The great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Rashomon tells and retells its dramatic tale from several wildly different points of view. Right after Ironman Hawaii, the articulate and insightful two-time champion Chris McCormack shared with Slowtwitch the complex strategies, emotions and mind games he employed in his stirring duel with Germany’s Andreas Raelert. That evening, Raelert missed the post race press conference -- presumably taking care of medical issues or an extended drug test. And thus, deadline looming, I went with McCormack’s fascinating recollections and missed Raelert’s point of view of their epic battle.
So when Raelert was hanging out in a supportive role for his brother Michael at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship at Clearwater, Florida, he graciously accepted a request to recount his battle with McCormack. Unlike Rashomon, Raelert’s story of the Ford Ironman World Championship men’s battle doesn’t differ wildly on the facts. But Raelert’s accounting shows that intelligent strategy, sharp psychology and great sportsmanship was at work on both sides of the battle. .
Slowtwitch: You came out of the water 9 second ahead of McCormack (51:27 to 51:36) then he gained it all back in T1 (1:43 to 1:54) and you started the bike virtually together. Was there ever a point when you weren’t aware of McCormack?
Andreas Raelert: Looking back to the whole race, there was never a point when we were separate by more than two minutes. So we almost did the race shoulder to shoulder.
ST: McCormack said he made a surge near the end of the bike and got about 90 seconds on you going into T2. Why did you let him go?
Andreas: On the bike course on the way back from Hawi to Kona, we were pretty much running the whole part together. I had a really good feel about my ride – and I was thinking Macca was going for a move the last 20 kilometers. And yeah, I was prepared for this move and exactly this happened. At this point in time, I thought maybe it’s too much energy, I’m gonna wait for the run. I could stay with him but I didn’t feel it was the right time.
ST: Were you trying to hold back from a surge that would have tapped into some anaerobic energy you needed at the end?
Andreas: Maybe. Kind of. I figured this minute and a half cost me maybe 5 minutes of extra energy I had to expend on the marathon. So you always have to think about this strategy. Macca he is such a great strategist. I thought just it was too high a cost to gain one minute – to make this massive output.
ST: When you got to T2 and started the run, what was the damage?
Andreas: When I got to transition, I was almost one minute down on him. And then he put another 90 seconds on me in the first part [of the run] I knew he was starting very fast and I was prepared for this. So I wasn't really scared. Because I thought in Ironman races he is doing this very often. It is typical of him and also his strategy. Then I started to make time on him.
[At Mile 9 of the run Macca was 2:25 behind Chris Lieto, who was fading. Raelert was 4:50 down to Lieto – 2:25 behind Macca]
ST: You seemed to keep a very steady pace calculated to catch him without surging?
Andreas: Yeah absolutely. This type of racing, it is all about the mental game to do the right things at the right time. Even if you think these surges are too much risk, it worked out perfectly for Macca. No doubt about this.
ST: When did you catch him?
Andreas: When we got to the Energy Lab, he lost a lot of time. I think I made up almost one minute on him. I remember when I went into Energy Lab I was 1:15 behind him and when I came out I was 25-30 seconds behind.
ST: You made up 45-50 seconds there.
Andreas: To this point I thought maybe he is struggling. But he got back on his feet and it took me a very long time to catch him.
ST: McCormack said he knew you were making up 10 seconds a mile on him and he decided to take his time in the Energy Lab, make sure he took in plenty of gels, drinks, and salt, and surprise you by being fresh when you caught him. Just when did you catch him?
Andreas: I would say within six kilometers of the finish, right at Kilometer 35 or 36. [The course from the end of the Energy Lab to the finish line is 7 miles. So Raelert was chasing McCormack from Mile 19 to about Mile 23 – about 3.2 miles to go]
ST: Why didn’t you go right by him and make a decisive pass, as McCormack suggested you should have done?
Andreas: By the time I was catching Macca [on the Queen K highway headed back to town,] I was just making up seconds per mile. If you are making seconds, it’s not that you are flying. As soon as I got to Macca, we already had about 7 and a half hours of racing in our bodies and in our legs. So when I got to him, it’s kind of a mental game. I thought: Two options. The first option is to go as hard as you can to make it to the finish and try to drop Macca right at the beginning. Or maybe to wait for a sprint finish at this point in time.
So I made my decision to recover at this point and wait to the sprint finish.
ST: Macca said he told you, ‘Whatever happens mate, you’re a champion no matter what.’ Then you two shook hands. I saw pictures taken by Tony Svensson of that moment where it looked as if Macca drew your hand way over to his chest. Mark Allen said when he saw that photo, it seemed as if McCormack was sucking the energy out of you. Did that handshake throw you a little bit? Or was it no problema?
Andreas: Absolutely, when I reach my hand to Macca, it was from the emotion of the time. We just did 7 and a half hours racing together. And now he has all my respect. Now it comes to the end and the best athlete is gonna win. This emotion didn’t take any energy from me. It was a kind of respect for each other.
ST: The picture seems to show he drew your hand to him in an awkward motion for you?
Andreas: Definitely not at all. I wasn't thinking about this. It was all good. Macca was in his zone. I was in my zone. He was convinced to win. I was convinced I would win. Everybody had their own strategy. But we both knew it was gonna hurt badly for the showdown.
ST: You had taken 3.5 miles to catch him after the Energy Lab. Had you used a lot of vital energy in the chase?
Andreas: Of course it takes energy. But I was still controlling myself. You know it’s not that you are pacing too hard. The key thing is that you have to find your rhythm. You have to make sure that you are going to make it to the finish. For sure I risked something to catch Macca. It was my goal to win this race and you just can win if you are leading. That's what it is all about. But I don’t say It cost me too much to catch up to him.
ST: In a race this close racing at your limit it took a certain critical amount?
Andreas: Yes. But it is almost easier from my point of view.
ST: Easier to be the chaser?
Andreas: Yes. But it is more about being in position to control the field. Running just 10 seconds behind the whole time, gets him into your mind. So you have to make sure to run next to him. Or see yourself keeping within the elastic band – to play the mental game behind him.
ST: On the long uphill at Mile 24, also known as Mark and Dave Hill in honor of their great duel in 1989, Macca got by you a little bit. But at the top he rested.
Andreas: Yeah as we went through the aid station at the uphill he started to accelerate. I just paid attention to my nutrition and took water to cool down my body system. Then I started to catch him again. Which gives me also a really good feeling of confidence. If I can catch him, it brings me in position to win.
ST: Much of your strategy was to keep an even pace. Never make a radical move. Start slow and keep increasing the pace?
Andreas: Yeah, from my point of view, if you can stay in position to strike, you are controlling the race. He was thinking the same too. So you always have to bring the positive things into your mind. You have to believe you are the strongest, otherwise you can’t win.
ST: When you were running down Palani with one mile to go, it is steep and there was an aid station.
Andreas: That was a critical point because I was struggling a little bit. I could feel it. You know my body told me to stop at this time, Andreas. I had to grab some-some water to cool down because I was struggling. At this point of time, he just made his move and I couldn’t catch him immediately. That was the point when he got into my mind. And as soon as you let things happen like this, you can't control any more. Then you start to realize that you are absolutely on your limit. And there is no way back to get into the show.
ST: Will has nothing to do with it at that point? You were physically beaten?
Andreas: Absolutely. Yeah, you start to realize what is going to happen. As soon as it starts, you are not winning this race any more. So the last 500 meters I was just surviving. To be honest, I was thinking about this moment years ago when Paula Newby-Fraser struggled in the last meters. The same feeling seemed to be happening to me.
ST: After the race, Macca said when you look back to when you stopped at the aid station on Palani, you will think: ‘Oh, I really missed my chance.’ He said that’s the moment that was your mistake. You don’t stop at the aid station with a mile to do. And you will think ‘That is the one that got away.’
Andreas: Oh it is an honor for me hearing this from Macca. He is a two time champion at Kona -- a true champion and all credit to him.
ST: You don't feel that was a mistake?
Andreas: Oh it wasn’t a mistake. I had to get something, Otherwise I couldn’t get to the finish line. I was completely out of energy at this time. And actually, I won the second place!