30 Minutes With: Craig Alexander

Craig Alexander is one of the greats in triathlon.

Sung Han

Play a game of word association with anyone who has ever competed in a triathlon and when you get to “Ironman” you’re likely to hear “Craig ‘Crowie’ Alexander” before “Robert Downey, Jr.” The former has been on the cover of tri mags at least as many times as the latter has been on the cover of Esquire or GQ. Alexander, a native of Australia, has been dominant in the sport since 2002, with banner years in 2008, 2009, 2010; in 2011, he became the only guy in the sport to win the Ironman 70.3 World Championship and the Ironman World Championship in the same year. On top of it all, he’s widely considered a gentleman in the sport. Now 41, Alexander is preparing to compete in the Ironman World Championship on October 11, 2014. He was in New York earlier this year, where we caught up with him for a run in Central Park and a chat about food, criticism and the time he won big while riding an unlabeled Cervelo. (It’s the first time he’s talked about it, so if you’re a tri geek, pop some popcorn and put your feet up.)

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Q. Thanks for the run this morning. This must be a quick trip for you?
A. Arrived at midnight, leave this afternoon.

Q. That is quick. Do you bring food on the plane — what’s your routine?
A. I normally take some sort of health bars on the plane for sure because I don’t think they feed you enough on those things. You’ve just got to be flexible with your diet because when you’re traveling at an airport, if you’re lactose free and you want to minimize your gluten or whatever, you just don’t get to choose a lot of the time. You’ve just got to eat what you can eat, and I’m pretty flexible like that. Especially if you’re in heavy training and your metabolism is very high and burning, you might take a couple of days off training, but your metabolism doesn’t switch off overnight so your body is still craving a lot of food.

Q. Have you ever calculated your calorie intake, sort of, Michael Phelps-style?
A. It would be a lot. I mean, when I am in heavy training, and when you’re altitude, you’re burning more calories anyway. When I do my heavy training blocks, I am doing 40 or 45 hours a week of training. I am probably swimming 16 miles, biking 400-500, and running 80 miles. I just eat all day, every day.

Q. What’s your ideal meal?
A. You know, I like a good steak. I like pizza. I don’t mind a good burger either. Quality seafood, love seafood. I love Thai food. I love Mexican food. Man, I love all food. I love chocolate. Chocolate’s my little vice.

Q. Do you drink at all?
A. I do. Anything in moderation is okay. I will have a glass of wine with dinner if I feel like it. I mean, one year — I think it was ’08. I was losing weight, and I got down to my race weight probably five weeks before the race, so I started off just having a lot more protein shakes, but I also was having a beer or two with dinner every night just to get more calories in. As long as you’re not going out and getting hammered and getting dehydrated, I don’t do anything that’s detrimental to my training the next day. And I felt that was helping my recovery because I think when you get very light in your weight, you lose a bit of strength and risk of getting sick, so it helped me put a few pounds back on, which I needed to because I was still five weeks out from the race.

The main thing is to stay healthy. The enemy of endurance athletes are illness and injury. The cornerstone of your eating has to be healthy. As much as there’s a lot of great tools out there, it starts with proper sleeping and proper eating, and that’s something everybody can do — proper sleeping patterns, getting enough sleep and then proper eating.

Fuck, I just don’t want to — I don’t want to think about triathlon anymore. As much as I love it, I want to sit here and watch Sports Center.

Q. When you’re racing, I am sure you go through some dark moments. What do you do to overcome those?
A. Different mental strategies. I mean, it’s a tough endeavor. That’s what you’ve taken on. I accept there’s going to be those periods, and that’s part of the whole process. Tomorrow I want to be better than the last time, and part of that means being able to deal with those moments better and being able to — not embrace them, but accept that’s a part of it. My whole mantra is I just want to be the best athlete I can be, and from day one to now it hasn’t changed. So physically and mentally, the execution of a race is about dealing with everything that comes your way, and those moments are part of it. It’s about not running away or shying away from it, and you know, the motivation changes. Later in my career I’ve gotten a lot of motivation from my family and what they’ve sacrificed for me, and so I can push through those moments because I know that a lot of people have sacrificed. It’s not just me. My daughter’s being homeschooled. My wife’s quit her job so we can travel. A lot of people have sacrificed so that I can be out there and race and I want to honor their sacrifice — and part of that is pushing through those moments that everybody goes through. With experience you learn to deal with it better. You learn that you always come out the other side. As bad as you think it can be, or as bad as it gets, the day will be over, and you will be sitting back in your hotel room thinking about the race.

Q. Did you ever have any periods of time where you’ve felt depressed from overtraining?
A. I think you are in a bit of an emotional roller coaster sometimes because when I train, I just feel good. I mean, the endorphins. I feel good. This is what I want to do. It’s what I like to do. When I don’t get to train as much, or the time I had the chicken pox and I picked up that respiratory virus where I coughed so much I broke my ribs, all those things create stress. One thing [about starting] yoga, I’ve really liked apart from I know what it’s doing to my body is just the quiet time in there, and the breathing. If I’m not training, I’ve got three kids at home, I am on the phone doing an interview or checking email. I come in from a six-hour bike ride, and there will be a message on my phone saying you got to check your emails, we need we’re trying to book these flights, we’ve got to arrange these appearances, and it just feels like it’s all triathlon all the time. Fuck, I just don’t want to — I don’t want to think about triathlon anymore. As much as I love it, I want to sit here and watch Sports Center. So I’ve enjoyed the yoga because it’s an hour of my time where no one is asking anything. I just get to relax and breathe.

Q. Switching gears, do you feel like you have anything left to prove? I get the feeling you’re still eager to compete.
A. Yeah, there is. I would like to race. I love it. It’s not even about winning. I could go to Kona this year, and if I put in a great performance and got third, for me, that’s a success because you can’t always win. I can only control my own buildup and my own race. A race that goes for eight hours, there’s always a lot that go wrong. Last year I got a flat tire and a few other things, and you can’t control those things, you know? But there’s a lot of things you can control, and I think when you do your best to control the things that you can, you usually get a good outcome. Someone might have the best day of their life, and they might beat you, but I don’t think that makes your performance any less if you’ve had a good day, if you’ve done what you can — and I still love it.

I love the whole process of getting fit, and I am very competitive. I love to race. It’s kind of a bonus because I didn’t think I would get to do Kona this year. I thought we’d be home in Australia. I thought our son would be in school. So if I can get my back right and do a good eight or 10 weeks… With 20 years of base, you don’t need a lot of training.

Q. That sounds like an understatement.
A. I find as you get older, your body can’t do the amount of work you could do when you were younger, but what happens is year after year you’re not starting from a blank canvas. You’re working on the foundation of what you’ve already built, and I get to race fitness off much less work than I used to. The other side of the coin is as an older athlete you can’t do the amount of work you used to. I am 100 percent committed to it, but I also know how hard that race is, and I need my body to be healthy, and if I can go back to Boulder and get some good treatment, and get some confidence that my back’s not hurting on these long sessions, I will be there 100 percent. I am not one of these athletes who wants to just go around and race the littler races. I want to do the big ones. That’s what gets me excited.

Q. Do you feel like you’ve had any rivals or criticism over the years?
A. There’s always criticisms, and there’s always rivals. I mean Chris McCormack is a guy who always pitted himself against me because we’re both Australian. We both come from the same suburb. We’re just different human beings, though. I mean, he loves to trash talk. He gets in the media and mouths off, and I don’t say anything. Things are more amicable now because our kids go to the same school. We had a chat about it. I think as you get older your perspective changes. I don’t think that makes you less of a competitor. I think you just realize you don’t have to be that hard-nosed douchebag off the course. You can be a decent human being and still get on the racecourse.

I mean, look at Roger Federer. I love Federer. I think he is a great athlete. I read there was some poll and, of all the other players on the tour, he was one of the most popular in the locker room. So he’s whooping everyone’s ass on the court, but everyone likes hanging out with him. I am also friends with a lot of my rivals. Tim [O’Donnell] is one of my rivals. But I can socialize with him. I can go to his house for dinner. We can go to a bar. On the racecourse when I first came to America, the Olympic distance races, my rivals were were Craig Walton, Simon Lessing, Greg Bennett, Matt Reed, Spencer Smith. Then half Ironman races, that was more guys like Terenzo Bozzone, Andy Potts, Lessing again. And then Andy Raelert, Chris Lieto, Chris McCormack. Chris Lieto is actually a big rival of mine in half Ironman racing as well. We had a couple of really close finishes: a sprint finish in Boise, another close finish in Kona, and then we finished first and second in Kona, and then two years after that in Vegas, the World Championships, we finished first and second in the half Ironman. But we’re good mates. I mean, he lives in Kona. When I am there with my family, our family goes to his place. We have a barbecue. The kids play in the pool. I mean, these are people that I’ve known for 10 years or more, and like any workplace I think there’s people you like, and there’s people you can’t stand, but you have to operate with them and respect them.

Q. How do you deal with criticism?
A. I remember I used to get criticized because I’d swim with the front group, and then I would be totally unaggressive on the bike and just wait for the marathon, and I won two Konas. I got criticized. To be honest, it never bothered me because I am a realist, and I am also honest. No one is more critical of myself than me. If it’s warranted, and if I have raced well or poorly, I know. I don’t need the media to tell me. I don’t need anyone to pat me on the back if I have done well. I don’t need to read any magazines to know if I haven’t raced well. I will be the first to know, and I will try to do things about it to fix it. In triathlon, let’s be honest, it’s not like the other sports where they bring athletes up and then tear them down, I would hate that. I think in triathlon it’s a lot more civil.

Q. I was wondering about 2011, and in your previous years, was it always a tactical thing that you just intentionally didn’t push it hard on the bike? You like went from a 4:36 —
A. To 4:23, yeah, no it wasn’t just tactical. The bike I was on was nowhere near as good in the beginning. It’s a long story, and I don’t want to — actually I want get into it because we’re past the period where I am allowed to talk about it.

Q. Let’s get into it.
A. When I won my second Kona [2009], I came off contract, and I had been with that company [Orbea] for seven years, and I thought it would be cool to stay with them, but all the other companies were starting to release the superbikes: Trek released the Speed Concept. Specialized, the Shiv. Scott had released the Plasma. Giant had the Trinity, and you know, the jury was in. These bikes were faster. The testing was there for everybody to see, and so when I renegotiated, I said I don’t care about money. When you win in Kona, you get all the money you want anyway. I just don’t want to be at a performance disadvantage. And that was the crux of the whole renegotiation: a bike at least as fast as anything else on the market, and I said that’s all I want.

Sure enough, I signed on for another five years with them, and 12 months went by full of excuses, no bike, and that’s when I went back to Kona in 2010, and I got fourth. I didn’t ride well, and I am not just going to sit here and blame the bike, but you saw what happened a year later when I got a decent bike. It was night and day. Not only was I just in the grouping; I was off the front. I was leading the race. So aerodynamics is huge, and I know for a fact my average power that year in 2011 was lower — five watts lower — than it had been the year before. So I expended less energy, but I went 13 minutes quicker. That says it. Aerodynamics and drag. Obviously, your fitness is your engine, and with aerodynamics the rider’s position on the bike is most of it, but at the highest level when you’re looking for a minute or two minutes over eight hours, you’re looking for every incremental advantage you can get.

Your bike is shit basically. I don’t mean to be rude, but it is.

Q. So what happened?
A. In 2010 I sucked it up and rode the old bike which was bullshit. That cost me probably a podium in Kona, but in the next year I said I am not tolerating anymore. My family is sacrificing too much. We’re coming to America for six months. All I want is what was promised, and in January of that year the bike isn’t ready. What about March? Now there is a production holdup. In May it’s going to be ready. May came and went. I said this is bullshit, we need to make a date, put a line in the sand, so we said June 10, 2014. June 10 came, man, they didn’t even ring me. I got a bloody text message saying the bike’s not going to be ready. So I rang and rang and rang. It took me two days to contact them, and he finally said the bike’s not going to be ready for 12 to 18 months. That means we’ll be three years into a five-year contract in without the bike. So I said I am not doing it. I was honest. I said, “I am not riding your bike”, and he said — this is quite a long story, but it’s a good story — he said, “It’s all marketing. It’s all bullshit. The other bikes are not quicker.” I said, okay, well, what we should do is go to the wind tunnel, and if that’s true, that’s your whole marketing campaign. Here’s your marketing for the next 18 months. We’ll make all the results public.

They ummed and ahhed, and then finally got back and said, “Okay, we can go to the wind tunnel, but you have to sign this thing that says you will not use any of the information against us.” I am like what do you mean? We’re going there to find information. Of course I am going to use it against you if it’s not good. That’s the whole reason to go. So we went on our own. We brought in a bike mechanic, and we brought in a guy who was a Ph.D. in statistical analysis. I took three bikes [the Orbea he was riding and new superbikes from Trek and Cervelo], and the data was night and day. I thought, you know, if it’s one or two minutes, I might cut them some slack. But this guy analyzed the data. He started talking grams of drag and this and that — and I said give me a number. 112 miles, that bike against any of these other ones. He said, conservatively, 10 to 15 minutes for the same energy investment. You will go 10 to 15 minutes quicker on these things — and that was it. I rang the guy back and said I am not riding your bike.

Q. And then you rode the unbranded Cervelo P4?
A. I just went to the local bike shop and bought it. I said don’t tell anyone. I had to go after hours, and obviously I had to get a lawyer. I said, look, I don’t want to breach the contract, but I am not riding that Orbea, and he said, well, you’ll be in breach…It was costing a fortune. So I just rang them, and he said, I am telling you now I am 100 percent not riding your bike. I know what the legal situation is. You’re going to sue me for breach. I am going to countersue. This is going to go on for ages. In the meantime I think I am going to win something big this year, and it’s going to look bad for you because everyone is going to ask why am I riding this other bike, and so I am going to be forced to vigorously defend myself in public. And I will tell him everything. I’ll make all the emails public. I will make everything public.

I didn’t want to do that. I said, don’t even pay me. While I am riding this other bike I don’t want any of your money. I just don’t want to lose. I don’t want to invest 12 months in my time and my family’s time, 12 months in my daughter’s schooling to come over here. If I lose, then it’s because I am not good enough. I can live with that, but I don’t want to go through what we went through last year. I have been in the wind tunnel. Your bike is shit basically. I don’t mean to be rude, but it is. They wouldn’t do it. They thought I was bluffing. I am like, well, I wouldn’t bluff with my family’s time. So I went and rode the Cervelo. I went and rode it in Vegas [Ironman 70.3 World Championships]. I put black tape on it. And then the lawyers dealt with it, and yeah, it’s a long story.

Q. And then you signed with Specialized days before Kona in 2011. Did you get much testing in?
A. I rode it — yeah. The great thing was, the position I had on the Cervelo, I could get the exact same position on the Specialized with the Retul Bike Fit System. Specialized were very aggressive, and they didn’t have to sell me on the aerodynamics. All those bikes are fast, but I just wanted to make sure I could get the same position, and the boys from Retul got my position, and I rode it, and it just felt right from the first ride. It felt like the Cervelo. The Cervelo was a great bike, too. They both were so much better than what I had been riding, but I probably could have got on a tricycle and it would have felt good at that point. But I got on the Cervelo — won that world title. I only rode it for two weeks then got on the Specialized, rode that for two weeks, then won another one, and they just felt so right.

Q. That was a great ride.
A. Yeah, it was a 4:23, then I ran a 2:44. I had a very good day. I was very fit, and in fact I probably should have gone a little quicker. I ran out of salt tablets and cramped up and had to walk at the end, and I was on pace to run a 2:41, so I lost three minutes in like the last three miles, but I had a six- or seven-minute lead. So I mean, you don’t like to finish walking a little bit, but it was a great race. Good memories, apart from getting sued.

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