Second Act: Luke McKenzie

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

The next couple of weeks were no easier. His misery was compounded by his guilt at giving up on himself in the race. But slowly, with the help of his dad, he began to see daylight. Questioning everything in his life, Luke was talking to Peter every day on Skype. “Luke was quite confused and emotionally down,” his dad says. “We adopted the approach that the best thing that could happen was we had to examine where he was and what he wanted to do in the future, draw a line in the sand and say, ‘From this day forward, I’m gonna concentrate on being the best I can be in the sport.’ My view of it was that the best thing he could do would be to get on with his life, not dwell on what had happened, but work on being better at what he was doing from that point forward.”

Luke vouches for his father’s effect. “He’s my ultimate motivator,” he says. “The football coach in him really comes out.” I ask about his father’s coaching style. Another spontaneous laugh as his eyes light up. “He’s pretty unforgiving! He doesn’t want to hear the sob stories. He’s tough love. At the same time, he’s very sympathetic.”

Though he was adrift, Luke was also in the unique position of being able to scrap everything and start over. He assessed all parts of his life. With a clean slate, he was able to choose exactly how and where to apply himself, and make decisions based on what his 20 years of experience and thousands of hours spent learning from top coaches and fellow athletes told him would work. His ultimate goal, ever since he was a boy, was Kona. He thusly put all his energy into producing his best effort for Kona, and nothing else.

He decided to move full-time to the funky San Diego beach suburb of Cardiff to live among some of his familiar friends and faces there, where he’d previously been splitting his time. And he parted ways after 18 months with acclaimed coach Siri Lindley, relinquishing the squad environment and daily guidance in favor of training himself. “That was a tough one for me,” Luke says. “I enjoyed everything. I’m not a selfish athlete, I feel like I’m very giving within a squad environment, but I enjoy my own space and training by myself.”

Now that he was doing things his way, he decided to put cycling back front and center into his training. It’s always been the ace up his sleeve, but he felt in 2012 that he’d lost his bike strength. He also shed a lot of training sessions he considered junk, focusing only on quality. He ate better. And he became fastidious about doing his strength sessions.

“Hard knocks toughen you up,” Peter says he would tell Luke. “They can either toughen you or they can crush you. There’s an old saying that it’s not what happens to you that matters, it’s how you react—which is something I said to Luke a few times. And I think he was on a mission to prove a point that he wasn’t done and dusted in the sport, that he had a lot more to give.”

By June, Luke touched down in Australia for Ironman Cairns as an outsider. Nobody could have guessed what he had in store. He was fast out of the water, pedaled to the lead in the early stages of the bike and proceeded to leave everyone in the dust. By the time the chase pack had their running shoes on, Luke had put 20 minutes between him and them. If there remained any lingering doubts, he eviscerated those with a 2:44 marathon. Afterward, the always-candid McCormack, who finished third, told the media when asked about the winner, “Luke, take that to Kona. That is the way you win an Ironman. Very impressive.”

Back in Cardiff, Luke had started dating local pro triathlete Beth Gerdes, who also traveled to Australia in June and came in fifth at Cairns. They had known each other for a couple of years, and over the summer had started hanging out as more than friends. They traveled together to Bend, Ore., in July for a six-week build session in the high elevation without the extra noise and distractions of the San Diego triathlon scene.

“I love running on the trails up there,” Luke says of Bend. “The environment is very rugged. You won’t see cars for five hours—it’s a really good environment to get training done. You can ride one direction into the mountains, or the other direction is high desert, which is very similar terrain to Kona in some areas—elements that get me in the mindset when I’m training for Kona.”

Gerdes says that, free of distractions, Luke was able to focus on all the little extra things. They were diligent about hitting their strength sessions twice a week, and eating right. She saw how organized, detailed and farsighted Luke’s training plans were. And she saw that his running was improving. “Just from running together day in and day out, hard brick sessions and hard sessions at the track, I kept telling him it’s gonna be impossible for him not to break three hours in Kona the way he was running,” she says.

The self-coaching also meant Luke could spend his time in a couple of other crucial ways: With the blessing of his shoe sponsor, Saucony, which designs his kits, he went to the Los Angeles Velodrome to test and determine the most aerodynamic race apparel; and he sought the help of a nutritionist in Oregon. He was focused and looking at his ability to perform from every angle.

His confidence in his training might have been put to the test with two wildly disappointing results at the Olympic-distance Hy-Vee 5150 Elite Cup in August, and at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Las Vegas in September. But instead he stepped back, wrote off his results as simply bad days, thought no more of them, and remained assured he was on the right track for Kona. In late September, he arrived with Gerdes on the Big Island three weeks before the race, as he does every year. His parents were already there. As the two former roommates do annually, Luke and Alexander talked every day while they were both in Kona, and completed several key brick sessions together, just as they did in their broke summer together 10 years before. (Luke’s parents came out and handed them drinks along the highway.) As they both pulled up at the end of one grueling workout, Alexander looked Luke in the eye and said, “Luke, you can really have a good crack at winning this race.”

• •

All the buzz on race morning in Kona involves super-swimmer Andy Potts pulling out at the last minute—which for Luke and everyone else means they could save a little more energy than usual for the ride. Sure enough, the swim is slow and cautious. On the bike, Luke starts a bit farther back than normal, but the first 20 to 30 miles, he says later, feel effortless. Everyone waits for the breakaway. Starykowicz, holder of the Ironman bike leg world record, pulls away early in the ride. Several miles later at the base of the course’s biggest climb, 2012 and 2013 Ironman 70.3 world champion Sebastian Kienle, another strong cyclist, does the same. Now Luke is faced with a choice: Let them go, measure out his own effort and cross his fingers that Kienle blows up later in the race? Or commit, roll the dice a little and ask the same questions of his rivals with more than 60 miles remaining?

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Luke goes for it. He lowers his head for the next 10 miles and mashes on the pedals, recalling certain breakthrough sessions spent in the Oregon Cascades in the summer. You have to commit to making a move if you want to win here, he reminds himself. He knows from the past that without the confidence to commit to making a move, you leave yourself vulnerable to self-doubt. The breakaway is on, a troika of super-cyclists each anteing up early and trading the lead. At one point, Kienle temporarily overtakes Luke, revealing in his Teutonic English as he passes, “Aha, we haves a gap.” Luke finally looks over his shoulder and sees only empty road.

By the end of the bike, Luke is starting to see the first signs that he has played his cards right. He reads the splits scribbled on a chalkboard displayed by the race motorcycles and draws confidence from seeing the time gap blowing out to the guys he’d considered to be contenders, just like in Cairns.

By the time he arrives in transition, Luke feels so energetic that there’s nothing daunting to him about running a marathon. His pre-race plan called for a strong second half of the bike, but not swapping leads with Starykowicz, who was hell-bent on chasing the bike course record. Yet having done so, he feels great. He’s ready to run, and the pack is 12 minutes or more behind him. All that remains is fending off Kienle, three minutes behind, and the Belgian, Frederik Van Lierde, who took third in 2012 and is four minutes back in fourth on the day.

As Luke passes through town and leaves Starykowicz in his wake, the hordes of Aussies on the sides of the road roar. He shakes the tension out of his shoulders. Beth and Peter are leapfrogging each other on the course, giving Luke feedback on his competition.

Eventually his support duo has to fall back as the course turns into the hot, unsettlingly noiseless, ironically named Energy Lab around mile 15. It’s the telling three-mile stretch of the marathon course, where the plot often thickens, placed just perfectly to really test the runners. Luke will be all alone for the next few miles. Deep on the highway now, surrounded on all sides by black, hardened lava and solar panels, and nothing in his ears but the wind, the aid stations feel farther apart. His nutrition plan is on point—so much so that he briefly considered refusing calories at mile 16—yet here he is, one mile later, and his body is waging war. Underneath that big green trucker hat, his face is taut. His arms are flailing. His legs look ropy. His feet appear heavy. His pace slows. His stride looks knock-kneed, like two drunks leaning against each other for balance. He feels like hell. He’s fully shrouded in that dark place. Luke says to himself, ad infinitum, Just stay calm. Keep moving forward. It’ll pass. Meanwhile, Van Lierde, having overtaken Kienle minutes before, is closing in, Terminator-like, and has Luke within his sights.

Just as Luke had said nothing to Starky as he overtook him, in the solitude of the Energy Lab, Van Lierde accelerates nimbly past Luke in total silence. Without a friendly word or a pat on the back, Van Lierde makes a statement by not saying anything, hoping to strike the killer punch as he sees Luke struggling.

Luke remains lost at sea until he reaches mile 18, where his and everyone’s special-needs bag—a perfectly appropriate name for it right now—awaits. He guzzles the Red Bull and awaits the surge of caffeine, sugar and B vitamins to jump-start his sputtering engine. There, on opposite sides of the turnaround, he and Alexander cross paths, and Luke gets that earful from Crowie, a word about suffering to be taken as both encouragement and a warning. Van Lierde is just 45 seconds up—Luke can see the helicopter and NBC truck just ahead. That’s all there is to realizing his yearlong—lifelong—goal. The veil lifts, and he feels light again. He wants it. He wants it more than ever before. He’s going to have to suffer.

Luke pushes the throttle to the floor over the next two miles, running the tank down to empty. He’s staying positive. He wants to stay as close as possible. Maybe the wheels will come off for Freddie, he thinks. You’ve seen it happen so many times before at mile 23 or 24. You never know. He’s heading back into town, and the crowds return. But Van Lierde’s running faster. He’s now a minute up, and now a minute fifteen. Van Lierde’s running a relentlessly flawless race. With Kienle a few minutes behind, Luke simply has to hold on.

In the gauntlet of spectators along Palani Road after the turn off the Queen K, especially the boisterous contingent of Australians, he sees friends, acquaintances and seemingly everyone cheering him on. The last mile feels like mile 1. As he dashes toward the finish chute, his sister, Jacque, passes Luke Australia’s official flag, as well as its unofficial one with a boxing kangaroo. He gives her a kiss, takes a flag in each hand, runs the rest of the way with his arms high and throws a huge haymaker in the air as he crosses the line. He gives a sporting hand slap and a hug to Van Lierde, who’s already wearing the crown of palm leaves. Then he collapses in a sweaty green heap to the ground, reclining, with his head held high and a smile on his face nearly as wide as the finish line.

There are the embraces with his parents and Gerdes, a post-race interview with his idol Greg Welch, and soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the euphoria, his dopamine receptors still barely flickering. But then the adrenaline and the endorphins start to dry up, and the real pain comes roaring in. Luke gets wheeled off for an IV and some fluids. On this side of the finish line he weighs 146 pounds, down from his pre-race 154. His arches are cramping hard. So are his calves. As well as his quads. He is, literally, exhausted.

• •

It’s a cool, gloomy, damp morning in Cardiff a couple months after the Hawaii Ironman. Luke arrives at an ocean-view café, stepping off of a black and white fixie adorned in Wayfarer-type shades, hoodie, red denim and Vans. He flashes a friendly smile and elicits a sincere apology for keeping me waiting no more than a minute.

As he sips his macchiato, he describes his off-season. Surfing, relaxing, building out the gear room and workout room in his new home he’s moving into with Gerdes in Encinitas. There’s been no training to speak of—nothing more to do till Jan. 1, besides a two-day charity ride to bring clean water to Cambodia while he’s home in Australia for the holidays. The hard work has been done. And it’s paid off, earning him new, non-endurance-industry sponsors: Holowesko Partners hedge fund, and an as-yet-unannounced food-industry brand.

His runner-up finish in Kona is universally recognized as a breakthrough—and goes some way toward explaining why a podium finish in Hawaii, due to recent history, is heavily leaden with expectation for the following year. Van Lierde finished third in 2012, Pete Jacobs was second in 2011, Alexander was second in 2007, and McCormack as well in 2006. On their next trips to the Big Island they were all breaking the finish tape.

“Freddie last year got on the podium and realized mentally that he could do it,” Luke says. “Lots of us are physically capable; it comes down to how much, how deep you want to suffer. Crowie saying I had to suffer if I want to win was a bit of a no-shit moment, but I realized now more than ever I’ve got to put suffering aside and dig deeper than I ever had. When you realize that potential, tapping into what it takes to win—that light-bulb moment—that’s something I’ll take into next year’s race.”

Kona champions either taste instant success or make a slow progression. Alexander is clearly the former; Luke, having first broken into the top 10 two years ago, can be part of the latter group if he can put it all together.

“He’s always been focused,” Peter says, “but sometimes I think he didn’t quite have the belief that he could perform at the very top level. This year he took the race in Hawaii down the road, and more or less said to everyone, ‘If you wanna win this, you’ve gotta beat me.’ And one guy did!” Peter laughs. “But it was the attitude that he went in with. I’m really proud of the way he raced.”

This spring he’ll look to earn his invitation to Kona by lining up at Ironman Melbourne in March. From then on, it’s all Kona. And he’s probably wise to keep an uncluttered schedule: He and Gerdes recently announced they’re expecting a baby in late May.

Five months after that, in October, all eyes in the triathlon world will be on Luke. He’s 20 years in, with recent history on his side and a revelatory race last year in which he tapped even deeper abilities to suffer—his road to Damascus moment. He appears tantalizingly close to solving the puzzle.

“Triathlon’s probably one of the most difficult things you can do,” Luke’s dad says. “You’ve got to be really well mentally prepared for it, and be able to deal with issues as they come along.” A pause. “He’s getting better at that.”

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