At 37, Craig Alexander can already look back on a magnificent triathlon career. The Australian, regarded as one of the nicest guys on the circuit, is one of only four men to win back-to-back Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii (2008 and 2009), and has won the 70.3 World Championship and claimed the top spot in races around the world.
Starting out in short-course racing, Alexander progressed up to the half-Ironman and Ironman distances, where his smart racing and lethal run have proven formidable. We caught up with the man nicknamed ‘Crowie’ in Boulder, Colorado, US, as he prepared to defend his Ironman title and become only the third man to win the championship three years in a row.
How did you get into triathlon?
I watched the Hawaii Ironman when I was growing up. I always liked sports with more than one discipline, such as triathlon and decathlon. I played soccer but when I was 20 I got a hernia, which ended my soccer career. I did no sport for six months and then started jogging. A mate suggested I do a triathlon. This was right about the time that Welchy [Greg Welch, the first Australian to win the Ironman World Championships] won Kona [in 1994].
How has triathlon changed?
When I started in the mid 90s people did different styles of racing. Now each style of racing is so specialised and competitive that you need to tailor your training and racing. Plus grassroots participation has grown and that’s helped the sport to evolve.
How do you stay fresh and motivated?
Motivation has never been a problem, to be honest. It’s great to win world titles but every season offers me a new opportunity to improve. One of my secrets is that I have improved each year so it’s been a natural progression for me. I just try to become better at swimming, biking and running every year.
How have kids changed things?
As a young athlete you live and die by results. Kids put things in perspective – there are more important things in life. Anyone who’s a parent knows it’s more pressure with mouths to feed. I am lucky – my wife organises all the logistics. Like any business you’re not on your own; you need help, good help.
You split your time between Australia and Boulder. How does that keep it interesting and why Boulder?
It keeps it awesome! I haven’t had winter in 10 years. We’ve been in the US since 2002. We were in San Diego for the first three years, and it’s great for training, but I just needed a change. [New Zealand-born US triathlete] Matt Reed was really instrumental; he said I should come train with him and I’m glad I did.
Do you do anything to make Boulder like Australia and vice versa?
Home is where the family is. We rent a condo here in Boulder. When we get to the US we spend one month on the road, four and a half months in Boulder, than a month in Hawaii.
Do you train with other athletes or on your own?
I swim at Scott Carpenter Pool with Boulder Aquatic Masters three times a week, and then I go on my own or with [fellow Aussie] Stephen Hackett. For short races I try to train with short coursers, like Hackett. I try to do IM training on my own because it’s good for your head. I’ve been riding and running with Dirk Bockel,
who was seventh in Kona last year, and Jo Lawn [fourth in Kona in 2007] and her husband Armando are in town so I’ve been working with them.
Is it fun or stressful bumping into other athletes in Boulder?
If you’re secure in your training and secure in yourself it’s not an issue. Last Saturday’s group was made up of five or six guys that were top 10 at Hawaii. It’s never bothered me; I know what I have to do.
Do you have a coach?
I’ve been working with Mat Steinmetz with Retul [a bike-fitting company and one of Alexander’s sponsors]. He makes sure new bikes are set up right and he gives me feedback with training. Technically he is very smart; he knows the blend between aero and comfort, and he knows a lot about training and nutrition. I speak to him probably every other day.
How did your training change for Kona from 2007 to 2008 and 2009?
I do it a lot on feel, so if I’m tired I back off. A lot of it is timing; you need to be healthy and injury-free. I went into 2007 with a knee injury, and I had doubts about my knee holding up for the marathon. Last year I think I over-trained. Four weeks out I felt bombproof, but I didn’t hold on to that feeling to Kona. Last year wasn’t great, it was gutsy.
Your run is deadly. How much do you work on your form?
My technique is natural, but I do a lot of core work. Remember, I had the hernia when I was young so I was weak in the midsection and I had to rectify that. It’s not something I tape or analyse, I just run the way I feel natural.
How do you acclimatise to Kona heat?
I go there three weeks out. In 2007 our lease ran out three weeks before Kona, so I had to move out. It was more by necessity but it seemed to work so I’ve stuck with it.
Do you have any specific Kona preparatory workouts?
If I can hit targets comfortably I know I’m really fit. I have run loops that I do here in Boulder and when I hold the times I want and it feels easy I know I’m fit. If I write a programme that’s six weeks long and I’ve done all the workouts, I know I’m ready.
Is there any part of the Kona course that you love or hate?
Honestly, I love the whole course. I’ve had three great races there and when you have great races you have a different opinion. I love the Energy Lab part of the run and I love around town because of the crowds.
Who are you watching for 2010?
A lot of guys. Chris Lieto, Andreas Raelert, Rasmus Henning, Eneko Llanos, Rutger Beke, Andy Potts, Terenzo Bozzone, Cam Brown, Marino Vanhoenacker, and I’ve never counted out Normann [Stadler] or Tim [DeBoom]. I think the field is getting deeper, and that’s why you need to worry because there are too many threats.
What are your plans after triathlon?
A lot of my sponsors have signed long-term agreements beyond retirement, so that’s good. Coaching maybe, too. I received a lot of help when I started and I’d like to give something back.
Do you have a nutritional secret?
I drink a lot of Coke on the marathon.
How did you get the nickname Crowie?
There was a surf racing TV series in Australia and apparently I looked like one of the guys, Jonathan Crowe, and his nickname was Crowie. That was in 1997.
What is your favourite race?
Kona and St. Croix
What is your favourite piece of kit?
The new Shimano Di2 (Shimano’s new electric shifters). That stuff is sweet.
What is your proudest tri moment?
Winning Kona is one, defending it, also; winning the 70.3 World Championships; winning the Lifetime Fitness Triathlon was a big pay day and everyone was there.