This article was originally published in the Nov./Dec. 2014 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
One of Craig Alexander’s favorite rides is the 35-mile round trip from his summertime home in north Boulder up the tree-lined roads of Left Hand Canyon to the small mountain village of Jamestown. It’s a climb the three-time Ironman world champion from Sydney does frequently in the months before Vegas and Kona. As the first athlete to win the Ironman 70.3 and Ironman world championships in the same year — a feat he accomplished in 2011 when he broke the 15-year-old Kona course record, finishing on Ali’i Drive in eight hours and three minutes — Alexander is no stranger to overcoming athletic challenges. But this year, he has taken on a different sort of challenge that will test his mettle and ability to handle unforeseen problems in another: coaching an Olympic silver medalist and short-course world champion to her first long-course world championship while having a target on his back as the athlete to beat at both Vegas and Kona.
As he rides up the winding mountain road to Jamestown with Lisa Norden — the blond wunderkind from Sweden who won last year’s ITU World Triathlon Series world championship and came within a hair’s breadth of winning Olympic gold in London — he dispenses advice for the summer ahead: The way to win a long-course race in September and October, he tells her, is to make sure you’re training and not racing in July. Alexander doesn’t offer any secret formal or magical solution for long-course success. Relentless consistency is what brought him to the top of long-course racing and he’s imparting that same basic wisdom to Norden. We’re not going to do anything crazy in terms of training, he tells her, we’re going to build your strength and keep you injury-free.
It’s their first ride together and the beginning of an eight-week training camp for Norden, who arrived in Boulder in late June to prepare for Vegas, ITU WTS Stockholm and the Hy-Vee Triathlon under Alexander’s watchful eye. As the pair rides into the Colorado foothills, Alexander sizes up his powerfully built pupil and takes note of her future in the Ironman. “If you look at the people who do well at the longer races, they have great technique, like the people who do well at the shorter distances,” he explains to me after their ride. “There’s good posture, there’s good efficiency and she’s got it. I’m licking my lips at the prospects of her stepping up in distance. She’s the new breed. It’s exciting.”
Their relationship began last October, when Norden flew to Hawaii on her way to Auckland, New Zealand, for the 2012 World Triathlon Series Grand Final. While in Kona, she met Alexander at a breakfast for Specialized-sponsored athletes a few days before the Ironman World Championship, then sent him an email later that day wishing him good luck in the race. In that note, she mentioned she was burned out after five years of racing on the stressful ITU short-course circuit and wanted to take a shot at winning the Ironman 70.3 world title the following year — and one other thing, as well. “I asked,” Norden says, with the proud grin of someone who had just landed a prize fish, “if he had an urge to do some coaching or perhaps be a mentor to someone like me.”
Alexander was “floored,” he remembers. “She approached me with such forthrightness and honesty it caught me off guard a little bit, to be honest. My first thought was how flattering — that someone so accomplished would see me as someone who could advise her and help direct her career.” But Alexander knew the true weight of this request. In addition to preparing for and coaching himself to take another run at winning two world titles, he would have to devote enough time and energy to adequately help one of the best endurance athletes on the planet. “It’s a massive responsibility to help someone like this,” he recalls thinking while mulling over what to do after Kona. As one who likes to control all of the variables, who meticulously prepares for each of his key races, could Alexander put his faith and reputation in the hands of another athlete? Then again, could he walk away from the opportunity of a lifetime — the chance to be the long-course coach of a world champion as consistent and dominant as Norden, an athlete who will likely raise the bar in Ironman racing? “There’s no question from a marketing standpoint that if I’m coaching a world champion that’s a great calling card,” he says. “But the success or failure of how I work with Lisa will be based on her results.” Norden was just as aware of the implications of her request. Darren Smith, her ITU coach who had overseen her training around the clock for the previous five years, had encouraged her to take the year off and look for a long-course mentor. Norden not only wanted to take a break from the grind of ITU racing and group-training camps before returning to Smith’s squad next year, but to spend the year focusing on her time trialing, then see if she could add a 70.3 world title to her ITU world titles at the sprint and Olympic distances.