There is nothing bigger in the sport of triathlon than a win at Kona. But on the long, winding road to such triumphs, a podium at the Ironman World Championship is very big. It can be the key experience that makes becoming a champion possible. Or it can be the apogee, just a step short of heaven, where the almost famous hit the wall.
Luke McKenzie made the first step to Ironman nirvana with his career breakthrough second place finish to Frederik Van Lierde. He won an incredible six Ironman races before Saturday. He surprised a lot of people with his brave bike breakaway with heavy hitters Sebastian Kienle and Andrew Starykowicz and backed that up with a sub 3-hour run that held the lead until Mile 16 of the run and hung on to the runner-up slot with a bleeding toe .
On some ways, no one competitor in the race exemplifies love of the sport any more than Luke McKenzie. He has been a triathlete since he was 13 years old and was an aid station volunteer at Ironman Australia in Forster that same year. He has triathlon in his blood and has the good fortune to have as a mentor and friend and training partner one of the sport's all time greats - three-time Ironman World Champion and fellow Aussie Craig Alexander.
Saturday Like McKenzie had the greatest race of his life and came within 2 minutes and 50 seconds of the biggest prize in the sport. His answers were made at the Kona post race press conference and in a one-on-one interview a few minutes later.
Question: How was your day?
Luke McKenzie: Yeah, a dream come true like Freddy [Frederik Van Lierde] said. I've been racing the Hawaiian Ironman for so long. I just had one of those dream days. All the swim bike and run - everything was clicking really well. Unfortunately the wheels fell off a little bit going down into the Energy Lab.
Q: What happened there?
Luke Freddy was coming at me pretty hard there. I got out of the Energy Lab and I passed Crowie going in and he told me I had to suffer to hold second place. That's what I kept telling myself. 'If I want to stay where I am to the finish line, you gotta suffer.' I dug deep.
Q: What do you think about the only man who beat you this day?
Luke: Full credit to Freddy -- he had an amazing race. He was so strong on the back end of the marathon. Steady on the bike.
Q: What do you think about Andrew Starykowicz's bike breakaway?
Luke: That was incredible what he did earlier on the bike. That was gutsy of him to take off like that. He set the tone for the day. He made the rest of us bike hard. You can't have a weakness on the bike here any more. [After a 51:07 swim, Starykowicz set out alone on the bike and built a big lead before he was caught by McKenzie, Kienle and, for a moment, Van Lierde].
Q: You biked hard here in 2012 before you were caught by Marino Vanhoenacker and Kienle. What did you do different this time?
Luke: I don't know really. It is just years of consistency. I've always known that I've had that ability. I think maybe I just haven't been prepared enough on the bike. To the extent that I have been prepared this year, that made me go for it like I did today.
Q: It seems that you have lost some weight this year. Has that played a part? And how did you do it?
Luke: It's true I haven't been careful about what I ate. But this year I watched what I ate and it has helped me lose some weight and it's helped a lot on the run.
Slowtwitch: What else has made you stronger today?
Luke: I think it helps, having led the race, too. You've got so much to lose. When you race with these top guys, you just go to that next level. As I said before, when Crowie told me, 'You're going to have to want to hurt,' I think that was a totally new level for me. Traditionally, I've really suffered on that return from the Energy Lab and come away disappointed with my finish. I think today I was quite happy to hold strong. When I came out of it so much better today, I think it was more of a mental thing than anything.
Greg Welch, Ironman press conference host: It's been a problem in the past that a lot of guys haven't gone out there and ridden to their abilities. Today Luke said he got to the front and just held on to it. Luke, I heard Craig Alexander talking to you afterward and he was very complimentary. He said, 'Look, that's how you win this title.' What's it like hearing that from a three-time champion?
Luke: Like Freddy was saying about his relationship with his coach Luc Van Lierde, obviously I've had a mentor in Crowie. I can't thank the guy enough for what he's done for my career. Ten years ago we lived together in San Diego on blowup mattresses and the guy ended up winning this race three times. Like Freddy was saying, you trust a guy that has that winning knowledge.
ST: It's a very personal bond as well, isn’t it?
Luke: We've always come out here a few weeks before the race and trained with one another on the course. I think this year he pulled up after a brick session a couple of weeks ago and said to me: 'Luke you can really have a good crack at winning this race.' I took a lot of confidence out of that.
ST: Did you plan to go out with the anticipated breakaway of Kienle and Starykowicz?
Luke: I didn’t have any plans to go on the Andrew Starykowicz suicide mission. But I was feeling good and, like Welchy said, you have to commit to make a move if you want to win here. I think in the past if you get caught trying that move and you didn't fully commit, you leave yourself vulnerable to the guys like Pete Jacobs or Crowie who are going to run you down every day of the week. So when I took off, I think I was fully committed to the move. And it paid off.
ST: Staying with the move on the bike isn't the hard part. The hard part is backing it up with a run.
Luke: This is a long race with a lot of downs. Everyone has probably had them in this race. Now I feel very satisfied that I've run under three hours here [2:57:20]. I've done it in many Ironman races [He ran 2:54:05 while winning Ironman Brazil in 2010] and it's just frustrated the hell out of me for the last few years that I couldn’t do it in Kona. [In 2011, McKenzie virtually mirrored eventual winner Craig Alexander's 51:56 swim and came within 10 seconds of Alexander's blazing fast 4:24:05 bike split before fading to 9th with a 3:05:54 marathon].
ST: You broke 3 hours today after a smashing fast ride.
Luke: Like I say it is always putting the puzzle together here. I know I can ride well and I can run well. Now I just put them together. This year it just seems to be clicking.
ST: Do you need to believe that you are as good as the best cyclists in the sport like Sebastian Kienle and Andrew Starykowicz to join that breakaway and make a career breakthrough?
Luke: I don't think about stuff like that. I still consider Andrew and Sebastian the benchmark on the Ironman triathlon bike.
ST: How did the breakaway develop?
Luke: Andy made the initial move [After a first pack 51:07 swim, Starykowicz broke to a few minutes lead before Kienle and McKenzie charged after him]. Then Sebastian made the move that initiated the chase group to split up.
ST: What was the back story about Kienle's surge?
Luke: You have to look at recent history. Five weeks ago, Sebastian absolutely rode the legs off everyone in [the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Las] Vegas and made everyone look silly on the bike. Me included. [McKenzie finished 50th, with a bike split 23 minutes slower than Kienle] Kienle is consistently good. I'm not always happy with how I perform on the bike at the 70.3 distance. But I can ride the Ironman distance well. I think that is my specialty. I consider myself a strong bike rider, but I wouldn't put myself in the same league as Sebastian yet.
ST: So what gave you the courage to go with him?
Luke: I feel I rode smart this year. I conserved early and Sebastian made a move and I was feeling great and honestly I didn’t look back for 10 or 15 minutes. I was in the lead at one point and Sebastian passed me and said 'Aha we haves a gap.' I looked back and I was surprised. I thought 'Well you have to commit to moves here,' and I was feeling good. My concern was that Sebastian might drop me coming down from Hawi and leave me alone in a bit of a no man's land. But I've been practicing that kind of high-cadence, high-power descending and I hung on.
ST: Riding the course for weeks before the race helps?
Luke: Yeah. I always come out three weeks early and ride on the course and it does help.
ST: You know the course so well so you won't get left by a sudden acceleration?
Luke: Last year it ruined my race basically trying to go with Sebastian and Marino down from Hawi. I think that is something I've worked on in the last 12 months. I'm riding at a high cadence now and I've just put that into practice and I think it worked today. I kept on my power and I kept up my cadence and that really helped.
ST: Are you more happy or are you more proud?
Luke: I am proud of myself. I keep coming back here. I've raced Kona 7 times. I keep throwing my hand in the fire here every year. I find I don’t come here just to make numbers. I am here to try to do something. I don't think hoping something is going to go well. So I am going to continue to race like that here. It is a risk. You see some years it doesn't work for guys. Guys like Chris Lieto, Normann Stadler -- all these guys have put their hand in the fire to try to win this race. And so I figure one day it's going to stick. It was a big confidence builder today. I see my situation is much like Freddy last year. He had to battle for that third place last year. Now he has won. So, I think you take a lot from today. I'm going to race a lot less next year and really focus on this race and come back and give it a really good crack to try and win it.
ST: How do you look at how Crowie raced today [22nd pro, two places behind Starykowicz]? Are you sad for your friend or proud of the way he held his head high?
Luke: It's hard because obviously he's been great and he's been so great to me and we were training pre-race together and we've done this race together every time he's been here and I've been here. So it's been a little bit bittersweet today. I figured he would go out on top. I'd have loved to have been on the podium with him and see him win a fourth title. Unfortunately things don’t go your way here all the time. I think Craig is a true champion because if he is not having his day, he has shown true character in getting it done and getting across the finish line. It is easy for a pro to pull the plug here if it isn't going well and so many guys do just that. But Crowie is, I think, such a champion because he gets the job done no matter what. And he is willing to walk away with a sub-par result for him and finish with his head up.
The list of men and women who have found second place at Kona to be a launch pad to greatness is long. It includes Mark Allen, Greg Welch, Karen Smyers, Thomas Hellriegel, Natascha Badmann, Lori Bowden, Tim DeBoom, Michellie Jones, Mirinda Carfrae and Pete Jacobs. The list of competitors who hit the wall and never advanced past second place is even longer: John Dunbar, Chuck Neumann, Sally Edwards, Julie Moss, Joanne Dahlkoetter, Patricia Puntous, Liz Bulman, Chris Hinshaw, Mike Pigg, Julieanne White, Cristian Bustos, Pauli Kiuru, Isballe Mouthon, Jurgen Zack, Cameron Brown, Rutger Beke, Nina Kraft, Desiree Ficker, Samantha McGlone, Yvonne Van Vlerken, Eneko Llanos, Chris Lieto, Caroline Steffen and Andreas Raelert.
When all is said and done, on which list will we find Luke McKenzie's name?