Alistair Brownlee has a glittering, formidable triathlon résumé over 13 years that includes Olympic gold medals in 2012 and 2016, Commonwealth Games gold in 2014, ITU World Championships golds in 2009 and 201, and 35 international Olympic distance wins. After that 10-year phase of his career in short distance, a recent switch to middle distance and Ironman competition has rewarded him with some Ironman 70.3 victories. He took silver at the 2018 and 2019 Ironman 70.3 World Championships. Although those losses were by short margins, they left him disappointed that his mastery over increased distances has so far fallen short.
With his occasional injuries, he has proven himself to be quite human. In 2010, he suffered a stress fracture of his femur which put him on the sidelines for half a year and left him unable to defend his ITU World Championship title. In August 2015, he had surgery to correct a persistent ankle problem which had bothered him for two years - but he recovered just in time for his second Olympic gold. After his Rio Olympic victory, he chose to pursue long course with an eye on Kona. In August 2017, he had hip surgery to correct persistent pain and missed the 2017 Ironman 70.3 World Championship.
Since then, Alistair has remained healthy and has moved inexorably toward an appointment with Madame Pele on the Queen K. Not to forget the rising talent pool at the Ironman distance – a crop of young Olympic distance heroes who are taking on the Ironman distance veterans who come armed with record 112-mile bike splits and sub-2:45 marathons.
Slowtwitch: You said you were drawn to Ironman Hawai'i when you were quite young. Can you recall how you discovered one of those early races and the protagonists? Did you identify with any of them?
Alistair Brownlee: I don’t remember watching it on TV. I’m pretty sure it was not on the television in the UK in the late 90s. I have read about it in triathlon press. If I’m honest the only thing I can remember from that era was staying up late into the night to watch the Sydney Olympics when I was 12.
ST: At first glance, were you overwhelmed by the distances? The wind? The heat? Or did you think: I can do this? But Olympics first?
Alistair: I wasn’t overwhelmed by the distance. I just thought it was something that was so far away that it I’d probably never get there. Far away in terms of distance and time. I didn’t think I could be a top-level athlete until I won the World Junior Champs in 2006.
ST: Best Kona advice from Mark Allen? Dave Scott? One of your contemporaries?
Alistair: Watch the green bottles on the wall and try to be the last one to fall.
ST: First time Kona experiences vary wildly. Surprisingly disappointing times were had by Simon Lessing (DNF), Javier Gomez (11th in 2018), and of course Mark Allen’s struggles in his first five cracks at the legendary Ironman. What lessons, if anything, can you draw from them?
Alistair: Kona is unique, difficult to get right and needs to be respected.
ST: First timers who hit home runs include: Luc Van Lierde (course record win time that lasted 15 years), Patrick Lange (a 3rd place in his debut coupled with breaking Mark Allen's 28 year-old marathon record, followed by two straight wins breaking the eight hour barrier), and of course Chrissie Wellington (4 straight wins, retired undefeated at the Iron distance). What do you draw from those experiences?
Alistair: It is possible to get it right with the right amount of respect and good preparation.
ST: For many years you were the most feared runner at the Olympic distance – and your 28:32 at the Stanford track meet bears this out. What was it like emotionally and rationally when Jan Frodeno - who is 6 or 7 years older than you - ran away from you at the 2018 Ironman 70.3 World Championship? Was your confidence in your run shaken? Did Gustav Iden’s run [away from you] at Nice have a similar effect? Now you are seven years older.
Alistair: In both races I was happy with my performance. In 2018, I finished knowing I’d done all I could in (a limited) preparation and during the race. Jan was just faster. In 2019 I was capable of running much quicker, [I] just struggled on the day.
ST: With your focus on Kona this year, was your long course training for Kona ideal for Nice?
Alistair: I focused my training on Nice. I think endurance training is endurance training, and only small specific changes need to be made for different formats of racing.
ST: Your bike skills were at full command on Nice’s hills and sharp corners. Could you/should you have adjusted your pace to have a stronger run?
Alistair: Yes of course! That question is the same as asking: If there were no swim/bike before the run, would you run faster?
ST: Still, would such a move ever make sense? Your history seems to indicate you prefer full gas from the start.
Alistair: Yes. I think that kind of move probably makes a lot of sense in Kona.
ST: A triathlon expert, coach and commentator opined that your career strength came in moderate to cool temperatures in middle distance triathlons - especially at Ironman Cork. Have you had what you would consider a strong performance in very hot conditions in a long course race?
Alistair: No, I haven’t had a strong performance in a long course race in very hot conditions. I don’t think I’ve even done one yet. Hopefully Kona is a good place to start.
ST: Why did you say your leg strength faded near the end of Ironman Cork? 2:51 is not shabby at all, but if you are well placed after the bike, a Kona win will require a 2:45 or significantly faster. What have you done in training and planning, nutrition and hydration to meet that challenge?
Alistair: I was capable of running a 2.45 in Cork comfortably but didn’t need to. In preparation for Kona I’ve done some long runs in the heat and practiced a nutrition strategy that I plan to use in the race.
ST: If my recollection holds, the lightest Kona winner is Greg Welch. You were once listed at 6 feet tall and 137 pounds. So, are you strong enough to win here?
Alistair: I’m significantly stronger than 137 pounds! I don’t think that question can be answered with weight alone. You can be small and strong, or big and weak. I’m neither! The only answer I can give is - I don’t know, and won’t know until I’ve had a few cracks at it.