We caught up with Chris McCormack before he returns to the Ironman arena in Cairns and asked hm about his year in the Olympic spotlight, the Brownlee brothers dominance and the re entry of Lance Armstrong into the triathlon world. As usual Macca gave us the whole truth!
There’s been a lot of conjecture about why pro athletes don’t finish every race they start. Professional triathlete and full-time firefighter Matty White has penned this piece to provide some insight into why it’s not always about collecting a finisher’s t-shirt for the pro athletes racing.
When I was 21 years old I vividly remember walking over to the Currency Exchange counter at the Adelaide airport with about $45.65 in my pocket to change over to French Francs. And yes, I did bother with the 65 cents because that was all I had to live on until my next race which was about five days away in Marsielle. It was at this time when I realised that the spirit of “just finishing” was gone. Things were real now, triathlon was my only job and I had to race and make money to survive.
For the five days before the race I lived on canned soup and a terrible canned concoction called Castoullie, which is basically French stewed sausage in a tin. I was living in a hotel room in Salon De Provence, which was provided for to me by my French Club at the time. Luckily, for me, I raced my heart out and turned myself inside out to finish fourth in a typically Euro strong field to make 400 francs (roughly $120 AUD at the time). I had never raced so hard in my life and upon finishing the race I went straight to the officials to confirm the prize money. This kept me in France for at least another few weeks of eating stewed sausages!
I felt that I had won the lottery as I was actually making some money in order to survive. However meagre it was, I was actually a pro athlete and could proudly call myself one. I managed to race well throughout the year and actually come back with some money that helped me travel and survive through the Australian summer, then I would do it all again and ‘live the dream’, meeting some great people and training with world champion athletes such as Brad Beven and Simon Lessing on a daily basis along the way.
During this time I raced with and against some legendary Aussie athletes, who were all struggling and battling for a dollar. I especially remember racing Craig Alexander in the middle of nowhere at a Triple Sprint race in Valence in 2001 just to chase a dollar on the French circuit, and I can safely say that Crowie was battling away like most of us over in Europe at the time all trying to survive however we could.
Since my early days on the French circuit, I believe not much has changed in the sport of professional triathlon, and it really annoys me to hear people call us out for being “soft” for not finishing a race. The last time I checked Cash Converters were not offering much for trading in Finisher’s towels and medals! This is probably one of the hardest sports in the world to make a living from and I have the upmost respect for anyone that actually can survive off triathlon, and I do mean survive as that is all you are doing. Pro athletes in this sport sacrifice massive amounts to be where they are and I dont just mean the usual time and family stuff. I mean real-life altering factors, and if a lot of people who criticise us would take the time to sit down and think about these ‘real’ factors they would certainly realise it is not all about the finishers t-shirt for pro athletes.
If you are an Australian self-sufficient pro triathlete these days there is a good chance you don’t have kids, as supporting and providing for them would be very difficult with all the expenses of travelling, schooling, etc., and there is also a good chance you don’t have a mortgage, health insurance or are contributing to any superannuation scheme or any long term investment for the future.
You will race now until about 40 if you’re lucky and if you have not won Kona or the Olympics or are a Euro athlete who gets paid a full time wage under their elite athlete scheme or club system you will be entering the workforce at around 40 as quite possibly an under-skilled, but very healthy individual. This is scary on many fronts not only due to my last point, but also the fact that most people have been contributing to a superannuation scheme for the last 20 years and you are only just starting at the youthful age of 40 to plan for your retirement, giving you at most about 20 years or so to save.
This sport is not golf or tennis where there is a masters or seniors tour which pays well. Nor is it a sport where you can safely travel around the world in a 50-foot yacht with your winnings and never work again. Nor is it a sport where you can pick up first-round losers cheque of $30k in a tennis tournament or $15k for part of a six-way tie for 27th in a golf tournament. This sport is tough and tough people survive. You can ask most pro triathletes who raced when they were young how hard it was. I remember Macca talking about how he cut his teeth on the Euro circuit and it made him the athlete he was today. Macca’s also talked about how hard it was being a young athlete in a new country not knowing the languages, travelling week in, week out living out of a cardboard bike box getting himself to races in small towns all in order to survive. I remember hearing a story from multiple world champion Simon Lessing whom I trained with in France about his early days in Europe and how he caught a train to a race and slept in his bike bag in the transition so he could save money on accommodation and went on to win the race!
I have a cardboard box in my cellar full of hundreds of finishers medals and t-shirts, sure there is sentimental value in them but sentiment doesn’t keep you alive or put food in your mouth. If a pro athlete decides to stop during a race for whatever reason whether it be mechanical, sickness, injury or whatever, it should not be questioned by someone who has a full time job and is comfortably able to support themselves. A DNF at this level is purely about self preservation and making sure that you remain in good shape so you can fight for a payday at the next event. I have finished countless Ironman races, and I don’t need another finishers medal or a tattoo to say I am an Ironman. I need a pay day and if I truly believe that finishing a race will severely hamper my chances at future races, I will pull out for these reasons. This is not soft it is smart, and if you are supporting a family as well as yourself, it is even smarter. If you are lucky enough to be paid an appearance fee for a race generally the contract will outline that you are required to finish, hence you will see some top-line pro athletes walk to the finish in some races.
Prize money in this sport has not increased much in a long time, and I am talking since the early ’90s! It’s been a while since we’ve had great prize money for athletes competing in the Tooheys Blue Triathlon Series and we had TV time every Saturday. For example, if your workplace had not increased your pay in about 10 years or more, odds are your union would be jumping up and down and negotiating a better rate under an Enterprise Bargaining Agreement. There is no union currently for pro athletes and we are at the mercy of the governing body at the races we decide to compete in and whatever prize money is offered, we just have to accept it and do what we can to survive, much like a bunch of hungry seagulls fighting for a scrap of bread.
I am actually envious of people who have massive feelings of joy in crossing the line of an Ironman race, they don’t have to calculate where they have finished or try and recall the prize money breakdown from the race website, or work out the profit/loss of getting to and from a race, or figure out how many KPR points the person in front and behind of you has in order to get to Kona. These factors take a lot of the enjoyment out of the actual finishing experience and it’s generally more of a feeling of relief that the pain of racing is over and to finish in the money than getting to the finish-line itself at this point.
I am able to support myself now as I work full time, but I will never forget how tough it was as a full-time athlete so it really annoys me when I hear people call strong guys like Cam Brown, Tim Berkel, Mitch Anderson, Joe Gambles, Luke Bell, Tim Reed, Josh Rix, etc. soft for pulling the pin, and it even upsets me more when it comes from people who really have no idea about how much hard work it takes to compete and essentially make a living from triathlon. So if you want to go back to your forums and have a dig at me for this post, before you do, ask yourself this: if your boss asked you to come in and work for free for a week or more would you, just for the satisfaction of working?
On a rain soaked course Chris Kemp stepped into the winners circle for the first time in recent years taking out the Cannibal Gold Coast Half Ironman today, while Brisbane’s Melissa Rollinson has made a successful transition from athletics to triathlon claiming her second win in as many weeks.
The former champion steeplechaser smashing the previous course record to comfortably take the women’s title in record time over the 1.9km swim, 90km cycle and 21.1km run.
Kemp shaved just 12 seconds off the record previously set by Clayton Fettel in 2009 and Rollinson nearly seven minutes off the women’s with a scorching 1:22.06 for the run.
The early stages of the race were a replay from last year as renowned swim/bike specialist Clayton Fettell took control after a group of 12 athletes emerged from the swim together.
Fettell then set about dominating on the bike despite the tough conditions, as torrential rain and winds caused havoc. At the end of the 90km he had amassed a two and a half minute lead with New Zealand’s Mark Bowstead next to head into transition followed by Tim Berkel. Chris Kemp and Leon Griffen entered together and ran shoulder to shoulder.
“Bike is probably my weak leg, and I know that Berkel, Griffen and Ollie Whistler are really strong on the bike with their ironman racing, 90km isn’t that long for them and I suppose they were trying to hurt me on the bike knowing I’d be strong on the run,” said Kemp after the race.
“Clayton didn’t get as good a lead as last year, we held him to that pace a bit better but I know he’s had some injuries and that was a shame as it would have been a much tighter race,” he added.
As they headed onto the run Fettell looked strong but there was a host of classy runners hunting him.
Kemp was the first to start making his way to the front and by the second lap he had moved into the lead.
“We were slowly catching Berkel and Bowstead and with Clayton only having 3 minutes I felt pretty confident we’d get we’d catch him, it was just a matter of time and I had to be patient.
“I just relaxed into the group with those guys and at the end of the first lap I felt great and those boys started to struggle a bit. On the second lap I pushed it up a bit, tried to relax, and told myself not to do anything stupid and I’d probably be on the podium.”
Fettell finally succumbed to the lack of run training after his injuries, withdrawing on the second lap. Berkel also a casualty from the race, not having the best day on the run.
At the 17km mark things started to hurt and tighten up a bit for Kemp and it wasn’t till the 20km mark he felt safe, cruising across the line.
“I haven’t had a win like this for a long time, and they don’t come every day so I’ll certainly enjoy this one.”
The big mover in the field was New Zealander Callum Millward, recording the second fastest run split to claim second today.
Gold Coaster Ollie Whistler scored himself a place on the podium and was full of praise for training partner Brad Kahlefeldt who he says has been a massive help to him.
“I’ve done it the last couple of years, finished fifth last year. It may not seem like a massive achievement from 5th last year to third but the field here was world class today,” said Whistler.
The Sunshine Coast’s Katherine Baker made her mark on the scene as she emerged a clear leader after the swim and bike. Baker lead for most of the run until the noted runners in the field swamped her. New Zealander Anna Cleaver was holding down second place to Baker with Amelia Pearson behind her until Rollison found her running legs. Rollinson’s running background proved too good in the end and she crossed the line for a comfortable win from Michelle Wu who also put in a credible run to claim second today with Baker hanging on for third.
“That was a nasty event, it’s such a mental game,” said Rollinson.
“I’m not a strong swimmer, so the plan was to stay as close as I could, I’ve been doing a lot of riding so I was hoping to catch up some time there then hold on in the run,” she added.
Rollison came off the bike in fourth place and then went about running them down. Her run split (1:22:06) placed her fifth in the elite men’s times. Once she had found her rhythm it was mechanical, picking off each of the runners in front, although she admits a mental challenge.
Rollinson has made it a clean sweep of victories of the three events she has contested. A Gatorade Queensland Tri Series event last year, then last weekend at the Kingscliff Olympic distance and stepping up to the Half Ironman.
Each race she has done has doubled in distance but will now focus on the next task – Noosa Triathlon.
Despite the running background Rollinson says admits she has never run 21km in her life, let alone after a 90km bike.
In all 1400 competitors took on the half ironman challenge this morning, all with their own personal goals.
Earlier this morning 520 competitors tackled the shorter distance, 1km swim, 33km cycle and 7km run in the Sprintman with Bryce McMaster and Marion Summerer taking line honours.
Results – Half Ironman
- Chris KEMP 03:51:59
- Callum MILLWARD 03:53:24
- Ollie WHISTLER 03:55:37
- Josh RIX 03:56:04 00:23:57
- Mark BOWSTEAD 03:56:34
- Leon GRIFFIN 03:59:07
- Michael POOLE 04:02:35
- Monty FRANKISH 04:03:01
- Joseph LAMPE 04:06:36
- Luke WHITMORE 04:07:26
- Melissa ROLLINSON 04:19:23
- Michelle WU 04:22:01
- Katherine BAKER 04:22:38
- Anna Cleaver 04:23:00
- Amelia PEARSON 04:25:56
- Michelle MITCHELL 04:30:48
- Julia GRANT 04:31:49
- Matilda RAYNOLDS 04:33:02
- Elly FRANKS 04:38:36
- Rebecca EVELEIGH 04:39:53
Pete Jacobs set tongues wagging in the media centre after he swaggered into the presser and proclaimed himself the one everyone is following. And who could blame his position given he is the reigning Ironman World Champion? Here is a snapshot of what Pete said.