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The Aussie and the Attrition.
By Tom Demerly
Tom in Hawaii

It will be remembered as the year of attrition, the 2007 Ford Ironman World Championships. The year when “The German Flu” cut through the field of favorites like bad water through a tourist. Stadler, Hellriegel, Al-Sultan, Badmann- all teutonic, all truncated. Badmann succumbed to injuries and mechanicals from an early crash on the bike. American female contender and masterful competitor Michellie Jones, out with the most unlikely of maladies- a perforated eardrum. Stadler, Hellriegel and Al-Sultan had stomach problems.

One man would rise to the top just as he promised, as he argued he would: The self-proclaimed (and statistically verifiable) world’s best triathlete, and now world champion, Chris McCormack. He is the new World Champion. On Saturday, he was the very best.

I was anticipating a dramatic chase between McCormack and Stadler, a repeat of last year when Stadler rode away on the bike and McCormack pursued him on the run. It didn’t materialize. Ironman is seldom that straightforward.

We often confuse the sport of triathlon with the sport of Ironman. That’s a mistake- they truly are two different things. In order to do Ironman you have to be a triathlete and you do swim, bike and run, but at Ironman distances it becomes less of a race and more of a survival contest. We saw it this year in Kona. Little mistakes made in the months, weeks and days before the race can magnify into race-ending problems on race day. Michellie Jones was accidentally kicked while swimming in the weeks prior to Ironman. It cost her the entire race. Perhaps Al-Sultan, Hellriegel and Stadler attended the same pre-race German athlete reception and each remarked at how good a particular dish was- and it came back to haunt them each on race day. One little mistake before Ironman equals one giant problem on race day. In addition to being the strongest man McCormack simply made no mistakes.

When I play the spectator’s role at Ironman I wonder what can be learned from the race. I learned a few things from the 2007 Ford Ironman World Championships.

Firstly, a healthy dose of chutzpah doesn’t hurt. Chris McCormack told anybody and everybody who would listen- and some who wouldn’t- that he thought he could win. Turns out, he knew best. I’ll be the first to admit I doubted him. Not so much because of any lacking on his resume but more a case of the abrasive nature of his bravado. It chafed me. You don’t talk about Hawaii like that. I grew up in the days of Mark Allen when you had respect. McCormack talked about Hawaii sometimes like it was owed to him by the sport for everything else he’d accomplished. Sorry mate, that’s not fair dinkum. Hawaii doesn’t do favors and it doesn’t care who you are or what you’ve won. But in McCormack’s case he was right- he simply prepared meticulously and had a brilliantly clean race capped off by a typically masterful run. He went to Hawaii and delivered on all the talk. Good for him. Impressive.

Another lesson I was schooled on by Mr. McCormack was a refresher course and a lesson worth learning over and over: Triathlon is about discipline and sacrifice. In radio and print interviews prior to Hawaii McCormack talked about the enormous sacrifices he made in preparation for Hawaii: the solitary training, the time away from his family. It sounded like whining and that he was a little burnt around the edges. The truth of the matter is he was doing what every good triathlete does; reflecting on the arsenal of preparation they’ve amassed before race day. This inventory of suffering is important. On race day you look back on all that work and say, “I’m ready. Look at everything I’ve done, everything I’ve put myself though.” The lesson Chris McCormack reminds us of here is that Ironman is decided well before race day. The quality of your race is the product of some day or days in training weeks before race day when you punched through previous limits and rose to a new level. On that day there are no crowds, no finish line photos, and no aid stations. McCormack put in the time and made the sacrifices in the months prior to Hawaii. He reaps the rewards now. Good on ya, mate.

Lesson three from Saturday is that you can never, ever be too careful. Badmann hit and cone and was out, she may have tangled with a race motorcycle. Jones’ swim partner accidentally kicked her in the head a week or two before the race while swimming at a pool. Hellriegel, Al-Sultan and Stadler all suffered from a stomach problem that weakened them on race day. The lesson here is that in the few weeks prior to Ironman you have to live like a boy in a bubble. Stubbing your toe could cost you months of preparation. Bad sushi could wipe out your entire year and lay your race to waste. You can’t take any chances and even if you don’t you may still be subject to the random nature of rotten luck. McCormack not only raced masterfully he also negotiated the slippery slope of pre-race bad luck with measured experience.

Our fourth lesson may be a combined one: Race your strength, train your weakness and Ironman is all about the last two hours. McCormack is known for an impressive run, that’s his strength. He certainly did a stellar job of using that strength at Kona on Saturday. Word is he shored up his cycling work in the months prior to Kona. McCormack wanted to be sure he could keep the gap between himself and a fast cyclist like Stadler close enough so he could erase it on the run. Good thinking. McCormack put his race together before race day. He trained his weakness and raced his strength. Truth be told McCormack was a very fine triathlon cyclist even before that, he just built in a little insurance for race day.

For us recreational Ironman types, McCormack’s race underscored the incredible importance of the final two hours. This year’s race was featured a strange fusillade of attacks and moves; Sindballe, Lieto all going hard on the bike and the new 10 meter drafting rule breaking things up quite a bit so it was a little more “every man for himself”. In the end those moves didn’t count for much. Even Torbjorn Sindballe’s innovative white outfit that was intended to ward off the Kona afternoon heat complete with special gloves for ice cubes didn’t alter the gritty reality of the final two hours. The lesson: When we prepare for Ironman we have to prepare for 10-17 hours of continuous exercise and be sure we have the endurance to not fade at the end. I just finished an Ironman five weeks ago- my race was perfectly on schedule through 9 hours. I was perfectly prepared to race well for 9 hours- problem is, my goal time was just under eleven and I wasn’t prepared for that. I lost 22 minutes in the final two hours of my race. A guy as meticulously prepared for Ironman as Chris McCormack makes up time in the final two hours at Ironman.

At finally, I suppose there are those who may suggest that McCormack’s win could ring a trifle hollow since Stadler and Al-Sultan, last year’s first and third, weren’t there at the end. I say baloney. McCormack beat everyone who showed, and he beat them quite handily- just as he predicted.

I thought Normann Stadler would repeat at Ironman. I was wrong. McCormack not only won but proved himself a worthy champion in every way. McCormack’s win was even endorsed by former champion Normann Stadler who congratulated him at the finish line. Apparently, Stadler and McCormack have buried the hatchet. McCormack had good things to say about Stadler and presumably Stadler’s sportsmanship in shaking hands with McCormack after his win also suggests the two men respect each other as peers and fellow champions.

McCormack beat everyone who came. We have a new World Champion, and a fine one he is.


© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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