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Sander’s Silent Strategist

David Tilbury-Davis has been a coach for almost 25 years and has worked with a large number of professionals and age groupers during that time. In this interview, the Brit explains his training principles, how he wants to turn Lionel Sanders into a better athlete and why his mandate is to train people and not just their physiology.

TEXT AND INTERVIEW: SIMON MÜLLER (originally released in German in the print edition of the German magazine „triathlon“, No. 182, August 2020; more details at, all photos are ©Talbot Cox, used with permission.)

DTD Lionel Swim cTalbotCox

David Tilbury-Davis went to Loughborough University, today one of the major hubs of triathlon in Great Britain. But at that time the university near Leicester did not have the triathlon focus of today, so it is quite a surprise that the 48-year-old became a professional triathlon coach.

Until he graduated in mechanical engineering in 1991, David Tilbury-Davis was active in rugby, hockey, basketball and also a member of the national team in American Football, but he had almost nothing to do with endurance sports. Ultimately, it was an injury that pushed him towards other forms of training and turned him into a triathlete in 1995. The Brit began coaching in 1996, which slowly built over the years until it became his main occupation in 2009. Over the years, Tilbury-Davis has coached well-known professionals such as Matt Hanson, Cody Beals, Lesley Smith, Jocelyn McCauley, Corinne Abraham, Kaisa Sali, Kimberly Morrison, Rasmus Svenningsson and Lionel Sanders.

He had been a triathlon coach for more than 20 years when he received international attention in 2017 with the Hawaii result of Lionel Sanders. Tilbury-Davis started to mentor him after a frustrating Kona result from the year before and successfully helped to prepare him with five middle-distance victories leading up to the race on the Big Island in October. With a second place, Sanders achieved the best result of his career so far, just 2:38 minutes short of a Hawaii victory. Then something happened that is hard to understand after such a great, even if bittersweet success: The cooperation came to an end after the race, Sanders wanted to take his training into his own hands again. Tilbury-Davis recalls and he and Sanders agree that in retrospect, post-race egos clashed somewhat and communication broke down.

Almost exactly two years later everything is (almost) the same again: After two extremely sobering Hawaii races for Lionel Sanders, Tilbury-Davis again joins the Canadian to mentor him after Lionel got in touch with him after finishing 22nd in Kona last year, wanting to re-establish the coach-athlete relationship. Since then, Tilbury-Davis is working to create the best possible version of Lionel Sanders – with clear goals, evidence-led approaches, data analysis and individualized solutions, which for David Tilbury-Davis are the cornerstones of his coaching philosophy.

Q: David Tilbury-Davis, you have been a triathlon coach for almost 25 years. Before you started coaching, you grew up playing various team sports as a child. What was the reason for switching to triathlon and what did you expect when you first tried coaching in 1996?

A: When I was at University, I played American football for Great Britain at a relatively high level. Due to an injury, I came to triathlon through my interest in cycling and was immediately hooked. After only one year there was the opportunity to help coaching the university’s triathlon team, and this idea appealed to me, even though I had never thought about coaching before. The University of Loughborough is known for sports and sports science, which I wasn’t directly involved with my mechanical engineering degree, but I had an indirect connection through biomechanics where I later did some post-graduate research. At the time, it wasn’t a goal or foreseeable that my coaching would develop in this way. I also started a regular corporate job after finishing up my research.

Q: How did coaching become your main job in 2009?

A: In 2009 I worked for one of the largest banks in Great Britain and took the chance during the financial crisis at the time to make my side job of coaching into my main job. At that time I was coaching with a triathlon club and also looked after five individual athletes. A short time after that, I moved to Spain to help a friend organize training camps. Everything developed from there and has grown over the years. In retrospect, I would consider all of this extremely organic, I never pushed myself onto athletes or did a lot of marketing. Almost everything came about through recommendations from other athletes or coaches. Even if a lot has changed in the years as a coach, the basis is still the same today as it was then: I always want to learn and always stay up to date in the areas that are relevant to my athletes’ performance.

Q: Because of your own experience but also with new scientific knowledge and technology, you are in a continuous learning process as a coach, and you have to decide what to do with this new information. How would you describe the principles of your training philosophy today?

A: My motto is “Success is rooted in knowledge”. Two of my most important principles are that I always train people, not just their physiology, and that I make evidence-led decisions, not coaching them by feeling or instinct. I deliberately do not call my training method scientific, but rather evidence-led. For me it is important that there is space to question or criticize new scientific findings or studies. I believe a coach’s most powerful tool is critical thinking. Because not everything is simply transferable to everyone, individuality is the top priority in coaching and there is more to an athlete than just his performance. I therefore reflect on the principles in important sub-areas such as physiology, psychology, neurology and biomechanics and take this knowledge as the starting point for the specific planning for each of the athletes. Another important aspect for me is to collect informative data. But I don’t use it to see how much the athlete has improved. We have tests or competitions for that. But the data should help me understand why they improved or failed to improve. For me, this data includes not only numbers but also written and verbal feedback from the athletes. By combining all of these I can then draw the appropriate conclusions for adapting the training plan. This is a very central aspect for me: The athletes should evaluate their coach based on their development and hold their coach accountable for the process, not just for the results.

Q: You now live in Finland with your family. Even though you remotely coach most of your athletes, as is the case with most professionals these days, you have often emphasized how important personal interaction is to you. What added value do you get if you can see someone personally for several days in training and everyday life, and what factors can’t be fully expressed by data and figures using today’s technology?

A: That is not that easy to answer because the benefits of direct coaching vary from athlete to athlete. I don’t believe that videos or video calls can be an equivalent substitute for personal training support, but these options definitely help with communication, evaluation and planning these days. To be there personally and to experience the athletes before, during and after training gives you completely different insights. But because that is only possible to a very limited extent, I do nor place limits on my reachability for my athletes, aside from the obvious implications of time zone differences. As a trainer, you have to be a good listener and ask a lot of questions at the same time. My goal is to have an open coach-athlete relationship with my athletes right from the start. It becomes problematic when someone is not honest which can lead to mistakes being made in the evaluation or planning. Sooner or later various data will sooner or later lead to the same conclusion, but fortunately athletes understand that it would only be a disadvantage for them.

Q: The maximum number of athletes that you supervise at the same time is 15. At the moment these are all triathletes, but in the past you have also coached athletes in the individual disciplines. What is the greatest challenge in triathlon training for you, also in contrast to individual sports?

A: To manage regeneration correctly and to react flexibly in the planning. This certainly affects age groupers more often than professionals because there is often a clear separation between training, work, family and other duties and you can neglect the overall burden. For professionals, however, it is extremely important, because the optimal ratio of stress and recovery in triathlon is like the search for the holy grail. I therefore generally structure my training plan only as a framework that can be adjusted later due to various influences. Therefore, I consider it completely wrong for athletes to stick to their plan obsessively and to fulfill it under all circumstances. As a coach, I see myself responsible for making adjustments and changes on a daily basis, although of course I plan much longer beforehand. In addition to the pure training results and the subjective feedback, I have all athletes measure their heart rate variability (HRV) every day and state the number of hours slept per night. For example, some wear the “Oura Ring” for measurements, others use an app on their smartphone. I use this data to help make the appropriate adjustments.

Q: Collecting and interpreting data is not only important for you in terms of recovery. Which other tools do you use for data acquisition and analysis?

A: Of course the sports watch for recording time, pace, individual splits and heart rate with an external sensor. Then there are the options already mentioned for recording HRV for recovery. In addition, there is power measurement in all disciplines: when cycling with a conventional power meter, when running with a Stryd sensor and when swimming with a Trainesense sensor. For some sessions and tests I also use lactate measurement, oxygen saturation in the muscles and oxygen uptake using mobile devices. Some athletes also have devices on their bikes that measure the CdA value in real-time. The feedback and feeling of an athlete is also a very important tool for me to have a reference to the data. You don’t always have to feel great to achieve strong performance and you don’t have to end a session straight away if you think you are tired or weak. It is therefore very important that you have several parameters from which you can get a holistic picture before making such a decision to change plans. The only important thing to me is that I only record data that I can use later.

Q: The corona pandemic has presented new challenges in recent months to you as a coach. How do you handle the situation?

A: As a rule, athletes should first stay healthy and not take any risks. For me, especially in the beginning, it was about maintaining motivation and emotional connection to the sport. If the long-term goal and perspectives are missing because there are no races, it has different consequences for each individual. You have to try to understand the athletes with their goals and wishes, open up new perspectives for them and see how you can use the situation for your coaching. Maybe by working on weaknesses, by taking a mental break, a different training focus, virtual races or somewhat crazy adventure experiences. Here, too, individuality is the keyword: Some of my athletes from Australia were able to swim in open water the whole time without any problems, while many others had to get along without training in the water and different again my athlete Rasmus Svenningsson from Sweden again had no restrictions.

Q: You have been working with Lionel Sanders again since November 2019 after a two-year break. Why did the collaboration end in 2017 shortly after the successful Hawaii race with second place after just one season?

A: I followed Lionel’s career for several years before and contacted him after Ironman Hawaii 2016 (29th place, after 14th place in 2015) because I saw how much potential he had wasted and what he should actually be able to do. After we talked for a long time on the phone and I gave him my point of view and approaches, we started to work together. 2017 was probably the best year of his career so far and I was disappointed that the collaboration ended after Hawaii. I felt that we were on the right track and that we could have achieved even more as a team. But after the Hawaii result, both of our egos got a little too big and our relationship suffered from this mutual stubbornness, we laugh about it now of course. I told Lionel at the time that I would always be willing to work with him again if he wanted to. It ended up taking two years and I’m glad we have this chance now.

On deck Feb20 LS cTalbotCox

Q: You say you saw a lot of potential for improvement back then. When you first started to work together, what were the main training aspects that you changed? I remember the advice from Sebastian Kienle who told Lionel during this period to stop doing an Ironman in training every day. Was there anything to it?

A: There were definitely times when Lionel exercised too much and periods when the combination of volume and intensity at the same time was too high. But with Lionel, the greatest challenge and my main task are that all the pieces of the puzzle stay together and that he doesn’t get lost anywhere.

Q: Are you referring that he really wanted to lose weight after Hawaii 2017 to run as fast as Patrick Lange, or that he tried a vegan diet several times because he hoped it would boost his performance?

A: Exactly. After Hawaii 2017, there were a few very simple adjustments I wanted to make so that Lionel would be an even better version of himself a year later. The greatest danger I saw at the time was trying to completely reinvent the wheel. And that is exactly what happened afterwards unfortunately. The search for the last optimization often harbors the risk of neglecting or negatively influencing the most important basic principles. It’s a fine line. It was my job in 2017, and it is now, to keep an eye on the big picture and to prevent Lionel from making such mistakes. Instead of immediately hoping to follow a trend or recipe for success from others, Lionel now has the confidence to let me check and advise whether it is worthwhile to try different things with him or not.

Q: Two goals that Lionel has set himself for several years are to reach the first group in swimming and to improve his running performance over the long distance. While he already ran 1:09:20 hours in the middle distance and had the fastest time at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships 2016, for example, he has had problems showing this potential for years in the long-distance marathon. What approaches are you pursuing to achieve these two goals in the future?

A: That’s what he says, I see things slightly different. Lionel will never come out of the water with the lead group in Hawaii, and setting this goal would be the first step to failure. But I still see some potential in the water, which we can realize over time through various training methods and technical improvements. What that will be good for in the end, however, is decided by the dynamics on race day. With regards to running, I can state very clearly: We won’t do everything we can to change his running technique. Lionel will never run like Patrick Lange or Craig Alexander, but always like Lionel. This also has to do with physical restrictions. He’s been running fast with this technique since he was a teenager. We are still trying to find out how much of the movement is due to his anatomy and which patterns can be changed naturally and in a biomechanically meaningful way. Simply changing something just to match someone else would surely be the first step towards an injury. But for me other aspects are even more important because they are not limited by speed and basic requirements. These include running economy, the change in running economy and running posture when you are tired and already under stress, as well as race nutrition, which has often limited him running in long-distance races. For that we went to Hawaii for a week in February to measure his sweat rate, electrolyte loss and the absorption of carbohydrates under race conditions. With a large amount of data we were able to gain important insights into training, pacing and nutrition.

DTD Lionel Sweat Patch cTalbotCox

Q: What do you think is possible for Lionel in the future and what are your long-term goals going into the next year with possibly two Hawaii races?
[Note: At the time of the interview the were still Kona races planned, one for February – the postponed 2020 race which has been canceled by now – and a second one in October, at the normal point in the season.]

A: In the long term, I want to turn Lionel into a more efficient athlete and get the best version of himself. We did not max out in 2017. I would be very disappointed in myself as a coach if, in the end, I overlook obvious things that are preventing Lionel from improving, especially in Hawaii. My goal is for Lionel to improve in all disciplines compared to the Hawaii race in 2017 and to be able to say at the finish that he got everything out of his abilities. It is of course a coincidence that the Ironman Hawaii was postponed to the beginning of February 2021, of all places, and the irony of the time of our stay there this year. If the race should really take place, but maybe it was simply a coincidence that is going to benefit us.

Kona Still #1 Goal for Raelert-Brothers

In March 2011, K-Swiss announced that they would pay 1 million $ to the German brothers Andreas and Michael Raelert if they finish 1-2 in Kona later that year. Both were considered strong contenders for the October race: Michael hat recently become the first 70.3 champ to defend his world title (winning both the 2009 and 2010 titles in Clearwater), and Andreas had two great Kona results in 2009 (3rd) and 2010 (2nd, only beaten by Chris McCormack after running with him until the last aid station).

Since then, the brothers struggled a bit to put together solid seasons. In 2011, Michael was slated to give his IM debut in Frankfurt but had to cancel because of hip issues and decided to wait another year for his Kona debut. Andreas posted a fantastic world best time of 7:41:33 in Roth, but still had to validate his Kona slot by „walking“ IM Regensburg in order not to aggravate a slight injury. He posted another podium result in Kona (3rd behind Craig Alexander and Pete Jacobs). In 2012 they both qualified for Kona, but only Andreas had a good race (2nd behind Pete Jacobs) while Michael finished 31st.

Michael Raelert at the front of a bike pack in Kona 2012 (Photo: Jay Prasuhn).

2013 saw them both struggle with injuries: Michael hurt his knee when he crashed with his mountain bike. He still managed to finish 7th in IM Germany, but then had to undergo a procedure to remove inflamed tissue. Andreas won IM Austria in a fast 7:59, but tore some muscle fibers in his glute. For the first time, he DNF’d in Kona. 2014 didn’t start much better: Andreas still wasn’t completely healed from his injury, had a DNF in Frankfurt and barely managed to get a last minute Kona slot after racing in Mont Tremblant. In Kona, he was in a good position until the middle of the run when he had severe stomach problems and had to walk home. (He still finished in 10:49 with a run time 45 minutes slower than his bike.)

Michael crashed again on his mountain bike in the spring, but even though he hurt his face the injuries healed quickly. He was on fire in the second half of the year, winning a number of 70.3s in Australia and also the inaugural Challenge Bahrain.

Andreas Raelert getting ready for the 2015 season in Mallorca (Photo: Raelert-Brothers).

I’ve had the chance to discuss their 2015 plans with them.

Thorsten: What’s your focus for the 2015 season?

Michael: We are still working on some of the details, but Kona will be the main focus for both of us. I have already started my season, my next race will be 70.3 Mallorca (early May).  I’m not sure where I’ll do my Ironman race, but it’s great to already have enough points.

Andreas: I will start my season at 70.3 St. George and will race at Ironman Texas.

T: Andreas, what’s your view on having a good summer IM and performing well in Kona? Other than in 2014, the winner rarely had a big result in the summer.

A: That is very hard to tell. Sebastian showed that he can perform well in Frankfurt and in Kona. But you can only do that with a strong base and smart periodization.

T: It seemed that you really wanted to perform well in Kona 2014 even after qualifying very late. Wouldn’t it have been smarter to collect some solid points and take your chances in 2015?

A: It’s next to impossible to race Kona „going easy“. It is a special race, and I always want to race my best there. Racing well in Kona is why I’m in the sport, it’s what I love. I still want to see the name „Raelert“ among the Kona champions. Having a 1 million $ prize on winning there was a great sign of respect, but it doesn’t influence how I race.

T: You’d be the oldest first time winner (currently Craig Alexander with 35 years) …

A: I don’t think winning Kona is a question of age, but how well you feel. Crowie has shown that you can still perform well if you manage to focus on your training. I’ll be doing Triathlon as long as I believe I still have a chance to win – at least for another two or three years. It would be great to stay injury-free and know in May where I stand and then be able to focus on preparing for Kona.

T: Michael, when you won your two 70.3 Championships you were dominating that distance. Was moving up to the full distance too early?

M: With Regensburg, Kona and Frankfurt I have only done three IMs so far, so I haven’t really moved up yet. The training volume is pretty much the same, regardless of whether you are training for Olympic Distance, 70.3s or Ironman races, the difference is more on the mental side of racing, of being patient for a long time.

T: Are you back to 100% now?

M: I think I was doing pretty well over the middle distance lately :-). I still have some catching up to do on the run, after all I missed thousands of kilometers when being injured. I’m working hard to improve some more.

T: Did you or your coach Wolfram Bott make any changes to your training because of the injury?

M: I think it’s important to take your time and not make the second step before the first one. When we started to work with Wolfram in 2012, it was to add some new stimuli to our training. Now he also takes extra care to make sure we’re doing the right things. There are situations where I need someone else to tell me when to back down a bit.

T: If you qualify for Kona, how will you approach the race? Just as a learning experience?

M: I’m similar to Andi – just participating is not enough for me. When I start, I want to compete for the top spots.

T: You are marketing yourself as a single brand „Raelert-Brothers“. How is that working out?

A: We love it that we have our little family business – in addition to Micha and me there is also my girlfriend Julia and our middle brother Sven. Together, we have found a lot of loyal partners. Most recently we have added Swiss Side with their fantastic aero wheels.

T: Thank you for your time. It would be great to see both of you have a successful 2015 season!

Interview with Filip Ospaly for Kona 2014

Filip Haugesund

Filip has had a great career racing Olympic distance (participating three times in the Olypmics and winning a number of World Cup races) and had also great results in 70.3s (2nd place in the 2010 World Championships) . He finished his first IM, Florida 2013, with a time of 7:58 in third place. He had some more good results in European of 70.3s, then secured his Kona slot by finishing fourth in Switzerland. As is typical for athletes coming up from the shorter distances, his swim in great and should easily place him in the front pack. Evidenced by his fast time in Florida, he has the engine for fast bike and run times over the longer distance, but it is a bit doubtful what he will be able to do in the tough condition and deep field in Kona. He certainly has a potential similar to Ivan Rana (who finished 6th in hist first appearance in Kona), but it remains to be seen if he will be able to perform in a hot race such as Kona.

Thorsten: How was your season so far?

Filip: Up and down. The first half I didn’t race because of two meniscus arthroscopies (left in mid April, right at the end of May).Then it went up with victories in Haugesund (Ironman 70.3),  Opava (Czech Cup race) and 4th place in Zurich (Ironman) – all races in July. And then down again at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Mont Tremblant.

T: What makes Kona special for you?

F: Kona is just another course. I don’t think it’s particularly beautiful, there are nicer ones. But with the climate and the strength of the field, it is certainly the hardest race. It is the World Championships. All the athletes will have prepared for this race very well and want to deliver their best performances. The 55 best athletes will be on the start line … 10 can win and another 20 can be on the podium …

T: Are you doing anything special in your Kona prep?

F: This will be my first time to race in Kona. The one big change is that I will be on the Big Island from early September. There are no changes to the  training compared to what I’ve done in the past.

T: What are your goals for the race?

F: One of my sponsors (Mr. Zdenek Kepak) has given me my goals for this race – to improve the Czech records on this course (Pete Vabrousek holds it for the best place with a 19th in 2002 and Martin Matula for the fastest time with a 8:48:50 from 2006). So this is my goal and I think it is realistic.

T: Any sponsor mentions you’d like to get in?

F: I want to thank all my sponsor for their support: EKOL, Equinox, eMMe, Cannondale, Czech Tri Series, FORD and others. For this race special thanks to Mr. Zdenek Kepak, who made it possible for me to stay on the Big Island for more than a month with my wife and our children!

Interview with Paul Matthews on Kona 2014

Paul has finished three IMs so far – and his slowest was an 8:05 in his first race in Melbourne 2012. He also DNF’d in Kona that year. He had another great race in Melbourne 2014 where he finished second which gave him enough points to qualify. Will he be able to deliver a Kona performance on the same level as his previous results? It’s impossible to tell from the data – so it was great to have a long chat with Paul about his development and his perspective on this year’s race.

Thorsten: Looking at your results, the first Ironman race that I see for you was 2012. What was your background coming into the sport?

Paul: I came through the Australian junior ranks. I raced Luke McKenzie at the Junior Olympics in Australia in Penrith back in 2001. Luke won and I came 3rd. I think Emma Snowsill won the Girls’. Annabel Luxford was there. So I’ve been around the sport a long time. I did a few World Cups when I was younger. Then I went to Brett Sutton for three years. Sutto actually wanted me to do an Ironman back in 2005, and he pushed me to do the UK 70.3 in 2005. Three or four weeks before that, we’re driving home from a little race in Switzerland that I had won. He just said to me, “I’ve got a race for you that I think you’d do well at, it’s a Half Ironman over in the UK. You’re going to do it. I think you’ll go well. Just eat Mars bars on the bike and it will be sweet.” I was living with Reinaldo Colucci at that time. Reinaldo was going to do the race as well and he’d already done an Ironman and few Halfs. So every day for three weeks it was Ronaldo versus Barney, every single session. I ended up beating Ronaldo in the race and I ended up winning it.

Sutto thought I’d be good at Ironman. At that time, I was just, “No, I’m not going to ride and run that long.” But looking back and seeing what I’ve been doing now, I think it probably was the right distance. It just took me a few extra years to sort it out and finally do one.

T: If Sutto wanted you to do an Ironman in 2005, why did it take you until 2012?

P: I don’t know. In 2007 I started coming to Boulder because I just needed a change. In 2007-2008 I trained with Crowie and he said, “Once you start to go long, you’ll loose your speed and you can’t really go back.” I was very cognitive over that. I’ve been doing 2-hour runs and 2-and-a-half-hour runs with Sutto since 2003. Crowie said, “Your body will be fine. It’s in the head that Ironman is hard.” So it took me a while but eventually I decided it was time to have a crack.

T: You had a great start to your IM career in 2012 with Melbourne, you qualified for Kona, but then Kona didn’t go too well.

P: Melbourne was a cool race and everything just went so easy. Then I turned up to Kona a little naïve and I little wet behind the ears. I trained really hard for that race. I was super fit. But when you’ve got 50 of the fittest guys in the world, everyone is just going hammer and I just wasn’t ready. In Melbourne, there were maybe 10 guys that were fit. In Kona, there are 50 guys that are fit. I missed my bottle at Hawi, the heat, a lot of little things just added up. I’ve got out onto the Queen K on the run and I said to myself if I keep going and I finish, then my season is over. Or I could pull out, go to Arizona and make some money. I sat on the side of the road for about 15 minutes contemplating what I was going to do. I talked to Crowie the day after the race, he said, “No, that was a smart decision you made. You’ve got to make money. This is your job.” At that time, it was a hard decision but, in retrospect, it was the right one.


T: You recovered well and finished second in Arizona, but still didn’t race any more Ironman races in 2013.

P: Because I already made  good points in Arizona, I wasn’t going to fly halfway around the world to go to Melbourne 2013. So I was planning to do Coeur d’Alene. I got married at the end of April, so I had all the family over here. At that time, I didn’t think it was stressful but, looking back, it was a lot more stress than I thought. It just took me months to get the body and the mind going again. I rang Crowie 6 weeks from Coeur d’Alene. I said, “I can’t go do the long 6-hour ride by myself and the long runs by myself. Mentally I just can’t do it,” and he said, “Fine. Don’t do it. Concentrate on Des Moines. Just go do some speed.” I ended up coming 4th in Des Moines. He said, “There’s no point just grinding away for nothing. Your heart has to be in Ironman.“ I could’ve turned up and, and if I got Top 8, I still would’ve qualified for Kona. But if I turn up, I’m going to have a go at winning. So I gave Kona a miss, but then we went to Kona and watched the race. I was out in the boat with Matt Lieto. Just watching it, I said to Matt last year, “If I’m here on the boat, spotting for you next year, you have permission to kick my ass.” Then I had breakfast with Crowie two days later and I said, “You’ve got to coach me because this is the race I want to win,” and he said, “Well, let’s get to work.”

T: How did your relationship with Crowie start? 

P: I’ve known Crowie since 2001. That was the first year I went to World Champs in Edmonton as a Junior and he was in the Senior team at that time. That was the first time I met him and then I raced him in Australia. Then in 2007-2008 when I came to Boulder, I was with Stephen Hackett. We did a lot of training with Crowie. The place I was staying at didn’t have any TV or internet. So every second day, I was at Crowie’s place, watching ESPN and stealing his internet. Neri [Crowie’s wife] would cook me dinner every second night. They’d go out for dinner and I’d babysit Lucy [Crowie’s oldest daughter]. Ever since then, we’ve been pretty tight. He’s won Kona three times, he’s got the course record. There’s no better guy that I would want to work with. He’s very old school and I’m still very old school with the way Sutto taught me. So it works pretty well.

T: What does being coached by Crowie mean exactly? Does he write your training plans?

P: He writes my programs, he does everything. So November, December, January, leading up to Melbourne, with him being in Australia and me being over here, he wrote a program for three to four weeks. I just do it, just did it every day. I’d send him an email once every two or three days, telling him how it’s going, and we’d Skype once a week, once a fortnight. This summer, it’s been quite cool because he was in Boulder as well. Every night the last 2 months, we’ve talked. Hillary [Paul’s wife] works for NormaTec, and she’s away a lot. So I’d always be over at Crowie, and Neri still cooks dinner for me. Neri went home a few weeks ago so Crowie has been over to our place to return the favor. The last eight weeks, we talked every night. We’ve done a lot of riding together. We meant to do a long ride tomorrow. “How are you feeling?” I said I’m tired. He said, “Okay, easy day tomorrow. We’ll go on a long ride the next day.” We’ve just changed. Leading into Kona has been very specific in terms of what we do, when we do it. He’s just tapping away in my head, telling me what I need to do in Kona to do well. Every day, he’s just drilling it into me, so I know it by heart now. I’ve certainly learned a lot. It’s not every day you have your coach actually doing the 6-hour ride with you.

T: But then he’s not just your coach. He wants to go for Kona this year too, right?

P: I’d love to win and I’d love Crowie to come 2nd. In an ideal world, that would be perfect. In Melbourne, we got to the 45k turnaround bike and someone asked, “What was it like seeing Crowie, good friend, your coach, in the second group?” I said, “It was awesome. When the gong goes, I hate the guy. I want to beat him. Seeing 3-time World Champion in the second group was awesome. I still want to beat him.“ I can tell he gets fitter every week. To be honest, we’ve done a lot of rides together but I think I’ve run with him maybe twice in the last two months. He doesn’t like doing the speed stuff anymore.

T: Based on your previous results (all of them really fast, 8:05, 8:04, 8:02), I have no idea how you’re going to do in Kona. What are your own expectations for the race?

P: I’ve done a lot of riding with Chris Leigh and we’ve joked that if I’m not going to go under 8:05, I was going to pull out. We’ve prepared my body. It’s going to be hard, it’s going to be windy. But I’m obviously not going to do 8:05.

T: Compared to Kona, Melbourne is maybe 20 minutes slower. Even an 8:25 would be very close to the front.

P: Exactly. So we’ve prepared to go the distance, whatever time it takes. That’s what you’ve got to do. We’ve done the training. If I’m smart, I think I can get a Top 5. If things go my way then, who knows? This is the fittest I’ve ever been. I’m confident, old Crowie just chirping at the back of my head. But the race plan said we know what to do. We’ve got Plan A, Plan B, Plan C. Nutrition’s dialled in, the bike’s dialled in. Everything’s good to go. So I’ve planned as best as I can. We just have to wait and see on the day now.

T: Any picture how the race is going to develop?

P: I personally think it’s going to be a lot different than last year. I don’t think Andy Potts and Frodo want to get out with Starky and the uber bikers. So I think they’re going to push the swim. I think the swim is going to be very quick. I want to be somewhere sitting on their feet.  I feel like I’m doing well and hopefully I can tag along the back. In the first 40k, everyone is sorting themselves out, a lot of surges. So even if we can only get 30 seconds on the group, then we can get clear and stay away for first 20k on the bike, that would be awesome, rather than all that to and fro-ing at the start. I’ll have a little bit of time to settle in. Starky, Marino and Sebi, they’re going to do what they’re going to do and go hard on the bike. I just have to stick to my race plan, get off the bike as fresh as I can and just get to work on the run.

I learned a lot from the race in 2012. I thought the race was over, then Andy Raelert rode past me with 30-40k to go and then ran into 2nd. I thought when I start the run so far back, we’re just fighting for 10th or 20th.

T: It sounds as if you’re going into the race with a detailed plan of how things are going to work out. You mentioned you’re hoping for something like a Top 5 or so. What do you think is realistic? What would be an over-the-moon result for you? 

P: If I get a Top 10, I’ll be happy. Top 5, I’ll be extremely happy. Top 3 would be over-the-moon. I think a few things have to go my way and I have to be smart. New guys turn up every year. No one picked Luke to come 2nd last year. Not many people are picking Freddie to win and he just turns up. He’s quiet, turns up, does the job and he came away with the win last year. Frodo could turn up and win. There’s no reason why a new guy can’t turn up and have a real crack. Hopefully it’s me. I feel like I’ve raced it and done Kona like 20 times. With the amount of stories that Crowie has told me over the last 10 months, I feel like a veteran.

T: How long will you be in Kona before the race?

P: Two and a half weeks. Crowie gets there Monday or Tuesday after the ITU long distance race in Beijing. I get there on Wednesday. We just want to get down from altitude. I’ve been up in Boulder for 3 months now. So I’ll get used to the humidity and the heat, do some rides on Queen K and run the Energy Lab. Then rest up and get ready to go.

T: Any picks you’re willing to share?

P: I think Freddie will be there about again. He just does his business quietly and he just gets the job done. I think Faris will be there about and I think Kienle will be there. I think Frodo is a dark horse. He could turn up and run at 2:35 or he could blow to smithereens. Who knows? The guy could turn up and win by 10 minutes.

On the women’s side, it’s hard to go past Rinnie. I just saw Rachel Joyce running on the treadmill, she looks good. Obviously Caroline Steffen, she’s always there. Working with Macca will be a good change from Sutto. When you’re being with the same guy for so long, it’s good to go to someone else. I think she’ll go well.  And Daniela Ryf, the way she’s going, she’s a freak.

T: Any sponsors you’d like to give a mention?

P: I’ve had support from Blue Bicycles, XTerra Wetsuits, Smith Optics, and FuelBelt. They have been good to me this year.

Interview with Luke McKenzie on Kona 2014

Luke McKenzie was one of the big surprises in Kona 2013. Since then, he hasn’t had another really great result: He validated his Kona slot in Melbourne with a 13th place finish after some helmet strap issues, then finished Roth in 10th place. On the personal side, he and his partner Beth Gerdes became parents to their daughter Wynne who will be just over four months old when daddy has to race in Kona. Beth helped me get Luke’s perspective on Kona 2014 for my upcoming Kona Rating Report (pre-order here).

Luke McKenzie

Thorsten: How was your season so far?

Luke: Honestly I had two very disappointing Iron-distance races. I felt really well prepared for both, but neither panned out as I expected. In Roth, I had to make the decision to “shut it down” in the run and saved my legs. I felt as though I recovered really quickly from Roth.
Those are behind me as I head into Kona. I think the proof is there that I’ve been in contention the last three years in Hawaii so it’s definitely a race that suits me and my strengths. I also have the 110% physical and mental focus on Hawaii all year long that I never quite get for other races- which can be both a weakness and an asset.

T: How is your preparation different for Kona? 

L: My preparation for Kona is a bit more consistent each year than my prep is throughout the rest of the year and it’s the one race that I truly get excited to train for each and every day. I base myself in Bend, OR for 6 weeks each summer to really focus in on training and nothing else and I know this sets me up well. I also arrive on the Big Island 3 to 4 weeks ahead of the race, which also seems to be an important key for me.

T: From your perspective, what makes the Kona race or course special?

L: That’s what excites me personally about Kona. I feel like I thrive in the harsh conditions that the island brings and I actually hope for the toughest, windiest, hottest day possible out there. I train my body and my mind to welcome whatever the day brings and the tougher the better.

T: What would be a good result for you this year?

L: A great result for me would be Top 5, but realistically I think that after having the race I did last year, I see the potential that I can win it. I think Hawaii is its own beast and hard to compare to other races when it comes to ratings and results.

T: Who is the most underrated athlete?

L: I’d go with Jan Frodeno and myself of course. On the women’s side, I think Heather Wuertle will do better than her prediction – she seems in form for at least a top 10.

(Photo Credit: Jay Prasuhn)

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