Three-time Ironman world champion Craig “Crowie” Alexander won the first Ironman 70.3 World Championships in 2006 in Clearwater, Fla. He won another 70.3 world title in 2011, when the race was held for the first time in Las Vegas. And he’ll go for a three-peat this Sunday in Vegas—not only as one of the favorites to win the men’s race, but also as the coach of 2012 Olympic silver medalist Lisa Norden from Sweden, a strong favorite to win the women’s race this weekend.
While Norden withdrew at the last minute from last weekend’s Hy-Vee 5150 Elite Cup in Des Moines, an event she won the two previous years, and came in 19th at the WTS Stockholm, a hometown race she won last year, don’t count her out for the podium or win in Vegas this weekend. Her problems in both races stemmed not from a lack of fitness, but from a foot injury she suffered in Stockholm, which she’s hoping to heal with ice, massage and compression tape in Vegas this week.
Norden won last year’s ITU World Championships and is one of a number of Olympians who are taking a year-long break from ITU racing and have put an Ironman 70.3 world title this year into their crosshairs. London Olympian Svenja Bazlen (GER), who was third at Hy-Vee last weekend, will be among her main challengers, along with Melissa Hauschildt (AUS), who won Vegas two years ago and was second at Hy-Vee, last year’s Ironman and Ironman 70.3 world champion Leanda Cave (GBR), ITU speedster Annabel Luxford (AUS), last year’s runner-up in Vegas Kelly Williamson (USA) and last year’s third-place finisher Heather Jackson (USA). Among the men, Crowie’s main challengers are last year’s 70.3 world champion Sebastian Kienle (GER), two-time Olympic medalist Bevan Docherty (NZL), 2007 70.3 world champion Andy Potts (USA), Olympian Greg Bennett (AUS) and London Olympians Brent McMahon (CAN) and Ivan Vasiliev (RUS). (See the complete start list here.)
For Norden, who has already won sprint- and Olympic-distance world titles, Vegas offers a chance to prove herself against the world’s best at the 70.3 distance, in which she has already shown to be a particularly formidable competitor. With encouragement from her longtime ITU coach Darren Smith, Norden approached Alexander in Kona last October and inquired if he would oversee her long-distance training. “I asked if he had an urge to do some coaching or perhaps be a mentor to someone like me,” she said.
Alexander, who coaches himself and has never before taken on the role as the coach of another athlete, mulled it over and agreed. “She approached me with such forthrightness and honesty it caught me off guard a little bit, to be honest,” he recalled. “My first thought was how flattering—that someone so accomplished would see me as someone who could advise her and help direct her career.”
Coach Crowie earlier this year guided Norden to dominant wins at the Challenge Fuerteventura half-iron-distance race in the Canary Islands in April and Ironman 70.3 Syracuse in June, a race in which she beat all but five of the pro men. As part of her preparation for Vegas, she then flew to Boulder and spent eight weeks over the summer training with Alexander, building up her endurance at altitude with longer rides. [Read more about how the two world champions trained together this year in the November/December issue of Inside Triathlon, on the newsstands October 15].
The opportunity was not only a learning experience for Norden, but for Crowie, who balanced his own training for Vegas and Kona with coaching Norden (who had a swim and a run coach back in Sweden writing daily workouts for her). “My role is to make sure we bring it all together as a triathlon program,” he said when I visited them in Boulder, “because triathletes are not single-sport athletes, and to help her step up in distance. There are a few nuances to it. It’s not rocket science; I’m not going to say there are any great secrets…The secret is in doing it consistently, staying injury-free and doing it in a way that the sessions complement each other rather than counteract each other.”
Norden was cycling and swimming to her fastest times early this year. But persistent foot injuries, which Norden thinks might have stemmed from her difficult Olympic racing schedule last year, threw a wrench into her build up to Vegas. In late April, plantar fasciitis in her right foot forced her to drop out of the run at the St. Anthony’s Triathlon in Florida and kept her from racing the Ironman 70.3 U.S. Pro Championships in St. George in early May, a hilly and hot race that Crowie had hoped would be a good test run for Vegas. After racing the Ironman 70.3 Syracuse in late June, she had the same foot problem, but this time to her left foot, which she and Crowie managed by limiting her run training mileage and frequency to every other day.
“The foot was doing very well until the Stockholm race,” said Norden, who disclosed the details of her injury on Monday. “Halfway into the run there was a distinct change in pain and I could feel something happening with the foot. After the race, it was incredibly sore and it took me a couple of days to be able to walk on it. I had an MRI done on the Monday [after the race], which showed a partial rupture of the tendon. The doctor told me pain has to be my guide; he didn’t think I was able to endanger the foot by racing; [it would] just prolong the rehab time.”
When Norden arrived in Des Moines last week, she said, her foot “was actually doing quite well until I attempted a run-in start from the beach on the Saturday evening [before the race]. It went from barley noticeable to very sore again. So I called Craig and we discussed the options and decided to pull my name from the Hy-Vee race.
“One week could in theory be enough to let things settle and we are doing all we can to get it runable for Vegas,” she said.
Alexander has been somewhat tight-lipped about Norden’s injury in recent weeks, but despite the added stress, he’s looking forward to this year’s race—a new experience, when he and the first athlete he’s coached will toe the line at the same world championship. “Once the gun goes off there’s not really a lot I can do for Lisa and really a lot of my work will be done before then as well.” And how will he judge his success as a coach? “For me the ultimate test is the race,” he replies. “They say sport is a bottom-line business.”
“Like” us on Facebook to get the first look at our photo shoots, take part in lively debates and connect with your fellow triathletes.