In 2010 we here at Triathlon Magazine Canada looked pretty good come race day at the Ironman World Championship. In September, we put Chris McCormack on our cover, and posted this story in the issue. A little over a month later Macca took the Ironman title.
The 2010 Ironman World Championship was filled with drama. The morning of the race defending women’s champion Chrissie Wellington pulled out. That made 2009 runner-up Mirinda Carfrae the woman to beat, and no one could touch the Aussie come race day.
McCormack managed a masterful feat of convincing some of the sport’s best cyclists to work with him on the bike to drop defending men’s champion Craig Alexander, which opened the door for the Aussie to take a second title. It hardly came easy, though – he literally outsprinted Germany’s Andreas Raelert in the last mile to take the win. Marino Vanhoenacker finally had the race we all expected him to show us in Kona for third. Calgary’s Scott Curry was the fastest Canadian male (and lone Canadian pro) with a time of 9:19:39. Canada’s Samantha McGlone finished 16th (9:38:45) in the women’s race. Carol Peters of Delta, B.C., led the way for Canadian age groupers. The 60-year-old won the women’s 60–64 age group with a time of 12:17:24, 20 minutes and 34 seconds ahead of her next closest competitor.
Five other Canadians placed in the top five
Bright, Ont.’s Peter Buehlow (2nd M50–54, 9:52:41),
Nottawa, Ont.’s Claudia Johnston (3rd W35–39, 9:55:35),
La Baie, Que.’s Pierre Lavoie (3rd M45–49, 9:26:03),
Blainville, Que.’s Patrice Kretz (3rd M50–54, 9:53:44) and
Kelowna, B.C.’s Laurelee Welder (4th W55–59, 11:40:39).
Here’s the feature that we published in the September issue of the magazine:
Kona, Hawaii, October 10, 2009 – 1:30PM HAST (Hawaii Aleutian Standard Time)
It was happening again. Chris McCormack – Macca, as the 36-year-old Australian is known in triathlon circles – had come off the bike at the 2009 Ford Ironman World Championship thinking he was going to win the race. He’d made up over three-minutes of his deficit to Chris Lieto over the first stages of the marathon. He remained ahead of defending champion Craig Alexander and Germany’s rising Ironman star, Andreas Raelert.
This was his chance to put the “I told you so” people in their place. The ones who had always said he sweated too much to win in Kona, that he just didn’t have the physiology to be a champ there – they were going to have to eat crow because he was on his way to becoming a two-time Kona champ.
Then, as he started the climb up the hill on Palani Road, the cramps began. Within minutes Alexander and Raelert went by. Faris Al-Sultan went by with a smile on his face. Macca, once again, was being humbled in Kona. After tormenting Al-Sultan and Normann Stadler for years, he was going to get his comeuppance on the Big Island.
As good an athlete as Chris McCormack is – a world short course champion in 1997, a five-time consecutive winner of Ironman Australia, an Ironman winner in Roth, in Frankfurt and, of course, the 2007 Ford Ironman World Champion – his career has not been without controversy. Other pros have accused him of cutting courses and drafting. He arrived in Kona in 2002 boldly stating that the Ironman title was in the bag since he was the best short course athlete in the world and the Ironman competitors couldn’t match him. When he did finally have an almost-win day in Kona, rather than accept and congratulate the winner, Normann Stadler, he boldly told the world’s triathlon press at the post-race press conference that he was the best triathlete in the world.
So, as he walked along the Queen Kaahumanu Highway, there were a few folks in the triathlon world celebrating the fact that Chris McCormack appeared to be out of the race. The NBC cameras stuck around to get some dramatic footage as he struggled along the course. In between the cramps he was trying to make himself throw up – knowing full well that his stomach was so bloated it wasn’t absorbing any of the precious salts and fluids that he needed. Finally the cameras moved on – anticipating that McCormack would once again pull out of the race, in search of another move taking place further up the course.
He didn’t give up, though.
Frankfurt, Germany, June 30, 2010: 12:15 PM Central European Time (CET)
I’ve caught up with Chris McCormack at the Intercontinental Hotel in Frankfurt, Germany. It’s a sizzling hot day in the German financial capital. We’ve patiently waited through an hour-long press conference, held mostly in German, on the top floor of the hotel. He’s waited while I’ve done some quick interviews with some of the other contenders – Andreas Raelert, Cameron Brown. Macca is more relaxed than I’ve seen him in years. Gone is the typical Macca agenda – get just the right word out through the media that will either annoy, anger, or simply intimidate his competition.
He’s all-too-aware that I’ve been critical of his approach in the past. A few years before we spoke about his intimidation tactics with Stadler and Al-Sultan that turned into a media frenzy both before the Ironman European Championship and the Ironman World Championship. As much as I didn’t agree with his approach, he openly explained to me what he was doing. To him, Stadler and Al-Sultan had shown a weakness, one which he could exploit. They were ready to let him get “into their heads.”
What I didn’t know, until now, was how he knew about that weakness. You know why Chris McCormack figured out how to psych out Normann Stadler and Faris Al-Sultan? Because he saw himself in their fragile psyches.
I remember that Ironman debut in 2002. I knew he’d won Ironman Australia earlier that year, but a few months before the race in Kona I’d also listened to Lothar Leder and Peter Reid assure me that Macca would never do well in Kona. “He sweats too much,” they said. I read the pre-race interviews. I sat through the pre-race press conferences. I listened to McCormack downplay the best Ironman athletes in the world.
I probably grinned a bit as I wrote during the coverage that day that McCormack had slowed to a walk. That he’d pulled out of the race after coming off the bike nine-minutes ahead of the rest of the field and suddenly found that running a marathon in Kona was a whole lot different to running one in Australia’s dry heat, or the cooler conditions often found in Germany. A year later, same deal. Macca boldly arrived in Kona, fresh off another win in Australia and another dominating race in Germany. Another melt-down early in the run. This time, though, he would walk to the finish line. 70th place. Not exactly the dominating performance of the self-proclaimed world’s best.
Frankfurt, Germany, June 30, 2010: 1:15 PM Central European Time (CET)
We’ve been chatting for so long that the hotel staff have booted us out of the room at the top of the hotel where the press conference took place. Now we’re sitting in the bar on the ground floor of the Intercontinental, having a coffee. We’re talking about Kona, and those early days.
“Cold, hard facts?” McCormack says. “I quit. I thought that I was better than what I was. In all those shorter races, I was never pressured. In Kona, I was pressured, and I crumbled. The next year, I walked to the finish. The following year, I struggled [on the bike] and got in the car. Then I saw that guy who walked the last miles of the ride with his bike on his shoulder. He had blood all over him.
“I was great in Australia, I was great in Roth, I was great in all these races when things went my way. All my life I wanted to be an athlete like Mike Pigg, a hard ass. I promised myself then that I wasn’t going to stop again.
“What I saw in Normann was me. “You’re a diva, mate. You need things to go right, and [when they do] you’re spectacular. When things aren’t going right, you can’t deal with that.” I attacked him on those grounds. That’s where this war with Normann came – I wasn’t going to quit, I wasn’t going to stop for anything.”
Kona, Hawaii, October 10, 2009 – 2:10PM HAST (Hawaii Aleutian Standard Time)
As he walked along the course, McCormack started to feel a bit better. He started to run and, suddenly, his legs felt great. “Suddenly I felt like the cramps weren’t too bad,” he remembers. “I was so pumped to have ridden out that storm. I went on the hunt.”
He re-passed Al-Sultan. He got past Rasmus Henning. Suddenly he was making ground on Andreas Raelert. Eventually he would finish fourth. Not as good as the win, not as good as his second place finish, but not bad.
Frankfurt, Germany, June 30, 2010: 1:21 PM Central European Time (CET)
In fact, “not bad” is hardly how McCormack describes the race.
“The satisfaction from the race came from overcoming that storm,” he said as we order our second round of coffee. “From a personal level, if I’m honest with myself, my best ever performance in Kona was last year, my second ever was when I came second to Normann, my third was the year I won. I didn’t win last year, but I gave my best effort and was beaten by better guys.”
No, I didn’t choke on my coffee. It wasn’t the first time that I’d heard McCormack actually congratulate the men ahead of him after Kona. The man who I lambasted in an editorial the year he arrogantly shot down Stadler had been equally as gracious a year earlier in Frankfurt at the press conference there. Ironically, he’d been fourth on that day, after surging towards the lead during the marathon.
McCormack’s knowledge of the sport rivals, if not exceeds, my own. He can rhyme off a list of two-time Kona winners. He can give you splits for Mark Allen and Dave Scott’s race in 1989. He’s as avid a spectator of ITU events as he is of the Ironman.
“I just love triathlon,” he says. “I love the sport. I’ve been doing it for 21 years. I’ve watched a lot of things change. I’ve seen a lot of stuff implemented. I’ve seen the sport on the short course level become part of the Olympics. I’ve seen it go from non-drafting to drafting. In Ironman I’ve seen the sport definitely evolve. Even if I’m not competitive in a few years I’ll still race as an amateur.
“I have immense respect for the younger guys coming into the sport. A lot of the pros my age like to reflect on how good we were, but I have a completely different view. I look at Allistair Brownlee and Javier Gomez and these other athletes and know that they would destroy me. They’re an absolute pleasure to watch. I feel like we played an integral role in the development of the ITU, so I don’t have to compare myself with Allistair Brownlee. I think he has a stage to play on because of the things that I did in my career.”
I can’t help but ask how he hopes to be remembered in the sport.
“I think I’m going to be tagged and labeled as the guy who always spoke his mind. I’m OK with that. I think my passion for the sport has sometimes been confused with cockiness because I don’t think that people have the same passion for it that I do. I think a lot of guys do it because they’re good athletes. They have passion because they’re successful. I have passion because it’s my sport. I love it, I live for it. I want to be remembered as a guy who always went for it all. For a guy who didn’t settle.”
Kona, Hawaii, October 10, 2009 – 3:10PM HAST (Hawaii Aleutian Standard Time)
McCormack finishes the Ironman World Championship. Fourth place. A 2:55 marathon, despite having walked for much of a four mile stretch. He’s almost four minutes behind winner Craig Alexander, a man who was once a friend, but now will simply say “we don’t get along,” when asked about McCormack. Once again there’s controversy – McCormack is the only member of the top-five who doesn’t attend the post-race press conference. A chance to show that he can be a gracious loser is lost.
Frankfurt, Germany, June 30, 2010: 2:17 PM Central European Time (CET)
It’s time to stop drinking coffee. Our conversation has covered everything from writing a book of Ironman history to the new professional rules to kids to … well, there’s a reason this story is titled “Macca Unplugged” – nothing seems to be out of bounds during this interview.
In a few minutes Macca and I would embark on a 50 km bike ride. At times he would pull ahead and pound on the pedals, moving our speed up to 48 km an hour for one flat stretch of perfect German pavement. At other times we’d ride side by side, continuing our conversation.
Before we head off, though, I have to know what it is that keeps him going back to Kona. If he’s wrestled through the psychological mess that the race put him through, what more does he need?
“For me it’s an event that’s been very, very difficult,” he says. “I like the fact that I’ve had my failings there and come out the other side, and I like where I’m at now. I could walk away from the sport now and I could be content with what I learned about myself in Kona and where I stand in Kona. Of course, though, I want to win another Kona.”
Of course he does. Whether he does, or not, though, he’s certainly earned a spot in the history of the sport. One that wasn’t easily earned. You don’t become an ITU World Champion unless you’re dedicated and extremely talented. Chris McCormack has learned, the hard way, that you don’t become any sort of champion without those same attributes.
Kevin Mackinnon, the editor of Triathlon Magazine Canada, is also the Managing Editor of Ironman.com