The Brownlees grew up in the outdoors, in Yorkshire, a region in northern England. They spent many weekends walking in the countryside—a striking patchwork of steep valleys and moorland, crisscrossed by stone fences and dotted with sheep and farmhouses—with their parents, who are both doctors. Their mother put them in swimming when each was about 6, and the cross-country races weren’t far behind. As children, they also took up “fell running,” a discipline that consists of running over fells, which are essentially steep hills in northern England and Scotland.
“We spent weekends walking and coming back from a long walk on Sunday and going straight [to] swimming and that kind of thing—so [we were a] really active family,” Jonny said.
Alistair decided to give triathlon a go when he was 10, and he and Jonny soon began participating in a national triathlon series that took them all over England. When Alistair turned 14, he began training with a development squad in the city of Leeds, England, that was headed by Jack Maitland, a man whose training philosophy can be summed up in four words: “Get on with it,” according to Alistair.
Jonny wasn’t far behind.
Their lives are very much the same nowadays. They still train with Maitland and his squad, which is based out of Leeds Metropolitan University. They typically train 30 to 35 hours per week either together or with large groups of athletes, and they are almost always outside, running or even mountain biking through snow if necessary.
Those who know them will tell you that they do what they do simply because they love it.
“They’re not too bothered by high-tech bits or fancy training kits—they really just love to be outdoors and train,” Filliol said. “There’s something sort of raw, like, if you took away the racing part, they’d still be out there running in the trails and hills and cycling around North Yorkshire.”
I first met Alistair and Jonny in February, after they had finished their weekly Monday morning run and before a session of stretching and running drills with a physiotherapist. The drills are part of a program headed by Brown, who has been working with the Brownlees for several years, helping them with their foot plant, stride frequency and length, and other aspects of their running form.
Their training revolves around a consistent structure—they almost always do intense track workouts on Tuesday nights and long swims on Wednesday mornings, for example—and each day is filled with what seems like an unending stream of various activities: running, cycling, swimming, weights, drills and eating.
Despite their status as hardworking professional triathletes who are famous within the triathlon world, at home they act like regular boys in their early 20s.
They show up to practice at Leeds Met with trash bags full of recyclables stuffed in the back of Alistair’s BMW. And Alistair isn’t afraid to have a beer (an American brand, in my honor) with his friends, just as Jonny isn’t afraid to go home to his parents’ house to seek coddling for a cold he’s been nursing.
Unquestionably related, the two share the same ivory skin tone, and a mop of curly brown hair sits atop their heads. Alistair is taller and lankier than Jonny, and while both of them are trim and sinewy, their build belies their world-class athleticism. They have disarming, genuine smiles and intelligent eyes, which match their personalities. It doesn’t take long to realize that both Alistair and Jonny are extremely bright.
At one point during my stay in Leeds, I asked Jonny about the “northern England/southern England” rivalry among the British, and to begin explaining it to me, he launched into a history lesson about his county, Yorkshire, and its rivalry with the neighboring county of Lancashire.
“It dates back to the War of the Roses, which is just before the Tudor times, like the 1400s,” he begins.
He spoke to me like a historian would, which isn’t surprising, as he had just finished a two-hour seminar on Thomas More, one he’s taking as part of his bachelor’s degree in history from Leeds University.
Alistair, who studied medicine at Cambridge University for a term before deciding to transfer to Leeds University so he could concentrate on triathlon, is also working on a degree: a master’s in finance from Leeds Met. His work at Leeds University earned him a bachelor’s in physiology and sport.
In what little spare time he has, Alistair is an avid reader; at the moment, he’s reading books on philosophy.
Alistair also has a tendency to answer questions about triathlon and racing with a wisdom that is common among the veterans of the sport, men with years of professional racing behind them.
When I ask him where his renowned mental toughness comes from, he says that he doesn’t know, but that if he could answer my question he probably would “not be able to do it anymore.”