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Rivalry between Ironman world champions renewed by Armstrong

It amounted to a kind of bait and switch. Lance Armstrong defibrillated the triathlon universe earlier this year by announcing his intention to race in the Ironman World Championships in Kona, coming up this Saturday, Oct. 13. Interest in the sport spiked, as did the passions of a pair of Australians who've dominated this event for the last five years.

Craig (Crowie) Alexander won this tropical sufferfest in 2011, '09 and '08; Chris (Macca) McCormack, his tart-tongued nemesis, crossed the line first in 2010 and '07. Both men had spent enough time baking on the lava fields of Kona, punching through whipping crosswinds on the 112-mile bike leg -- an ordeal bookended by the 2.4-mile (often roughwater) swim and, oh yeah, a marathon. Independently, the Aussies had decided to they were finished with this race for this lifetime.

Then Lance got in the game.

"I was thinking, well hold on, champ, you may be the greatest cyclist ever, but this is my house," says McCormack. "I saw it as a defense of my sport. Because if this man came along and won this race, and I wasn't involved, and beat guys that I had wars with, then it makes what I've done look Mickey Mouse. So I put my hand up and said, 'If you're racing, mate, I'm racing.'"

Crowie, likewise, was finished with Kona, after five times around the island. "It's such a big commitment, you make so many sacrifices," he says. He was out, until he heard Armstrong was in. "That was the carrot that got me to sign on for another year. Lance would've added a lot of juice to the race, brought a lot of new eyes to the event. It would have been something special to be a part of."

Would have been. As perhaps you've heard by now, Lance isn't going to be able to make it this year. When the U.S. Anti Doping Agency sent the Texan a 15-page charging letter last June, the World Triathlon Corporation, which owns the Ironman series, suspended him from its events "pending further review."

"That was a fizzer," says Macca, pronouncing the word fizzah. "I really wanted to be on his hit list. I wanted to be the most annoying person in his life for a little while."

Instead he must be content with being the most annoying person in Alexander's life. And that's only a mild exaggeration. Despite the fact that they are countrymen and teammates for Specialized, there is little affection between them. Two years ago, McCormack approached a number of his professional peers, convincing them to jack up the pace on the bike -- the better to drop Crowie, who is average on that leg, but who is also the fastest marathoner in the 35-year history of this race. The plan worked: Alexander was exposed on the bike, started the run some ten minutes behind McCormack and never caught him.

"I was pissed," Alexander recalls. "I don't understand how that tactic can work in an individual sport." Still, he congratulated Macca on his impressive victory. "I respect what he's done," he says.

But are they friends? "We all race each other," Alexander said. "You're better friends with some than others. Outside of racing, I haven't had a lot to do with Chris the last couple of years."

The truth is, Alexander owes his fellow Aussie a debt of gratitude. Because his marathon was so strong, Crowie felt little need to upgrade his bike, which Macca charitably described as "a pig." Alexander seemed uninterested in the marginal gains available from using the fastest wheels, on the most aerodynamic frame. He saw no need for the aero helmets favored by everyone else in the lead group. He was a leg-shaving Luddite.

It took that loss to McCormack to jolt Alexander into action. He signed with Specialized, and got in the wind tunnel. At Kona last year, rocking an aero-helmet and riding a Specialized Shiv, a time trial bike designed specifically for triathletes, he slaughtered his personal best on that leg, covering those wind-raked 112 miles in 4:24:05, thirteen minutes faster than his previous best time. His winning time of 8:03:56 broke the course record.

Macca, of course, wasn't there: he'd taken the year off to devote himself to shorter races, in hopes of competing for Australia at the London Olympics. No dice. He was named an alternate.

Actually, he was on Kona that day, but as a TV analyst. As Alexander came streaking past the turnaround point on the bike leg, recalls Specialized aerodynamics manager Mark Cote, "Macca comes over all fired up and says, 'I am SO f****** racing next year!"

At 5'11", 175, McCormack is not a natural for the Ironman, a humid slog favoring smaller athletes. (Crowie measures at 5'11', 150.) Kona humbled him for years. He switched to Ironman races almost out of boredom. Competing at shorter, Olympic-distance tris from 1996 to '02, he become ridiculously dominant. The time had come to move up to the Ironman, where surely his dominance would continue?

Wrong. His early attempts at Kona were exercises in ignominy. He failed to finish in 2002, placed 59th in '03 and abandoned the following year, as well. That time, with just seven miles left to run, he was a mess. He'd been in agony for an hour. So he stepped into a car. But he wasn't finished suffering.

In the front, passenger seat was his hero and idol, Mark Allen, who'd won this race six times. "I jumped in and said, 'Can we just go home?'" Macca recalls. "And Mark said, 'No, we're gonna watch this race unfold.' I watched [the eventual winner] Peter Reid come in, and the guys behind him. And I realized, everybody's in agony, everybody's falling apart, everybody's having their own war."

McCormack routinely beat Reid in other races, and it was deeply frustrating forMcCormack to watch him win the Super Bowl of triathlon. "I was undefeated all year, I'd come to Kona and fail. This happened three years running. People started to question me. I kept hearing, 'The guy's too big to win in Hawaii. He sweats too much, he can't compete here.'"

In the car with Allen, they'd seen an age-group racer a few miles out of town, scraped and bloodied, walking toward the transition area, bike slung over his shoulder. Recalls McCormack, "We pull over and ask him, 'You want a lift, mate?' And he says, 'No, no -- I'm finishing this race. It's Kona!'

"Then he looks in the backseat, and he says, 'Macca! You're out?'

"Here's this guy, epitomizing the spirit of Ironman racing, and I've pulled because it hurt too much. I felt two inches tall."

During their time in the car, Allen offered some advice: "You race too much," he said. "It's nice to win those European championships, but this is the one that matters. Lighten up your schedule."

By following Allen's advice, and paying far more attention to detail, he finished second in 2006, won the race in '07 and again in 2010 -- the year he persuaded the strong riders to drop the hammer on Alexander on the bike leg.

Crowie took his revenge last year, on that zooty new Shiv. Macca, meanwhile, spent the year in a vain attempt to make the Aussie Olympic team. That training, however, didn't go to waste. He smoked the field last July at the long course world championships in Spain, and will take the start at Kona's Kailua Pier feeling great. "I'm fast, I'm lean, I'm fresh, I'm rested, I can't wait to get out there and rock and roll."

With Armstrong out of the picture, the focus has returned to this pair of Aussies, who trained with the Texan in mind, but who may now find themselves side-eyeing one another for nine or so hours on Saturday. Can Macca and the stronger cyclists get a gap on Crowie during the bike leg? How big will it have to be? What if Alexander overtakes his countryman on Ali'i Drive, in the 141st mile of the race, and they end up sprinting it in? This could be the most epic Ironman, ever.

And we'll have Lance to thank for it.

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