Kona: Luke McKenzie talks family support, setbacks and his prep for Kona

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Australian triathlete Luke McKenzie opens up to Trizone on how his family’s support helped him overcome a series of setbacks to take on the upcoming Ironman World Championships in Kona

“In the end, it comes down to who wants to push their bodies the furthest in the marathon,” says Luke McKenzie brightly, discussing his strategy for the upcoming Ironman World Championships in Kona.

“Mental strength in the marathon is really important. Everyone’s going to be setting a cracking pace; it’s the biggest race of the year! It comes down to getting your mind prepared, ready to go to battle with yourself,” he adds.

Luke should know. Kona 2016 will be his tenth world championships. Despite having been in the sport a long time though, he’s still learning. At Kona last year, Luke was only 100 km into the bike race when his body started rejecting his nutrition, and he just couldn’t continue.

“It was a big wake up call for me,” Luke emphasises. “It showed I’d neglected a big part of the race. After ten world champs I’d never had problems with my nutrition, but it showed I was just too blasé about it.”

Kona 2015 DNF Leads to a New Focus

Luke ended Kona 2015 with his first DNF, a significant blow for the athlete. Always the optimist, though, he took the lesson from the race and ran with it, spending the past twelve months focusing heavily on his nutrition.

Everyone wants to be aerodynamic in this sport, but if your nutrition isn’t going right, you might as well be out there on a tricycle

With this new focus, Luke gained Gatorade as a sponsor and spent time at the Gatorade sports institute in Chicago. Looking at everything from sweat rate composition to race nutrition, Luke is adamant the knowledge he’s learned has really shaped him as an athlete this year. “It’s still surprising to me what you can learn after doing the sport for so long. Kona is a long race, so there’s just so much you can do to improve your performance.”

DNF to Fastest Ironman in Australia

Always eager to create a positive out of a downturn, Luke took advantage of not finishing Kona 2015 and launched a huge new record in Busselton 2016.

“It was the first time since 2004 [that] I could go to WA without having the full race from Hawaii in my legs,” says Luke. “It’s hard to race your best after a full length at Kona. I knew I could bounce back from the DNF and I needed to prove to myself I could produce a good result.”

To say Luke achieved a good result is putting it mildly, and then some. He smashed through the eight hour mark, finishing twenty minutes ahead of the rest with a lightning fast speed of 7:55:57.

“I was there to attack it and produce a result,” he says. “I didn’t just want to win, I wanted to set the fastest time and really get in under eight hours.”

This incredible result was down to Luke’s huge mental stamina during the race. He was determined to keep pushing, and keep attacking the field in the bike. The Busselton race is made up of four, 10 km loops which allows the athletes to run past their friends and family multiple times. Luke cites the support he received as a major motivator for achieving the new record. “Things just went my way on the day. It wasn’t that hot and I had great support,” Luke says humbly. It’s this support that Luke has now come to appreciate more than ever before.

Raising a Family Around Triathlons

“Now I’m racing as a family with Beth and our two year old daughter Wynne. I don’t know how long I could have kept racing at a professional level if it was just for myself. Now we do it together,” Luke says happily. His wife Beth Gerdes is also a champion ironman competitor, but this year is forced to sit out of Kona due to health reasons. “She’ll really want to be out there racing, but she’ll be giving me so much support and that’s what I’ll be drawing on,” adds Luke.

The close relationship between Beth and Luke includes a training partnership, which has proven incredibly valuable as Luke coaches himself.  But it’s not only the partnership with Beth that motivates him.

“At the end of the day, the racing and the wins are great but watching your little person grow up, plus the achievements of childhood and parenthood – these are the greatest memories. It’s definitely the best part of racing now as family,” says Luke.

📷 Image supplied

Luke’s own parents supported him in his journey to Kona 2016, from when he was just 14 and started racing in triathlons. Even now, he continues to bounce ideas off his dad – an Ironman coach in his own right.

A Champion at Thriving Following Setbacks

Perhaps it’s the incredible family unit Luke grew up with that has given him such a positive mindset. After flat tyres in Cairns, and more mechanical issues in Mooloolabah, Luke says combatting setbacks is all part of the sport. “You’ve gotta see the setbacks with positivity. I knew I was well prepared for those races, but it’s not just about that. You’ve gotta know you can manage it when it feels like it’s blowing up in your face.”

Kona 2016

With enough setbacks for one year, Luke now turns his attention to Kona. This athlete thrives at the front of the pack, and is always keen to set the pace. “I run well when I’m in the lead,” he says. “I can dictate my outcome the best there.” The incredibly result in Busselton is testament to this. When asked about his strengths, Luke is confident for Sunday.

“Everyone’s going to be suffering out there in the marathon,” he predicts. “You’ve just got to utilise your strengths. Mine is riding 180 kms really well. I don’t sit back and hold out for the marathon.”

Luke is charging full speed ahead for next Sunday’s world championships in Kona, with Beth and little Wynne by his side for support. Check back into Trizone for live updates on Luke’s progress as this huge race unfolds.

Shawn Smith

Shawn is a cyclist and tech geek at heart with a passion for new shiny things and a huge appetite for triathlon. He spends most of his time between managing two of Australia's best triathletes and a traditional corporate life. Unconventional, very blunt and straight to the point, he's continually searching for getting beyond the superficial and exploring what lies at the heart.