Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Macca’s Next Challenge

Defending his Ford Ironman World Championship will be easy compared to the double he has planned this summer, according to Matthew Dale

Relaxing with confidantes back in Sydney after his breakthrough Ford Ironman World Championship victory, Chris McCormack wrestled with the question all sportsmen ponder after reaching the pinnacle of their craft.

Now what? Defending his Hawaii title. Yes, that ranks at the top, Macca confesses. Since Mark Allen strung together five consecutive Kona crowns from 1989 to `93, only one male has repeated on the Big Island: Tim DeBoom (2001-02).

That quest, though, is obvious. For McCormack - a man whose charm is equaled by his ego – even the extraordinary is not good enough. Like Captain Kirk and the Star Trek crew aboard the Enterprise, McCormack's desire is to boldly go where no man has gone before.

So in 2008, Macca has come up with a doozy of a challenge. On July 6, he'll line up against Normann Stadler, Faris Al-Sultan and a star-studded field at Ironman Germany in Frankfurt. Barring injury or illness, one week later he plans to race the Quelle Challenge in Roth.

Two Ironman-distance races.

281.2 miles.

Seven days apart.

“Why not try to do the things that people say are impossible?” McCormack said by phone from Sydney. “To me, it's a challenge. That's what motivated me as a kid; that's what motivates me now. It's a personal thing.”

The skeptic might think that McCormack is inspired by the almighty dollar.

“I guess he figures he wants to get the money while he can,” Triathlete magazine publisher John Duke said. “I'm all for everyone getting their money, but I wouldn't do it.”

McCormack admits he's being paid a “very nice” appearance fee to line up in Frankfurt against Stadler and Al-Sultan, who are not exactly dues-paying members of the Chris McCormack fan club. Having won at Roth the past four years, McCormack said he is paid by the race as an “ambassador” regardless of whether he races or not.

“Being a sportsman is not about making money,” McCormack said. “If it were, I wouldn't have picked triathlon. I would have picked (soccer). But I dreamed about this sport as a kid and was inspired by the generation before me.”

One member of that generation, six-time Hawaii champion Mark Allen, whom McCormack has used as a sounding board, thinks he's making a big mistake.

“I can't imagine he's doing both,” Allen said. “I wouldn't advise it for anybody, especially like him, assuming he wants to go back to Kona and win. Defending (at Hawaii) is hard enough racing Germany as it is. To go there and do two Ironmans in a week would be suicidal, in my opinion.”

Responding to Allen's statements, McCormack said, “I agree. I haven't heard one single person tell me it's a great idea. That's not a surprise. Not one person has said, 'That's brilliant. That's genious.' ”

Yet, in January, he's sticking to his double-Ironman plan and talks about it as only the supremely confident McCormack can.

“If I win the two biggest events in Europe a week apart, that's on par with winning Kona,” he said. “It'd be the performance of the year. If I pull that off, I'll start to get myself legendary status when people reflect on my career. Then, if I'd win Kona, that'd be the year of all years.”

McCormack is quick to state that he’s not predicting he’ll win both races.

“I’m not saying I can do that,” he said. “Nobody’s ever tried. Nobody’s ever done it. People say I’m nuts and you can’t do it. People said I couldn’t win Hawaii. I’m just testing myself.”

McCormack scoffs at rumors that he plans to go all out at Frankfurt, then dnf at Roth. “I may dnf,” he said. “I don't know the feeling (of attempting a second Ironman one week later). But I'm going to both of those events to be the best I can.”

McCormack has certainly given the task some thought. He has consulted with fellow pro Petr Vabrousek, whose 2007 schedule reads like something out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not: 11 Ironmans, a 101-mile race, a European long-distance race, two 70.3s and a marathon. Vabrousek’s warning?

“The run (at Roth) will be a nightmare,” McCormack said. “Absolutely horrific. I’ll need to find my strength on the bike.”

McCormack has been encouraged, hearing about Jason Shortis going on 150 kilometer rides and 20K runs less than a week after racing an Ironman.

McCormack said his training will not be any different leading up to the races.

“It’s not the races that destroy you,” he said. “It’s the training.”

McCormack thinks the chronological order of the races plays into his favor. Al-Sultan and Stadler no doubt will push matters on the bike at Frankfurt. McCormack, though, is the better runner, so he can exercise his strength there.

A week later, it almost certainly would be difficult for McCormack to run a marathon in the 2:40s.
The field at Roth, though, is not expected to be filled with talented runners.

McCormack says he’ll want to be “tactically astute” at Frankfurt, meaning that he hopes to pace himself and not expend excessive energy.

“That’s going to depend on my competitors allowing me to do that and I don’t think they’ll allow me to do that,” he said. “I’m going to try to win the event as easily as possible, if that makes any sense. You don’t have to win by eight minutes. Five seconds is enough.”

McCormack has pulled off the seemingly impossible before. In 2005, he placed sixth at Hawaii. Three weeks later he raced the Noosa International Triathlon, an Olympic-distance race and arguably Australia’s most popular and he shocked the field by winning.

“I blew ’em all away,” he said of his two-second victory over Leon Griffin. (Three athletes finished within 13 seconds of McCormack.) “Suddenly, maybe (I’m) not such an idiot. That’s sort of what I feel like about Roth. If I listen to all the knockers, the people who said I couldn’t do it, I never would have won Noosa. I never would have won Hawaii. They say I can’t win Frankfurt and Roth. Have they ever tried? How do they know?”

It has been three months since Macca’s win at Hawaii, time enough for the reality seep in.

“It’s pretty surreal,” he said. “I don’t remember much of the finish. People ask, ‘What was it like jogging down Alii Drive?’ Damn, I don’t remember. Now that I’ve absorbed it all, I’m just content I did it. Proud that I did it. So many people said I couldn’t. They said I was too big, too cocky. There was so much negative around, I’m eager to tell you that you sometimes can’t help but have some doubt.”

He pauses and you can imagine that smile crossing his face as he added, “Three months later, I have that victory. My name will forever be on that trophy.”

McCormack turns 35 in April. He is a triathlon geek, knowledgeable of the sport’s history. Come summer, in Germany, he wants to make some history of his own.

“For me,” he said about his Germany double, “It’s about the challenge. My body’s only going to be going until I’m 38, maybe 39 with this type of strength. I’m not going to have the opportunity in 10 more years. It’s now or never.”

You can reach Matthew Dale at mdale@ironman.com

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