It was in late 2014 that Australia’s Cameron Wurf stepped away from WorldTour cycling and began his journey into the world of Ironman triathlon. Nearly three years later, Wurf has qualified, as a professional*, for the biggest event in that sport: the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii on October 14.
An Olympic rower before he became a cyclist, Wurf is set to become the first Australian to have reached the highest level in three different sports. In the days after Ironman Kalmar, where Wurf secured his qualification for Kona with second place, CyclingTips caught up with the Tasmanian to talk about the significance of qualifying for Kona, how he got there, training with Chris Froome and how a return to the WorldTour is on the cards.
CyclingTips: Congrats on qualifying for Kona! For readers that aren’t familiar with the world of Ironman, how significant is Kona?
Cam Wurf: Well, that’s triathlon’s version of the Tour de France. It happens every year … it’s the mythical triathlon race on the calendar. It’s the biggest one.
It’s why even the guys … Jan Frodeno who’s won it the last two years, he won the Olympics [ed. in 2008] but then he went to long-distance racing because it’s the Mecca of triathlon. And even the Brownlees now — Alistair Brownlee [ed. two-time Olympic gold medalist] has moved to long distance. He’s done some half-Ironmans this year and everyone knows that that means he’s on his way to Kona at some point. It’s a big one.
What’s involved in qualifying for Kona?
You need to be in the top 50 in the world by now, basically last weekend — last weekend was the last cut off. There’s obviously races all over the world throughout the qualification period which lasts 12 months, from August to August.
[Qualifying for the first time] is the biggest challenge because Kona is the biggest event so that’s worth the most amount of points. The next biggest events are the regional championships which I did in Cairns, the Asia-Pacific one, and that’s half the amount of points of Kona. The one that I did on the weekend is just an international … a country’s national race — Ironman Sweden. That’s half points again.
So of course the top 20 or so in Kona each year wipe out half the spots [ed. for the following year’s race] because they get so many points for that race. So as a newbie you’re really on the back foot and I was warned about that. As it turned out, chasing points was a bit of challenge, but we got there.
So was it a case of just going to a lot of races and trying to scramble for points where you could?
Basically. I sort of picked the harder ones. I did a couple of championship races where there were bigger points, realising that I’m probably not going to win but the points [are] higher as you fall down the field. I went to South Africa at the start of the year and then Cairns.
And then I’d planned to do the Nice Ironman, which is probably the one that suits me the most on the calendar, being quite a hard bike course. But I went to the Tour de France, which I guess you saw me at, and did a bit of work there with SBS, which was great. But in the cesspool of germs of cyclists I ended getting that tumbling tummy as well and when I got back to Nice to prepare I spent a couple of days on the porcelain throne myself. So that really wiped that out.
I ended up pulling out — I was actually in second, a comfortable second in Nice when I pulled out — but I just knew it was going to be an ugly day. So I had saved some energy, hoping I’d come good a week later for Zurich [Ironman Switzerland]. I started and while I was healthy I was just flat as a pancake. The energy was gone. But I did that more as a kickstarter of a training block because I was headed to Châtel to train with Chris [Froome] for a couple of weeks …
How did you get involved with Chris Froome?
I guess I’ve known him since days of racing. Early in the year Tim Kerrison [ed. Team Sky’s head coach] must have asked Richie [Porte] for my phone number or asked him what I was up to. Richie said that I was about and training and doing some stuff and that I was one of his favourite training partners.
So Tim rang me when Chris was in Australia and asked me to go and train with Chris. So we had a couple of weeks together there and we seemed to get along well and worked well as a bit of a team. Obviously at that point I was interested in the Ironmans and Tim was quite interested in that.
Obviously he was rowing coaching back when I won Worlds in that sport and he was coaching world championship crews as well. So we’ve had a long history together. And then obviously into cycling — there was even a couple of points where I was close to going to Team Sky.
So we’ve always been in contact. He gave me a call [and] I went up and trained with Chris — I guess I earned some sort of credibility there with whatever I was able to do out on the roads at Mount Tamborine. Tim’s been guiding me ever since and obviously Chris and I have remained very close. I went to Tenerife during the year with the team, had a couple of weeks up there.
Judging by your recent blog post, it sounds like Chris worked you pretty hard…
Yeah, well, every day with Chris is pretty hard. That is the thing about that guy. To be honest the training sessions haven’t changed much since January — he’s just relentless for the entire year. His focus and his sacrifice and the effort he puts in — every day is like a race. And that’s why I call myself a sparring partner because Tim literally makes us fight each other.
I mean we were doing two-man team time trials back in January on climbs just to try and drop each other. I think gone are the days where people say they ride their way into the season. Without the things that the old guard used to do, to all of a sudden go quite fast, the only way to do it now is you’ve got to be good all the time.
What have you learned from training with Chris? Are there particular things he does that have stuck with you?
Oh absolutely. I mean for starters he’s all over the road, bumping into you, knocking you into cars and all sorts of things. Even I’ve started doing that — I’ll be chatting away and I’ll drift onto the other side of the road and he’ll be like ‘Shit, Wurfy, move over’.
But yeah, the key thing is he just literally trains like he races. It’s very specific, very simulated. And [he has] a great team around him — not a huge team, but a trusted team and a reliable group of people that put in just as much to their job as what he puts into his. And that gives you the accountability to perform.
I kind of tried to allude to that in my blog: the support they’ve given me over the course of this year made me, particularly in this last few weeks, crucial weeks, made me go to Sweden [and] I just couldn’t bear to let that down. You see the team helpers, the soigneurs, the mechanics, Tim Kerrison — everyone putting in everything they can to make you the best you can be. And that just resonates in the way you race. You just want to go out there and execute.
Chris said to me before I went [to Sweden] he said “Mate, just go and do exactly what you can do in this race and you’re going to be fine. You don’t have to do any more.” And that’s all I thought of. I had my numbers, we had the figures, we had stats, knew what I was capable of and didn’t do a lick more. It was nothing more than a training session and it’s one of the best sporting performances I’ve ever put together myself.
So you’re obviously very handy on the bike. How do you go in the swim and the run?
Well I’ve been a bit mixed in the swim. At the start of the year Tim had me swimming with Denis Cotterell [ed. legendary Australian swimming coach] up on the Gold Coast for an extended period. So I was training with Sun Yang [ed. 200m gold medalist at the Rio Olympics and current 1,500m world record holder].
So I trained not beside Sun Yang — he does about two laps to my half a lap — the first time I sort of learnt to swim on feet was with Sun Yang. He was doing 200-metre intervals and Denis would tell me to start with him and just go as hard as I could to hold his feet, which was for about 15 metres. Actually probably not even, it’s just that I had a decent push off.
And then he told me to wait at the other end for him to swim the next 100 and then try and follow in the last 50. And so I built up to be actually able to hold his feet for the last 50 and that made me realise how significant a draft you get. So of course when I went to my first races of the year I was hell-bent on hanging in there with the front guys to hold feet because the draft is huge. So I’d been swimming in the front pack.
On the weekend I had a bit of an average swim. There was only actually a couple of stronger swimmers and I wasn’t able to hold their feet early on. My swim’s probably come off a little bit, which you expect considering I haven’t been training with the Olympic champion recently. But that’s okay.
My bike’s improved a lot and my run has improved a huge amount. From the start of the year I ran 3:12 for the marathon and on the weekend around three hours and honestly on the weekend I ran pretty comfortably because I had no idea … Chris and I talked about it. We thought that [three hours] was about a ballpark, but I didn’t believe it. I thought ‘You’re insane mate. How can you expect me to ride at 320 Watts for four hours and then run a three-hour marathon? That’s nuts.’ But that’s what I did. So that’s improved a huge amount.
Of course now we’ve got the Worlds to focus on. So we’ll go back to the drawing board and work on the swimming. Denis has sent through a lot of drills and so forth. We sent him some footage of me swimming and [we’ll] try and get that technique back and make sure that I can at least come as close as possible to staying with that front pack in Kona.
Because if I can do that and then execute the bike leg I’m capable of, and then now that I’ve got a solid run? In reality I’m in the race and anything can happen.
What’s your goal for Kona?
I want to have a great swim in the front pack, I want to do the strongest bike I can which ideally will give me a significant lead off the bike, and then have the opportunity to get into my run and when they come later in the run, try to race them.
I still haven’t pushed the boundaries in the run because I’ve been improving so much every time I do one … I don’t really know how fast I can go. I’ve certainly never finished a marathon … where I feel like I’ve given it everything. I’ve always been making sure I don’t give it everything, just in case I blow up and I need some energy to get myself cross the line.
So what does your training look like now compared to when you were a pro cyclist? Are you spending more hours in total training, or just spreading your time around?
The last couple of weeks I did everything with Chris and then on top of that I swam and ran. Probably about 20% more than I was doing when I was racing on the road.
We tend to do the bike and the run in the morning and then swim in the afternoon. One or two days a week I’ll swim before the ride just to have that adaptation. Saturdays, for example, often it’s 30 minutes to an hour swim, anywhere between six to seven hours on the bike, and then 30 minutes to an hour run. It’s an eight hour day, eight-plus hours, but into the three. So yeah, it’s pretty solid.
How many hours a week in total would you be training?
Between, I guess, 35 and 45 [but] it’s quality. You don’t have time to do soft sessions.
Other than being the biggest race of the year, how is Kona different to other races. What defines the course?
The heat, the wind and the humidity. That’s really the only thing. The course itself isn’t overly challenging. The swim can be a bit rolly but I mean it’s the Pacific Ocean — I’ve grown up in that. That’s not going to worry me.
I tend to do quite well in all conditions, I always have, particularly extreme ones — horrendously cold or stupidly hot, so add the wind into that. The more it blows the better for me, on the bike. I’ve spent a lot more hours on a bike than these guys and I’ve spent lots of hours in a rowing boat developing a core that none of these guys have got.
I hope it’s horrible — I hope the conditions are as horrible as they possible can be. Because that really sort things out and the run is never as quick either.
I understand you’re the first Australian athlete to compete at the highest level in three sports. How significant is that to you?
I always wanted to try and do something that no one else has done. [It’s] been indicated to me that I am [the first in three sports], particularly in modern sport, ever since there’s been qualification and things like that.
I mean rowing: I had to make a national team, I won a world title in rowing. Cycling, I made the national team in cycling twice. I don’t think the Australian national team is an easy one to make. And then now this. Yeah, I’m really pretty proud of that.
I’m disappointed that I haven’t performed in the cycling world championships. I mean there’s a reason that Shayne Bannan picked me and trusted me — he believed I could, and I failed both times for whatever reason. I didn’t know what I was doing. And that’s something that I still want to put right down the line.
I actually ran into Brad McGee [ed. Australian Road World Championships selector] at Richie’s place a few weeks back and had a chat to him about all that. I know what you have to do — it’s pretty straightforward. That’s certainly not off my radar. And now of course Kona.
I mean, I’m obviously a contender. In the next few years — I’ve probably got five to six years in a sport like this — you obviously want to win one. It’s not about just participating in them all, it’s about trying to succeed at the highest level now.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have a career out of [cycling]. I haven’t probably deserved it at times but people have always believed me and I think it was probably Saturday when I really believed in myself [with Ironmans].
But to learn to run has a been a real … I mean that was a huge fear. And to be able to do a three-hour marathon the way I did? That honestly was the proudest sporting thing I’ve ever done in my life. That was so awesome. I’m really keen to kick on from here and do some exciting things going forward.
Do you think we’ll ever see you back in the pro peloton at some point?
Yeah, I’d say there’s a fairly high chance of that. I must admit that, ok, I stepped away from it and didn’t really appreciate what I had — you never do appreciate what you have until you leave it. And while I could have easily gone back at any time, at some level, I said to myself I wouldn’t go back unless it was the right opportunity and the best environment for me.
Being around the guys at Sky … that’s a pretty phenomenal program. And there’s other bike manufacturers that have a huge interest in triathlon that also have a WorldTour team. At the moment I’m riding a BMC … I guess I’ll have to make some sort of a decision on that at some point in the future.
I definitely see the merit in racing a little bit at the WorldTour level, the highest level, and to supplement my preparation for Kona. And we’ve spoken at length about that and the way the calendar could look and work. It’s one thing to say ‘OK, yeah you’ll have a strong set of cycling legs’ but it’s not about that. It’s about my strong bike leg putting me in the same physical state as my rivals when they go slower.
I need to be that strong on the bike that I feel the same way they do when they are behind me so that I can still run, and I need that extra spark in the legs and the only way I’ll get that is from racing.
So you’re off to swim with Richie today?
Yeah, so Richie’s on the comeback trail. We’ll be back to our usual routine in Launceston in the off-season I guess. So we’ll ride in the mornings and swim in the afternoons. Today he’s taking his wife to the airport so he’s having an easy morning and then we’ll get some work done this afternoon.
So that’s pretty exciting to be here with him during this period. We’ve obviously been through a fair bit together as well and it was obviously pretty devastating to see what happened to him at the Tour. I’m kind of glad I’m here to be honest.
I know he enjoys training with me and we get a lot out of each other so hopefully I can play a bit of a part getting him back to his best and make sure that come the end of the season, if he does race again, or start of next year, he’s back to his good old self and we’re getting excited about him for the Tour next year.