long in a rapidly evolving sport. It was in 1996 when a then 27-year-old Belgium named Luc Van Lierde, an Ironman rookie who’d never run a marathon before, broke Mark Allen’s 1993 record by three minutes, buoyed by a blistering bike split (which included a three-minute penalty) and a 2:41 marathon. Known for his lethal bike-run speed, Luc Van Lierde was also the first European to nab an Ironman World Championship, winning again in 1999.  At one point, he held the fastest-ever time for an iron-distance race, a speedy 7:50:27 set at Challenge Roth, which he closed with a 2:36 marathon.

So it wasn’t too surprising that Van Lierde’s record stuck around for a few years. But for 15? No one—not greats like Canada’s Peter Reid, American Tim DeBoom, German’s Norman Stadler and Faris Al-Sultan, Australia’s Chris McCormack—came within five minutes of Van Lierde’s mark. Even Alexander himself was nowhere near the record when he won in 2008 and 2009, crossing the line in 8:17:45 and 8:20:21, respectively. To put his best swim, bike, and run together and win the race for the third time was a tall order. But to shave 14 minutes off his PR? On paper, that seemed almost absurd.

But in 2011, the narrative changed and absurdity became reality. It began with a strong swim, in which Alexander emerged out of the water in 51:56 and in the chase pack, not too far behind  leader Andy Potts. On the bike, Alexander, wearing an aero helmet for the first time, came into transition in fourth place; his 4:24:05 split put him about five minutes and 15 seconds in arrears from leader (and uber-biker) Chris Lieto, who clocked in with a 4 hour, 18 minute, and 31 second split. Aided by near perfect conditions and the hot pace set by Lieto at the pointy end of the race, the bike times were lightning-quick across the board: To compare, In 2010, winner McCormack biked 4:31:51, and Crowie himself had only posted a previous best split of 4 hours, 37 minutes in his previous races in Kona.

But despite being under world record pace out of T2, Alexander was in fast company when he sped out in his red and white racing kit. The record was not his to have—at least not for a couple more hours. First, he had to put distance on contenders like Australia’s Luke McKenzie and Belgium’s Marino Vanhoenacker. Then, he had to reel in Lieto, which he did after a few miles. And he had to hold off a hard-charging Andreas Raelert of Germany, who would wind up third after fading some on the run. Finally, he had to grit his teeth through near debilitating leg cramps in the final two kilometers, which caused him to lay down and writhe in pain after he crossed the finish line in 8 hours, 3 minutes, and 56 seconds. But he did it: A three-time Ironman World Champ, and a new course record holder.

Alexander did not post the fastest swim, bike, or run split of the day. But he put on a master class on being patient, strong, striking at the time, and fighting until the finish.

“Maybe I missed a few miles there,” Alexander joked after his win. “But really, I guess [breaking the record] was always inevitable given the right conditions. Still, it’s totally humbling when you think of the people who’ve raced here before.”

2011 would be Crowie’s final time taking the tape on the Kailua Pier. But his legacy—and his record—endured. Proving just how powerful of a performance he put on that day,  it took until 2018 for the mark to be lowered again, that time by Germany’s Patrick Lange in 7:52:39. Propelled by advanced technology, faster and lighter bikes, super shoes, and a general rising of the bar across the board in triathlon,  the course record has been broken every year since. Today? It stands at 7:40:24, set last week by Norway’s Gustav Iden.