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About the Author
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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I'm Here to Win
By Chris McCormack, Tim Vandehey, Mark Allen
Center StreetCopyright © 2013 Chris McCormack Tim Vandehey Mark Allen
All rights 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.
Excerpted from I'm Here to Win by Chris McCormack, Tim Vandehey, Mark Allen. Copyright © 2013 Chris McCormack Tim Vandehey Mark Allen. Excerpted by permission of Center Street.
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