Craig ‘Crowie’ Alexander knows what it takes to win our sports most vaunted title not just once but three times: a straight-up, unrelenting, old-fashioned work ethic. No athlete more fully embraces the challenges – and the suffering – inherent in the path to the Ironman World Champion title. Triathlete Europe spent a training day with Crowie leading up to his back-to-back world championship titles to witness firsthand his insatiable drive, discipline and intense devotion to his day job.
I am standing on a brown, windswept dirt road that’s a stone’s throw from the Boulder Reservoir. At the place locals call The Res on this particular Saturday in August, families are playing in the water and lounging in deck chairs in any shade they can find to stay cool. With the temperature hovering around 32 degrees, it’s a good day to relax and do as little as possible.
A large flatbed truck with its yellow lights flashing chugs up behind me before screeching to a halt. “Hey!” a man in overalls with the name Cletus embroidered on the left chest yells as he emerges from the driver’s-side door. “What’s going on here?”
Two triathletes, one male and one female, are running back and forth in the dirt for what appears to be no particular reason under the scorching midday sun. “We have athletes doing one mile repeats,” I explain. “The guy is Craig Alexander and the woman is Mirinda Carfrae and they are both Ironman world champions and they are both in the middle of a seven-hour training day and …”
Cletus’ eyes have gone totally blank, and he is giving me his best I-really-don’t-give-a-care glare before putting his hand up and cutting me off at the pass. “I have no idea who these people are and I really don’t care,” he bristles. “I just need you to move your truck out of the intersection-now.”
Intersection? The left side of this road is flanked on both sides by large weed- and cow-inhabited fields. But since he does happen to be the owner of a truck with yellow flashing lights and a shirt with his name over his heart in script, I’m guessing he must be a man of power and authority.
I chuckle as I head to my truck to move it the 12 feet necessary to make Cletus a happy man. If he had driven up to this same scene and found Denver Broncos legend John Elway working out with a receiver or two, the guy would have texted everyone in his postcode to come check out the action. But world- class triathletes are still considered the equivalent of upper-deck nosebleed seats when compared to the box seats that the major sports-the NFL, Major League Baseball or the NBA-represent. And it’s a pity. A working-class guy like Cletus could certainly relate much better to former rugby player and family guy Craig Alexander, who straps on his hard hat (in this case his bike helmet) grabs his lunchbox and simply goes to work every single day.
Alexander’s work ethic has been evident ever since he was a kid growing up in Cronulla, a suburb of Sydney on Australia’s eastern coast. He worked multiple jobs while in college, one of which was loading large containers of milk from a loading dock onto a delivery truck, and landed him in the hospital with a hernia. While he was in the hospital he watched on TV as Greg Welch won the 1994 Ironman World Championship, the first Aussie to win Kona. That’s when Alexander decided to get into triathlon. That same year he did his first Olympic- distance triathlon, taking second in his age group and qualifying for the world Championship (where he finished eighth).
Alexander now has three Ironman world Championship titles in Kona and is 38 years old. For other athletes, cashing in on their accomplishments and getting big appearance fees to race in other events would be incredibly appealing. Especially since he has a wife, Neri, along with two young children, Lucy and Austin, and the clock is ticking loudly.
But when Alexander won his first Ironman title in Kona in 2008, the money wasn’t what motivated him to be there or what he loved most about winning. “I was excited to add my name to the list of athletes who have won in Kona, some of the greatest triathletes ever,” he says. “I don’t want to have regrets when I look back on my career. I’m here to chase titles, not money.”
After winning his second Ironman world Championship title in a row in 2009, he knew that the group on the bike would not be playing nice in 2010. “When you’re the defending champion, you don’t have any friends out there on race day,” he says. “It’s one thing to win a big race, but another thing to do it when the focus is on you.”
He was right.
“In 2010 there were a lot of partnerships of convenience during the bike ride,” he says. “I thought I would get some help from the other guys when people got away, but I didn’t. I was the guy wearing the crown and had the most to lose, so they waited for me to chase down every break. I understand that. It felt like I had an army of people against me.”
When a group including the eventual winner and fellow Aussie Chris McCormack got away, they only had 2:45 on Alexander, the best runner in the field, at mile 80. In the last 30 miles they turned on the throttle and gained another five minutes. Alexander’s blazing 2:41 marathon could only run him into fourth place.
His disappointment in 2010 led to longer and harder efforts on the bike this past summer. The day we spent in Boulder with Alexander, it was four weeks out from the Ironman World Championship 70.3 at Lake Las Vegas-which Alexander won-and eight weeks until Kona, where he won again. In training that day he rode 112 miles with a long climb up to Estes Park. He pushed big gears and kept his power around 300 watts as he climbed from 5,000 to 8,000 feet with grades ranging from five per cent to 14 per cent at the top. He and Mirinda Carfrae, the 2010 Ironman world champ and 2011 runner-up, broke off from the group and finished the last 25 miles as a time trial where Alexander gave Carfrae a six-minute head start, averaging north of 30 miles per hour as he attempted to ride her down (he succeeded).
Alexander embraced the most recent challenge to win in Kona and join Mark Allen, Dave Scott and Peter Reid as the only men to win three or more Ironman world titles.
He works hard because that’s what he knows. “Roger Federer became the best tennis player in the world because he hit more balls than anyone else,” he says. “On race day, you draw on the suffering you do in training. There’s something sexy about being out here with cars coming by and coating you with dust and flicking pebbles up on you.”
Ah, yes. We’re in the dirt. After the 112-mile ride ended, a quick transition followed and Alexander and Carfrae went back to work. He ran 10 1-mile repeats leaving every seven minutes. He ran the first nine repeats between S:20 and 5:40 before closing out his workout with a 5:16. “There’s no escaping it,” says Alexander. “To win the Ironman you have to do some six- and seven- hour training days. You need to do the volume if you want to be the best.”
When you get the chance to put our pro triathletes under the microscope and watch what they go through to be the very best, it’s mind-numbing how hard they work. They put in thousands of metres in the pool, hundreds of miles on the bike and anywhere from 70 to 90 miles of running. Per week. As they get closer to the biggest race in the sport, the Ironman World Championship each October, their body fat percentage dips alarmingly low. They are always on the ragged edge that separates being sick or injured from being in the best shape of their life.
There have been rumours that Alexander has been offered near six- figure appearance fees to do other races around the world, which he says has been very tempting at times. As a family man with young children, he admits that he had a number of sleepless nights this off-season before turning the big-money offers down and committing to going after another win in Kona.
“I had to decide what was most important to me,” he says. “At the end of the day, what gets my juices flowing is racing the best people in the world when it’s all on the line.”
It was all on the line once again in Hawaii on Oct. 8, 2011. Alexander, riding his brand-new Specialized Shiv and wearing an aero helmet for the first time in Kona, took 15 minutes off his 2010 bike split (4:39:35 to 4:24:05) and was with tiber-cyclist Chris Lieto and the other members of the lead pack at the turnaround in Hawi and most of the way back to town. When Lieto did get away toward the end of the bike he was only able to put a few minutes between himself and Alexander. As one of the strongest runners in the field, Crowie laid down a blistering 2:44 marathon to secure the world title. He didn’t just win and get himself back on the vaunted list of champions; he moved himself to the very top of the list with the fastest time ever recorded at the Ironman World Championship: 8:03:56 (breaking Belgian Luc Van Lierde’s 8:04:08 from 1996).
After winning in 2008, Alexander compared the Ironman to a jigsaw puzzle, saying it’s tough to get it just right. “At the end of the day you can never settle-you always have to set the bar high,” he said. “If you shoot for the stars, you just might land on the clouds.”
It doesn’t happen very often, especially in Kona, but this time the hardest-working man in triathlon landed firmly in the heavens.