One of the most talked about athletes at the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon this year is Australia’s Chris McCormack, largely because the reigning Ironman world champion recently announced that he’s going to forgo defending his title in Kona to attempt to qualify for the Olympics.
McCormack has been very open about the disappointment he felt in being left of Australia’s team for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and Inside Triathlon magazine’s editor-in-chief, Courtney Baird, sat down with McCormack while she was in Abu Dhabi to get some insight into his decision.
Triathlete.com: Everyone is really interested in your decision to try to qualify for the Olympics.
McCormack: Oh, Ok. My midlife crisis—my wife calls it.
Triathlete.com: How’s your training been going now that you’ve decided to take on short course instead of long course? You’re pretty much the only guy who has decided to go from long course to short course.
McCormack: Well, to be honest, had you asked me this question in January, it wasn’t even on the table. I did an interview in Australia with the press after my Kona win and that sort of reignited my talking with the federation again [Editor’s note: Triathlon Australia, which is the national governing body of triathlon in Australia, decides who is on its Olympic team.]
I hadn’t really dealt with them since they’d left me off the team in Sydney and I’d gone on to do my own thing. And we sat down and we cleared the slate and talked about the direction of the sport in my country and being I guess Craig [Alexander] and myself being two key guys within multisport in Australia, and they wanted to work closely with us, and then the Olympics came on the table. And I asked, you know it’s one regret in my life is not going back for Athens, and I think, speaking to Hamish Carter, who won the gold medal, he was like, “You’re an idiot, that was a race for you.” [Editor’s note: The course at the 2004 Athens Olympics was brutal and suited to cyclists and strength athletes such as McCormack.]
And I was just stubborn and young and in a different phase of my life. When the proposition was put to me that there was a possibility, that the door was still slightly open. It’s not wide open to get in—there’s a lot of work I have to do that makes it more difficult than some of the other guys to get on the team. I have to accumulate points. And I thought, ‘Why not?’ They’ll be no regrets at the end of my career. At least I’ll have tried and the only failure I thought was not trying, and I can live with whether I make the team or not. So I’m at a completely different phase in my life and yeah, so once that presented itself four weeks ago, I’d already committed to races like this [the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon] and Puerto Rico next week and Ironman—a Challenge [series] race in Cairns [Australia]—so I had to really honor those contracts. I didn’t want to turn my back on my bread and butter for the last few years. So it hasn’t been perfect preparation coming into the first rounds of the World Cup [World Championship Series]. It’s definitely been a shift in training—a lot of hard work to do—it’s a big road ahead of me and I’m looking forward to the challenge.
Triathlete.com: What specifically has shifted in your training?
McCormack: It’s the time, I guess, is halved. The actual volume—the time on the bike, the time [is] halved, but the intensity has really increased, and trying to be delicate in that transition across to speed, taking into consideration that I am 38 in a few weeks time and I haven’t been doing this style of training for—nine years was my last World Cup race.
We’ve had to sit down and really plan that shift across to this style of racing. I think a lot of people confuse, they think I’m going to come in and do things. I’m under no illusions of grandeur in early-season racing. I think these guys are a class above me at the moment. I know just from where I’m at in my training. It’s a difficult transition because I’m really in limbo land right now. For an event like this [the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon] I’m really hollow. My back-end endurance is going to be off because I’m no longer training for this, and really my speed’s not there for Sydney.
It was a difficult decision that my early season racing could be quite shallow and hollow. But it’s been an enjoyable process, I must admit. I’m reinvigorated. I’m looking forward to that challenge and I think more than anything, as an athlete, I was always motivated by the process of trying to work out a solution for a certain event. Kona was my puzzle for many years and being a bigger guy trying to get that race right, you know especially when I had sports scientists who told me, “You can never win this race.” You know, and those same sports scientists told me that it was a one-way ticket, that once I went to Ironman I could never come back. So it would be real sweet to prove those guys wrong twice.
Triathlete.com: What are the challenges to trying to do long-course racing and ITU racing at the same time? Many ITU athletes I have spoken to say they would never try to do both at the same time.
McCormack: Oh the challenges are enormous but as I said, four weeks ago I wasn’t even looking at this. You know, I’m an Ironman guy who is trying to find speed and speed kills aged athletes. I’m almost double the age of some of these guys I [will be] racing. I know their talents and I know their abilities. But I think my savvy, my race savvy is very good. This was my specialist distance when I was younger. I don’t think I was ever as fast as an [Alistair] Brownlee or these type of guys, but it was definitely the distance that I was most suited to, so, I’m hoping that I can find that speed—[but] be very very delicate in that transition across. Start with the swim, bring that threshold work back on the bike and develop the run last. And you know, people I’ve spoke to who do the ITU say it’s mass suicide to do that because the run is so quick, but I just really have to be delicate at 38. I just cannot shift that kind of work, because an injury at this time in my career is career-threatening. And I think they’re right, you can’t do both. And I won’t be, post-June. And my focus is definitely trying to make the Australian team so, if you do see me on start lists on events like here [the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon] and the [Challenge] Cairns, without saying anything negative about the events and me being a part of them, know that my focus is elsewhere and I’ve taken that into consideration.
Triathlete.com: You talk a lot about how you really like to break down races and study them. Have you started to do that with ITU races?
McCormack: One hundred percent. I’ve watched the last three years of the World Cup series online. We bought the DVD set. And that’s really given me an insight into the year—it’s that I’m way behind. You know, my transitions are poor compared to these guys. There’s the way they’re attacking these races. We’ve had to understand the fact that I’m not Alistair Brownlee. Even at my best, my running is just not at that level. And if I have any aspirations of being successful at the pointy [top] end of this style of event, I need to look at other ways to try to put myself in a position to win.
And you know … that is what I thoroughly enjoy. I sit there with my guys and we watch the individual athletes and we start the process of writing up about them, OK, Brownlee, this is where we think he’s fragile. What are his bike skills? And you know, and until you’ve raced in the races—it’s one thing to watch them—but, that’s why I’ve decided to throw my hat in the ring in Sydney [the World Championship Series race in Sydney]. I know I’m going to get blasted but I really get to see them in a racing environment—how they handle the buildup. How they handle the racing. Whether there are athletes who like to intimidate, whether there are athletes who are low key and sit back and are opportunists. And uh, once you sort of get that psyche of an athlete you can really pick on that outside the racing and really develop strategies to beat them.
Triathlete.com: So are you going to start talking a little smack? Because the ITU wants that.
McCormack: [Laughing]. Yeah, I guess so. First I gotta get to know the characters and I’m sure these young guys want to retire me. It’s been quite ironic and it’s quite different in Australia. There are a lot of the Ironman guys who are like, well, it’s great to have one of our own in the ITU. And a lot of the ITU guys are like, well, I get to see what these Ironman boys are all about. A lot of them are going to try to say, “Hey, we don’t get enough respect. Look at the punishing we’re giving to your world champion at the moment.” But I think it’s definitely going to spark an interest. I know a lot of the guys who don’t follow the ITU are now going to watch how I go. It’s been funny reading some of these chat sites and forums with people going, “What’s he thinking? Who does he think he is?” Like, well, “He’s going to get his ass kicked.” And I want to say I’m under no illusions. This is a personal venture I’ve set with my wife and said, “You know what? Let’s do it.” And the only failure I can have is not trying. And I’m only looking for a spot on the Olympic team. I never said, “I think I can win in London.” You know, you gotta be in the Olympics for dreams to happen and the first step is to get there.