Cameron Wurf

Triathlon Magazine Canada - - FEATURES - BY KEVIN MACKIN­NON

An Olympic rower turned pro cy­clist turned Iron­man game-changer: in just a few short years, Aus­tralia’s Cameron Wurf has made a huge mark on the sport, but he’s just get­ting started.

“RO­MAIN, DO YOU NEED THIRD TO GET TO KONA?” CAM WURF ASKED RO­MAIN GUIL­LAUME AT IRON­MAN NICE LAST JUNE.“NO, EVEN IF I AM FOURTH I WILL BE GOOD.” “OK, THEN I’M GO­ING TO GO AHEAD.”

IT’S A CON­VER­SA­TION most peo­ple would hardly

ex­pect might hap­pen in the clos­ing stages of an Iron­man.

“Ro­main, do you need third to get to Kona?” Cam Wurf asked Ro­main Guil­laume at Iron­man Nice last June.

“No, even if I am fourth I will be good.”

“OK, then I’m go­ing to go ahead.”

As has come to be his modus operandi in vir­tu­ally ev­ery triathlon he com­petes in, Wurf had led off the bike in Nice. He’d hung tough through as much as the marathon as he could, but was fi­nally bumped out of the top three by Guil­laume, a home­town hero in Nice – not only is he French, but he spent a num­ber of years liv­ing and train­ing in the city.

But Wurf started to feel bet­ter and picked up his pace. He caught up to Guil­laume, but wanted to make sure he didn’t jeop­ar­dize his chances to qual­ify for the Iron­man World Cham­pi­onship. Af­ter his third-place fin­ish, Guil­laume and his par­ents found Wurf and thanked him for his sports­man­ship.

Wurf went right from that podium fin­ish in Nice to a train­ing camp with Team Sky, the cy­cling team that has come to dom­i­nate the world of cy­cling over the last decade. While Wurf, a fomer pro cy­clist with the Liquigas team, never rode for Sky, his coach, Tim Ger­ret­son is coaches the Sky team.

On the Wed­nes­day af­ter his third-place fin­ish, Wurf did a six-hour bike ride through the Alps with the mem­bers of the Sky team pre­par­ing for the up­com­ing Tour de France. From there he jour­neyed to Bavaria in the south of Ger­many to com­pete at Chal­lenge Roth. He pushed Se­bas­tian Kienle to the limit there, drop­ping the Ger­man uber-biker 150 km into the bike and would even­tu­ally fin­ish fifth in the com­pet­i­tive Roth field.

It was just one of a sum­mer filled with crazy train­ing weeks for Wurf, who raced at Iron­man South Africa, Chal­lenge Venice, Chal­lenge Salou, the Nice/Roth dou­ble and fol­lowed that up with an­other top fin­ish at Iron­man Zurich at the end of July. Au­gust was spent train­ing, al­low­ing Wurf to en­ter Chal­lenge Almere with­out a ton of com­pe­ti­tion in his legs. Once again he led off the bike, then fin­ished the first half-marathon in 1:21 be­fore “shut­ting things down” to save both phys­i­cal and emo­tional en­ergy for Kona, and even­tu­ally fin­ish­ing sec­ond.

That is why, head­ing into last year’s Iron­man World Cham­pi­onship, I felt that Cameron Wurf, a for­mer row­ing world cham­pion and Olympic rower for Aus­tralia, the for­mer pro cy­clist who turned to triathon just three years ago, would be a game changer in Kona. That run per­for­mance in Almere sig­nalled that the con­tenders in Kona weren’t go­ing to be able to let the Aussie get too far ahead off the bike – he was send­ing a mes­sage that he wasn’t likely to run a 3:08 marathon, like he had done last year af­ter setting a new bike course record on the Big Is­land. This year a three-hour ef­fort, or even less, was a very real pos­si­bil­ity.

Cre­at­ing a strat­egy around Wurf was go­ing to be most crit­i­cal for Cana­dian Lionel San­ders and Kienle, too. Last year the pair stayed with Wurf for much of the bike. Both were un­able to stay with Wurf, but both would also shat­ter the pre­vi­ous course record by about four min­utes, but the ef­fort of try­ing to stay with Wurf would cost them the over­all cham­pi­onship ti­tle – Kienle would even­tu­ally fin­ish fourth and San­ders fin­ished a heart-brak­ing sec­ond, be­ing passed by Ger­many’s su­per-run­ner, Pa­trick Lange, with just a few kilo­me­tres left in the marathon.

So how did a 30-year-old who did his first

triathlon just three years ago sud­denly be­come a “game-changer” at the Iron­man World Cham­pi­onship? Ask Cameron Wurf and you’ll learn that he’d been work­ing his way to that po­si­tion since he was 14.

Lord Howe Is­land is a “tiny lit­tle is­land” on the Great Bar­rier Reef. There were 300 peo­ple who lived on the is­land when Wurf was grow­ing up – 30 of them were at his school. One of his school­mates? Tim Reed, the man who out­sprinted Se­bas­tian Kienle to take the Iron­man 70.3 World Cham­pi­onship in 2016 on Aus­tralia’s Sun­shine Coast. Like so many Aus­tralian kids, Reed and Wurf grew up do­ing a va­ri­ety of sports, in­clud­ing, as is the norm for so many kids in Aus­tralia, swim­ming and surf-life­sav­ing.

Wurf moved to Tas­ma­nia to go to high school and con­tin­ued to do as many sports as he could: Aus­tralian Rules Foot­ball, golf, swim­ming, row­ing – ev­ery­thing he could fit into a busy sched­ule. His dad, who was an avid diver, spent a lot of time in the weight room.

“If you’re go­ing to be an ath­lete you need a strong foun­da­tion,” Wurf’s dad told him. “Treat the whole body as im­por­tant.”

Start­ing at 14, Wurf was in the gym five days a week, in ad­di­tion to his other sports train­ing. On the week­ends he put in six and seven hour days of train­ing in a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent sports. At 15 he de­cided he wanted to go to the Olympics. By the time he was 17 he had made row­ing his main fo­cus.

“I al­ways felt like I trained way harder than ev­ery­one else, but I didn’t get the same re­sults,” Wurf says. So he de­cided to start work­ing with an Ital­ian coach based in West­ern Aus­tralia, An­to­nio Moro­gio­vanni, who was fa­mous for “break­ing ath­letes:”

“It was a case of un­lock­ing all that work I’d done.”

Wurf won the world ti­tle in 2003 and was one of the first Aus­tralian row­ers to qual­ify for the 2004 Olympics.

Af­ter a lack­lus­tre per­for­mance in Athens, Wurf took on a new sport­ing chal­lenge, cy­cling.

Within a few years he was in Europe, rac­ing for Liquigas and, once again, train­ing harder than ev­ery­one else, but not see­ing the same re­sults as some of his team­mates and com­peti­tors.

He broke Fabian Can­cel­lara’s power records in test­ing, Ivan Basso’s climb­ing records in the moun­tains, but never got the big wins they’ve be­come fa­mous for. By 2014 he’d had enough.

“I didn’t want my ca­reer to be un­der­achiev­ing,” Wurf says. “I felt that I should put that ef­fort into some­thing else. That’s when I tried to step away.”

While Wurf wasn’t rac­ing for a team, he re­mained an am­bas­sador for Can­non­dale. In 2015, while tak­ing part in a Grand Fondo in Aspen, he found him­self out on a so­cial ride with Lance Arm­strong.

“Just re­mem­ber, you can have lots of fun when your 52,” Arm­strong said. “Don’t waste your life.”

Wurf took that mes­sage in stride. With his back­ground in a va­ri­ety of sports, he fig­ured he should try a triathlon. He con­tacted the folks at Can­non­dale and asked if they knew of any Iron­man races he could look to com­pete in. The next one on the cal­en­dar was Whistler – two weeks away. With next to no train­ing un­der his belt, he raced there and would earn him­self a Kona spot.

Two weeks af­ter the race in Whistler he broke his foot. The cast came off a cou­ple of weeks be­fore the world cham­pi­onship, but Wurf raced on the Big Is­land any­way.

START­ING AT 14, WURF WAS IN THE GYM FIVE DAYS A WEEK, IN AD­DI­TION TO HIS OTHER SPORTS TRAIN­ING.

ON THE WEEK­ENDS HE PUT IN SIX AND SEVEN HOUR DAYS OF TRAIN­ING IN A VA­RI­ETY OF DIF­FER­ENT SPORTS.

“I AM SUCH A DIF­FER­ENT ATH­LETE TO ANY OF THESE GUYS. I HAVE NOT HAD ANY­WHERE NEAR A SIM­I­LAR SPORT­ING BACK­GROUND TO ANY­ONE.”

He had found his next sport­ing chal­lenge.

2016 was, in Wurf’s words, “a dis­as­ter – I thought I knew ev­ery­thing.” He spent much of the year deal­ing with run­ning in­juries – the down­side of hav­ing an in­cred­i­ble aer­o­bic en­gine honed in non weight-bear­ing sports like row­ing and cy­cling, then sud­denly start­ing to do a lot of run­ning.

At the end of that year, Wurf headed to Iron­man Ari­zona with the goal of see­ing if he could come off the bike ahead of Fro­deno’s world record splits. He achieved that goal, but found that he had lost time on the bike to San­ders, who fol­lowed his faster bike time with a 2:40 marathon, con­sid­er­ably faster than Wurf man­aged on the day. It was an eye­opener – Wurf re­al­ized that if he wanted to com­pete with the likes of San­ders and Fro­deno he would need to “bike bet­ter than I ever had be­fore, be­come a world-class swimmer and be­come as close to a world-class run­ner as I could. I didn’t think that was pos­si­ble.”

He re­turned to Aus­tralia and was try­ing to fig­ure out what his next plan should be when he got a call from Sky coach Tim Ger­ri­son, who had known Wurf from early on in his sports ca­reer as a row­ing coach in Aus­tralia. Ger­ri­son had been the sports phys­i­ol­o­gist for Aus­tralia’s Olympic swim team in 2004 and Great Bri­tain’s Olympic swim team in 2008 be­fore start­ing up the Sky pro­gram. In early Jan­uary he found him­self in need of a train­ing part­ner for mul­ti­ple Tour de France cham­pion Chris Froome. He’d heard that Wurf was in good shape.

For a cou­ple of weeks Wurf rode with Froome, rid­ing 12 to 14 m be­hind the English speed­ster to sim­u­late his triathlon train­ing. Even­tu­ally he and Ger­ri­son talked about coach­ing. Ger­ri­son said the big goal for 2017 needed to be get­ting to Kona. He felt the Sky team had learned so much from their first Tour de France, even though it hadn’t gone well, that it ended up lead­ing to the team’s suc­cess in the fol­low­ing years. (Sky has won all but one of the last eight tours.)

Wurf made it to Kona. Just over a month out from the race he won Iron­man Wales, con­sid­ered by many to be one of the tough­est Iron­man races in the world.

His plan in Kona was sim­ple – he needed to get to the front of the race to see how the best raced. Af­ter the “worst swim of his life” he found him­self rid­ing with Kienle and San­ders.

“I led that race out on the run,” he said. “I heard Lionel breath­ing. I heard Sebi breath­ing. I saw Pa­trick com­ing. It’s a very dif­fer­ent look­ing race at the front. Based on what we learnt there we had a plan for this year. [I needed] more ex­pe­ri­ence run­ning. More ex­pe­ri­ence rac­ing.”

The plan was very spe­cific to Wurf and al­most com­pletely against nor­mal triathlon wis­dom. It in­cluded all those full-dis­tance races. It in­cluded train­ing camps with the Sky team.

“Chas­ing those guys up a moun­tain, then run­ning 30 km – that’s hard.”

The train­ing reg­i­men, along with the as­so­ci­a­tion with Sky, of­ten leads to ques­tion­ing looks and shoul­der shrugs from other ath­letes. Froome spent much of the year deal­ing with the down­side of last year’s pos­i­tive test for an ex­cess amount of salbu­ta­mol in his sys­tem, but was cleared by the UCI in time to ride the Tour de France this year. Wurf has been tested nu­mer­ous times both in and out of com­pe­ti­tion through­out his ca­reer and has never had a pos­i­tive test, so there is no ev­i­dence to back up the ques­tions. He and Ger­ri­son put to­gether their chal­leng­ing train­ing and rac­ing plan be­cause Wurf comes to the sport with a unique back­ground.

“I am such a dif­fer­ent ath­lete to any of these guys,” Wurf says. “I have not had any­where near a sim­i­lar sport­ing back­ground to any­one.

The row­ing back­ground – I had an en­gine that for six min­utes could suf­fer more than most peo­ple. In cy­cling you have to race for three weeks, day af­ter day. I’m used to train­ing and rac­ing tired. One of the big key ar­eas for run­ning in an Iron­man was run­ning on tired legs. We were try­ing to do things like track ses­sions and long runs and what­ever triath­letes do. But that’s not what hap­pens in the race. We flipped things on their head – the only way I’ll run is if I’ve ab­so­lutely de­stroyed my­self on the bike. Be­cause I am train­ing to run as fast as I can af­ter I’ve rid­den my bike as fast as I can.”

All those six and seven hour train­ing days as a teenager – they helped him pre­pare for all this, too.

The only down­side with the plan this year? The eas­i­est race con­di­tions ever seen on the Big Is­land. Go­ing into the world cham­pi­onship, Wurf was clear on how he wanted things to de­velop: “I want the race to be as hard as pos­si­ble,” he said. “I want ev­ery­one to be on their limit from the gun.”

Kienle, who had used Chal­lenge Roth as an op­por­tu­nity to test out his Kona race plan – rid­ing with Wurf un­til he knew it was time to back off enough to still be able to run a fast marathon – was never in the mix af­ter a flat in tran­si­tion ky­boshed his race plans. San­ders, who had been strug­gling with his form since Au­gust, would never be a fac­tor in the race.

Wurf rode his way to the front, drop­ping Amer­i­can su­per-cy­clist An­drew Starykow­icz in the process and setting a new bike course record of 4:09. He wasn’t able to stretch the field, enough, though, and his 3:01 marathon would net him eighth. An im­prove­ment. A good re­sult for a man in just his third year in the sport. But not what he’s aim­ing for.

Cameron Wurf wasn’t quite the game changer at last year’s Iron­man World Cham­pi­onship that I had fore­seen. Had the con­di­tions been tougher, that might have been dif­fer­ent. Had Wurf been able to du­pli­cate his marathon run from Chal­lenge Almere, things would have been dif­fer­ent, too. But a sub-2:50 marathon in cool con­di­tions in Hol­land does not equate to a sim­i­lar run in Hawaii’s heat and hu­mid­ity.

But, if he con­tin­ues his im­pres­sive im­prove­ment, Cameron Wurf could very well be­come much more of a fac­tor in Kona some day. Un­less he de­cides its time to try and make a liv­ing in a fourth dif­fer­ent sport.

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