Second Act: Luke McKenzie

  • By Adam Elder
  • Published Apr 24, 2014
  • Updated Apr 12, 2016 at 12:39 PM UTC

Luke McKenzie spent his first 19 years in triathlon working his way to the top. Then last year, facing a stalled career and the end of his marriage, he started completely over, did things his way and had the professional breakthrough he sought for nearly two decades. All he had to do was suffer like he never had before.

The crowd is roaring on the streets of Kona as Luke McKenzie strides calmly out of transition into town. He holds his shoulders high, with great purpose, into the first steps of the marathon in the 2013 Ironman World Championship. He just pedaled a furious 112 miles through the Hawaiian lava fields, leaving nearly all the race favorites 10 to 15 minutes behind. Most of them are having a bad day at the office, mired in the humidity and having been left for dead early on by the top cyclists. Yet he feels fresh. Several minutes later, Luke overtakes super-cyclist Andrew Starykowicz as the two are still shaking the four-hour bike ride from their legs, and is all alone in front.

Luke considers giving Starky a bit of encouragement on his Kona debut, admiring the way Andrew pushed the bike so hard. But he thinks better of it, looking straight ahead as he blows past, choosing to keep his tank as full as possible.

He remembers last year, when he finished a disappointing 24th after a labored 3:20 marathon. And 2011, where he again smashed the bike leg yet left himself with nothing for the run. Hold back, he thinks to himself. Save something. Be patient. He glances at his watch. If I hold this pace, they’ll have to run a 2:45 marathon to beat me.

He speeds out of town on Ali’i Drive at a six-minute-four-second mile pace and is back on the Queen K Highway to endure the heat and desolation of the lava fields once again, one shoe in front of the other for 26.2 miles. Even among all the bold race-day kits worn on this most-watched day of the triathlon world, Luke stands out. His hunter green, wind-tunnel-tested kit (with sleeves) envelops a muscular yet sinewy, racing-tuned physique, with a broad swimmer-like torso that looks precariously balanced above two legs in constant motion. Atop his clean-shaven head is a tall green trucker’s hat made by PowerBar, a sponsor of his, which reads “GO LUKE.” Sports sunglasses shield the tropical sun from his pair of piercing blue eyes, which rest above a prominent nose that, in the context of triathlon, makes him look all the more aerodynamic.

Everyone is elated for him. Luke McKenzie leading Kona is a feel-good story. The one-time teenage phenom blessed with a speedy swim and a devastating bike is a fixture in the triathlon world as the outgoing Aussie with an easy smile who’s got time for everyone. The guy who trains ultra hard but also surfs several times a week. The 32-year-old six-time Ironman winner who maybe, just maybe, is putting all the pieces together in his seventh try on the biggest stage.

Today, he’s poker-faced while in motion. He restricts his thoughts to the mechanical. Nutrition? On track. Pace? All good. Meanwhile he’s doing everything in his power to outrun that dark place—the all-consuming condition in which overtaxed muscles, extreme physiological strain, Hawaiian-islands humidity, the pressure of the occasion and the toxic effects of self-doubt all conspire to overtake an athlete’s head.

As helicopters buzz overhead and an NBC crew rolls alongside him, he’s staying within himself. But he’s also got his entire year on his mind: key training sessions; mental and performance breakthroughs; a year that began in the middle of a stalled career and at the end of his two-year marriage to Australian pro Amanda Balding, in which he moved continents, parted ways with his coach of 18 months and started everything over. Yet now here he is, leading the biggest race of his life. The question now was: Could he hold on for 26.2 miles?

• •

As with so many great athletes, Luke spent his entire childhood around sports. In the late ’80s he would assist, starting at age 7, at an aid station at mile 24 of the marathon at Ironman Australia near his home in Forster every year, along with his entire family. Just when his parents started wondering where he was the first year, they turned and saw him running down the last kilometer of the race with the top athletes—guys he’d recognized from watching the Hawaii Ironman on TV. Luke was the type of kid, his father, Peter, says, who would mimic every sport he saw on TV—cricket, Australian-rules football, golf and especially triathlon. One time, after the 12-year-old Luke saw a race on TV, he decided he needed to go on a long bike ride. His parents assumed he was at a nearby friend’s house until they got a call from the mom of another friend of Luke’s—one who lived 15 miles away.

He was always into sports, and, after his family moved to Australia’s Gold Coast when Luke was 13, he was surrounded by greatness: He went to high school with future pro surfers Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson, who have become two of the most dominant surfers in the past 10 years. And it just so happened that Australia’s triathlon epicenter at the time was on the Gold Coast. All the top athletes, guys like Chris McCormack and Miles Stewart, came to train with local coach Col Stewart. “They were swimming at our local pool,” Luke says. “You’d see them out on rides. I’d be getting dropped off at school and see Col’s group ride by. I was so jealous. I wanted to be out there riding with them, you know? Not going to school!” At the same time, Luke, busy in the uniquely Australian surf-club culture, was a keen swimmer—promising enough, in fact, to train with an Olympic coach. Right away, though, he realized he wasn’t cutting the mustard. But there was a triathlon club that trained at the same pool at the exact same time. “I was into my running, and I’d always wanted to do triathlon,” Luke says, “so I went over to the lady running the session and said, ‘Jenny, I’d love to join your squad.’ She said, ‘I’ve been watching you swim, and I think you’d be a great triathlete.’ From then on, I was hooked.”

Luke was not only in the right place; he was growing up at just the right time, too. In hindsight, the late ’90s turned out to be triathlon’s golden age in Australia: Greg Welch had recently won the Ironman World Championship, the first non-American male to do so; domestic triathlon race series were on TV nearly every weekend; and with the sport soon to debut at the country’s own Olympics in Sydney in 2000, Australia’s Olympic committee and plenty of sponsors were investing heavily in triathlon. Though Luke played almost any sport he could, including soccer, cricket, football, water polo, basketball and BMX, in an environment like this, it was triathlon that naturally stuck.

It helped that he won the very first race he entered, a junior sprint that lasted no more than 15 minutes. “Coming from swimming, where there was lots of following the black line and I was getting my butt kicked, to actually winning, was awesome,” Luke says. “So I continued doing it.”

From there he kept going up. Australia had created a national performance center for triathlon (similar to those in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Clermont, Fla.) and handpicked Luke to train there, alongside notable fellow juniors Mirinda Carfrae (future two-time Ironman world champ), Emma Snowsill (future Olympic gold medalist) and Annabel Luxford (future ITU World Cup winner). He reached his first world junior championships, for duathlon, in 1997 in Germany. One week later he was called up as a reserve to Australia’s junior triathlon team at the world championships in Lausanne, Switzerland. Although he didn’t get to race that year, he was the youngest member of the team, at 16. By 19, he came third at the ITU World Junior Championships at Edmonton, Canada. It was there he met a young Australian triathlete named Craig “Crowie” Alexander, along with one of the top stars at the time, the Ironman, Xterra and ITU world champion Michellie Jones—both of whom were on Australia’s senior team.

His road looked to be paved, and in lieu of university, during the gap year between high school and college in which most other Aussies choose to backpack throughout other corners of the world, Luke spent the summer of 2001 racing for the Mont Lausanne team on the French Iron Tour. He was 19 years old, racing two to three times in a week, traveling all day until 2 a.m., then waking up at 6 a.m. to compete against his idols: McCormack, Alexander, Simon Lessing and others. “I learned to harden up,” Luke says. “Everything from that point was easy if you can get through those years of basically racing like racehorses! But as a 19- or 20-year-old, I was living the dream. I was fresh out of high school, and I got to see the world and meet all these people. They’re the good old days.”

He was putting in his time—though getting his butt kicked, he admits—and impressing all the right people. He raced the televised Australian Grand Prix during the tail end of triathlon’s gravy train in Australia (where his family remembers watching him sprint out of transition one time with his running shoes on the wrong feet). He was Olympian Craig Walton’s training partner, and followed along with the top dogs whenever he could on rides. He was wise enough to realize this opportunity was one that not every junior had access to. And they didn’t seem to mind. “They never saw me as a threat back in the day!” Luke says. “I was just that young kid who would tag along on rides.”

Eventually in 2002 he reached a point where he realized that staying on the ITU, draft-legal, Olympic-distance path might not lead him to the Athens Olympics after all, which were two years away. He was still living on the Gold Coast, and training often with Michellie Jones during the Australian summer. He was weighing whether to go the non-drafting route—a path that eventually, for almost everyone, leads to Ironman. Jones suggested to both Luke and Crowie that they spend the American summer in Carlsbad, Calif., just north of San Diego, where she and her husband at the time, coach Pete Coulson, lived part of the year.

And so in 2003, Luke and Crowie, the future three-time Ironman world champion yet then still on the cusp of really emerging, moved into a two-bedroom apartment in a sketchy neighborhood of Carlsbad. When they weren’t training by day or sleeping on inflatable Wal-Mart mattresses, they were cruising the neighborhood for abandoned furniture on the side of the road. It’s their own just-scraping-by tale that’s central to the making of so many great athletes. “We lived right on the Amtrak lines,” Alexander says. “That train would come through and blast its horn and wake us up every day. It certainly wasn’t the PGA Tour. We were trying to cut our teeth in the U.S. and make our names for ourselves. We’d often have other Australian athletes coming through town staying with us. At one point we had seven people in our little two-bedroom apartment. Yeah, very fond memories.”

It only lasted a summer, but they trained every day, their hand-to-mouth existence providing extra motivation in races. For Luke, it was a chance to spend a whole summer watching and learning from a guy whose star was on the rise—and went on to become one of triathlon’s all-time greats. “Luke wasn’t known as a runner,” Alexander says now, “but he could more than hold his own in our tougher run sessions. He was never scared of hard work and stepping out of his comfort zone and his perceived weaknesses. I saw the work ethic and desire in him to work very hard and be good, and he was patient.”

To hear Luke tell it, he gave it his all. “I raced as hard as I could, but Crowie was always that one step better,” Luke says. “I got a couple on him back in the day, but he was the more dominant athlete.” I ask how Alexander took losing to his roommate. Was Crowie competitive back then? Luke throws his head back in laughter for a second, then gets cagey. “I think the first race I ever beat him in sort of made him stand up and take note. But there’s no bad feeling at all—he’s always been encouraging of everything I’ve done.”

To this day the two consider the other among their closest friends, and frequently keep in touch. They often do a training session together in Hawaii, and get their families together for a pre-Kona barbecue prior to race week. Luke also remains an eager student, and Crowie, in his elder statesman status, duly offers advice.

And so it was in the 2013 Ironman, deep into the marathon. Alexander, with his final race in Kona having gone up in smoke, tried to revive his old roommate, who was momentarily falling to pieces on the loneliest stretch of the run, as the two passed each other near the turnaround in the Energy Lab with 10 words: “Luke! You’re gonna have to suffer if you want this!”

• •

As is also the case with so many great athletes, Luke has an ultra-supportive family. Athletics are literally in his genes. His father, Peter, is a former professional Australian rules football player and cricketer. But Peter gave up the promise of a sporting life (or what promise of it there was; back then, it wasn’t considered the profession it is today) and became a high school teacher when it was time to start a family. Yet he still remained a coach.

RELATED – Luke McKenzie On Kona: “I Can See How I Can Win”

This is what Luke was born into. If he and his sister weren’t in school, they were involved in some sporting event. He remembers hanging out in the dressing sheds with his father’s team before they’d come out onto the field. And when Peter wasn’t teaching science, agriculture and sports (“A strange mix, but it all works!” Peter says in a deep, raspy Australian purr) or coaching football, he’d be involved in his children’s athletic pursuits.

“He’d drive me to Sydney every weekend, for swimming, water polo, any sport,” Luke says of his dad. “Four hours each way. I owe him a lot because those were hard years for him. He was working his butt off, and all his spare time revolved around giving his kids an opportunity in sport.”

Peter recognized Luke’s burgeoning interest in triathlon with all his instant success. So he did what came naturally to him—he became a triathlon coach, and remains one to this day. “It’s a different role,” Peter says about coaching Luke versus his other athletes, “more of a mentoring role, being a sounding board for ideas, helping him wherever I can with the mental aspects of the sport.”

Peter charged head-on into coaching triathlon. The teacher by trade is a voracious learner, and constantly sends Luke studies he finds on the Internet, books he reads, and all sorts of inspirational and scientific information. He’s most interested—and of most use to Luke—in sports psychology.

Luke talks at length about his father’s importance to him and his career. “As coaches and advisers come and go, he’s the one person who’s been there the whole time. No one knows me better than my father. He knows everything there is to know, how everything has evolved to this point. He’s my biggest supporter and I can’t do it without him.”

In early 2013, Luke sure needed the help. His entire life had seemingly entered one of those dark places that athletes endure on the race course. Though he experienced a fertile professional period starting in 2008, in which he racked up five Ironman wins in three years, his last victory was at Ironman Brazil in 2010. Shortly after that race, he began battling chronic sacral pain. It seemed to have ripple effects. Over the next two years, with nearly 20 years in the sport under his belt, Luke found himself increasingly going through the motions, and distracted by details. He’d travel to a race in Sardinia, then get invited to a training camp, then onto a race in Chile, becoming progressively apathetic. As most pro triathletes necessarily keep a fastidiously organized life, things had fallen out of order. With persistent pain and an unfocused mind, the race results were worsening. And things were spiraling out of control in his personal life: By February of 2013, he’d separated from his wife for reasons he keeps to himself.

Luke trudged on. A month later, on St. Patrick’s Day, he lined up at Ironman Los Cabos. Predictably, it did not go well. He had trained hard for this race yet was mentally and physically drained. With no desire to compete that day, he pulled the plug early in the bike leg. It was there, standing on the side of the road, alone and miserable, that he felt he had finally, truly hit bedrock. As he watched the race literally pass him by, he questioned what he was doing, and what he wanted out of triathlon.

RELATED: Luke McKenzie’s Hardest Workout

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