The Ironman Returns
For one 41-year-old Australian triathlon champion, retiring just meant taking a break.
Australian Craig Alexander retired from Ironman triathlons last year as the sport’s dominant figure. The Australian said he was ready to dedicate more time to his family, and that his 41-year-old body could no longer sustain Ironman’s punishing training regimen. His plan was to race shorter, half-Ironman races, and to live full-time back in Australia.
Now, less than 12 months later, he’s preparing for his comeback. After quietly logging huge training miles in Boulder, Colorado, he is now set to race the world championships in Kailua-Kona on October 11.
We sat down with Alexander to discuss how he’s adjusted his training and why walking away from Ironman was harder than the race itself.
OUTSIDE: Take us through your decision to come back from retirement.
ALEXANDER: My wife and I had said that when our second child, Austin, started school, we’d stop traveling and stay in Australia full-time, and I’d just race shorter [triathlons]. That was supposed to be this year. At the beginning of January my wife and the kindergarten teacher decided to hold Austin back another 12 months. He’s 4-and-a-half-years-old, so the teacher thought he was still a bit too young. That was the initial catalyst, because I immediately knew I could go to Boulder and have at least three months to get ready.
I’ve also had a few issues the last few years with a back injury, and I didn’t want to put myself in the position of being on the starting line and not being physically up to it.
Have you done anything differently from a training perspective?
I’ve always done lots of volume and intensity. But in my aging body that work manifested itself in physical problems, so I had to rethink my methods and overhaul my training. I’m now vigilant about getting two massages a week, going to the chiropractor once a week, getting dry needling, and spending more time stretching. I spend more effort on recovery and just listening to my body. Every now and then my back will hurt on a long run or a bike ride. I can’t tell if it’s real or a phantom pain, but I do feel it. So I learn to rest and go easy.
Are there mental and emotional reasons for coming back?
To be honest, it never really hit me that I was retired, because I probably needed six to eight months away from triathlon for it to sink in. Even last year when I said it would be my last Kona, it felt like any other season. I turned my brain off triathlon in October, and then spent time at home until January. So from an emotional standpoint, I didn’t really give myself a chance for it to sink in. Three months later Austin didn’t start school and I started thinking about [Ironman]. It’s a tough question, because I don’t feel like I had the chance to say that after 20 years of being a full-time athlete, I’m done with it. Instead, I just started planning the season and laying out things that I needed to do.
Are you worried that people will see you as the guy who couldn’t walk away?
Look, I’m not the type of guy who is looking for more publicity. I’m the guy who wants less publicity. I’m just doing something I love to do and yes, I’ve changed my mind. I can say that I definitely thought last year was going to be the last year. It wasn’t an emotional response to a bad race, because I thought about it leading up to the race. There were family situations and age and all of those things. But my desire to race didn’t go away.
People are saying ‘Are you crazy? You’re going to hurt your legacy!’ Legacy is a big bullshit word. My daughter said to me when I was thinking of coming back, ‘Daddy, I want to see you race Hawaii again,’ and I told her it was going to be very hard. She said, ‘But it’s supposed to be hard, isn’t it?” What type of legacy would I leave to her if I said ‘This is too hard?’
What are your expectations for the race?
I want to perform to the best of my abilities, and no less. I don’t want to say, “I wasn’t up to it because of my age or because of my level of prepration.” The goal is always to have my best performance, and in the past, my best performance has won. I’m expecting a high level. I’ve certainly prepared at that level. I’ve been training very hard for the better part of three months.
I know my level of fitness is very high. There are times I’m doing in the pool and on the bike and in running that are as good as I’ve ever done.
What lessons can amateur triathletes learn from your decision to come back?
Be open and flexible. As triathletes we’re all similar personality types, which is Type A-obsessive. So yes, it helps to be very organized and have schedules and goals. But coming through the twilight of my career I’ve learned that flexibility can be really helpful. Develop a plan, but also be flexible within that plan. The body can change. Family and commitments can change.
And will you continue to race Ironman in the future?
I’m fairly confident this is the last Kona. Only time will tell. I lost some credibility by saying this last year. I probably should have never said it was my last one last year, but at my age I get asked that 10 times a year. Will people doubt me? Sure, and they’re entitled to. When you change your mind on something, maybe you lose credibility, but it’s something I want to do.