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Following a personal best Kona performance that earned him a coveted spot in 2011’s top ten, five-time Ironman Champion Luke McKenzie seemed to slip under the radar during much of the 2012 season. We caught up with McKenzie to learn what he’s been up to and why he feels a new kind of confidence heading into this year’s race, where he aims to improve on his 2011 9th place.
Triathlete.com: You’ve had a different approach to Kona than in years past. You’ve mostly flown under the radar, not racing as often as you normally would. Partly that was due to a nagging back injury that carried over from late 2011 and forced you to DNF at Ironman Melbourne in March. What have you been up to since?
LM: This year was a little bit of a different year for me. With the qualifying system I did what I needed to do to get back here, but at the same time I really needed to sort out problems that I had with injury. Actually we discovered that I haven’t really been dealing with an injury, but more so a disease. When I got to the States in June we went up to Eugene and saw a specialist that diagnosed me with a form of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis. So I changed my treatment and my approach to a few things in that regard, and things have been amazing ever since. For the last two years I’ve been dealing with this sore back that I was never able to fix. I was never going to unless I figured out what the real problem was. So to have answers has been overwhelming. I’m so excited now that I know what I’m dealing with and how to treat it.
Once I got over to the States in June I sat down with my coach Siri [Lindley] and she said, “You’ve pretty much qualified for Kona, let’s just wipe the slate clean, get a good couple of months of training in you and we can hit the back end of the season.” We went and did Cozumel [70.3, where McKenzie finished 4th] as a sort of pre-Kona hit out, but aside from that we’ve just been in L.A. building and building and building. I think you tend to sort of want to race throughout the year because there are so many events now, but I feel really fresh coming into Kona. And I’m happy with the way the year’s turned out, ultimately.
Triathlete.com: Your race in Kona last year was awesome! But in order to get the win, you’ll need to fill in a few missing pieces. What do you think those are – and do you think you’ve filled the gaps?
LM: Working with Siri, it’s quite evident that I’m a better athlete this year after having a whole year underneath her. But the real edge I feel that I’m gaining from her is not so much physical, it’s more mental. Just having her there – having her mental stimulation every day, her motivation every day. She drills into my head daily that I can contend for this race and there’s no reason that I can’t be up there with the Crowie’s and the Macca’s and the Raelert’s at the end of the day. And you know, the way that I’ve been training and the reinforcement she gives me daily with that training, I’ve really gotten myself in a different mindset. I’d say that mentally I’m better prepared this year.
Triathlete.com: Is that true emotionally too?
LM: Yeah. What I’ve been dealing with and not knowing what was going on – to tell you the truth it was a real frustrating period. I was always playing catch up and trying to perform to get through my races, but I was really only racing at 70 per cent. My back would flare up unexpectedly all the time, so my training would have to be based around that and in my races I could never get my full potential out. Whereas now I feel like I’m way more level and things are really coming together a lot more regularly than they used to. That last two years was a little bit of an up and down period, but I think everyone goes through that. And I think that’s what makes you stronger. This year I’m hungrier than ever because I really want to fight to get back up there where I was last year – or even higher.
Triathlete.com: While you’re always remarkably fit compared to the Average Joe, you’re not a tiny guy. You trimmed down noticeably last year heading into Kona, and you look equally fit – if not more so – this year. Is there anything specific you’ve changed in terms of your diet and nutrition, or are you just training harder or better?
LM: Obviously while going through injury, we looked at things that might be able to help me with my back. It was quite evident that the guys I was racing against were lean. I’m not a naturally lean guy, so we had to look at aspects of my diet that were going to help me lose a bit of weight but not lose the power that I think I had. We cut out gluten from my diet, so I’m gluten free and that’s obviously helped. I don’t think I’m a celiac, but I can definitely tell you that I feel a whole lot better from having cut gluten. And we cut out a lot of sugars. I used to be a person that drank a lot of soda and snacked on the odd candy bar on a ride, but we cut the sugars. But I think the biggest thing for me was that I used to go nuts on dairy. I would have a lot of milk-based drinks but now I tend to have lactose-free versions. So the things we tweaked in my diet have helped me lean up, and at the same time I’ve integrated a lot more TRX training into my program, so I think that’s helped as well. I’m keeping really strong but keeping lean at the same time.
You have to look at ways that you can constantly keep improving. We talked about the mental aspect – I’m working on that, but I’m also always trying to improve physically as well. When you deal with injury you sort of want to take stock and have a look at what’s going on with everything. I think that’s the good thing that comes out of injury.