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.