What makes a champion nervous? Not much, is the short answer, but the long answer — the very long answer — is this: a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. All in one single, sadistic day.
An Ironman triathlon: Alistair Brownlee’s first. At 6.30am in East Cork tomorrow, the 31-year-old Briton will take a daunting step into uncharted waters. “I’m pretty nervous about it but at the same time I’m interested to see what will happen,” he says at a cottage on the outskirts of Youghal, his home for the past few days. “There’s no way I can get around the fact that it’s new territory.”
His territory is Olympic distance triathlons — 1,500m swim, 40k cycle, 10k run — a realm he ruled with ruthless superiority for so many years. Two-time world champion, four-time European champion, double Olympic gold medallist – the best there’s ever been.
A guy who could stick with the best triathletes in the water and on the bike then knife them on the run, churning out a 29-minute 10K on tired legs. His rivals never had an answer for that particular weapon, an explosive device only he could diffuse.
But Brownlee is still human, as prone to bad luck or ill-health as the rest of us. The injuries of recent years could have broken him if he wasn’t always that wired way, with a modesty marbling his words.
But of late uncertainty has been an unfamiliar companion. Brownlee looked back to his old self when winning the ITU World Cup in Italy and the European title in the Netherlands, but then came the ITU World Triathlon Series in Leeds, where he faded to 44th – distant, detached and disillusioned.
He told the BBC afterwards he “might retire” and, while that was just the emotions talking, his future is still uncertain. Brownlee is at a crossroads: Commit to chasing a third Olympic gold in Tokyo next year or take his talents full-time to the Ironman, trying to fulfil a lifelong dream of winning the World Championship in Hawaii.
“That’s the million dollar question,” he says.
I’m really not sure at the moment. I never thought I’d go to the Olympics, never mind being lucky enough to go three times and win two gold medals so I feel on that tally I did way better than I expected.
“Wouldn’t it be fantastic to experience it a fourth time and be in with a shot of winning again? But it’s really hard and that’s the battle that goes on. If I go, I want to be in with a shot of winning a medal, but I’m balancing that with wanting to move on and do longer stuff.”
The Olympics has an obvious attraction, the one time the general public have their antenna tuned to his achievements. It’s a chance to solidify his name among the sporting greats, to put the bar into unreachable territory. But Brownlee is also keen to explore the Ironman before time or injuries rob him of his gifts.
“The Ironman is something that’s captivated me for as long as I can remember,” he says. “I did my first triathlon when I was eight and I knew about triathlons because I had an uncle who did Ironmans. Right from the start, I knew about Hawaii being this really important race.”
The Ironman World Championships are in October, and Brownlee has that in his mind when he speaks of his goal for tomorrow’s race.
“To finish would be fantastic, but I know winning it would get me to Hawaii,” he says. “I think whatever happens, I get to experience what it’s like and that’s really important. I’ve always enjoyed racing in Ireland: you get great crowds and great atmosphere.”
Moving from a two-hour race to an eight-hour one, that support from the side could prove crucial, though Brownlee is well-versed in the monotony of mammoth training days. Preparing for this hasn’t seen him alter his regimen: it’s still 30 to 35 hours of hard graft each week.
“Between six and seven hours of swimming, 15 to 20 hours of cycling and eight to 10 hours of running,” he says. “It doesn’t seem mega hard for me; I’ve done it a lot over a long period of time now so it’s just life.”
While each passing year builds another block of endurance, it also blunts his powers of recovery.
“Getting older it’s definitely different,” he admits. “You don’t jump out of bed in the morning and go straight for a run, but there are positives: I can handle more volume and my endurance stuff is probably better than it ever has been. You have good and bad months.” One thing that has never changed is the fire
“Motivation is something I’ve never struggled with as long as the body is good and I’ve got people to train with. Get me into a training session and I’m going to be competitive and push it. To be honest, long after I retire from professional sport, I’ll still be going out training and enjoying it.”
He thinks back to how things have changed since he started, the way he and younger brother Jonny — an Olympic bronze medallist in 2012 and silver medallist in 2016 — have helped triathlon enter the public consciousness in Britain.
Back home in Leeds, the well-wishers offer their goodwill daily, many of them cracking jokes about the time Alistair shunned a chance to win a World Series event in Mexico to help Jonny over the line, a moment that went viral on social media.
“They say: ‘which one of you two needs carrying over the road?’” he laughs. “Never in a million years did I think that being a triathlete, I’d get recognised on the street. You definitely don’t go into the sport to be famous, but it’s one of the big differences today.
I started as a kid and no one knew what triathlon was and now people at home people say, ‘we have a friend who’s done one’ or ‘we watched you race last weekend’ and they know what’s coming up. To be on the wave of that change has been super special.”
Brownlee has raced in Ireland a few times before: the European Triathlon Championships in Athlone, the Great Ireland Run in Dublin, the European U-23 Cross Country Championships in Santry. But this time it has a different feel. Nothing is expected, but everything feels possible.
“Every time I step on the line in an Olympic distance race, whether I’m fit or not, ready or not, there’s an enormous amount of pressure so being here without that pressure is really nice,” he says.
At the same time, it’s still a triathlon and people expect me to perform. It’s the oldest adage in sport: the most significant pressure is that you put on yourself and I always put pressure on myself to perform.
He will tackle tomorrow’s race in a different style, with only one eye on his competitors and the other on his heart rate or power meter. “The thing about these races is they become very personal – managing yourself and not getting too caught up in what’s around you.”
After a string of injuries last year, Brownlee worked harder than ever in the winter to bulletproof his body for the months ahead. “It was a really tough few years with various things but I haven’t had anything wrong for a while, touch wood,” he says.
The race in Leeds earlier this month remains a mystery: Brownlee felt good the week of it but things went awry on the day.
“That was the really frustrating thing. It was one of those days where you couldn’t put a finger on what was going on. I’d had such a good performance the week before at the European Champs and I’d have much preferred to have that performance in my home race in Leeds.”
Best way to get over all that, he knows, is to get back out there. And so he finds himself in Youghal this weekend, ready to go again, taking on the likes of Marino Vanhoenacker, the former Ironman world record holder from Belgium, and Victor Del Corral of Spain.
“It is an experiment,” he admits. “I definitely would have liked to have done a bit more. I haven’t prepared for this specifically but I’ve done endurance training for 20 years. It might turn out well. It might not.”
He knows other questions will soon return, inside his head and elsewhere, but Brownlee will be a lot closer to finding some answers once he puts his hand in this fire and sees how it goes.
And as for that crucial question, whether he’ll become a full-time Ironman or decide to chase a third Olympic gold? “I’ll see on Sunday evening,” he says with a laugh.