Throwback Thursday: Alexander the Great
We look back at the accomplishments of one of the sport's greatest - Aussie Craig Alexander - for this week's Throwback Thursday.
This story was originally published in our May/June 2013 issue.
In a career full of incredible performances, one of Craig Alexander’s greatest races might just have come at Ironman 70.3 Muskoka in Huntsville, Ont., in 2010. Throughout the bike the rest of the field had pushed the pace as much as they could in hopes that they might tire out the defending world champion before the run.
By the time it was all done, Alexander had decimated them all. After he came across the line over four-minutes down, I walked up to Richie Cunningham, a man considered amongst the best 70.3 athletes in the world, and asked how he was doing.
“I don’t think people will ever understand how incredibly Crowie just ran,” Cunningham said, pointing at Alexander. “To run 71 minutes on that course is incredible. I’m in phenomenal shape right now and he just ran away from me.”
A month later Craig (Crowie) Alexander became the first man in a decade to successfully defend the Ironman world championship title. After the race I asked how he felt.
“I missed the timing a bit,” he said. “I was better in Muskoka.”
Great champions learn from experiences like that. Let there be no doubt – Craig Alexander is a great champion.
Would Michael Jordan have been the icon he remains in the world of basketball had his team won the nba world championship in his first year? Considered the best in the game, it wasn’t until Jordan was able to lift his teammates to a higher level that he took his first championship. During the post-game press conference after nailing the winning shot on the buzzer, Jordan was asked how he managed to always hit the clutch shots when they counted. He laughed and provided the exact number of on-the-buzzer shots that he’d missed in his life.
Jordan learned from each of those experiences, which is what enabled him to be the man everyone trusted with the final shot when a championship was on the line. A man who had been cut from his high school team in grade nine, Jordan spent the rest of the school year dribbling a basketball with his left hand at every opportunity – walking to and from school, even – to ensure that he’d have the skills to make the team the next year.
Craig Alexander is triathlon’s equivalent. While he was a competitive itu short course athlete, it wasn’t until he started to focus on non-drafting Olympic distance races and half-Ironman events that his career really took off. In his first Ironman he finished third. His first world championship appearance saw him finish second. Once he figured the race in Kona out, though, he suddenly became the man to beat. After that runner-up finish to nemesis Chris McCormack in 2007, Alexander took the titles in 2008 and 2009. In 2010 McCormack managed to convince some of the sport’s premier cyclists that they wanted to isolate Alexander on the bike, allowing him to take his second title. Alexander finished fourth that day. After finding himself chasing the leaders for the last half of the bike pretty much on his own, he ran the first 20 miles of the marathon at a suicidal 2:34 pace as he tried to run his way to the win. Even he couldn’t hold that pace all the way to the line – he eventually “faded” to a 2:41 marathon split.
Great champions learn, right? A year later Alexander improved his bike split by 13-minutes, came off the bike first and set a new course record in Kona to take his third Ironman World Championship.
“I was just motivated to have a different mentality going in,” he said. “I wanted to race like someone who had won there before, with that sort of confidence. As much as it hurt for me to lose in 2010, it was probably good for me and was the best thing that happened to me. It makes you re-evaluate things. I’d always felt I was a great bike rider, but I’d never had to show it because the game plan I had was working. In a hot, hard race like Kona…it always pays to be conservative. The race finishes with a run and I was able to win a lot of races that way. It was time for me to show a different string in my bow. I always thought I was a very good bike rider. The thing that is always underestimated about our sport is that, at the end of the day, the person who crosses the finish line first isn’t usually the best runner – it’s the best triathlete. That’s because the way you run is impacted by how strong you are on the bike. In turn, how well you ride and run is impacted by how well you swim. That’s the unique thing about our sport, it’s how all three sports work together.”
Jordan was one of the first athletes to truly market himself as a brand. Legend has it that the first contract renegotiation his agent did with the Chicago Bulls was a simple process – he walked into the room, pointed out exactly how much money the team had made from selling Jordan shirts and made it clear that his client wanted some of that action. It is a sign of how far our sport has come that we’re starting to see our top performers think in similar fashion.
“These days the top guys are all about ‘brands,’” says Australian website First Off the Bike’s editor, Phil Wrochna. “Chrissie Wellington might have retired, but she’s about the lifestyle. Chris McCormack’s brand is to be an outspoken guy who likes to get a reaction from people. Crowie’s brand is about being a really good guy and coming across the finish line holding the banner up high as the champion – a lot.”
The Crowie brand seems to be working. There have been lots of wins over the last 10 years. Alexander is second on the all-time prize money list in triathlon to Greg Bennett, but what’s as important to Alexander is, as Wrochna puts it, the “really good guy” part. It comes as no surprise that when it came to picking one of four pro ambassadors in 2013, the top name on Ironman’s list was Alexander.
“Hopefully I can be a mentor and role model to younger athletes as they work their way through the ranks, the way that I had mentors when I was coming up,” Alexander says, when asked what he hoped to bring to the role. What’s ironic, though, is that Alexander’s already been doing that for years without any prompting from Ironman. The morning of Ironman New Zealand in 2011, Mirinda Carfrae got a text message from Alexander, providing some last-minute encouragement. Carfrae’s partner, Tim O’Donnell, has enjoyed similar mentoring as he moves up to Ironman racing. The list could go on – Alexander thrives on competition and, as far as he’s concerned, the faster they are, the better he is.
“You are a ref lection of your competition,” he says. “You are who you are because of your competition. When they improve, you have to improve. Whatever I’ve won it’s because of my competition, I’m a ref lection of the people I’ve raced.”
But has he managed to lift the standard so high even he can’t stay ahead anymore?
Can a 40-year-old win the Ironman World Championship? How about a brand new dad? How about a man who finally had his first poor race in Kona last October, finishing a disappointing 12th rather than defending his title.
If it were anyone other than Craig Alexander the answer would probably be “no.” In this case, though, you’ll have a tough time finding anyone who will bet against him. Alexander could never do another race again and he’d go down in history as one of the greatest the sport has ever seen. The first Ironman 70.3 world champion. Runner-up in his first appearance in Kona, followed by those two consecutive wins. The reinvention of himself as a cyclist in 2011, the year he became the first person to win both the 70.3 and Ironman world titles in the same year. He’s only the fourth man in history to have won three Kona titles.
That poor race in Kona last year? Chalk that up to a bad back that had started to plague him just before he tried to defend his 70.3 title in Las Vegas last September. Refusing to imply that Sebastian Kienle’s victory was due to anything other than “the best man winning,” Alexander hid the fact that he’d had a reaction to an anti-inf lammatory cream that swelled so much he had to have it drained just days before the race. The back was still in bad shape in Kona, but he’ll have none of that as an excuse.
In fact, Alexander blames himself for the back issues. “I wasn’t good about keeping up with my strength work,” he says. “As you get older, that’s critical.”
While he’ll turn 40 this year, Alexander doesn’t seem to have slowed at all. At the Ironman Asia-Pacific Championship in March, Alexander arrived to defend his title and was considered the man to beat. Even though he almost didn’t make it to the start line.
The arrival of Lani May Alexander at 3:05 a.m. on Tuesday, March 19 embodies the balance in Craig Alexander’s life that he feels is what allows him to compete the way he does.
Nerida (Neri) Alexander is living proof of the saying that there’s a great woman behind every successful man. The two were married in 1999, just as Craig was finishing his university degree in physiotherapy. She’s been alongside him through his early years as a journeyman athlete and was there as the tables began to turn in 2004 and he started to win as much as his rival Chris McCormack.
The Crowie/Macca brand differences are best illustrated in the two books they published after their last championship wins. McCormack’s book was titled I’m Here to Win: A World Champion’s Advice for Peak Performance. Alexander’s was a photographic recount of the year leading up to his record-setting win in Kona called As the Crow Flies. A family friend spent much of the year taking pictures of the Alexander family (Craig and Neri had two children at the time – Lucy and Austin) as he worked towards another Kona win.
Lani was due about 10 days before the race in Melbourne. When the baby still hadn’t arrived on the Monday before the race, Craig told Neri that if the baby wasn’t born that day he wasn’t going to make the trip from their home in Cronulla to Melbourne. She went into labour that night.
After Lani was born, Craig finally got home to wake up the other two children at 6 a.m., took Lucy over to the pool for a swim lesson, and then took everyone over to the hospital to meet their new sister.
In other words, five days before the second biggest race of his 2013 season, Alexander pulled an all-nighter.
“It felt like my days in uni,” he joked later that week. He finally flew to Melbourne on the Thursday morning before the race, spent the afternoon doing television interviews, then went to a two-hour book signing for a sponsor. Friday started with a two-hour fundraising breakfast, was followed by a press conference, more interviews, then another sponsor appearance.
Unfortunately, I was one of the journalists looking for an interview during this busy time. As always, Alexander was happy to oblige.
“The challenge is that I am on such an emotional high, it’s hard to channel that into the race,” he said of the week’s events. “We knew the timing of this race and the timing of the birth. There are a lot of races to do. The major priority was the arrival of bub number three.”
Somehow, through all of that, Alexander came awfully close to winning the race. After following Marino Vanhoenacker off the bike by five minutes, Alexander and Eneko Llanos ran together for over 20 km before the Australian finally “had a bad patch,” which left the Spaniard to chase Vanhoenacker. In the end Llanos would take the title, followed by Vanhoenacker and Alexander. It was one of the brand-developing “hold the banners above the head” races, but an incredible performance considering the week he’d had.
Of course Alexander would have none of that after the race. “I was beaten by two better guys,” he says. “Marino put on a bike clinic out there and Eneko had an incredible run. They’re both incredible champions.”
“It was an honour to be running next to him,” Llanos said of the first half of the marathon.
There won’t be a new arrival to deal with in October. Hopefully the back will be in better shape. Which leaves only one question to be answered: Can a 40-year-old win in Kona? Two years ago Alexander became the oldest man to ever win the Ironman World Championship. Winning at 40? That would truly set Craig Alexander apart from the rapidly shrinking list of men with comparable careers.
Is there one more incredible performance? Based on his record, yes.
Alexander the Great
The Crowie Brand
The results speak for themselves – since 2002 Alexander has finished first more often than he hasn’t.
• Three-time World Champion (2008, 2009, 2011)
• Two-time Ironman 70.3 World Champion (2006, 2011)
• 28 half-Ironman wins
• 2004 Life-Time Fitness “Battle of the Sexes” champion ($200,000 first place prize purse)
Cronulla’s Ironman Legacy
Craig Alexander found himself following in some prestigious footsteps as he ventured into triathlon at the age of 22. The former soccer player quickly found a fast legacy to try and follow at the Cronulla Triathlon Club, undoubtedly the most successful Ironman triathlon club in history.
Club member Greg Welch was the first non-American to win the Ironman World Championship. Michellie Jones solidified her position as one of the greatest athletes the sport has ever seen when she added a Kona title to her resumé. Alexander’s former training partner, Chris McCormack, became the third Australian to win in Kona in 2007. Alexander made it four club members who have won in Kona in 2008.
“I am fortunate because I came through in a golden era in the sport,” Alexander says. “When I started we had Greg Welch, Brad Bevan and Miles Stewart. Then I came to the U.S., and sunk my teeth into the non-drafting scene, I had Simon Lessing, Craig Walton, Simon Whitfield, Greg Bennett, Andy Potts, Hunter Kemper, Bevan Docherty, Hamish Carter. I’ve had to race them all – it’s been my honour. Inside Triathlon named the 10 greatest triathletes of all time and Greg (Bennett) and I keep joking about it, because we’ve raced practically all of them. It’s our generation. The athlete you become is because of who you race. It’s sink or swim.”