I'm Here To Win: A World Champion's Advice for Peak Performanceby Chris McCormack, Tim Vandehey (With), Howard Brunner (Read by)
In I'M HERE TO WIN, Chris "Macca" McCormack opens his playbook and reveals everything it takes-mind, body, and spirit-to become a champion. Now he shares the story of his triumphs and the never-say-die dedication that has made him the world's most successful triathlete.
In 2010, at the age of 37, Macca beat the odds and won the Ford Ironman World
In I'M HERE TO WIN, Chris "Macca" McCormack opens his playbook and reveals everything it takes-mind, body, and spirit-to become a champion. Now he shares the story of his triumphs and the never-say-die dedication that has made him the world's most successful triathlete.
In 2010, at the age of 37, Macca beat the odds and won the Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii for a second time in what many called the most dramatic finish in the race's history. Macca's journey to athletic greatness is more than just one of physical perseverance. After coming in fourth in Hawaii in 2009, Macca returned to the island on a mission: He was there to win. A game plan containing a new strategic approach to winning brought him first across the finish line.
Chris McCormack has dedicated his life to training for-and winning-the Ironman Hawaii, one of the most grueling tests of mental and physical endurance in the world. The race challenges athletes to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and run a full marathon, 26.2 miles, using all their strength and willpower to overcome the incredibly harsh conditions.
In I'M HERE TO WIN Macca provides concrete training advice for everyone-from weekend warriors who casually compete to seasoned veterans who race every week to armchair athletes looking for an extra push-and provides insight into the mind of a great champion with excitement and inspiration at every turn.
I'M HERE TO WIN is also available as an enhanced e-book with embedded video and audio.
If you're a competitive athlete and want to focus on your mental game, read I'm Here to Win. "Macca" is straight up and honest, putting forth embarrassing moments, times of doubt, and how he made it to the top of the podium so many times."Stack.com
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Read an Excerpt
I'm Here To WinA World Champion's Advice for Peak Performance
By McCormack, Chris
Center StreetCopyright © 2011 McCormack, Chris
All right reserved.
“I’m Here to Win!”
My journey to the Ford Ironman World Championship began years before I treaded the waters of Kailua Bay, Hawaii, on race morning, ready to turn the world’s most prestigious endurance race into my latest conquest. Coming to Kona had been the only thing that my best mate, Sean Maroney, and I had talked about for more than a decade. As idealistic young swim-bike-runners, our scheme was both simple and utterly outrageous: we would work our way through the world’s top triathlons one by one, not caring if we won or lost, only caring that we had the experience, met the pretty girls, and had a great time. We would conclude this “bucket list” of races by doing Ironman Hawaii together, and then probably return to Australia to bask in the glory of our adventures.
We actually went to some of those races. While I became a professional, Sean decided to pursue a career as a lifeguard in Hawaii (and who can blame him?) with some occasional swim and triathlon coaching mixed in. But if he found out that I was doing a race that we had on our “list,” he would drop everything. “You’re doing Chicago?” he’d say. “I’m coming.” I’d buy him a ticket, he’d fly to the race, and I’d race. After I won the Mrs. T’s Chicago Triathlon in 2000, we met Spencer Smith (a terrific British world champion in short-course racing who’s also won races of Ironman distance) and other guys we had worshipped. We’d play it cool, but when we got back to the hotel room, we were jumping on the bed and shouting, “Look at the trophy with all the names!” We were like little kids let loose to play with their idols… which we were.
I’d become world champion, and Sean had been on the whole journey with me. And as 2002 rolled around, it looked like the most important part of our boyhood fantasy might actually become a reality. That was the year I’d turned my back on the Australian triathlon program and my short-course racing background and started racing Ironmans. Ignorance was bliss, I suppose: I showed up in May 2001 at the Wildflower Half Ironman without a strategy, so I just took what I did in short-course racing and doubled it. A half Ironman is twice the distance of a short-course race, so that made sense to me. I broke the course record.
Then I went to Ironman Australia and beat three world champions to win my first full Ironman, joining Luc Van Lierde and Dave Scott as the only athletes to win the first Ironman races we entered. Best of all, winning Ironman Australia qualified me to race at Kona in October 2002. I was going to Hawaii!
Joy and Sorrow
That was in April, and things got even better. In June 2002, Sean rang me so excited that I barely needed the phone to hear him. I’d been out training, so my phone had been ringing off the hook; clearly, he’d gotten to about beer number ten by the time I picked up.
“I’m in, you bastard!” he shouted. He’d been celebrating in typical Sean fashion because he had finished high enough in the Keauhou Kona Half Ironman race that he qualified for Ironman Hawaii as an age grouper. “We’re going to Kona! I’m coming over to watch you win Alcatraz for the fourth time.”
I had already won the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon three times, and I would be going for a fourth later in 2002, trying to equal the record set by American Mike Pigg. Sean absolutely idolized Mike Pigg. Mike was a swim-biker at heart, which was how Sean saw himself. Sean’s mother knew that we lived for triathlon, but we’d drive her insane watching videos of Mike Pigg and Mark Allen, my favorite triathlete, all day long. She’d finally have enough, say something like, “Would you boys go outside and play?” and chase us outdoors. I raced Alcatraz because of Mike, so I was thrilled to be in a position to match his record.
Sean said, “I’m going out tonight to party, and then I’m going to come over and watch you in Alcatraz, you bastard. Can I stay with you?” I was traveling with my wife, Emma-Jane, but of course I said yes. Sean was my mate. We’d manage.
We were over the moon. I was going to match one of our childhood heroes, and then we were going to fulfill the dream that we’d cooked up as teenagers watching the Kona race on television in Sydney. I could hardly believe it. I was happier for Sean than I was for myself. Between the two of us he was the one with more raw talent, but he could never put aside the partying to focus on training. He was just a force of nature: loud, positive, generous, and always out for fun. I loved him for it. That was what drew us together as kids; life was a big party.
I went to bed, planning to call Sean the next day in midhangover. The next morning, I got an e-mail from Mrs. Maroney, Sean’s mother. I had never gotten an e-mail from her before, which set off alarm bells in my head. I opened it and the message absolutely left me speechless:
Darling Chris, Sean died last night.
What? No details, just those few chilling words. I thought, Maybe I read it wrong or something. Immediately, I rang Sean’s mobile phone. No answer. Again. No answer. Again. No answer. Now I was getting very scared. So I rang Mrs. Maroney.
“Mrs. Maroney, it’s Chris.” She burst into tears, and I knew right away that Sean really was dead. It was the hardest phone call I have ever made. He had been celebrating his Kona qualifier at a hotel in Honolulu and fallen to his death from a twenty-seventh-floor balcony. He died on June 6, 2002. He was twenty-seven years old.
I said, “Mrs. Maroney, I’m getting on a plane right now. I’m coming home.”
As soon as I got off the phone, crying myself, I bought my ticket. The earliest flight I could get didn’t leave for twenty-four hours. I had to get back to Los Angeles and pack everything. Then my phone rang. It was Mr. Maroney, Sean’s father. I remember that he said, “Chris, we’ve talked about it, and we want you to go on and do Escape from Alcatraz.”
I said, “No, no, no, Mr. Maroney. That’s the last thing on my mind.”
I remember him saying, “Chris, Sean’s last moment of glee was the thought that you would equal Mike Pigg’s record.”
My mind reeled. I said, “Mr. Maroney, he was my best friend. My mind’s not in the right place. I can’t win Escape from Alcatraz. I’m coming home.”
Mr. Maroney was the assistant commissioner of police in New South Wales, and a very assertive man, an absolute gentlemen. “No,” I recall him saying in a tone that had no room for compromise. “You do that race and you come home. But you are going to win that race.”
I didn’t know what to say. Then I said the only thing I could. “Okay, Mr. Maroney. I’ll give it my best shot.” Emma and I flew to San Francisco so I could do Escape from Alcatraz.
Escape from Alcatraz is a cold, tough race that starts off in the icy waters of San Francisco Bay. The main threat to my fourth win there was Greg Bennett, a guy I’ve raced my whole career. He had just won the World Cup and was in incredible running form. But Escape from Alcatraz is really won on the bike. I figured I could get away from the pack on my bike and then post the third- or fourth-fastest run to win.
I was wearing a black armband in memory of Sean, and everybody knew that my mate had died. It was big news in Australia. The commentators knew how close Sean’s and my relationship had been, and I think they probably wrote me off as a threat on that day. I would have written myself off; my heart was halfway across the world with Sean’s family.
The race started, and after the swim Greg Bennett surprised me by escaping on the bike. We got off the bikes and started the run, and Greg had a substantial lead over me. Damn. I looked at the sky as I ran and told Sean, “Sorry, mate.” I was past the halfway point in the race, thinking, Okay, I’m not going to win, fine. I’m going to get on the plane, get back to Australia, and just deal with my mate. I had never rationalized defeat in races; it was one of my strengths. I always kept my mind positive and found ways to keep going. But that day, the only chance I had was if Greg Bennett blew up.
Then I saw an ambulance coming toward me, and they gave me a split. “One minute, Macca,” meaning that Bennett was one minute ahead of me. I figured that he was really probably two minutes ahead by then; he’s a great runner, better than I am. But then I kept getting more splits. People said, “Forty-five seconds, Macca!” “Forty seconds, he’s gone!” Impossible, I thought. Greg Bennett never blew up. He had never, ever blown up in his entire career. This was only an eight-mile run. Greg could run eight miles in his sleep.
As we dropped down off the hilly section of the course, I was starting to hear something. It sounded like a motorbike. The race is on winding trails and you can’t see far ahead. But there was this motorbike rising up out of the trees and going around the corner. It was the lead chase bike, following the leader—Greg Bennett. He was falling apart.
I couldn’t believe it. I had been worrying about coming in second and now… I dropped down the hill and there was Greg Bennett going sideways, absolutely falling to pieces. I floored it and heard the crowd cheering. Greg was in such disarray that as I ran past him I said, “Bennett, are you all right?” But he was in another zone. I took off and ended up getting the win. Greg ended up finishing seventeenth.
It was a bloody miracle. I won my fourth title and equaled Mike Pigg’s record. Mike himself greeted me at the finish line and said something like, “So sorry to hear about your friend.” I was there with Emma, sobbing, telling her what happened. I still couldn’t believe it. My win couldn’t have been more unlikely if lightning had vaporized Greg on the spot. I went into the medical tent to see if he was all right.
As I recall, he said, “I don’t know what happened, man. One minute I was cruising along, the next thing it was like someone punched me in the head, a knockout punch. I didn’t know where I was.” But walking out with Emma, I thought, I know exactly what happened. Maroney was out here saying, “You’re going to win this, you bastard.”
While I was racing, back home they were burying Sean. The cream of the city’s triathlon and swimming community attended his funeral. I couldn’t make it, but I sent a statement that Pauline Maroney, Sean’s mum, read. In it, I called Sean “the Halley’s Comet of friends,” because they only come around once in a lifetime.
Tempting the Island Gods
Against that backdrop of events and emotion, I went to Kona for my first Ford Ironman World Championship. Outwardly, I was trying to be Mister Cool; inwardly, I was excited beyond excited. I went out to the Energy Lab (the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii, a big facility and the place where the marathon course turned back toward town) and took pictures like a tourist. I had no idea how to act around the world-class triathletes who I saw all over town. I didn’t know what protocol was. I felt like a tennis player walking onto the court at his first Wimbledon. Did I swing my racket? Wave at the crowd?
Even though I had never been there before, I felt like I knew the race. I’d watched it on television since I was a kid. I could tell you the names of the winners and their splits. I knew the legendary spots where the race was won or lost: Palani hill, the crosswinds coming down from Hawi, the lava fields. I couldn’t wait to get to the lava fields, which just shows you how completely ignorant I really was. I was coming off dominating wins in my first two races ever over two hours—Wildflower (considered the unofficial half-Ironman championship) and Ironman Australia. I expected to do well at Kona.
When I got to town, I discovered that there was already talk about me. Older athletes were speculating about the twenty-nine-year-old who had crushed Wildflower and run through legends like Peter Reid at Ironman Australia. Apparently, the talk was that I was capable of anything in Kona. They were worried about me because I was a wild card, and I liked that. I felt incredibly confident.
But I also felt strange. Walking around Kailua with Emma was weird, because I had always felt that Sean, my best mate, would be there with me. We would have coffee at Lava Java together. We would swim the course off the Kailua-Kona Pier. But none of those things would happen now. Still, I was here, and after the gods somehow intervened to give me a near-impossible win at Alcatraz, I was sure I would be able to make Sean proud by dominating in Hawaii. I was excited, nervous, and ready.
It was with that spirit that I sat down for my first prerace interview. It’s a standard thing: the network (that year, NBC) brings athletes into a media room and asks a series of pretty basic questions. Going into the interview, I had a goal: to make the other athletes worry about me, even fear me. But that wasn’t the template the interviewer was reading from. The media was expecting the same kinds of answers they got from all the other athletes who’d come to Kona in recent years: “I’ve trained really hard, I’m just grateful to be here,” and so on. But that’s not what I gave them.
The reporter asked me if I was worried about the race because of my lack of experience. What kind of a question is that? I said, “No. I think I can win this race.”
You could see and feel the eyebrows go up in the media room. No athlete had ever said anything like this before. But follow-up questions were negative and defeatist: “Can you do it?” “What about paying your dues?” I didn’t understand this. I was used to the kinds of questions they asked in the cutthroat world of World Cup racing, questions about my bike strength or whether I could drop a certain athlete on the run. There, we had a seek-and-destroy attitude. These were soft, almost gentlemanly questions, and I didn’t care for them. Was I not supposed to want to win?
Then the reporter started talking about the island gods and how you were supposed to pay your dues at Kona for a few years to satisfy the gods. That was enough for me. “Look,” I said, “I don’t buy into island gods. Everyone talks about respecting the island gods. But I’m part Maori, so if anything, they’re my gods! I don’t care about gods. I didn’t come here for a holiday or to get a finisher’s medal. I came here to win this race. I’m here to win.”
A Target on My Back
After the camera was off, I remember the interviewer said to me, “Kid, if you pull this off, you could be very good for this sport.” That was my first clue that I had said things never before heard in Kona. My statements filtered around the town in hours, and soon everybody was talking about that Australian rookie who had said he was going to win Kona his first time out.
The press was happy, as they’ve been my entire career when I’ve opened my mouth and something outrageous has come out. They had both sides of the story covered. If I won, they had the quotes to make me look like a hero; if I failed, they would make me look like an idiot. But I’d said what I’d said, and I owned it. I didn’t hide during race week. What I hadn’t realized was that I had really been offending people. I didn’t get the Kona way of thinking about the race, which was all about gratitude and humility. I had set myself up and painted a nice big target on my back. Everyone thought I was rude and overconfident, and by race day they were ready for me to lose.
I knew I could win. Or at least I thought I knew. The truth was that no matter how well I thought I knew the race, I hadn’t bled in those lava fields. But I was about to.
The Easiest Win Ever
On race morning, I was practically jumping out of my skin with prerace nerves and excitement. I remember tripping out over the gear bags we had to use for transition, because they were so big. In short-course racing, you just had a pair of shoes and some shorts, because everything was so quick. But for Ironman, I had sunglasses, a hat, my nutrition bottles—stuff everywhere.
I checked in and started chatting to guys like Lothar Leder, Jurgen Zack (a five-time European Ironman champion who ran the second-fastest Ironman in history) and Tim DeBoom, who won it all at Kona in 2001. I was nervous, so I just ran my mouth, not knowing that most of the guys were in some intense personal zone and didn’t want to talk. They looked at me like I was some kind of freak. I dove off the pier and just treaded water, looking at all the fans up early for the start of the swim. Wow. I’m really here. I had always seen the start of Kona from above—the aerial camera shot from the TV helicopter. This was a whole new angle.
Then the cannon went off and the race was on. I was next to Jan Sibbersen, a phenomenal swimmer who set many course records in Ironman races, and when he took off, I stayed with him. Man, this guy is quick, I thought. But I kept up with him, and before I knew it I was second or third in the swim. There was a lot of swell that day, but I was totally comfortable. After the frantic pace of a 1,500-meter World Cup swim, the 2.4-mile Ironman swim seemed slow and easy. I sat in a group of the top eight or so swimmers and we distanced ourselves from the pack.
We approached the turnaround buoy, and I thought for the first time, This is a long way. But I turned clean and stayed with the lead group, and I got out of the water sixth. I got my bike kit and nutrition and was out of transition so fast that I think I jumped to second, behind Sibbersen. I rode the first six miles and then looked back to see Tim DeBoom, Peter Reid, Spencer Smith, and a few others with me. But after the first ten miles, I decided the pace was too slow. I was out of there. My race was on, catch me if you can.
By mile twenty, I had caught Sibbersen and blown by him. Now I was leading at Kona. I started getting splits from the group I’d been riding with: two minutes behind me, then three minutes back. I thought, This is going to be the easiest win ever!
Mark Allen and Dave Scott, my idols, were covering the race and they pulled up next to me in a car. I said (I cringe to think about this now), “When does this start getting hard?” Mark said something like, “Be patient, kid.” But I wasn’t about to listen at that point. I thought I had Kona beaten.
Ironman Hawaii doesn’t end until the pier!
A triathlon is not a sprint, especially at Ironman or half-Ironman distance. Don’t try to finish the race on the bike when you still have a run in front of you. Know the conditions, know your fitness level, and be patient. Take advantage of easier or downhill areas of the course to rest and conserve your energy for the later stages.
I got to the community of Kawaihae and got the splits on Jurgen Zack and Thomas Hellriegel (who would play a pivotal role in my future Ironman career), probably the best bike riders in the field. Hellriegel had been one of Sean’s favorite triathletes, and Zack had just missed the world record. I was a big fan; I had posters of Jurgen on my wall only five years earlier. Now they were coming after me.
I anticipated them passing me, and they blew by me on the way to the turnaround at Hawi. But as they did, I started putting out more power and stayed with them. They kept looking back, thinking they had dropped me, but it was becoming clear that I could ride with them.
However, I wanted to show some etiquette; I didn’t want them to think I was looking to them to set the pace and just hang around behind them. So I rode up on them and took the lead for a while. That’s what you do in a bike group: one guy does five minutes at the front of the pack, setting the pace, then another guy takes his turn, then another. At one point, when I was out front, Zack tore around me to take the lead—his signature move on the bike, known as a Zack Attack. I had fantasized about being on the receiving end of a Zack Attack, and it had just happened. Trying to be cool, I rode up next to him and said, “Man, that was a Zack Attack. I’ve waited my whole life for a Zack Attack.” I was such a geek. But he took offense and I vowed to shut up and just ride.
We got closer to the turn and I started thinking about Sean. Mate, look at me. I’m here with the big boys. Can you believe this? We made the turn and started pushing, putting serious time into the chase group. Now I really put in the work leading our group. If Thomas did five minutes in front, I made sure I did ten. I think they started to respect me because everything they did, I matched or surpassed. When fatigue starts to set in, you get really annoyed with riders who aren’t doing their share of the work.
Hellriegel also gave me my first taste of the psychological game at Kona. About eighty-five or ninety miles into the ride, he rolled up beside me and told me that Normann Stadler (who I’ll talk about quite a bit later in the book) was coming across—that is, trying to close the gap and catch us. We watched Normann get closer and as soon as he was close enough to see us, Hellriegel changed gears and surged ahead. I loved the gamesmanship: he had given Stadler the chance to see us and get his hopes up, and then dropped him by setting a faster pace. Stadler dropped more than two minutes behind and never recovered.
“Welcome to Kona, Punk!”
I matched Hellriegel’s pace, but Zack was having a harder time. He struggled with the crosswinds over the last fifteen miles. I got off the bike with Hellriegel, put on my sunglasses, and came out of transition leading the race. That year, transition was at the old Kona airport and it was a half-mile run into town. By the time I dropped down onto Ali’i Drive, I had picked up two minutes on Hellriegel in a mile and a half. The group of strong runners that had started with me wasn’t even in yet, and I’d beaten them in Ironman Australia. You guys are dead, I thought.
I saw Emma by the course and winked. I got a split and I had a thirteen-minute lead on the runners group of Reid, DeBoom, and the rest. I was setting the tempo and I felt great. I saw my dad and said, “Bank the check, Dad.” I was beyond confident. I was sure I already had the race wrapped up.
Then I got to the turn at five miles and headed back toward town. I started to think, Man, this is a long way. Next, I started to think, Geez, it’s hot. I felt a few cramps and grabbed some Gatorade at the next aid station.
Heat started to dominate my thinking. It’s hot, it’s hot, it’s hot was all my brain could seem to say. At mile marker six, I got a cramp and walked. Hellriegel picked me up just after mile marker six, so I had lost two minutes to him in two and a half miles. He ran in the middle of the road, where there’s no shade, but I ran on the side, where tree branches provided me with a little shade. I was starting to suffer in the heat.
At mile marker seven I thought, Oh God, nineteen miles to go. How am I going to do nineteen more miles? I was cramping badly now and coming back into town, and people shouted that I needed salt. Back then, they actually kept salted pretzels at the aid stations, so I had some. The cramps kept coming and I kept walking.
At mile marker eight, Francois Chabaud caught me. He was a hard-looking bloke, covered in tattoos, and about the time he caught me he vomited. I thought, Cool, someone else is hurting. But then he straightened up and just kept running. He would finish sixth.
The main runner group was coming now; I had lost some serious time, most of my thirteen-minute lead. I knew I had to start running again. I was running past my hotel, the King Kamehameha, which is right near the pier where the swim starts, and I knew Emma and all my people would see me walking. I didn’t want to embarrass myself, so I tried to run. But my hands were shaking, and my groin and hip flexors were bunched in agonizing cramps.
I made the turn onto Palani hill. If you don’t know Kona, Palani is a modest hill that looks like nothing if you walk or drive it. But when you try to run up it on a 100-degree day after racing more than 120 miles, it’s like one of the Himalayas. People break on Palani. Peter Reid and Tim DeBoom caught me on the hill and passed me, and then Tim’s brother Tony, who was also a triathlete but there as a spectator, shouted something like, “Welcome to Kona, punk!”
I hadn’t made any friends here, but I was in too much pain to care. I finally got over the top of Palani, but the minute I started downhill on the other side, I couldn’t put one foot in front of the other anymore. I had hoped to make it to the Energy Lab and at least compete in the lava fields, but I was starting to melt. I saw mile marker eleven and thought, How am I going to do fifteen more miles? That’s when I started rationalizing. You led at Hawi, mate. You’ve had a great year. You had thirteen minutes on the runners. You’ll cover this nutrition thing, come back next year, and solve it.
See how insidious that kind of thinking is? Those easy excuses for ending the suffering gave me the escape hatch I needed. There was an aid station right at mile marker eleven and I went over to it and sat down in a sun chair under an umbrella. I was cramping horribly. That’s it. I’m out. That was my first Ironman at Kona.
The press was all over me. Later on, the papers ran a photo of me in my chair with a bucket of ice on my head. For years, every time a publication or website ran an article on dealing with heat, they ran that picture. It was my claim to fame: Chris McCormack, poster boy for heat intolerance.
Back at my hotel, I tried to hide. I had promised a win, believed I would win, and been humbled by the island gods. NBC had called me a “cocky rookie,” and I had to wear that now. I told myself, Okay, you needed this. Let them laugh at you. You had thirteen minutes on the runners and you know you can beat them.
But despite my positive talk, I was bitter. I’d led in Kona, but I hadn’t won or even finished, and I knew Sean would have been disappointed. Over all the years we’d followed the gods of triathlon, my wins were Sean’s wins. When I won a world championship, he told people about it with so much pride that you would have thought he had won. I had loved having a guy in my corner who was happier about my success than I was. I had wanted to win Kona for him.
Most of all, I had been exposed as a fraud. I should have fought on. Thomas Hellriegel ran a 3:03 marathon and finished third. If I’d kept it together to run a 3:10, I would have finished in the top ten. If I’d had more Ironman experience I would have told myself, You’ve done fifteen miles a million times, so you can do it now. Back then, I didn’t have the psychological tools I do now, and I certainly didn’t have the maturity.
Today, I do. I’ve developed strategies that have changed the sport, faced my weaknesses and overcome them, and mastered the mental game enough to win Kona not only in 2007, but in 2010, in what many people have called one of the greatest Hawaii performances ever. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. If you really want to know how I became the oldest man ever to claim the top spot on the Kona podium, we have to start at the beginning.
MACCA’S 2002 SEASON
Kurnell Triathlon, Sydney—FIRST
Dubbo Triathlon Australia—FIRST
Wildflower Half-Ironman, US—FIRST
Carlsbad Triathlon, US—FIRST
Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon—FIRST
San Jose International Triathlon—FIRST
Tempe Triathlon, US—FIRST
Commonwealth Games Triathlon—FIFTH
Bonn Triathlon, Germany—FIRST
Ironman Hawaii, DNF
Flight miles accumulated: 76,450
Days away from home: 241
Countries visited: 7
Season Statistics and Interesting Facts
Training miles for the year
Too Proud to Go Home
I grew up in southern Sydney, Australia, in a town called Heathcote, right along the Royal National Park. It was a phenomenal place for a runner, full of trails through the forest and a great fraternity of runners. When I was five years old, my dad, Ken, took up running to quit smoking, and my two brothers and I just started running with him. Running became what we did together.
When I got to Kirrawee High School, I discovered that I had a natural talent for running and I started competing in cross-country, winning numerous awards including the NSW Sporting Blue, given to the best high school athlete in New South Wales. But surfing was my first love. When you grow up near the water in Australia, you surf every spare moment. My brothers and I surfed five days a week. I would watch anything on television that had to do with Hawaii in the hopes of seeing a big North Shore wave or some of the Hawaiian surfers, who were supposed to be the best in the world. In 1987, when I was fourteen, I saw my first Ironman World Championship on the old ABC Wide World of Sports program. It was only the tenth Ironman in Kona, which Dave Scott won in 8:34:13. Triathlon was years away from blowing up into the worldwide phenomenon it is today. But I was intrigued.
I thought, They don’t run that fast. I can swim and bike—man, I can do this one day. And that was it—back to surfing and school and daily life. In my house, sport was always an important part of the family, but it was definitely something you did only on weekends—it was not a respectable, reliable way to earn a living. So the year would go by and the next October would come along and the Ironman would come on and I’d say, “Oh, there’s that race again.” I would sit for the whole day and watch it and think, This is cool, but that was it.
In my mind, I wasn’t a triathlete. I didn’t even really know that there was such a thing. I was a runner. Running landed me a scholarship at the University of New South Wales, where I ran for the track club while I majored in commerce and pursued a degree in economics, which my parents thought would allow me to get a steady job. Then in 1991 I met Sean Maroney.
Sean was an incredible swimmer who had been ranked the fastest in the world as a twelve-year-old. I knew of his family already because of his twin sister, Susie, who had swum the English Channel twice and set the world record. We don’t have many champions in Australia, so Susie was quite famous. So I was impressed with Sean first because he was a Maroney, second because he was such a great swimmer, and third because he was also a triathlete who followed Ironman Hawaii the same way I did.
He and I would talk for hours about the race and greats like Dave Scott and Mark Allen. Mark and Dave are the legends of Kona, probably the two top athletes in the history of Ironman. They each won Kona six times, and their 1989 showdown in the marathon at Kona, on what has come to be known as “Mark and Dave Hill,” is probably the most famous moment in the sport. I’ve known Mark and Dave for years, and have tremendous respect for them, but back when I was a kid, they were demigods. Over this common ground Sean and I became partners in crime.
Sean had started racing triathlons in 1990, but he wasn’t in college like I was. Instead, his life had four components: bartending, swimming, doing triathlons, and partying. I may have spent part of my time as the dutiful student, but we had our share of fun together and became best mates. During this time Sean was also trying to push me into doing triathlons. “You should do them, Chris!” he would say. “You run so fast!” I was a good runner, but I was apprehensive about the swim. It’s not easy when your mate is one of the best swimmers in the world. True, he’d lost his motivation for swimming. He’d hit the age where you either become an elite competitor or fall short, and he hadn’t made it to Olympic caliber. But I was still intimidated to go to the pool with him because the guy would swim five laps to my one.
Finally in 1991 and 1992, I started doing some duathlons, races that are run-bike. I did pretty well and enjoyed them, but I was still a college scholarship athlete and my college was doubtful about this triathlon movement. My running coach, Helen McGuckin, was supportive, but she saw triathlon as a fad and believed that my natural affinity for running would bring me back into the fold. Still, she gave me a lot of athletic freedom, and I kept doing these multisport races for a noble, pure-hearted reason.
Hey, I was eighteen or nineteen years old! When you’re that age, girls are all that matter. Running was bland, and I knew all the running girls. I’d go with Sean to duathlons and triathlons and there would be gorgeous girls in bikinis. It was summer, the sun was shining, and I thought, This is fantastic! This is the sport for me!
My First Triathlon
Pumped up by adolescent hormones and a growing love of triathlon, I finally agreed to join Sean’s swim squad in the fall of 1992 and learned proper swim technique from his coach, Dick Caine. On November 11 of that year I did my first triathlon. It was the Daihatsu Wollongong Triathlon in Wollongong, a city south of Sydney. Among other things, that was where I met Mick Gilliam, a trainer and physiologist who is one of my closest mates and advisors to this day, and also the vainest man I’ve ever known. Mick is quite a character; more on him later.
No one knew who I was at the triathlon, which was by design. I was still an Australian champion university runner, so I was trying to slip in under the radar. If my college had found out I was doing triathlons, they could have made life difficult for me. I was riding and swimming in secret, trying to squeeze training in between parties and girls. I turned up race morning with my dad and I saw all these guys in wet suits. I thought that it must be cold in the water, because that’s why you wore a wet suit. That’s how much of a novice I was: I didn’t know that you wore wet suits to swim faster. All I had was this thick surfing wet suit, so I put it on and got in the water.
It was an Olympic distance race—1,500-meter swim, 40k ride, and 10k run (.9315 miles, 24 miles, and 6 miles, respectively)—and I was entered in the junior category. I think I was last out of the water. But I rode through a lot of the other juniors, and I ran a thirty-one-minute 10k—faster than all the juniors and the pros—to win the junior category. I got up on stage and found out that I had won a trip for two to New Caledonia and five hundred bucks. Far out! I was used to winning little medallions, so this was incredible. I called Sean and told him we were going to New Caledonia to race. Then I went surfing the rest of the day.
Coincidentally, as I walked in the door that night the phone rang. My father said, “There’s someone from Triathlon Australia on the phone.” It turned out that the Wollongong race had featured the best juniors in the country, sponsored by the candy company Cadbury. I’d beaten every one of them. This freaked out Triathlon Australia, the national federation, because they had no idea who I was. I told the guy on the phone my name and he said, “Did you do the whole course?”
Ah, so that was it. They were tripping over me beating all their best juniors, so they were basically saying I’d cheated. In my head, I was panicking, but not because I cared about winning the race—I didn’t want to give the tickets to New Caledonia back! I’d already told Sean that we were going! I said, “Of course I did the whole course. You’re not getting your tickets back. They’re mine.” And I hung up. It was the beginning of a long, tumultuous relationship with Triathlon Australia.
They rang me back and told me they were very suspicious of my run time. I started to get angry; these guys were wasting my time when a little homework would have saved all of us a lot of stress. “I’m the best junior runner in Australia,” I said. “Check it out.” They did their due diligence and found out I was a good runner, and that changed everything. Next time we talked, they invited me to Canberra, the Australian capitol, to do my next race. If I did well, they wanted me to fly all the way across the country to Perth for another race.
I didn’t know what to say. When you run in Australia, even if you run for the national team, you pay for everything. We were by no means a wealthy family. It was $600 for the flight plus accommodations. I told my father and his reply was “Well, I’m not paying for that, mate. You’re a big boy now.” I was a college kid with no money, so I rang them back to say I couldn’t do the Canberra race, and they said, “Oh, we’ll pay for your travel.” I was shocked. My father was only too happy to let me go if someone else was picking up the bill, so I went to Canberra and finished second. Even though the powers that be were still trying to figure out who I was, I was picked for the Cadbury Junior Elite Squad, which meant more racing. Suddenly I was on the fast track, even though I wasn’t quite sure how I’d gotten there.
A Champion Abroad
I suppose this was the beginning of what’s become a lifelong pattern for me: defying the conventional way of doing things. I hadn’t come out of the heavily recruited junior circuit, but shown up at a race as an unknown and won it. That’s the story of my entire career. I’ve bypassed the typical path of ascension for a triathlete by simply showing up for races and winning them. I’ve said things that other competitors won’t say, trained my body and mind in ways that are completely foreign to our sport, and won races I wasn’t supposed to win. I guess I’m the Frank Sinatra of my sport: I’ve done it my way. And it’s worked.
Not that it’s always been easy. After winning an Australian junior title, I was given the chance to compete in my first Junior Triathlon World Championship in Manchester, England, in August 1993. This would mean starting college two weeks late. My father was not happy about this. “You know you haven’t finished college yet, mate,” he said. To my parents, no matter how successful I was as a triathlete, it was strictly a hobby. Their goal was for me to get my degree, settle into a good, safe job at a company, and race on the weekends. I wanted—well, I wasn’t sure what I wanted anymore.
I told my dad, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back,” and went to Manchester. That race gave me my first taste of humiliation as well as giving me something of a party-boy reputation. I had second place wrapped up, but as I was coming down the final run before the finish line, I was high-fiving the spectators and being a goose, and two guys ran right past me just before the finish. So I finished fourth. Welcome to the big leagues, kid. Triathlon Australia was livid that I had done this. I’d had the silver medal wrapped up, which would have proved that their program worked and gotten them more funding. And there I was doing airplanes down the chute and getting phone numbers from girls!
Even so, I qualified for the World Juniors, which was phenomenal. A French club invited me to join them and start competing immediately. In my first negotiation ever, I somehow convinced them to pay for my mate Kevin Schwarze, who qualified as an amateur age grouper for the Worlds, to go to France with me, and we both started racing for this club.
Of course, I had to call my father and tell him that I was deferring college for a year so I could travel around with my mate and race triathlons in Europe. What else could I do? I was young and single, and I couldn’t pass up this opportunity! I think that was the angriest I had ever heard my father. “You’re going to lose your running scholarship,” he said over the phone. I could almost see his face turning red. “You’ve already put yourself in jeopardy if anyone finds out you’re doing this. Now you’re deferring college?”
I had never gotten into trouble and had always been the obedient son. I knew this might be my only chance to get out on my own with my mate and see some of the world. “Dad, it’s done,” I told him. “I’ll be back. I promise I’ll go back to college.” End of conversation. Kevin was worried about what my father might do, but I laughed. “We’re in Europe. He’s not going to fly out here to drag us home.” We rang Sean and told him we were going to France, and he said, “Get as many pictures of French chicks as you can.” At least somebody had his priorities straight.
So just like that, we started racing in France. It was my first time in Europe. It was the first time I had ever seen the Alps. Everything was new and unbelievable. We were meeting athletes we had never heard of, learning how to deal with different types of terrain and elevations and discovering new tactics and race strategies. We ate all kinds of food, met lots of women, and didn’t learn a single word of French. It was an incredible experience. Then in November, it was over.
Only it wasn’t over. I had won a lot of events. My team saw potential in me if I could improve my swim, which I knew I could do since I’d only started working with a bona fide swim coach a few months earlier. But first, I had to go back home.
Back in Sydney, my father was ready to put my brief career as a European triathlete in the past. Then my French club offered me a contract for the 1994 season. I still had two years of college left, and my dad said, “There will be no more talk about professional European triathlon racing. There’s no future in professional triathlon racing. You are not going on mucking around swimming, biking, and running. You need to get your degree. You need to become an accountant. You need to grow up.” I was twenty.
It had been great fun, and my dad appreciated that. He knew that boys needed to be boys. But I’d done that, it was over and now it was back to the business of school, school, school.
Dying a Day at a Time
I turned down the French contract, dropped out of the triathlon scene, and did my last two years of college. But Sean and I became triathlon junkies. For two years, we lived, ate, slept, and breathed the sport. All I wanted to do was see the world and do these races, but I was trapped by my obligation to my parents. So Sean and I sat down and started The List: a list of all the triathlons around the globe that we would one day compete in together. The plan was that I would finish college and get a job. Then in the summers, we would go on holiday, travel the world, and participate in these races. At the top of the list—our Holy Grail—was the Ironman in Kona. I still have that list today.
Ironman World Championships
Ironman Europe (now Quelle Challenge Roth)
International Triathlon Union (ITU) World Championships
ITU World Cup
San Diego Triathlon
Old Sacramento Triathlon
San Jose Triathlon
Escape from Alcatraz
Mountain Man Triathlon Series
French Grand Prix
Australian Triathlon Championships
Lake Macquarie Triathlon
Races that were gone by the time we raced:
Nice Triathlon (France)
World Cup Triathlon (Surfers Paradise, Australia)
National Park Triathlon (Australia)
Desert Princess Duathlon (USA)
Frankston Triathlon (Australia)
Bud Light US Triathlon Series Pro Championships:
St. Joseph Island Triathlon
Orange County Performing Arts Triathlon
Coke Grand Prix Series
THE LIST: (Some races have changed names or no longer exist)
In October 1995 I finished college with my accounting degree and took a job at Bankers Trust, to the sheer elation of my parents. They were ecstatic that I had aced the interview and now here I was, twenty-two, wearing a suit to work every day, making a good salary. I moved into my own apartment. I bought furniture and my first television. I was racing domestically and doing pretty well, chasing girls with Sean, partying on the weekends, and living what for most young men would be a pretty good life.
I hated every minute of it. I sat at work thinking, What the hell happened? I had only become an accountant because my high school advisor told me I was good at mathematics; I had wanted to be a sports physiologist. I was caught in a conflict that’s been playing out since time immemorial: My parents didn’t understand my passion and they feared that if I followed it I would wind up wasting my life. Their mantra was, “Be sensible, son. Be sensible.”
Now, instead of being worried, they were proud. Dad would pick me up at my apartment and drive me to the train each morning for my commute to work. And I thought, This must be what life is about, right? Do what you’re told and it all works out. Then Sean took a job working at summer camps in America, worked in Hawaii as a lifeguard, and sent me “I’m in Hawaii, mate” postcards. He seemed to be living this cool life. Meanwhile, I was dying a little every day.
I wanted to see the world and I was stuck in Sydney. I wanted to see the world so badly I could barely stand to go to the office each morning. One morning, on the peak hour train into the city, I noticed that no one was smiling. That’s why they call it work, I thought. It’s not called fun for a reason. It sucks. My next thought was, I’m twenty-two. Am I going to do this for the next forty years?
There was a guy who sat next to me at the office named Brian. Other than my parents, he was the oldest person with whom I had ever had a relationship. He was forty-four and had pictures of his kids in his cubicle. I used to sit there and think, Dude, that’s me in twenty-two years. Is this what I have to look forward to?
That day, I made my decision. After just five months, I was done. I couldn’t allow myself to become one of those bitter guys who looks back on his glory days and wonders what could have been. I thought I could go to my French team and get a contract, but it didn’t matter. I knew the sport was blowing up in Europe, and I needed to be there. I wasn’t going to be discovered in Sydney. I was ready to sell everything I owned and go all in on my swim, bike, and run.
I went to my boss that day and handed in my resignation. He was in shock. He said, “Can I ask you what your reason is?” I said, “I’m going to be a professional triathlete and use that money to travel. I’m going to race around the world and make money so I can travel for one or two years and then I’m going to come back and fall back on my degree.”
He laughed. “You’re a dreamer, but good luck,” I recall him saying. I told him I’d give him two weeks, but he told me to finish by Friday. It was Tuesday. That was quick. Friday came and went and I was out of work. I thought, I’ve done it. I’ve done it. Now came the panic. Now what did I do? I thought, Should I go back in and say I made a mistake? Even bigger, What am I going to tell Dad? There was panic, but there was also relief. I had sworn that one day I would do this. Finally, that day was today.
I caught the train home and started planning things. I had some money in the bank, but I needed to start selling off things to get my ticket to Europe. The weekend went by, and I realized that my father would be coming Monday morning to pick me up for the job I no longer had. I wasn’t ready to deal with telling my parents yet, so Monday morning I put my suit on and met my father downstairs. He drove me to the train station as usual, and we talked but I just couldn’t tell him. He dropped me off at the station and I waved as he drove away. Then I ran back home and spent the day training and getting organized.
A while before he would have been at the station to pick me up from the job I no longer had, I put my suit back on and ran back to the station. Dad picked me up, asked me how my day was, and I said, “Fine.” I did the same thing for the next two weeks.
Finally, two Fridays later, I asked if I could come to dinner Saturday night. That evening, I went to Mom and Dad’s and said, “I’ve quit work and I’m going to go to Europe in nine days’ time.” They got very quiet.
“You’re doing what? When did this happen?” Mum asked. I didn’t have the courage to tell my dad that I’d been lying to him for the last two weeks, so I just said, “I gave my notice two weeks ago, and those two weeks were up yesterday.”
Finally, I said, “Just don’t be disappointed, Dad.” He looked at me and said, “I’m not disappointed, Son. I just want you to know if you’re going to do something, do it properly. Life goes by like that. I’m proud of you and what you’ve done, but just do things properly.” Mom started to babble overprotectively: “When do you leave? Have you packed everything? Don’t talk to strangers. What are you doing with your apartment?” I tried to tell her that talking to strangers was the whole point, but what young man can argue with his mother?
Nine days later I boarded a plane for Singapore. I was finally doing it! I didn’t know if I would succeed as a professional or not, but I only knew that I did not want to come home a failure.
Lost in Translation
By the time I got to Paris and went through customs, I was frightened to death. I wished I’d tried to learn some French during my ten weeks with Kevin a few years earlier, because I didn’t speak a word of it. I was standing in Charles de Gaulle Airport without any idea what to do next, so I bought a copy of 220 Triathlon magazine, flipped to the back page, and saw a race in Orange, which is down in Provence. It was Thursday and the race was on Saturday, so I said, “I guess that’s where I’m going.” I booked a ticket on an overnight train to save on accommodations and I was off.
I got off in Orange, booked into a hotel, did the race, and won five hundred francs. There was a race in Avignon the next day, so I went to that and won some more money. But I needed a home base. Back in 1993 when I had raced for the French club, I had lived in a town called Embrun, in the Alps just southeast of Grenoble. I’d stayed there for five days back in 1993 and done the toughest race I’d ever done in my life there. That’s where I decided I had to be. I caught an overnight train packed with people, and I became paranoid that the blokes I was sharing a cabin with were going to steal my bike box. I was dying to sleep but I kept waking up to watch them, until finally I decided this was ridiculous and I got off at the next stop, a town called Gap.
This is where destiny comes in. It was Sunday, I was tired and dirty, I had a big yellow bike box, and I was walking through the train station when a man came up to me. I remembered my mother warning me not to talk to strangers—I was still just a kid, really—so I was wary of this guy. But he saw that I had an Australian flag on my bike box, so he spoke English. “You’re lost,” he said. I wanted him to leave me alone, so I just said, “No, I’m fine,” and kept walking. But he stayed with me. I went into town looking for the Office du Tourisme to find out if I could rent a cabin at a caravan park or something so I could live in this area. All the while, we had this running dialogue that went something like this:
“You look lost.”
“No, I’m just trying to find a place to stay.”
“You all right?”
“I’m all right.”
Then he told me it was Sunday and everything was closed. With that, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have my French club contacts from three years earlier; I had been hoping that I would go to races like I had in Manchester and a team would see me and say, “Oh, this guy’s good, we’ll pick him up.” That hadn’t happened. As they say, hope is not a success strategy. I turned to my new friend and said, “I’ll just wait right here. I’m fine, mate. I’m trying to be a professional triathlete. I’m trying to find a cabin to stay in for a month or so. I just need to get settled so I can start commuting to races.”
He suggested that I come to his house so he could help me. Now I was really paranoid. All my friends had told me that the French were mean and unfriendly. What did this guy want from me? Finally, because I realized I had nowhere else to go, I went with him back to his house. I figured if things got dodgy I could always outrun him.
Well, my paranoia proved to be totally ridiculous. The guy’s name was Phillip, and he had spent about fifteen years in Aspen, Colorado, selling real estate. He made a lot of money and then moved with his girlfriend, Stephanie, to the Alps, where they were semi-retired. It turned out that Stephanie had the same doubts about me that I’d had about Phillip. Who was I and would I try to murder them in their sleep?
In the end, I stayed with Phillip and Stephanie for about five weeks. They were wonderful to me. We became friends and still are. Phillip would take me on beautiful rides and I taught him about triathlon. I would go for training rides in the mountains and listen to Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill on my Walkman (this was before iPods). I must have listened to that album five thousand times. Now I had a home base, and I was training and doing races.
There’s an International Triathlon Union (ITU) World Cup series of races that I wanted to compete in, but your national team has to choose you for them, and I wasn’t on the national radar. But then things started to look up: the Montpellier Triathlon Club picked me up and asked me to come and live in their training area, a small city on the French Mediterranean Sea. So I thanked Phillip, packed up my things, and moved to this tiny studio apartment in a tiny village called Juvignac.
In club racing, you don’t train together if you don’t live in the same area. I was racing for the club but training alone. I have never felt more homesick in my entire life. No one lived near me, I had no transport, and I knew nobody. Sure, I was training for this club, but I only saw my teammates on race weekends. After two weeks of no one speaking English and nothing to do but train and sleep, I was ready to pack it up and go home. After the warmth and hospitality that Phillip and Stephanie had shown me, I was lonely. I couldn’t watch TV because it was all in French. I had no books. I didn’t even have the Internet.
Time goes very slowly when you’re alone in a foreign land and don’t speak the language. I’d race on a Sunday in the Pyrenees, and there might be some guys from England or someone else who spoke English. I’d hang with them as long as I could, but then the race would be over and they would go back to their clubs. So with Monday came the low of lows. I would say to myself, Next week, please let there be some people at the race I can talk to.
At least fifty times, I must have packed my stuff and said to myself, I can’t do this, I’m going home. But I couldn’t bear the thought of having to sit down with my father and mother and tell them that I’d failed, and to hear them say, “We’re sorry, Son, but we told you so. Now come back to the real world.” To go back to life in a cubicle! I just couldn’t do it. I was too proud to go home.
I envied other athletes who trained close to their homes. Some of the French guys who were riding with the team had parents in Paris; they could go home for the weekend, catch up with their friends, see their girlfriends. I would’ve killed to do that. But being alone made me mentally tougher. I had to keep going every day. I couldn’t sit around in the mornings feeling sorry for myself.
If you’re in that situation, you have to fight the desire to quit every day. The process makes you stronger. Deal with it, mate. Deal with it. Every day you wake up and repeat that. Get over it or go home. Those are your two options. If you’re not going to go home, then train. That becomes the simplicity of the whole experience.
If you can survive that as a young person, it creates a hardness in you. It breaks many people. Many Australian guys I knew went broke and went home because they couldn’t deal with it. It’s so easy to give up. You go to the train station, buy that ticket and it’s Easy Street. You’re on that nice 747, being fed recognizable food by people who speak English, and you’re going back to comfort, family, and friends. It’s the end of the dream.
I finally said to myself, Man, people wait their whole lives to do this! Just enjoy. You’re in France. Snap out of it. Go out for a ride. Go for a ride and enjoy the scenery. So that’s what I did. That bleak period in France made me a better triathlete. For one thing, I was so bored that all I would do was train. I would go for five-hour training rides just to kill time. I was learning to endure the loneliness, the strange food, the cold conditions, and the language barrier. I was becoming a warrior.
There’s no secret to being a triathlete. Anyone could do what I did. The formula is simple: passion, commitment, repetition, a lot of hard work, and a refusal to fail. I didn’t know anything about professional coaching methods or training blocks. I just decided on a routine, threw myself into it, and kept going. There is no reason you cannot do the same.
All that extra training and racing had a purpose: I wanted to race the 1996 ITU World Cup in Paris. Finally, the national federation called me and told me I could do the Paris race because there were no other Australians. Beautiful. The ITU World Cup is the premier series of short-course racing, and on a big stage like that, a good showing against the best athletes in Europe would put me on the international radar.
My French club said okay, so I made my plans. But after getting to Paris, I realized I was risking everything. As you know if you’ve ever traveled there, Paris is incredibly expensive. After four days, I had nearly blown all my money. I had no choice but to perform in the race or I was done. I would have to go home broke.
Fortunately, I had a decent day and ended up finishing seventh. Once again, nobody knew this Australian who had come out of nowhere. After the race, a fellow named Les McDonald came up to me and said something like, “Who the hell are you?”
I said, “My name’s Chris McCormack.” I didn’t know who this guy was, but I tried to sell myself. “I did the Junior Worlds in ’93 and finished fourth. Now I’ve finished college and I’ve been here in France for nine weeks. I’ve trained for this race and I had a good day.”
He asked me what I was doing the following week.
“I’ll go on back to my club in the South of France and race for them.”
I recall him saying, “Well there’s a World Cup in Canada. Have you thought of doing that?” Of course I had. The World Cup race in Drummondville, Quebec, would attract the best of the best in short-course racing. I wanted badly to be there. But I said, “My federation has to pick me, and they’ve already picked the eight best athletes in Australia to race. I’ve got to try and cut my teeth here.”
He said something like, “Well, I’m Les McDonald. I’m the president of the International Triathlon Union. I’m going to give you a wild card entry to Canada if you want to come.”
I still didn’t get it. “My federation will never allow it. I need to ring them and get clearance.”
I remember that Les said, “No, I don’t think you understand. I’m the president of the ITU. I’m giving you a wild card to do the race if you want to come. That is all the clearance you need.”
Bonus! You know how you get to a party and someone says, “Let’s go to another party.” You just go. I had all my stuff in Paris, so why not? I said, “Okay, but how am I going to get to Canada?”
He smiled and reminded me that I’d won two thousand US dollars that day.
Two thousand bucks! I’ll never work again! Les told me if I decided to come, they would dock my prize money for the cost of a ticket on Lufthansa and find me a Canadian home to stay in. I thought for two seconds and said, “Let’s go to Canada.” I flew to Drummondville and got picked up for my home stay. Now the whole Australian team—all the best triathletes from my country, including Miles Stewart, Troy Fidler, Lach Vollmerhaus, Shane Reed, Chippy Slater, Greg Bennett, and some others—started cross-examining me. Their attitude was “Who the hell are you? You haven’t played by the rules here. We’re the best in the country. You can’t just come to the World Cup. The Federation has to pick you.”
I was trying to be friendly, but it was awkward. I said something like, “Oh, I met Les McDonald.” But that didn’t wash. These guys had been on the circuit for years in order to get an invitation to the World Cup; I had been in France for three months and here I was. I wasn’t staying with the team. I definitely felt like an outsider. This was another example of my unconventional way of doing things in my sport.
Alone, I went sightseeing and rested for most of the week. Since I had done all this massive training to combat my boredom and loneliness in France, the rest turned out to be exactly what my body needed. Rest is terribly underappreciated in our sport. On race day, it paid off. Only two Australians had won a World Cup at that point: Miles Stewart and Brad Bevan, another Aussie who’s one of the best short-course racers in history. I got out of the water in the middle of the pack, rode like a freight train, and ran away from everybody. Boom. Ten thousand dollars, just like that.
The global triathlon fraternity was speechless. There are only nine World Cups in a year and the tenth race at the World Championship. I’d just won against all the best triathletes in the world. I remember thinking, Did I just win ten thousand American dollars? When I crossed the line, it was the first time I had ever been in front of a TV camera. The interviewer asked, “How do you feel?” and I said, “Can someone please give me a phone? I have to ring my mum. I’ve just won ten thousand dollars!”
Back with my host family, I was jumping up and down, singing, “I’m rich!” I used to make $32,000 AUS as an accountant, and I’d just made $10,000 US in one day and $2,000 US the week before, which was about $20,000 AUS at the exchange rate, all in seven days. Beauty!
My ride had been like a rocket. One minute I was a lonesome nobody in France, and fourteen days and two races later I was a World Cup racer. I certainly wasn’t going back to France. I went to Bermuda, because I was now on the World Cup circuit as part of the Australian national team, and I stayed with the Butterfield family, who are still close friends today. I took sixth in Bermuda and made another two grand. I was thinking, “This is easy!” But it was only easy on race day.
Even though I was on the World Cup circuit, I was definitely an outsider. The other athletes—including the guys on the Aussie team—treated me with some animosity, an attitude of “Who’s this bloke? He’s only won one fluke race.” It was hard, because I had intense respect for them. But I was like the new kid at school who comes in and starts getting perfect scores on all the exams. I had been training in France on my own, by the seat of my pants and without a coach, mostly to alleviate my terrible boredom. I figured I needed to swim, bike, and run a certain distance each day, so I chose the distance and did it. My finely tuned nutritional plan was to eat whatever I could afford, mostly baguettes and olive oil. Yet here I was, landing in the top ten.
What made it even harder was that because I had won a World Cup race at Drummondville, Triathlon Australia had to give me a spot on the national team. That meant dropping another athlete, which didn’t win me any friends. But I had been getting consistent results—a sixth, a first, and a sixth—and I had my own money now. They pretty much had to deal with me.
It was really amazing. I had quit my job in April 1996, and by September I had won a World Cup and I was a part of the most powerful short-course triathlon team in the world. I was obviously doing something right, and now I needed a place to live somewhere between Bermuda and Cleveland, where the 1996 world championships would be. The rest of the Aussie team had gone to training camp, but as a recent addition there was no spot available for me, because the plans had been made long before I had appeared out of nowhere. I knew that Boulder, Colorado, was a haven for triathletes, so I went there. I had $14,000 in my pocket, rented a student apartment for $800 a month, trained in Boulder, and communicated with my teammates through e-mail.
Training with the Greats
Then came the 1996 ITU World Championship in Cleveland, Ohio. I got my ass handed to me by the best guys in the world. That was probably a good thing because I was getting a little cocky. I came in twenty-eighth and thought, Wow, these guys are fast. But while I was in Cleveland, I got to know Miles Stewart, an iconic Australian triathlete who won the world title in 1991. Everybody in the triathlon fraternity knew Miles. Out of all that older brigade, he was the one who befriended me. He was actually only a couple of years older than me, but he had been competing for years and had unbelievable talent. I remember thinking, Wow, I just had a talk with Miles Stewart. I called Sean back home and said, “Guess who I’m hanging out with?”
It got better. The 1996 season was over; the ITU ranked me ninth in the world, and I’d had six top ten finishes. Miles said something like, “If you come home to Australia this summer, why don’t you move to the Gold Coast and train with me?” Miles wasn’t stupid; he was the greatest short-course tactician in the sport but not a terrific runner. I think he saw that I was a great runner and he figured he could learn from me. I was blown away: one of the biggest names in my sport was asking me to come and train with him! So I flew home, saw my mom and dad, and then surprised them with the news that I was moving to Queensland, to the Gold Coast.
Miles invited me to his house immediately, and I started training under his father, the legendary Col Stewart. It was the first time that I had ever trained with a group, and this was the best in the world. The funny thing was, Col never had a set plan. He always changed things up. Col’s archrival was Brett Sutton, who is probably the most famous triathlon coach in the world. Sutton’s program was German-style: strict scheduling, extremely hard work, never deviating from the program.
But Col seemed to have no training structure. He would always be surprising us with different training blocks, different timing, and different types of power and speed work. He would focus less on volume and more on form and improving performance for the specific needs of a race. If you know anything about fitness training, you know that the best way to keep yourself from plateauing and keep getting results is to surprise your muscles. Col constantly kept us guessing, which also kept the training interesting.
I would ask him if we were training enough, and he would say things like, “Training is about winning races, not training the most.” He was a hard man but a fair man, the philosopher of our sport. When I expressed doubts, he would say, “Chris, are you winning?” I was.
Col did things his own way. He believed that the swim should be the second session in the day, not the first. He was the first coach to have video of the race cued up so we could watch it and break it down afterward. Col trained me to be a racer. The focus was on quality, not quantity. The working dynamic was everything: twenty-five guys working together, feeding off each other. I thrived on it. I had a great coach, an iconic athlete to measure myself against, and camaraderie with a group of athletes who were all Australians. That fed everything I wanted from the sport. From that point on, I dominated the Australian season.
By May 1997, I started to feel tension from Col and Miles, and I ended up leaving the Stewart camp. I don’t think Miles realized how much I was going to take from the group—how much of their methods I would make my own. Col was the coach of the most powerful training group in the sport, and they weren’t used to having people ask questions. The group was really set up to make Miles successful; the other athletes were more like role players. When I went head to head with Miles using what I had learned and beat him, I think it was a shock.
There was no animosity at all from Col or Miles, though by departing I created tension between me and Miles that would persist for more than a decade. I just knew that I had learned all I could from them. They had shown me that success in triathlon was about engulfing yourself in the sport—breathing it, sleeping it. It was no longer fun and games; I couldn’t race hard and party hard like I had in the past and excel. They taught me what it takes to be a professional athlete.
In 1997, things got even better. I took what I had learned from Miles and Col—prepare, study past races, focus on quality training blocks, adapt your work to how you’re feeling and to your goal—and I won my first two World Cup races to take the world number one ranking, which put me in a great position to make the team for the Sydney Olympics. I had four more podium finishes that year. Then, on November 16, I took my first ITU World Championship in Perth, Australia, beating Hamish Carter (a New Zealander who won the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics and who was probably my biggest rival in short-course racing) by thirteen seconds. In 2005, the Australia triathlon community voted that race as the biggest win in Australian triathlon history. It really changed the sport and heralded the arrival of a new generation. I beat all the big names, including the great Simon Lessing, a three-time world champion who hadn’t been beaten in three years, in what was probably the most stacked World Championship field ever.
That year, I became the first man in history to win the ITU World Championship and the ITU World Cup Series and be ranked number one in the same season. No one has matched that achievement since.
The Sport Goes Global
That was an important time for triathlon, because I was part of a generation of younger athletes who were changing the sport and preparing to take it to a global stage. When I won in Perth in 1997, the sport was just beginning to bubble. The World Cup was becoming quite respected, and triathlon would be in the Olympics for the first time in 2000. But back when I started competing in 1992, it was still pretty much a Mickey Mouse scene.
Triathlon has a tradition of hardscrabble, old-school competition. It wasn’t created as a glamour sport. Remember, the runner-up in the first Ironman in Hawaii in 1978, Navy SEAL John Dunbar, ran out of water to run the marathon and drank beer instead of water on the course! Triathletes were supposed to be badass. Back in the early days of European racing, you had to be. The courses were hard and the competitors were hard, especially at the pro level. The bike course might be hilly and 44k instead of 40k, but competitors didn’t care. The challenge was the bait. It was kind of a Wild West frontier attitude.
In 1993, when I first told people I was going to make a living as a pro triathlete, they looked at me like I had gone stark raving mad. It was a fringe sport back then. It’s probably the same reaction you would have gotten twenty years ago if you had said you wanted to make a living as a professional poker player. Well, the guy who won the main event at the 2010 World Series of Poker won $9 million, so things change. By 1995, the International Olympic Committee announced the sport would debut at the Sydney Games, and that brought government-funded programs in Europe.
The moment things really changed was when Les McDonald, head of the ITU, took Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the IOC, to see his first triathlon in 1995. Samaranch was appalled that the athletes got out of the water, got on the bikes, and the spectators didn’t see them again—and then the same thing happened when they started the run! He told Les that if this was to be an Olympic sport, they had to think about the spectators and television. Also, the arcane no-drafting rules, in which an athlete could win the race but then drop down to third because he’d gotten a drafting penalty on the bike, were unacceptable. Samaranch wanted clear winners in his Olympics, not gold medalists who suddenly became bronze medalists because of some petty infraction!
This was the origin of loop courses and draft-legal racing in short-course triathlon, which helped it become an Olympic sport faster than any other. In 1995, the draft-legal World Cup series started, national federations got funding, and the sport blossomed. In 1997, the IOC began implementing changes to racing gear, safety rules, and an Olympic point system that would qualify each nation to send athletes to the Games. Greg Bennett (an Olympian and Lifetime Fitness Grand Slam winner who was known as Mr. Consistency) and I traveled around the world earning points for the Australian team and competing for world number one at the same time.
When the IOC got involved, the courses had to be precisely Olympic distance, 1.5k, 40k, and 10k, not “about 1.6k,” 48k, and 11k. It was more exciting. The Olympic distance had always existed, but now it was enforced. Now there was a clear way to measure my performance against that of other athletes. Now we had legitimacy because we were going to be in the Olympics. I said, “Cool, there’s going to be a triathlete who has the same medal as Carl Lewis.” Before, I would tell people what I did and they would say, “Huh?” Now I could tell them and be proud.
I was there at the start of all of this. I saw Swiss triathletes in national uniforms driving Volvos because they had Federation money behind them. So I can definitely say that I straddled the hardscrabble, old-school days of racing and the newer, richer, corporate- and government-sponsored days. Between 1993, when I competed for my French club as a junior, and 1996, when I won in Drummondville, the sport exploded.
So, triathlon went global. It’s a product of the Olympics and the Ironman brand. Ironman has its wave of marketing and its tour of events, and then there’s the Olympic distance that the World Cup races. Ironman is the premier long-course series in the world; the World Cup is the elite short-course circuit. I was the first athlete in the draft-legal era to cross over from short course to Ironman and dominate in both.
There was also a major rift in the sport between the old guard and the new Olympic sport. The old guard was the Bud Light Series in America—the old-school, non-draft-legal, six-city tour that started back in 1982. Back then, the sport was mostly American: Mike Pigg, Mark Allen, Scott Molina, Dave Scott, Scott Tinley, Lance Armstrong, and the like. They were the pioneers. I’ve told you about Mark and Dave, and you know Lance Armstrong. Mike Pigg is an American who dominated at the Olympic distance, winning four national championships in the 1980s. Scott Molina is a former Ironman Hawaii winner known as “the Terminator.” Scott Tinley is a two-time Kona winner who’s now a teacher.
Greg Bennett, Hamish Carter, Simon Whitfield (the Canadian who won the first Olympic gold in the sport in 2000 and ranks as one of the best short-course triathletes ever), and I came out of the first wave of the Olympic movement, and we were the first ones to experience many of the changes that the ITU guys see today: draft-legal racing, short circuit, multiloop courses, big loop courses that were more spectator friendly, uniform guidelines. But the Bud Light pioneers rebelled. They said things like, “This is bullshit. This ain’t triathlon.”
There was definitely a rivalry between the old-school Americans who wanted the sport to stay rough-and-tumble and the newer, global sport competitors. Triathlon had started in Kona and San Diego, then spread from there. But when the international federations tried to get the Bud Light race directors to become part of the larger international circuit, the race directors basically said, “Up yours. Our races will stand on their own.” Athletes would say, “I’m not buying into these IOC rules where we have to wear a national uniform.” The race directors had their turf and they wouldn’t let anybody else play. They didn’t like that the World Cup was a professionals-only circuit. It was really about making money, and as far as they were concerned, they were the sport. Pro racing was a crock.
For a while, the three styles fed the sport. But eventually, the ITU and Ironman races started to make the older circuit irrelevant. For example, the Chicago Triathlon was famous; it was on The List that Sean and I wrote. But when you talked with other athletes and said, “I won Chicago,” it didn’t matter. That race had become irrelevant from an international standpoint. The Ironman and ITU circuits were more spectator and sponsor friendly. The standardized distances and rules meant that if you wanted any credibility as a short-course guy, you did World Cup. If you wanted credibility as an Ironman, you had to do an Ironman-sanctioned race. You’re only as good as the people you compete against.
Now you have this Olympic distance short-course ITU system, and the athletes that are coming out of that system now are phenomenal. The old school guys say, “It’s draft legal, so it’s not real triathlon. Triathlon is individual.” That’s rubbish. I grew up as a runner and fell into triathlon; these kids grew up straight into it. We’re starting to see a wave of kids who have been groomed to be triathletes from the time they were seven years old. They’re swimmers for their national programs, and then when they get old enough they join the ITU junior circuit. The old school guys grumble and say things like, “Well if they raced in my races,” and I just respond, “Mate, they would run rings around you.”
I’m the only one who has done the old-school races and beat the best in the world in a global sport, and let me tell you, these kids who are on the way are going to break every record. The future is in very good hands.
Excerpted from I'm Here To Win by McCormack, Chris Copyright © 2011 by McCormack, Chris. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Chris McCormack "Macca" was born in Sydney, Australia on April 4, 1973. He won titles and awards for his participation in sports during his school years, but initially chose education over a pro sports career and became an accountant after graduating from the University of New South Wales. He began competing professionally in 1996, and most recently, won the 2010 Ironman World Championship in Honolulu.
Tim Vandehey is a professional ghostwriter, book collaborator and "book doctor." Since 2004, he has ghostwritten or co-written more than 30 books in the self-improvement, memoir, sports, spiritual, health, business, and financial genres. They include Produced by Faith with DeVon Franklin, Running on Faith with Jason Lester, and How to Make the Rest of Your Life the Best of Your Life with Mark Victor Hansen and Art Linkletter. Tim lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington, with his wife and two daughters.
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