With seven years of experience competing on the Big Island, including three trips to the top podium step, Craig “Crowie” Alexander knows a thing or two about tackling the Ironman World Championship. Here, he reflects on the best race strategy, the importance of sticking to an intelligent plan and tactics for dealing with disappointment in the heat of battle.
Go For It–Later
“Kona is different to other races not only in the competition, but also in the conditions. It’s interesting when you’ve been training for many months for an Ironman and you’re tired all the time, but then you taper and freshen up and you feel the adrenaline of race day. You swim and you ride through town with the big crowds, and then you go out on the Queen K and there’s not a lot of wind early on, and the road surface is beautiful and you want to test yourself. But the heat and the humidity in Hawaii are less forgiving. You can overstep the mark at other races and still get to the finish, but in Kona, with the heat and humidity and the wind pushing your heart rate up a bit there is much less margin for error. That’s why there is so much carnage at that race. I heard an interview Mark Allen did after Kona last year and he said, ‘It’s a closed energy equation. There’s not going to be a miracle on race day where you suddenly go ten percent better than you’ve ever gone before.’ Each athlete, whether you’re in the pro ranks or an amateur, you know what you’ve done in training and your parameters and what levels you can maintain. You need to stick to your levels. You need to be disciplined. And it’s hard to do. With the energy of the crowds, and with race day finally being here after months and months of build up, and when you’ve got good legs at the beginning of the race, the tendency is to push. But in Kona, if you go too hard you’ll pay for it. So you always want to get in your best physical shape for Kona, but then race smart. Don’t be scared to go for it, but go for it later. It’s a long day. I think the best advice is just to be confident in your training, have a lot of belief in your conditioning, but race smart.”
Race Your Own Race
“History is a good teacher. I know the years that I’ve done well in Kona I’ve always finished the bike with a little bit of juice left in the legs. It’s not like other races where you can ride a lot closer to your limit and push, push, push and get off the bike and run in 70 degree temperatures, recover a bit and get your legs under you after a couple of miles. In that heat and humidity it’s just a bit harder. You have to be much more controlled. Of course, it’s easy to sit around with your heart rate at 40 BPM in an air-conditioned room talking about what you think you’re going to do in Kona. Then you get 40 miles into the bike ride and your legs are feeling OK and Frederik Van Lierde starts going up the road and Luke McKenzie starts going up the road and you’re like, ‘Oh hell, this could be the race right here!’ Eneko Llanos, James Cunnama, Tim O’Donnell, Tyler Butterfield–they’re all there, looking a million dollars.”
“I do think over the seven years I’ve raced there what my experience has taught me is that when you race your own race, that’s when you do your best. I mean if you’re not Sebastian Kienle, you’re not going to ride with him. That may seem like an obvious statement, but it’s funny how many people try to do it–and I was one of them. When he came past last year I’d been chasing to catch up after having a flat tire, so I was already in a bit of oxygen debt. He came by and I just miraculously thought, ‘Oh OK, there’s Sebastian. I’ll go with him.’ You have to do your own race, and it’s hard to do. It’s a world championship race and all the guys are very, very fit, but ultimately in a race that’s eight-plus hours and in conditions that are 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity, the people who race well there will still be running well the last 20 miles of the marathon. When the wheels come off you can start losing one or two minutes a mile, and even if the wheels come off with six miles to go–if you start walking or losing two or three minutes a mile–that can be almost 20 minutes. The people that have rationed their energy and paced themselves the right way and fuelled their bodies the right way, they’re still moving on. Maybe they’re not as fast as they were in the first six miles, but they’re still moving OK.”
Deal And Move On
“When something frustrating or unfortunate happens in a race, you can’t change it. It’s a cliché, but you can’t. You just have to do what you can in that moment to deal with it, and then move on. Ask yourself, ‘What can I do right now to improve my situation?’ Get through it in the moment–there will be plenty of time after the race for post mortems. The good things and bad things are both part of the whole process and the whole journey, and I think they happen in equal proportions. You get some good luck and you think, ‘Ooh, that was a little bit lucky!’ And other times things happen like a flat tire or you wake up not feeling great that day. You just have to do the best you can and not get too carried away by either one. I’m not going to sit here and say don’t be frustrated if things don’t go your way–you will feel that. But try to save it for after the race, when there will be plenty of time for lament. That flat tire I had last year–it was like getting a flat tire in a car. It can happen, but it doesn’t happen very often. But what could I do about it? I mean yeah, it still keeps me awake some nights now. But all you can do in that moment is maximise right now. An Ironman is a long day and you can always chip some of that time back. It’s kind of like when you’re flying somewhere and you’re delayed 40 minutes but the pilot says he’s going to make up some of that time–he’ll fly a little higher or something. That’s what you can do–you can try and chip away and make some of that time back. You’ll have good days, but there are also always things that you could have done differently, so part of the prep is accepting that and preparing for that and knowing that when something does go wrong you’re going to deal with it as quickly as possible and just maximise the rest of the race. Then when you sit around the next night and have a beer with your buddies you can tell the war stories and vent that frustration. And if you decide to go on and do other races, learning the lessons is part of the whole process, too. Your athletic career doesn’t end when you cross the line, unless you want it to. You can take the lessons and move forward.”