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Behind Craig Alexander’s opaque race mask is a confidence manufactured through an overwhelming work ethic.
Craig Alexander: Friendly, good sense of humor, family man, professional through and through, all-around good bloke. We’re not talking race day here of course. This is before or after. He’s down to earth, happy to sign an autograph and to wish you good luck in your training, your race, your life. But on the race course, the genuine smile—both the actual smile and the usual smile in his eyes—has been supplanted by a severe expression cast in molten steel, unwavering, eyes turned to black and hidden behind goggles or race shades, cap, helmet or visor set atop a skull sporting a fresh Navy SEAL-style buzz cut. Body just a sandblasted sinew of the tissue that survived the last couple months of 24/7 in the pain cave. There’s not much surviving that process but bones, gristle, streamlined muscle and mitochondria bursting at the seams. From the starting gun to the final turn onto Ali’i Drive, Alexander reveals precisely nothing as to whether he feels good, bad or in between; he’s a vortex, black-hole-like, seeking to achieve and maintain a state of perfect efficiency. And breaking the backs of his competitors.
“He is a very humble guy,” says his manager, Franko Vatterott. “But on the race course he’ll slit your throat.”
Vatterott remembers the days when Alexander didn’t have everything so wired together. In 2004, the early days of organizing the triathlon team known as Tri-Dubai—a professional squad that brought together, for about two years, an international array of champions such as Tim DeBoom, Lisa Bentley, Peter Reid and Simon Lessing, financed by the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates—Vatterott recalls a spring-loaded Australian named Craig Alexander that he and DeBoom recruited. In one of Alexander’s first races for the team, Escape from Alcatraz, Vatterott watched uneasily as his new athlete was tagged early on with a drafting penalty.
“He refused to pull over for the official,” Vatterott says, describing how Alexander road-raged all the way into T2. “He was like a rabid dog.”
An image of Alexander unraveling into a tantrum doesn’t square with today’s image of the obsessively methodical and supremely consistent champion we have come to know over the past six years.
Rather, over the course of the three Ironman World Championships he’s collected since his first in 2008—three of the 54 victories he’s earned since 2002—we’re used to seeing the 39-year-old pressing through a race with the cool facial expression of a computer engineer designing a microchip. Alexander’s poker face gives off little despite the severe strain needed, for example, to fuel splits fast enough to hold off Cam Brown and win Ironman Melbourne as he did this year (50:33 for the swim, 4:24:42 for the bike and 2:38:45 for the run for a 7:57:44 clocking).
Behind the poker face is one of the greatest tactical minds in the sport. One of Alexander’s mental gifts is his memory. “He doesn’t forget a thing,” says Vatterott. “You can ask him about a race in 2005 and he’ll recount it with precise detail. Not just his races: All races.” This gift transcends triathlon, Vatterott adds. “He’s a total sports fan. He can do the same with World Cup soccer, the NBA, tennis.”
“If I’m watching a baseball game on TV and the sportscasters talk about players’ statistics, I’ll remember it,” admits Alexander, who seems a bit puzzled by the ability himself. The upshot of Alexander’s internal hard drive is that he may know his competitors—strengths, weaknesses and otherwise—better than they do themselves.
The word that comes up often when discussing the 2012 version of Craig Alexander is “desire.” While Vatterott talks about how Alexander has matured over the years, he doesn’t suggest that Alexander has cooled off the slightest. “I think he’s hungrier than ever,” he says. “Craig takes great pride in how thoroughly he prepares. He wants to know that no matter how the race turns out, he knew he gave everything in his preparation.”
“He works hard and he desperately wants to win,” adds fellow countryman and triathlon star Greg Bennett, whose time in the sport with Alexander goes back to the early 1990s. Bennett mentioned a conversation they had during a long training ride in the mountains of Boulder in July. “Craig described himself perfectly: ‘White-collar talent with a blue-collar work ethic.’ There is no BS with Craig. He wants the media and the fans to recognize and admire his performances, not his words.” Paul Matthews, a 27-year-old pro and close training partner of Alexander’s, says he sees Alexander’s dedication as a way to pay back his family—wife Neri, daughter Lucy and son Austin—for the time the sport takes up. “The whole family believes in him and he repays their faith 100 times over by working so hard,” Matthews says. “I’ve seen him lying on the couch after dinner half dead, then slowly get up and say, ‘I better get my run done.’”
Longtime friends have witnessed Alexander’s transformation since his less confident racing days. In the early 1990s, John Minto—while playing professional football on the weekends—studied exercise physiology with Alexander and recalls the early days when his mate struggled before competitions. “Early in his career, despite good preparation he would question his credentials to compete,” says Minto. “He would almost be exhausted before the race began.” Minto watched how this psychological instability may have lured Alexander into the trap of abandoning a race plan, possibly “being guilty of racing other people’s races rather than his own.” No longer. “[Now] you cannot discount his learned ability to deal with the race-day physical stress—he knows he can respond positively to the stress rather than submitting to it.”
The preparation that matters most, of course, is the lead-up to September and October. “He smashes himself for six weeks,” says Vatterott. “Before he begins he prepares himself mentally for the toll it’s going to take.” Alexander’s training is a fusion of what has worked from him in the past plus a small percentage of tweaks and additions. “Every year we try to add something new to the mix,” Alexander says.
“He is a ‘net’ learner,” says Minto. “He seeks advice from people he trusts, proven performers, and learns from each of his races. He makes incremental changes to his past preparations but doesn’t throw out what he knows has worked for him in the past. Every session has a purpose and is executed with race-day intensity and mental rehearsal.”
Vatterott adds that one of the striking examples of Alexander’s discipline is that if he’s out for a ride on an easy day, he’ll stick to the readings of the power meter and let anyone—women included—drop him on the ride.
“It’s a sign of insecurity when someone breaks from the plan,” Alexander explains, speaking about both training and racing plans. “I have my benchmark sessions where I go hard to evaluate my fitness. Obviously I’m motivated to nail all those sessions. But there’s no need to flex your muscles to prove something. I’ll do that on race day.”
While Minto allows that occasionally he will see a glimpse of Alexander looking for feedback or reinforcement from the sidelines, mostly he just sees an athlete locked into concentrating on “getting further up the road.”
“I love watching him race,” says Minto. “Everybody gets to see him at his best on race day. I just see my mate unloading the expectations of many as the race unfolds knowing that just for today, there is no tomorrow.”
As the Crow Flies
How the average split times in the 35–39 men’s age group at the 2011 Ironman World Championship measured up to Alexander’s times.