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Just when David McNamee thought he’d shaken off the dark horse tag for Kona, Alistair Brownlee decides to show up and steal the spotlight. Not that the Scot minds. Despite two third places in Hawaii and an ability to run a marathon in the heat that’s only surpassed by reigning champion Patrick Lange, his demeanour doesn’t change. McNamee just goes about his business and, come October, works his way through the field and onto the podium.
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His success on the Big Island has come as little surprise to two former coaches. “Dave was always somebody who could recover well between sessions and was looking to do more,” says Malcolm Brown, who coached McNamee in Leeds during his ITU days. “To win at ITU level, you really had to commit from the B of the bang, but Dave
wanted to measure his energy expenditure over the race, which I thought was potentially a massive asset at long distance.”
Joel Filliol, McNamee’s coach when he first stepped up to long-course racing in 2015, concurs. “He has a remarkable ability to focus and work consistently for long periods on his own, which lends itself to Ironman-specific training. He’s also physically robust and his steady rhythm – that threshold diesel pace – is perfect for Ironman. Taking the next step is possible. It’s about being closer to the front, off the bike, which is no secret.”
Not least to McNamee himself, and it’s partly why, away from the cameras that follow stronger cyclists such as Australia’s Cameron Wurf and Germany Jan Frodeno at the front of the race, the 31-year-old also retains such a low profile.
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In Ironman South Africa this year McNamee lost 29mins on the bike to eventual champion Ben Hoffman; in Challenge Roth – albeit after suffering a puncture – it was 18mins to winner Andreas Dreitz. The flipside is that both times he ran 2:41hr marathons, a similar pattern to the last two Ironman world champs, where he’s run from outside the top 10 to the podium.
“Ironman South Africa was a bad start to the year, but at least that was me qualified for Hawaii,” he says. “In Roth, the puncture happened 90km into the race. I ride tubeless and the hole sealed eventually, but I lost too much pressure and rode 25-30km on 25psi.”
“The focus now is on bike strength, including gym work, where I’ve been a bit lax in the past. Raising FTP is good, but I need sheer leg strength at the end of an Ironman race. When I’m tired, the cadence drops. I can get away with it at 70.3, but not Ironman. I ride about 95rpm, but keeping it at that level throughout is difficult, especially in Hawaii when my heart rate is already high. In the past few years the cadence has fallen on the way home to 80-85, and that’s when the watts drop off.”
As for his rivals? “Patrick [Lange] rode very strong in Hawaii last year – people overlook that. He’ll run low 2:40s no matter what. I feel like I’m in shape to run 2:42-2:43, so it’s about focusing to stay in the top 10 on bike.
“Jan [Frodeno] changes the race a little because he’s a very strong rider and Seb [Kienle] will be a much bigger threat than he has been in the past couple of seasons. Alistair [Brownlee] has won two Olympic golds, but it’s a very different sport. I think Javier [Gomez] realised that last year. I’m sure he’ll be going to try and win.
After all, you don’t win two Olympic golds and turn up
just to complete.”
As Brown suggests, McNamee sees his own strength as his ability to recover quickly, even within the race. “Because I’m less of a strength athlete, but more aerobically conditioned, it allows me to go over my limit at times. Performance-wise if I could put myself in a position that after the bike I could win, I’d see that as a success. That would open the possibility of going back for the next six-seven years and having a chance of taking it.