Alistair Brownlee has done a lot in this sport. Thirteen years ago, he won his first world championship at the Junior ITU World Championships in Lausanne. Two years later, an U23 ITU World Championship in Vancouver. The next year he graduated to world championship gold at the ITU elite worlds in the Gold Coast, and since then added three more ITU world championships, two Olympic gold medals, and something like 35-plus ITU wins. The one thing Brownlee has never done is taken a flight to the big island.
With days to go before the cannon booms off the Kona pier, Brownlee has already made a little bit of a statement by sneaking a seven-second victory over superswimmer Josh Amberger in the Ho’ala swim. Held six days out from the big event, the Ironman-distance open-water race is a sort of weird barometer for those who pay super close attention to everything Kona pros do.
In regards to Ho’ala event, Brownlee (half) jokingly claimed he’d never swam 3.8K straight in his life before, as his only other Ironman at IM Cork had the swim cancelled. In his pre-race interview this week Brownlee made a few little hints here and there about his intentions, but mostly preached a focus on uncharacteristic calm.
Though the Kona rookie used the word “patience” probably a dozen times during his press conference, the racer still lurked under the surface. Brownlee says he’s only really been focusing on this event for the last five weeks (after a second-place finish at 70.3 worlds in early September), and he’s been been “focused on nutrition, heat, and the distance.” Despite the relatively short runup, the prep checks out:
He got advice from friends: “I spoke to Javi (five-time ITU world champion and 2018 Kona rookie) after last year. He said it was hot.”
He talked about his brother, two-time Olympic medalist, Jonny: “Though we still do the vast majority of our training together, I don’t necessarily miss competing with him. But it would be nice to have him here.”
And then we got on to the expectations for a race he’s never experienced—except from from afar (“It’s a bit more undulating that I thought,” he said. “On TV it looks quite flat.”). Brownlee’s biggest goal, he said, was to put himself in a good place late in the run after he admitted the wheels came off his legs near the end of the Cork event. “I’d like to be competitive and still be going,” he said of the end of the run. “Can you still race the last 15K? Whether that leaves me in first or fifth, I’d be happy with that.” Again, this sounds like a patient man looking to be measured at his first Kona experience.
But then Brownlee goes on to say that he’s in the best shape he’s been in years and rejects the idea of a self-contained strategy going in. “I’ve never been big on plans in triathlon, you can sit and talk about scenarios all day long,” he said. “The most important thing is to give yourself the physical tools on the day.”
Clearly Brownlee has the “physical tools.” He’s also no stranger to big races. “After winning London, I don’t think I’ll have another situation more high pressure than that,” he said about his 2012 gold medal performance. Despite talking about patience, Brownlee’s small victory in the open-water race earlier in the week shows he’s always game for some competition—in fact, that performance may have effectively been a signal to other swimmers on Saturday. “We could take it out on the swim, and the first 5-10K on the bike could be really important,” he teased near the end of the press conference—as signs of that fiery racer finally bubbled up to the surface. “It’s important that I have a learning experience, but if I get off the bike in a good position, I’m going to go for it.” And if that’s the case, the rest of the field had better not be patient.