At the beginning of the year, she hired both a swim coach and a run coach in Stockholm to write her daily swim-run workouts for the season. But she needed someone to put everything together — an experienced long-course athlete, preferably one who had figured out on his own, just as she needed to do, how to make the transition from the ITU to long-course racing and would share with her the crucial details of how to win. Who better, she and Smith thought, than Alexander? “If she hadn’t asked him,” Smith says, “I did have one or two others in mind, but he was right up [on] top of the pile.”
Alexander began coaching Norden by phone and Skype while she was in Sweden and he in Sydney at the beginning of this year. The chemistry between the two world champions clicked immediately. They started by building her endurance and cycling strength to peak levels. She won her first two half-iron-distance races by large margins — the Challenge Fuerteventura half-iron-distance race in April and Ironman 70.3 Syracuse in June, a race in which she beat all but five of the pro men. She also tested her cycling prowess in June at the Swedish National Time Trial Championships and placed second. At the end of the month she moved from Stockholm to Alexander’s summer base in Boulder to spend July and most of August training with Crowie in a hot, dry and hilly environment similar to Vegas.
Observing the way two of the world’s greatest triathletes trained and worked together as teacher and pupil drew me to Boulder soon after Norden’s move. Norden was adjusting to her first week at altitude and Alexander was celebrating his 40th birthday — a turning point for any athlete having to confront the prospect of life after sport. I listened to them discuss the game plan for their eight-week training camp while relaxing at an Italian coffee house, Amante, near Crowie’s home, watched their first swim, bike and run workouts together and probed them about their motivations and what each hoped to gain from the other. It was obvious from the outset that Norden and Alexander’s close working relationship was fostered by mutual respect. The traits they admire and try to project in themselves are similar in many ways.
Neither Norden nor Alexander regard themselves as gifted athletes, in spite of their world championship titles, but as individuals who learned to succeed. “Craig has always been a smart person, not a natural talent,” explains Norden. “If you want to tell someone how to do it, you have to have that kind of mentality, where you can break things down, analyze your results and figure out how to improve.”
Norden shares Alexander’s ability to honestly assess herself. “I like when an athlete has self-accountability,” says Alexander. “I can see why she’s had the results she’s had. … She thinks things through, doesn’t make excuses, doesn’t blame anybody else.” These intangible traits have helped both athletes in their careers, but effective self-reflection alone isn’t reason enough to write a magazine profile about someone.
When the pieces come together, Alexander and Norden have the tools to win when it counts. “A lot of people win Ironmans,” Norden says, “but there are only a few who can get it together to win the big ones. Traditionally, that’s always been my focus. I’m not a great athlete when it comes to random races. I decide which ones are the important ones and I get it together for those. I want to continue to do that, so it’s great to have someone with that same mentality.” Alexander similarly saw in Norden some of the same qualities he saw in himself when she disclosed to him the reasons she wanted to test herself at Vegas this year and then move to the Ironman distance after the 2016 Olympics. “She wasn’t resting on her laurels,” he says. “It was a risk on her part to change a winning formula like that. I liked that. That’s progressive thinking and all of the great athletes I’ve ever met in this sport and outside of this sport have had that.”
Where the two athletes differ is in how they’ve been coached. While Darren Smith has looked after Norden for much of her professional career, Alexander — whose training has been guided by his formal education as a physiotherapist — has never had a coach, but acknowledges he’s benefited greatly from the advice he sought from top long-course athletes. The opportunity to return the favor to another up-and-coming long-course athlete was one reason Alexander jumped at the chance to mentor Norden. “I feel an obligation,” he explains. “Triathlon is a young sport and I got a lot of help from people like Greg Welch and Michellie Jones when I was young. They were at the top of their game, but I could walk up to Greg and ask him a question and he would answer it. And so would Michellie, and they’d check in with me every now and then and ask, ‘How’s it going?’”
As Norden’s long-course mentor and coach, Alexander emphasizes that he’s not simply overseeing her training, but developing her ability to tap her own experiences to coach herself for long course when she leaves the ITU, something that she wants from Crowie. “I think the great athletes make smart decisions and are accountable for their own training,” he says. “They don’t just defer to a coach all of the time. So I said to Lisa, ‘Let’s come up with the plan together. I want to empower you to make smart decisions.’”
“Craig is not a replacement for Darren [Smith] by any means,” adds Norden when I pose the same question after she finishes a solo ride. “I’ve learned so much from Darren and now I want to take that knowledge and see what I can do, to step up and make decisions for myself instead of letting someone else make them for you all of the time. Darren says, ‘You know a lot of stuff, now you have to know how to utilize it as well. If you can do that, you’re going to have a long career ahead of you.’”
When I ask Alexander over coffee, after his first run with Norden, how he’s able to coach another high-level athlete while maintaining the focus on his own training for two world championships, he nods and says it’s a question many of his friends have asked as well. “People say, ‘How can you do both? One has to suffer at the expense of the other,’” he says. “I think the fact that Lisa is up here and that we’ll be training together I don’t think anyone will suffer. She’ll see how hard I’m training, and that doesn’t mean I won’t have time to do due diligence for her training. In some ways it’s a nice distraction because it makes me also think about my own training. With the things I’m asking her to do, I’m reminding myself — am I doing that in my own training as well? In some ways I think helping her will help me. There’s no question that it’s made me think a lot more about the things I’m doing this year, things that maybe I could be doing differently.”
By coaching Norden over the summer, Alexander admits he’s also gained a formidable training partner, one of the few females in the world capable of swimming, riding and running with the top male pros. “She’s a great bike rider,” he adds. “She’ll be able to hang in there with a lot of boys around here, probably serve it up to them as well.” Eliminating the impromptu testosterone-driven hammer-fests that often break out when some of the men ride together has been one of the keys to Alexander’s consistency. “In 2011, when I won Vegas and Kona,” he adds, “my two main training partners were Julie Dibens and Mirinda [Carfrae]. I prefer training with the top-line girls because I find it’s a nice training environment. On the hard days, we go hard and on the easy days, we go easy and we’re not trying to beat each other on the head, which is the key to a great program. What happens when a lot of the top guys get together is the lines get blurred and the easy rides tend to become a little too hard and then when there’s a hard ride you’re not fresh enough to go as hard as you should.”
When I ask him about turning 40 and whether he thinks this might be his last run at a double long-course world championship, he takes a few sips of his double cappuccino before he answers: “Like everyone else, you wonder, ‘Is this the year I start to slow down?’ But I’ve thought that for five or six years. I did my first Ironman Hawaii at 34 and I thought, ‘Is that too late?’ Then I got second, then I won two in a row, then I thought, ‘I’m obviously getting better.’ But you wonder.” Alexander is already the exception to the supposed rule about slowing with age. He is the oldest champion in the history of Ironman Hawaii, but chasing another title after his 40th birthday is unknown territory even for Alexander.
“If I don’t perform in Kona this year the way I think I can perform, it’s got nothing to do with age,” he says. “I feel I still have the same body and certainly the things I’ve seen in my training week to week and month to month are indicating to me that I have the same body and the same heart and lungs that I did two years ago when I did 8:03.”