The Estonian power express

Marko Albert captured his first Ironman title at the 30th edition of Ironman New Zealand and we talked to this fast Estonian about the race and naked bungee jumping.

Slowtwitch: Nice work in Taupo.

Marko Albert: Thank you. It was one of those days when things went to the right direction. I had the shape to take most out of the opportunity that presented itself during the race!

ST: Describe one of those opportunities.

Marko: I am an old ITU racer. I know that the value of putting everything into a break and hoping it will work. That is the only way I have had success in triathlon. Both of my ITU World Cup podiums and also the 70.3 win have been done like this. Now an Ironman as well…

ST: You looked super thrilled when you crossed the line. How sweet was that win?

Marko: Ironman win has been on my short list of things I wanted to achieve in triathlon. In the past I have had 3rd place in Austria 2011 and 2nd after Bevan Docherty in New Zealand last year. So when you have had that dream of winning and believed that one day it will come trough, all the emotions just surfaced after crossing the finish line in Taupo. I never planned this kind of finish line celebrations - it was some place where the 14 years of dreaming, spectators, music and Mike Reilly took me!

ST: Did he call you an Ironman?

Marko: Mike Reilly probably did call me an Ironman, but I was just so so happy about being an Ironman Champion that I hardly heard anything else. Then I gave an interview that I can’t remember much either.

ST: You mentioned earlier things having gone in the right direction.

Marko: Yes. To start from the beginning the swim was slower than last year. I felt that I wasn't able to push myself as hard as I wanted to. I was a bit disappointed when we got out of the water and I saw how many guys were there with me. Then the first 45km was quite cold and uneventful. At km 50 I just went to the front of the pack cause I was tired of this on and off game. Dialed in my effort and I didn't look back before 90km was done. Then I realized that the pack has grown a bit and Cameron Brown, Tim van Berkel and Guy Crawford had caught up. I dropped my Special Needs bag, got angry at myself and simply powered the next two km. Then I realized that I got 15 second lead and took it from there.

5 weeks before Ironman New Zealand I raced 70.3 South Africa in East London. The result was a disaster because I really failed to ride my bike. So when I got back to Lanzarote, Active Sands, where my family and I stayed over the winter, I searched for help. I knew a friends friend and bike fitter Benjamin Price who works in Club La Santa. I turned to him for help and said that what ever we do now I will follow, things could not get any worse. So I had a radical bike position change 4 weeks before an Ironman. I did some long rides but I was really really worried about how it would turn out in a race. So when I escaped in Taupo I was gambling big, but it paid off. I was biking fast and feeling better than I have ever felt before! No cramps, no hiccups and my legs felt fresh enough in T2. I was really confident in my running before IM NZ because all my key sessions had been better than ever. I was hoping to run 2.51 and it turned out a little quicker. As far as the nutrition goes, I ate all the SIS nutrition I was carrying and some more from aid stations and had no issues what so ever. It came out a bit long but there was no short way to describe the problems I had before the race and how I overcame them!

ST: Which problems?

Marko: After Beijing Olympics I dealt with two Achilles surgeries and never knew if I’d be able to compete against the best of the triathlon world again. It took about 2.5 years before I started to enjoy running again. I think most of the athletes have had to overcome some sort of difficult time and that time has made them into greater athletes and people. Same with me. Now I appreciate running so much more. Especially when the pain is just from an effort and not from niggles. Running in such stunning places like Huka Falls in Taupo or trails around my home in Nõmme is just pure pleasure!

ST: That is good to hear. Back to racing in Taupo, last weekend my wife asked me about that popular guy who was being congratulated by everyone on Twitter about the IMNZ victory. Did you feel the love?

Marko: I felt the love and this feeling is amazing. During my 14 year triathlon career I have been training with or racing against some exceptional athletes and also nice people. I do appreciate all the good words! Also I guess people have seen me trying and failing so many times that they were happy that I succeeded eventually!

ST: During the race did you know for sure where Cam Brown was or did it not matter specifically as you ran well too and several minutes up the road?

Marko: On the run I had my own little team out there. My home stay family was out there with their friends after every 5-7km. I got to know what was going on behind me. I didn't think too much about my pursuers in the first half of the run. I ran as fast as I felt comfortable with and tried to follow my nutrition plan. When Cameron really started to close the gap between km 28 and 35 I got a little nervous. But the win was more mine to loose! I guess my competitors also hadn't done their homework. The fact that my best run is 2.47 slipped somehow past them and 6.5 minutes deficit after bike didn't seem too long to catch up.

ST: Do you really think they just let you go?

Marko: I think it was a combination of me believing and them not believing that I can survive out there. Talking to Bevan after the race, he said that during the race he believed that I played my cards too early. In the end it happened to be just the right time!

ST: How was the Kiwi crowd?

Marko:> It was my third time to race there. Every time the crowd has gone warmer and warmer towards me. But Cameron Brown is their hero, Bevan Docherty is their local boy, with statues and Docherty drive, and Terenzo Bozzone has been also a very successful Kiwi racer over the years. So I guess I broke some Kiwi hearts by taking the win.

ST: This is your first Ironman title I believe, and you also captured 70.3 Racine in 2012. Am I missing something here?

Marko No you haven't missed anything. Prior switching to longer distances I had some success in ITU circuit, I got on the podium twice but didn't catch the win there! Before Saturday I guess I was more like a nearly there project.

ST: So what would you consider your sweetest success to date – racing wise? Was it New Zealand?

Marko: This was it. And I have been enjoying every second of it!

ST: Looking back at Kona 2013, how do you feel about your day here?

Marko: My preparation for Kona 2013 was not the best. I didn't do myself any favors by getting sick twice during spring-summer and leaving my qualification to Ironman Switzerland at the end of July. As about the day out there, I got everything out of myself that was there to take. In hindsight I should have dealt with my bike position issues already before Kona but I was writing them off and telling myself that it is not the position, but that I was off! Finishing 16th in Pro category is not bad (my best is 13th in 2011), but I would certainly want to knock on the top 10 door this year.

ST: What do you think is possible there?

Marko: I’m a dinosaur of long-distance triathlon (me and probably Tom Lowe), there aren’t too many heavier guys than me. So it is pretty hard to race against all the skinny dudes running fast. Last few years I have seen my ITU racing friend Frederik Van Lierde pulling off 3rd place and win by racing at his own pace and nobodies race. If I could do that, I still believe top 10 and about 8 hours 20 minutes is possible.

ST: Van Lierde though weighed around 72kg like most other Pros in the top 10.

Marko: Yeah and I’m hovering at about 80kg. So to match Frederik’s power output I need to do around 320w average for 180km or I need to loose some kg!

ST: You saw Blue for a while. Is all well now on the bike sponsor front?

Marko: First I was supported and then sponsored by Blue Competition Cycles from 2009 till 2012. It was a good bike but more over I really liked the people around it. Then with new ownership things changed. From spring 2013 I have been sponsored by Estonian Trek dealer Rademar with the help from Trek Factory as well. I ride one of the flagships of triathlon bikes, the Trek Speed Concept 9 Series. In Kona I had last year and hopefully also have this year, a full support from Mark Andrews and his team. I really appreciate this as it gives me a piece of mind when it comes to preparing my bike for a the biggest race of the season.

ST: What about other sponsors?

Marko: First of all I’m a member of Estonian Defense Forces Sports group, which gives me social security and a certain monthly salary. It is a big deal being one of 16 in Estonia. Without that I probably would not have lasted until my recent win in New Zealand.

Internationally I’m supported by Skinfit, TRI11 wetsuits, Oakley, Torhans and like I mentioned before, by Trek Factory via Rademar. I also have group of small sponsors and supporters in Estonia: Greenfield, 4energia, Bcs Itera, Foodstudio, Euronics, Võrukivi tehnopark, SIS sports nutrition, GNLD and I run in Saucony running shoes provided by Estonian retailer Jooksuekspert. And I have to thank all those people who have opened their home for me. Countless home stays over the years have made me a lot of friends and surrogate families all over the world! Whenever they decide to visit Estonia I promise I’ll open my home for them!

ST: Talk about your family.

Marko: My lovely wife Kai and two kids, 3.5 year old Evamaria and 10 month old Markus are my essential source of inspiration. I love coming home from hard days of work and having them around me. It is a balancing act as the kids never care if I had a bad race or good race, they are still happy to see me when I come home! Professional sport is a very self focused ego-trip, but I find it easier to cope now that I have a family.
It is also harder and harder being away from them. But it is simply unaffordable to take them everywhere I go.

ST: Anything else we should know?

Marko: I totally gave up my favorite South - Hemisphere food: Tim-Tam cookies before Ironman New Zealand. It was a very tough thing to do.

ST: Tougher than naked bungee jumping?

Marko: Yes, because bungee jump lasts for 20 seconds, but you have to hold off from those delightful cookies all the time. Bungee was something I always wanted to do and I guess that is why it came out in a friendly banter, naked was just an add-on. And it only dawned me few hours after the race what I had promised. I try to keep my promises! A naked jump was not possible for obvious reasons, so I did the second best thing and used my speedos. I learned my lesson and from now on I will not promise things like that!