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In 2010, at the age of 37, Macca beat the odds and won the Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii for a second time in what many called the most dramatic finish in the race’s history. Macca’s journey to athletic greatness is more than just one of physical perseverance. After coming in fourth in Hawaii in 2009, Macca returned to the island on a mission: He was there to win. A game plan containing a new strategic approach to winning brought him first across the finish line.
Chris McCormack has dedicated his life to training for-and winning-the Ironman Hawaii, one of the most grueling tests of mental and physical endurance in the world. The race challenges athletes to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and run a full marathon, 26.2 miles, using all their strength and willpower to overcome the incredibly harsh conditions.
In I’M HERE TO WIN Macca provides concrete training advice for everyone-from weekend warriors who casually compete to seasoned veterans who race every week to armchair athletes looking for an extra push-and provides insight into the mind of a great champion with excitement and inspiration on every page.
I’M HERE TO WIN is also available as an enhanced e-book with embedded video and audio.
Table of Contents
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They said there was no way I could win the 2010 Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona. It was simply out of the question.
Anyway, that was the conventional wisdom. I was too big, too old, too hot, and too comfortable with my accomplishments. I had won the race three years earlier, but most of the "experts" saw my 2007 win as nothing more than the big red ribbon that would wrap up a stellar career. In their eyes, I should have made it my graceful exit from a role as the leading figure in the sport. In other words, "Macca, here's your hat, what's your hurry?" The unspoken consensus was that I was no longer a force to be reckoned with in the world's most important one-day endurance race.
When I landed in Hawaii back in 2002 to do my first World Championships, people were saying, "This guy's going to win ten of these things." After all, I had won races on every continent and dominated World Cup short-course racing in Europe, Asia, and North America as far back as 1997. I had captured virtually every major title in the sport. I was Global Triathlete of the Year and Competitor of the Year in 2001, and the only triathlete ever to hold the USA Professional Championship Title and the USA Sprint Course Title in the same season.
Since moving to the Ironman distance in 2002, I had won Ironman Australia five years in a row. In 2003 I had lost my first European Ironman—the prestigious Challenge Roth in Roth, Germany—to five-time winner Lothar Leder in an incredible sprint to the finish, then come back to take that race every year from 2004 to 2007. I had crushed the field on the 70.3-mile half Ironman circuit. With that record, I think the entire world presumed that I would dominate in Kona in the same way. I blew into town in October of '02 cocky and confident. In my first television interview, I said simply, "Mate, I'm here to win!"
Well, that win took six years and was the toughest challenge of my career. Kona humbled me, as it does nearly everyone. In 2002, I failed to finish after I melted on the marathon in the infamous lava fields north of Kailua-Kona, where the baking heat can overwhelm a body that is already near the end of its endurance. In 2003 I walked to a humiliating 9:32:11 finish. In 2004 I quit on the run, unable to take the heat-induced cramping. In 2005 I came back from near failure on the bike to finish sixth with the fastest run split of the day. In 2006, I finished second to Normann Stadler, who had set the new bike course record that day, so I was moving in the right direction. Finally, in 2007, I mastered the heat and humidity and captured the title I had craved my entire career, the one that no one—including, from time to time, me—had believed I would ever win. It was the jewel in my triathlon crown, so to speak.
My return in 2008 was seen as a formality; of course I would defend my title, everyone said, but for me it was a big race—much more than a formality. Unfortunately, I had a mechanical failure on the bike that year and my fellow Australian Craig Alexander was crowned champion. When Craig won again in 2009, the sport was more than ready to pin the mantle on someone new. Nice career, Macca, thanks for everything, time to make room for a new generation.
It was a shock: I was the most accomplished triathlete on the planet at any distance, had already proven that I could win in Kona, and had come in fourth in 2009, yet I was being written off as irrelevant. It just goes to show you how quickly you can be dismissed in favor of the Next Big Thing.
Kona, 2008 and 2009
The thing is, I knew I could win in 2010. In 2008, my bike failure had torn me apart because I hadn't even had the chance to defend my title. I never said a word about it; Kona is a very small place, and I didn't want to take anything away from Craig or the other competitors by making excuses. I have too much respect for them and for the sport. After my gear breakdown forced me to quit in the bike stage, I went back to my room at the King Kamehameha Hotel, watched the top pros finish the bike stage and start the marathon, and saw Craig cross the line to win his first title. I've been left off Olympic teams and had a lot of things happen in my career, but that was the most difficult thing I have ever dealt with in the sport. I felt cheated. An equipment failure makes all the time, training, suffering, and pain meaningless. I hadn't lost; the race had been stolen from me by something beyond my control. It was galling.
I went away and studied the event, and I came back in 2009 ready to challenge Craig. Kona was a race that suited him; he's a smaller guy and he loves the heat and humidity, which are always a part of the challenge of Kona. I knew he was coming into his own in Hawaii. But in the prerace interviews I said, "Crowie (Craig Alexander's nickname) has borrowed my title, and he's never beaten me in Kona." Which he hadn't; since I had been forced to drop out because of an equipment failure, he hadn't really defeated me mano a mano. "I've raced him since 1994 in Australia, and in maybe a hundred races he's beaten me four times. I know he feels the pressure of that." Not everyone appreciated me saying that; speaking my mind hasn't always made me popular. But I was simply highlighting the fact that his bike is his weakness, telling everyone how I was going to win and creating some self-doubt in Craig—playing the mental game I've used so effectively over the years.
Well, you know what they say about best-laid plans. In 2009, I had a terrible swim. I put myself in a position to win on the bike but Craig ultimately caught me on the run—he's one of the best marathoners ever to compete at Kona—and won his second consecutive title. And that was it. Macca's done. But I knew that even after taking my awful swim into account, my 2009 performance had been spectacular, perhaps even better than my win in 2007.
I lost three and a half minutes in the swim for reasons we've still never figured out; I was behind blokes I've never been behind in my whole career. This is the problem with some people in our sport: they watch results, not races. If they knew anything about the trends of an athlete, they would have said, "Hold on, there's something wrong with Macca's swim there." I had never swum fifty-four minutes; I'd always swum fifty. I was on the back foot from the swim, fought to catch the front group on the bike and rode minutes into them (I cut into their lead). Then I fell apart in the marathon, dropped back to seventh, and pulled myself together to come in fourth in the event, four minutes down from the winner. If I have a more typical swim and don't lose that three and a half minutes early on, then boom—I'm only thirty seconds down from the leader and racing Craig for the title.
So I wasn't deluding myself. It wasn't that I couldn't compete with the guys who had finished ahead of me in the swim; I knew I could. Believe me, I never want to be that worn-out heavyweight boxer who keeps coming back looking for one more night of glory only to get his face punched in. Every athlete can feel when it's time to quit. When it's time for me to retire, I'll be happy to go home and spend more time with my wife and daughters. But in 2009, I didn't feel that way. Even as everybody in the sport was busy writing my obituary, I was ready to show that the reports of my demise were premature.
Hacking the Race
When I said I was coming back to Kona in 2010, everyone was stunned. I heard the word dinosaur a few times. People said things like, "Here goes McCormack, gobbing off again, he needs to convince himself so he goes out and tells anyone who will listen what he's going to do to win the event. He's a dreamer. He could never drop these guys on the bike, and Alexander's too good a runner. Macca's too old, he can't do it."
Well, I knew I could win. In the off-season I did what so many other triathletes don't do: I broke down the race and looked at it strategically. I think of myself as a computer hacker looking for a way to break into a system. When I watched film of the 2009 race, I saw that the runners were winning the event because of how the rest of us were handling the bike stage. I noticed that on the bike, from mile marker forty to mile marker eighty (where we turn off Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway and head up to the turnaround at the town of Hawi), the riders were tending to settle in instead of pushing to get position on the other athletes. The area is notorious for its treacherous crosswinds, and everybody was playing it safe in the winds. This meant that while on their bikes, the best runners got to rest their legs, their fitness brought them back to Kona, and then they ran away from the field in the marathon.
I knew that I had "hacked" the race. This was a distinct weakness in the way the nonelite runners were doing the race. Now I needed to convince the athletes I knew from the European racing circuit, who were intimidated by the dominance of the runners, that these guys were beatable with the right strategy. We needed to push the pace in that crosswind stretch of the bike. We would gain time on the top runners and force them to work on the section back into town, "burning up their matches" on those legs of theirs and preventing them from running their best times in the marathon. We were allowing these guys to kill us on the marathon because we were playing their game. No more. I intended to make the runners play my game!
In every interview I did with the triathlon press in the next year, I said the same thing: "Guys, this is the formula to break the runners. I'm going to do it. Come with me." Predictably, other competitors thought I was crazy. Everybody was so blinded by the new generation of Ironman athletes—Craig Alexander, Andreas Raelert, Terenzo Bozzone, Rasmus Henning—that they saw them as unbeatable. But then why show up at the race at all? I knew they were beatable, and I started calling it out in early 2010.
There was a method to my madness, of course. I was trying to build a pack, because Ironman biking is pack biking. Drafting (getting behind another cyclist so he blocks the wind for you) is illegal in Ironman, but riding in groups allows you to use other cyclists to help maintain your pace. That way, you avoid inadvertently slowing down and having to expend more energy getting back up to speed. Pack biking also lets me observe other athletes and watch for weaknesses I can exploit. So I started talking to athletes like the German Timo Bracht, a two-time Ironman Europe champion who also won the 2010 Ironman Arizona. I said, "Timo, you're a solid swimmer and an exceptional bike rider, but guys like Craig Alexander and Rasmus Henning are consistently better runners than you. Why would you want to get off the bike with them when you've got a weapon like the bike ride? Go home, speak with your coaches, and you'll see that we have to attack in the crosswinds. It will open up this race and we'll take their legs out from underneath them." I wanted to plant the seeds, because I assume everyone is there to win, and I was telling them a strategy that I knew would work.
Most athletes work themselves, not the race. But if all you have is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail, right? For many athletes and coaches, the only tool they have is training more. Slow in the swim? Train harder. Couldn't keep up with the pack on the bike? Ride more miles. They make the race all about the physical, and it's not. An Ironman lasts eight hours for the pros, but races are won or lost in moments, when one athlete makes a move that either gives him an advantage or proves to be a mistake. Experience and strategy help you discover in which moments to spend your limited endurance in order to give yourself the best chance to win.
Each race is a puzzle, and if you know what to look for and are willing to get out of that training-only mind-set for a while, you can get an edge on the field. I think this mentality comes from when I was a runner as a kid. I would break down the race I had just done on the drive home with my father: "Dad, I was feeling good and then at four kilometers, they all took off up the hill!" My dad was very analytical, and he would say, "Why do you think that is?" And I'd say, "Well, it was hard."
My dad would say, "Exactly, son, that was a key point in the race. So what do you think you need to do when you race there next year?" And I'd say, "I need to be stronger on that hill, Dad." I would find the missing piece in my puzzle like this. Now I had found that missing piece for Kona, and I knew that if I could find other athletes to work it with me, I could win the race.
Unfortunately, my public campaign to find allies against the runners didn't make me popular. What I saw as honest dialogue about leveraging the limitations of other athletes, others called cocky and disrespectful. A lot of competitors, many of them amateurs, said I wasn't acting in the spirit of the race and all that. But I'm a professional athlete. I'm not looking for a finisher's T-shirt and for announcer Mike Reilly to say, "You are an Ironman!" as I cross the finish line. My job description is simple: Win race. That's how I make my living. So while I won't show poor sportsmanship, I will do everything I can within the rules to give myself an advantage, and if that ruffles the feathers of some age groupers, I'm sorry about that.
Still, I think I'm pretty misunderstood. So I'm here to set the record straight about who I am, what I do, and how I do it. My career has been about a lot more than physical talent or dedicated training. Other factors have set me apart: engaging in subtle psychological warfare with other athletes, looking honestly at my weaknesses and systematically finding ways to overcome them, looking outside the sport for solutions from other disciplines, and more. Put it all together and you get the most successful career in the history of the sport. This is the story behind the success.
"I'm Here to Win!"
My journey to the Ford Ironman World Championship began years before I treaded the waters of Kailua Bay, Hawaii, on race morning, ready to turn the world's most prestigious endurance race into my latest conquest. Coming to Kona had been the only thing that my best mate, Sean Maroney, and I had talked about for more than a decade. As idealistic young swim-bike-runners, our scheme was both simple and utterly outrageous: we would work our way through the world's top triathlons one by one, not caring if we won or lost, only caring that we had the experience, met the pretty girls, and had a great time. We would conclude this "bucket list" of races by doing Ironman Hawaii together, and then probably return to Australia to bask in the glory of our adventures.
We actually went to some of those races. While I became a professional, Sean decided to pursue a career as a lifeguard in Hawaii (and who can blame him?) with some occasional swim and triathlon coaching mixed in. But if he found out that I was doing a race that we had on our "list," he would drop everything. "You're doing Chicago?" he'd say. "I'm coming." I'd buy him a ticket, he'd fly to the race, and I'd race. After I won the Mrs. T's Chicago Triathlon in 2000, we met Spencer Smith (a terrific British world champion in short-course racing who's also won races of Ironman distance) and other guys we had worshipped. We'd play it cool, but when we got back to the hotel room, we were jumping on the bed and shouting, "Look at the trophy with all the names!" We were like little kids let loose to play with their idols… which we were.
I'd become world champion, and Sean had been on the whole journey with me. And as 2002 rolled around, it looked like the most important part of our boyhood fantasy might actually become a reality. That was the year I'd turned my back on the Australian triathlon program and my short-course racing background and started racing Ironmans. Ignorance was bliss, I suppose: I showed up in May 2001 at the Wildflower Half Ironman without a strategy, so I just took what I did in short-course racing and doubled it. A half Ironman is twice the distance of a short-course race, so that made sense to me. I broke the course record.
Then I went to Ironman Australia and beat three world champions to win my first full Ironman, joining Luc Van Lierde and Dave Scott as the only athletes to win the first Ironman races we entered. Best of all, winning Ironman Australia qualified me to race at Kona in October 2002. I was going to Hawaii!
Joy and Sorrow
That was in April, and things got even better. In June 2002, Sean rang me so excited that I barely needed the phone to hear him. I'd been out training, so my phone had been ringing off the hook; clearly, he'd gotten to about beer number ten by the time I picked up.
"I'm in, you bastard!" he shouted. He'd been celebrating in typical Sean fashion because he had finished high enough in the Keauhou Kona Half Ironman race that he qualified for Ironman Hawaii as an age grouper. "We're going to Kona! I'm coming over to watch you win Alcatraz for the fourth time."
I had already won the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon three times, and I would be going for a fourth later in 2002, trying to equal the record set by American Mike Pigg. Sean absolutely idolized Mike Pigg. Mike was a swim-biker at heart, which was how Sean saw himself. Sean's mother knew that we lived for triathlon, but we'd drive her insane watching videos of Mike Pigg and Mark Allen, my favorite triathlete, all day long. She'd finally have enough, say something like, "Would you boys go outside and play?" and chase us outdoors. I raced Alcatraz because of Mike, so I was thrilled to be in a position to match his record.
Sean said, "I'm going out tonight to party, and then I'm going to come over and watch you in Alcatraz, you bastard. Can I stay with you?" I was traveling with my wife, Emma-Jane, but of course I said yes. Sean was my mate. We'd manage.
We were over the moon. I was going to match one of our childhood heroes, and then we were going to fulfill the dream that we'd cooked up as teenagers watching the Kona race on television in Sydney. I could hardly believe it. I was happier for Sean than I was for myself. Between the two of us he was the one with more raw talent, but he could never put aside the partying to focus on training. He was just a force of nature: loud, positive, generous, and always out for fun. I loved him for it. That was what drew us together as kids; life was a big party.
I went to bed, planning to call Sean the next day in midhangover. The next morning, I got an e-mail from Mrs. Maroney, Sean's mother. I had never gotten an e-mail from her before, which set off alarm bells in my head. I opened it and the message absolutely left me speechless:
Darling Chris, Sean died last night.
What? No details, just those few chilling words. I thought, Maybe I read it wrong or something. Immediately, I rang Sean's mobile phone. No answer. Again. No answer. Again. No answer. Now I was getting very scared. So I rang Mrs. Maroney.
"Mrs. Maroney, it's Chris." She burst into tears, and I knew right away that Sean really was dead. It was the hardest phone call I have ever made. He had been celebrating his Kona qualifier at a hotel in Honolulu and fallen to his death from a twenty-seventh-floor balcony. He died on June 6, 2002. He was twenty-seven years old.
I said, "Mrs. Maroney, I'm getting on a plane right now. I'm coming home."
As soon as I got off the phone, crying myself, I bought my ticket. The earliest flight I could get didn't leave for twenty-four hours. I had to get back to Los Angeles and pack everything. Then my phone rang. It was Mr. Maroney, Sean's father. I remember that he said, "Chris, we've talked about it, and we want you to go on and do Escape from Alcatraz."
I said, "No, no, no, Mr. Maroney. That's the last thing on my mind."
I remember him saying, "Chris, Sean's last moment of glee was the thought that you would equal Mike Pigg's record."
My mind reeled. I said, "Mr. Maroney, he was my best friend. My mind's not in the right place. I can't win Escape from Alcatraz. I'm coming home."
Mr. Maroney was the assistant commissioner of police in New South Wales, and a very assertive man, an absolute gentlemen. "No," I recall him saying in a tone that had no room for compromise. "You do that race and you come home. But you are going to win that race."
I didn't know what to say. Then I said the only thing I could. "Okay, Mr. Maroney. I'll give it my best shot." Emma and I flew to San Francisco so I could do Escape from Alcatraz.
Escape from Alcatraz is a cold, tough race that starts off in the icy waters of San Francisco Bay. The main threat to my fourth win there was Greg Bennett, a guy I've raced my whole career. He had just won the World Cup and was in incredible running form. But Escape from Alcatraz is really won on the bike. I figured I could get away from the pack on my bike and then post the third- or fourth-fastest run to win.
I was wearing a black armband in memory of Sean, and everybody knew that my mate had died. It was big news in Australia. The commentators knew how close Sean's and my relationship had been, and I think they probably wrote me off as a threat on that day. I would have written myself off; my heart was halfway across the world with Sean's family.
The race started, and after the swim Greg Bennett surprised me by escaping on the bike. We got off the bikes and started the run, and Greg had a substantial lead over me. Damn. I looked at the sky as I ran and told Sean, "Sorry, mate." I was past the halfway point in the race, thinking, Okay, I'm not going to win, fine. I'm going to get on the plane, get back to Australia, and just deal with my mate. I had never rationalized defeat in races; it was one of my strengths. I always kept my mind positive and found ways to keep going. But that day, the only chance I had was if Greg Bennett blew up.
Then I saw an ambulance coming toward me, and they gave me a split. "One minute, Macca," meaning that Bennett was one minute ahead of me. I figured that he was really probably two minutes ahead by then; he's a great runner, better than I am. But then I kept getting more splits. People said, "Forty-five seconds, Macca!" "Forty seconds, he's gone!" Impossible, I thought. Greg Bennett never blew up. He had never, ever blown up in his entire career. This was only an eight-mile run. Greg could run eight miles in his sleep.
As we dropped down off the hilly section of the course, I was starting to hear something. It sounded like a motorbike. The race is on winding trails and you can't see far ahead. But there was this motorbike rising up out of the trees and going around the corner. It was the lead chase bike, following the leader—Greg Bennett. He was falling apart.
I couldn't believe it. I had been worrying about coming in second and now… I dropped down the hill and there was Greg Bennett going sideways, absolutely falling to pieces. I floored it and heard the crowd cheering. Greg was in such disarray that as I ran past him I said, "Bennett, are you all right?" But he was in another zone. I took off and ended up getting the win. Greg ended up finishing seventeenth.
It was a bloody miracle. I won my fourth title and equaled Mike Pigg's record. Mike himself greeted me at the finish line and said something like, "So sorry to hear about your friend." I was there with Emma, sobbing, telling her what happened. I still couldn't believe it. My win couldn't have been more unlikely if lightning had vaporized Greg on the spot. I went into the medical tent to see if he was all right.
As I recall, he said, "I don't know what happened, man. One minute I was cruising along, the next thing it was like someone punched me in the head, a knockout punch. I didn't know where I was." But walking out with Emma, I thought, I know exactly what happened. Maroney was out here saying, "You're going to win this, you bastard."
While I was racing, back home they were burying Sean. The cream of the city's triathlon and swimming community attended his funeral. I couldn't make it, but I sent a statement that Pauline Maroney, Sean's mum, read. In it, I called Sean "the Halley's Comet of friends," because they only come around once in a lifetime.
Tempting the Island Gods
Against that backdrop of events and emotion, I went to Kona for my first Ford Ironman World Championship. Outwardly, I was trying to be Mister Cool; inwardly, I was excited beyond excited. I went out to the Energy Lab (the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii, a big facility and the place where the marathon course turned back toward town) and took pictures like a tourist. I had no idea how to act around the world-class triathletes who I saw all over town. I didn't know what protocol was. I felt like a tennis player walking onto the court at his first Wimbledon. Did I swing my racket? Wave at the crowd?
Even though I had never been there before, I felt like I knew the race. I'd watched it on television since I was a kid. I could tell you the names of the winners and their splits. I knew the legendary spots where the race was won or lost: Palani hill, the crosswinds coming down from Hawi, the lava fields. I couldn't wait to get to the lava fields, which just shows you how completely ignorant I really was. I was coming off dominating wins in my first two races ever over two hours—Wildflower (considered the unofficial half-Ironman championship) and Ironman Australia. I expected to do well at Kona.
When I got to town, I discovered that there was already talk about me. Older athletes were speculating about the twenty-nine-year-old who had crushed Wildflower and run through legends like Peter Reid at Ironman Australia. Apparently, the talk was that I was capable of anything in Kona. They were worried about me because I was a wild card, and I liked that. I felt incredibly confident.
But I also felt strange. Walking around Kailua with Emma was weird, because I had always felt that Sean, my best mate, would be there with me. We would have coffee at Lava Java together. We would swim the course off the Kailua-Kona Pier. But none of those things would happen now. Still, I was here, and after the gods somehow intervened to give me a near-impossible win at Alcatraz, I was sure I would be able to make Sean proud by dominating in Hawaii. I was excited, nervous, and ready.
It was with that spirit that I sat down for my first prerace interview. It's a standard thing: the network (that year, NBC) brings athletes into a media room and asks a series of pretty basic questions. Going into the interview, I had a goal: to make the other athletes worry about me, even fear me. But that wasn't the template the interviewer was reading from. The media was expecting the same kinds of answers they got from all the other athletes who'd come to Kona in recent years: "I've trained really hard, I'm just grateful to be here," and so on. But that's not what I gave them.
The reporter asked me if I was worried about the race because of my lack of experience. What kind of a question is that? I said, "No. I think I can win this race."
- On Sale
- May 23, 2011
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Center Street