2013 Ironman World Champion runner up Luke McKenzie Interview with Trizone

Whilst the Australian male favourite for this year’s Ironman World Championship did not win and another Australia who has won this championship three times did not have the fairy tale ending to his Ironman career, Australian Luke McKenzie stood up, made his a name for himself and will probably be one of the favourites to win in 2014.

Arguably McKenzie had the best all round race in the weekend but unfortunately was passed by the eventual winner at around the 16 mile mark. He hung on however with the belief that something could happen and he needed to be there ready to pounce.

He also dropped the most feared bike rider in the game in the later stages of the bike leg when most thought this would be impossible.

McKenzie has had a great year in 2013 with a win at Ironman Cairns and some other wins over some shorter distances. He puts a lot of his success down to a few changes including racing more shorter distance triathlons.

We spoke to Luke a few days after the his biggest result in his triathlon career and delved in to what made his year so successful.

Luke looked like he had won Kona as he ran past us on Ali'i drive as he approached the finishline
Luke looked like he had won Kona as he ran past us on Ali’i Drive as he approached the finishline

Trizone: Luke, congratulations on a spectacular result at the 2013 Ironman World Championship. This year has seen you produce some great results with a win at Ironman Cairns and now a second at Kona. You are racing a lot faster this year with some really fast run times in your shorter races. What has been behind the jump this year?

Luke McKenzie: I actually started to run less in my training but far more focused. I cut a lot of the slow/junk/filler runs I would do once or twice a week. This in addition to a big focus back on my cycling and building my running around that allowed me to ride well but also run to my potential. I have been working hard to get my speed back that I had as a junior and when I was competing on the ITU circuit in the early 2000’s and it’s definitely getting there again. The addition of the short course racing is something I thought would help my speed over Ironman and so far I am seeing great success from it. You can recover a lot quicker and faster from an Olympic distance race so I see a lot of benefit in racing them over doing more Ironman and 70.3 races.

TZ: You started the year off with three 70.3s with 7th, 9th and an 8th. Even though you didn’t podium you were still racing well and running fast. At Oceanside in particular the field was incredibly deep.  Interesting in this race Frederik Van Lierde finished just 9 seconds ahead of you in 8th place. Where were you at in terms of your plan for the year during these races?

Luke: The race in Oceanside although on paper didn’t look outstanding I walked away from that one very motivated and confident that my training was heading in the right direction. I was up amongst a lot of the guys that do well on the 70.3 circuit and I it was a good stepping stone into the Ironman Cairns preparation. I had a great day in St. George a month later again mixing it with the best 70.3 guys and given how hard that course is I was super happy with my bike and run. These races were really good confidence boosters going into Cairns and ultimately Kona because in both races I was mixing it with guys that are considered top Kona contenders like Freddy, Sebastian, Potts etc.

Luke came in to T2 in second position and set himself up for a podium finish
Luke came in to T2 in second position and set himself up for a podium finish

TZ: You came home to Australia and won Ironman Cairns. How did it feel to win an Ironman in your own country and did that change your outlook for the rest of the year?

Luke: I had an almost flawless build up to Ironman Cairns and I was on a bit of a personal mission to prove to myself I still had what it takes. I hadn’t won an Ironman in Australia and it had been 3 years since my last Ironman win in Brazil. I came to Cairns with a very aggressive mindset and I had a confidence in my ability to race for the win. After the race Chris McCormack said to me that if I raced like that in Kona I could win it and coming from him that is a huge complement. I walked away from Cairns with that belief and I wanted to attack Kona the same way.

TZ: After winning Ironman Cairns you raced the Philippines 5150 two weeks later and won that. You then raced the San Diego International Triathlon a week later and won that also. These were short and fast races. Why did you race these so soon after winning Cairns?

Luke: The Philippines came as a bit of a last minute decision because I had a good chance to qualify for the Hy-Vee Championships in Des Moines after my 4th at the Coral Coast 5150. It worked out well to return home to the US via Philippines so I decided why not? I didn’t do much train post Cairns while I was in Noosa but just kept the motor running. I landed back in San Diego after the Philippines race and a friend mentioned I should race the short San Diego International (1/30/10). I hadn’t trained all week and I was super tired from racing and travel but since I was living so close I thought again, why not? On race morning I rocked up to see Chris Foster and Luke Bell racking their bikes and I was thinking ‘Oh no, I am going to get my butt kicked’. I didn’t expect to see those guys there! I really surprised myself and had a strong race. I think the point-to-point run course worked in my favor there because after leading off the bike they didn’t get a chance to see me on the run.

TZ: You did some Xterra races in August with two 3rds. What is the appeal of these?

Luke: This was in the middle of my Kona training block in Bend, Oregon and I looked at the Xterra and the trail half marathon as a training weekend and a bit of fun. At this stage I had some aspirations to maybe do the Kona Ironman / Maui Xterra double at the end of the year and I needed a qualifier for it so Portland was an easy trip from Bend. It was a refreshing break from road triathlon and a good way to break up the six weeks of hard training I was in the middle of at altitude.

TZ: Next we saw you race Hy-Vee for 19th and the week later you finished 50th at the Ironman 70.3 World Champs. In both of these races your swim was slightly off. Did you know what was causing this? 

Luke: Good question. I still don’t know! I guess I let my swim slip a little while I was training in Bend because I wasn’t swimming in a squad and I was so bike/run focused in my training for those 6 weeks. I think I was just tired from that training block and combined with the travel from Oregon and then to Des Moines I didn’t feel myself. I just got absolutely beat up in the Des Moines swim and felt like I was swimming through mud. I was happy with my bike and run there but I know I could have done a lot better had I swim to my usual potential. Vegas I know I should never have even lined up. I know I was run down and tired and I really didn’t go to the race with the right mindset. I was really just making up the numbers and you can’t go to a World Championships with that frame of mind.

Along with Bevan Docherty I was the only guy racing the triple crown (Hy-Vee, Vegas, Kona) so I guess that was my motivation to race. It was a miserable morning and a had a bad swim again. I was chasing from the start and blow myself up early trying to get back to the pack. 30km into the ride I was toast, freezing cold (yes, in Vegas) but I didn’t want to pull the pin just because I was having a bad day. I saw Luke Bell and a few other guys behind me after the turn around and decided to make the most of a training day. Unfortunately the exact same thing happened in 2011 but I knew I was able to turn it around for Kona so it was a little bit of de ja vu. It was fun to run with Belly and get the most out of it. Our sponsors and supporters appreciated us not throwing in the towel. That day actually inspired the Go Luke Go Luke trucker hats you saw in Kona!

TZ: After Vegas it was head down and your focus was 100% on Kona. Was there any aspect of your racing that you put more emphasis on initially?

Luke: I got to Kona a few weeks early and I instantly felt like a different athlete. I was waking up fresh every morning and my training started to click. I did a heavy swim block and started to feel stronger in the water and I felt great on my rides and runs. The motivation was back and I was determined to have a big result. I did some training with Crowie and we did a hard bike/run brick two weeks out from race day. I dropped him in the last part of the bike and then we ran off the bike together and I outrun him with a 33.45 10km off the bike (faster than my split in Hy-Vee). When we finished that session he looked me in the eye and said “mate, you can win this”.

I knew on race day my bike leg was going to be my card to play. It was about having the energy in the tank to work the last 60km and then having the mental strength to push hard on the run with a bunch of guys coming at me hard. I don’t think I could have dreamt of a better bike ride as I just got stronger and stronger. In the end I let Andrew Starkyowicz go with about 10km left as he really started pushing a little too hard. He was obviously going for the bike course record but I always had my sights set on the finish.

TZ: At the World Ironman Championship you showed the world that Sebastian Kienle was not unbeatable on the bike. You have always been one of the stronger cyclists in the sport and have ridden at the front in Kona before. Was the race plan to take it to Kienle and make him work as hard as you could on the bike?

Luke: No the race plan was to race to my capabilities. Sebi doesn’t ride to power like I do so he tends to fluctuate his effort a little more than me. I conserved a lot of energy early on the bike which allowed me to go with Seb as we climbed Hawi. We were able to get across to Starky at the Spencer Hill climb (around 120km) but I think the early effort to bridge up the 3 minutes he was down out of the water hurt Sebastian at this point and he wasn’t able to hold on. I still think Starky and Sebi had the most impressive rides of the day for different reasons I just rode it the best tactically. We all basically ended up with a similar time (4.22) even though we all rode it totally different.

TZ: How did your race plan differ from last year?

Luke: Last year I was too aggressive early. I was leading after 10km on the bike and didn’t surrender the lead till about 70km so I wasted a lot of energy early. In hindsight I attacked it too hard and I didn’t make the crucial break up Spencer Hill when Pete, Freddy, Dirk and Faris pulled away and left me in no mans land and 7th off the bike just in front of some strong runners. This year I knew I needed to conserve more and be ready to ride that last 60km the strongest much like I did in 2011 when I was 2nd off the bike.

TZ: During the later stages of the run did you feel you could pull Frederik Van Lierde back?

Luke: I was trying! Crowie physically stopped running and yelled at me “you gotta suffer if you want to win”. I just kept telling myself that as we headed back to town. I held him at 45-60 seconds for a long time but I didn’t have another gear at that point to make time back. I just always told myself to keep the pressure on in case he was vulnerable to a meltdown. You just never know in Kona till you get to the line.

TZ: What did you do training wise to get you to the level you were at last Saturday? Is there anything you can share with the world of age groupers?

Luke: I feel I trained a lot smarter this season and with more purpose. I didn’t mindlessly do any training just because I thought I needed it. I was a lot better prepared and planned my training with the mindset to be on form in Kona. I paid of lot more attention to the little 2% this year too. I ate well, I did my strength training in the gym without fail and with more conviction than ever before. I sacrificed a lot of my social life and made sure I was getting good recovery. I looked at the technical side of things a lot closer and refined my aero position, worked on a skin suit (which you saw me race in) and that all added up on Saturday.

TZ: What does this second place at Hawaii mean for you?

Luke: It means the years of sacrifice and hard work are paying off. I always said I haven’t raced to my potential in Hawaii and it feels good to have a race I knew I was capable of producing. You have to keep believing you have the ability to win it. I showed myself that on Saturday.

TZ: You base yourself in San Diego when not in Australia. How did you end up there in the first place and what is the appeal of living and training there?

Luke: Moving to the US full time was something I always wanted to do. At the beginning of the year Amanda and I separated and she moved back to Sydney and so much of my life in Noosa was connected to us living there so I wanted a change. I applied for my Visa to live in the states and choose San Diego because I feel more at home there than anywhere else in the states. I found a place just across the road from the beach so I can still jump in the ocean when I want which is important to me. I have a lot of friends and sponsors there so it affords me a great support network. Being single at the time that really helped. Living in the US is going to allow me to work closer with my sponsors and means less travel. Australia will always be home and I will always come home to do a few races but right now I am enjoying the change in lifestyle and pursuing opportunities in the USA.

TZ: Do you have an idea of what races you will do in 2014?

Luke: I had dinner with Crowie last night and talked about how to approach 2014. Coming 2nd in Kona allows me to break the cycle of doing multiple Ironman races in a year to qualify for Kona. I haven’t really thought about which Ironman I will do but I know I will race less as I know the work load with sponsorship commitments is bound to increase. It’s going to be about arriving back in Kona in a years time fresh, prepared and ready. Much like this year I think the bulk of my racing will be Olympic distance events.

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