Weekend Interview: Alistair Brownlee - still hungry after all these years

Alistair Brownlee at Team England's triathlon squad announcement for the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games, at the Brownlee Triathlon Centre in Leeds. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)
Alistair Brownlee at Team England's triathlon squad announcement for the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games, at the Brownlee Triathlon Centre in Leeds. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)
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It is on these bitingly cold winter mornings, when the threat of an icy rain hovers overhead, that us mere mortals are set apart from the elite sports people among us.

When most of us yearn for the warmth of the indoors, our nation’s best don an extra layer, grit their teeth and head out into the elements.

Team England's triathlon squad for the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games. Back row from left, Jess Learmonth, Alistair Brownlee, Tom Bishop. Front Lizzie Tench. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

Team England's triathlon squad for the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games. Back row from left, Jess Learmonth, Alistair Brownlee, Tom Bishop. Front Lizzie Tench. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

That Alistair Brownlee is one such individual should come as no surprise. He has been doing it for years now, his love for stepping off his doorstep into the Yorkshire Dales for an afternoon’s bike ride or run, have long been documented.

But it is that longevity that begs the next question: how does he still have the inner drive to continue pushing himself on?

What motivates the two-time Olympic triathlon champion on a freezing Wednesday morning in late November, after dutifully spending two hours fulfilling media obligations, to reach for his bike and tear off into a headwind? Why, at 29, having won everything his sport has to offer for the best part of a decade, is he still pushing his body to the limit?

“You can’t motivate yourself with a goal day in, day out,” says Brownlee, fresh from a four-hour bike ride through the home county he cherishes.

I’ve said all along that these few years are about picking targets that motivate me and that I’ll enjoy doing.

Alistair Brownlee

“I see it as 90 per cent of the time you’re motivated by it’s what you do and it’s what you love.

“It’s as simple as I get up in the morning and go swimming – you get up and go to work.

“Some days I love going out on my bike, like today, I was going out and meeting a group, having a chat and a laugh with some of the other lads, and I’d say it’s like that 90 per cent of the time.

“But then 10 per cent of the time you definitely need to dig a bit deeper, and that’s why a target is so important.”

Team England's triathlon squad for the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games. Alistair Brownlee.''(Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

Team England's triathlon squad for the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games. Alistair Brownlee.''(Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

That next target is the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast of Australia in 2018, a surprise decision by the man who won gold at the previous Games in Glasgow three years ago, who since winning a second Olympic title in Rio has concentrated on testing himself at Ironman level.

Yet having proven to be more than capable in the expanded endurance event early on in 2017, a hip injury that forced him to have surgery in the summer ended his season and left him in need of a new challenge and fresh motivation.

“I’ve said all along that these few years are about picking targets that motivate me and that I’ll enjoy doing,” adds Brownlee, who revealed he is not far from full fitness after the surgery.

“Particulary when I was injured the Commonwealth Games stuck out as one of those events that I had the opportunity to do. When I sat there I thought ‘yeah, I’d like to be at a major Games’. I’m at a point in my career where I’ve been lucky enough to go to a few of them, and I know how special an occasion they can be, so that’s definitely part of it.

“I want to go out for it and train for it, so that motivated me to get in the gym and do what I need to do.

“Some of those gym sessions where I’m like ‘I don’t want to do another rep’ or ‘I don’t even want to go to the gym’, having that goal makes you think I want to get better, I need to get back in the gym and be on that startline for the Commonwealth Games.

“Sure, sometimes it’s a chore and it’s not what you want to do, but most of the time it’s not. It’s just what you do and you just get on with it.

“But the love for the sport is important, living in a fantastic place where I can just nip out in the afternoon and spend four hours on the bike in the Yorkshire Dales, watching the sun set on a beautiful winter’s evening; I still love that.”

He may already hold a Commonwealth gold medal, but added incentive for him next April is the fact that the Games triathlon will be decided over the shorter ‘Sprint’ distance which his younger brother Jonny has often come out on top in.

Alistair concedes that ground to a sibling who has been snapping at his heels over the Olympic distance for the best part of a decade, before adding that he has his fair share of wins over the shorter distance himself. “We’re definitely a bit more evenly matched,” he smiles.

“That’s one of the attractive things about it, it’s a new challenge.”

This return to his triathlon roots does not mean an end to the elder Brownlee’s Ironman ambitions. He will return to the longer distance after the Commonwealths to try and win the half-distance Ironman world championship next September.

After that, Brownlee will sit down and decide whether he goes for a third Olympic triathlon gold in Tokyo, or concentrates full-time on the Ironman.

“As far as Tokyo is concerned I’ll make that final call at the back end of next year, of whether it’s Tokyo full steam or concentrate on the longer stuff,” he says, before adding that the prospect of extending his record number of Olympic titles is not a motivation. “When I won in London I was the first person to own all the titles, then in Glasgow I was the first to win both the Olympic and Commonwealth, so there’s always a first somewhere.

“After a while you’re making it up a bit. In Tokyo I could be the first person to win three, but stuff like that doesn’t really motivate me that much.

“What does motivate me is the challenge of it. Deep down it’s beating the best people on the most important day of the year.

“The older I’ve got, the more I’ve realised that it’s that type of challenge that’s important to me.

“And the Ironman presents a big challenge for me for a number of reasons; having a world championship in Hawaii where it’s hot is a big one.

“I know I’ve got that endurance engine but learning new skills of pace structure and tactical racing in that form, nutrition, position on the bike aerodynamically; there’s quite a lot of interesting intricacies that you want to maximise on the day.

“I’m going to want to do that a to the best of my ability at some point – whether that is next year or post-Tokyo, I’m not sure. But I still want to have a crack at it.

“Ironman is a sport where you can be a bit older, and in triathlon terms, I’m probably a little older than my years suggest.”

If he is feeling a little long in the tooth then the fact his bike ride on this particular day starts and finishes at the Brownlee Centre – a state-of-the-art high-performance triathlon facility co-funded by the University of Leeds, British Triathlon and Leeds Beckett University – merely adds to the notion.

“You don’t quite know what to say about a centre named after you, it feels like the kind of thing that should be happening when you’re past it,” he laughs, though given all he and his brother have achieved in elevating a minority sport over the past decade, it was never going to be called anything else.

“But it’s a great honour, and I’ve been using it an awful lot over the past few months.

“It’s not just for elite triathletes either, it’s open to the public. One of the really impressive things is the women-only session. You’ve got women who wouldn’t ordinarily be riding bikes coming out for a cycle – that’s pretty cool.

“It’s a big deal for triathlon to have a centre that’s specific for the sport. None of us thought we’d get something like this five years ago.”