Thursday, June 9, 2011

Book Review: I'm Here to Win, by Chris McCormack

When I was asked by a promotional firm to review Chris McCormack's new book, I'm Here to Win: A World Champion's Advice for Peak Performance, I was immediately stoked. The reasons are threefold. First, though ultrarunning and racing 100-milers is my first love, I've always been interested in dipping my toes in the Ironman triathlon waters (and seeing what's harder--Ironmans or 100-milers). Second, I really admire "Macca," as he's affectionately known. Like all the great ones, his success is as much about hard work, sacrifice and mental toughness as it is about talent, and so I put a lot of stock in what the 37-year-old world champ says (I took up yoga on his advice via Runner's World). Third, Macca is probably the greatest triathlete of all time with apologies to the legendary Dave Scott and Mark Allen. Bonus: I LOVE to review books by endurance athletes!

Although I knew a little about Macca before reading his book, my knowledge of triathlon and his incredible resume was fairly limited. Probably like you, every year I watch the Kona, Hawaii World Championship race, which is aired by NBC on tape-delay and is significantly shortened (and rife with trite stories). Thanks to Macca's book, I now have a better understanding of the sport, tactics and strategies for success, and what it takes to complete a race like Kona, which is on my "bucket list."

Macca was born in Sydney, Australia in 1973 (he's two months older than I am). After a short stint in accounting after graduating from the University of New South Wales, he came to realize that triathlon was his passion and life's pursuit. Every day behind a desk was a day he was dying. So Macca quit his job, sold off all of his possessions and entered the European circuit with nothing but hopes and dreams. As a kid, he dreamed of future greatness in the sport with his best friend, Sean Maroney, who tragically died in an accident just as Macca's career was really taking off. Macca experienced another huge tragedy in his life with the death of his mother, perhaps his greatest supporter, to breast cancer (he's now a philanthropic champion of breast cancer research). Through it all, he's benefited from a strong support network consisting of his wife, Emma-Jane, and their daughters, his dad, his trainer, Mick, and others. These people are truly part of Team Macca and play an intimate role in his planning, training and racing.

In I'm Here to Win, Macca pulls no punches. This will come as no surprise to those who've followed him for years. Over the course of his very honest, fun and reader-friendly 261-page autobiography, which he co-authored with Tim Vandehey, Macca tells his life story, shares his secrets and in more than a few areas recounts "war" stories. A huge part of his book is devoted to the Ford Ironman World Championship held in Kona, Hawaii. It took Macca several years before he finally nailed Kona, breaking the tape in 2007 and again in 2010. Prior to 2007, Macca had failed six times at Kona despite winning just about every major triathlon in the world. His problem at hot, humid Kona had always been cramping.

Macca is quite cocky, extremely outspoken, passionate about his loves, an avid learner...and incredibly likable. What I most like about his book is his honesty. He's not mealy-mouthed or "awe-shucks" in telling his story; he allows you to get to know him for better or worse, what makes him tick and why he's so damned successful for a guy who's now not far from the big 4-0.

What is the key to Macca's success? Well, sure, he's incredibly talented and fit, but he's also a big guy, weighing in at around 178 pounds. I was astonished by his size. A guy that size would probably never be an elite ultrarunner (I'm 167 and pretty big compared to others). Macca's most dangerous weapon is his mind. He's truly a student of the sport (kind of like Peyton Manning in football), painstakingly studying his competitors and exploiting their strengths and weaknesses like his hero, Muhammad Ali, did back in the day.

Macca's also quite aware of his own strengths and weaknesses. It took a bodybuilder's advice for Macca to finally overcome his cramping problem at Kona, discovering a way to better-hydrate his muscles before a race (more on that below). The guy is a bit arrogant, yes, but, when you get down to it, Macca is humble enough to search out new insights, turn over as many rocks as he can and continually re-evaluate his results. Like all the great ones, he is driven to be the best and knows he can always improve.

The book is divided into 14 chapters, with a captivating foreword by six-time Ironman world champion Mark Allen. Each chapter is sub-divided into short sections, making I'm Here to Win a very easy read for those of us with only a few minutes to spare here and there.

Perhaps my favorite part of the book was the chapter about Macca's war with Normann Stadler and Faris Al-Sultan, both from Germany, following the 2006 Kona race. Macca had narrowly finished second behind Stadler in the race, with Al-Sultan coming in  third. Macca's comments in the post-race press conference, where he said, "I never realized that Norman Stadler was that good," set off a firestorm. Calling out Macca's "tactical bullshit," Al-Sultan dismissed the Australian as "a pussy." Nasty confrontations ensued. Ultimately, this all led to Macca devoting 2007 to embarrassing Al-Sultan and Stadler (he's now friends with Stadler) by showing up at every race they were in and winning. And that's just what Macca did in 2007, capping off the year with an impressive win at Kona--his first at Hawaii.

Incidentally, Macca says in his book that he's usually at his best when he's pissed off. So the Al-Sultan and Stadler melee only served to fuel the fire in his belly.

I also loved the chapter on Macca's 2010 Kona race, which he descibes as his "masterpiece" and which might have been his last hurrah at the Hawaii world championship (according to the book, Macca will not return to Kona in 2011). In the race, Macca battled it out with Andrea Raelert of Germany, with the two exchanging a famous handshake in the final few miles (watch the linked video--it's incredible when they share a sponge and shake hands). To that point, never had the winner broken away so close to the finish line--not even in the legendary "Iron War" in 1989 between Dave Scott and Mark Allen. But within a mile of the finish the ailing Raelert had to take Coke and water and it was here that Macca dropped the hammer and broke the tape for his second--and maybe the greatest-ever--Kona victory.

A few interesting nuggets I gleaned from Macca's book and am delighted to share with you:
  • Despite what exercise physiologists say, Coca-Cola is an excellent souce of fuel during races, delivering a nice dose of sugar and caffeine. Macca "discovered" Coke on the advice of a fellow triathlete, and just about any endurance athlete will tell you the stuff works wonders. It's saved my ass on more than a few occasions when my stomach went south and I needed calories.
  • The key to optimal raceday performance, especially in the heat, is hydrating the muscles in the weeks leading up to competition. As Macca learned from a successful French bodybuilder who he says did it the right way (read: no steroids), there are two types of hydration: muscular-skeletal hydration and blood plasma hydration. Most of us hydrate only at the blood plasma level. Before contests, bodybuilders consume huge amounts of water along with electrolytes, hydrating their muscles (and blood, too). This ultimately helps stave off cramps. As Macca learned, hydrating only a few days before Kona isn't enough and can lead to cramping and diminished performance in the heat. What he needed to do was heavily hydrate with water and electrolytes (sodium, magnesium, calcium and potassium) in order to reach the muscles--a time-consuming process that takes a few weeks. Macca heeded the advice and the rest, as they say, is history.
  • Adjust your training as you age. Recognizing his own age and the fact that he's competing with guys ten or more years his junior, Macca trains smartly, incorporating rest and recovery so he can stay fresh and keep the needle below the red. This comes from confidence in his own abilities and lots of discipline but especially from his psychological advantage over those who are younger and perhaps more talented.
  • Learn to play the mental game. Like Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, Macca is a master of psychological warfare. He has a knack for getting inside the heads of his opponents and creating doubts and insecurities deep within them that he can exploit in races to his own benefit. Macca is the first to tell you that he's beaten a good number of guys who were more talented but lacked the psychological advantage or were, in his words, "mental milkshakes." For example, before a race, Macca might say something like, "Well, Frank Smith is certainly one of the sport's top cyclists and a super strong swimmer, but in his last race he struggled a bit on the bike, especially late in the ride, and so we'll see what he does tomorrow." With that comment, Macca's served up a compliment along with some psychological warfare by creating doubt in his competitor's mind. It seems to work for him! Psychological warfare happens in ultrarunning, too. I read enough blogs by the elites to know it's a key part of success.
This is an outstanding book for professional, amateur and aspiring triathletes, age-groupers and endurance athletes in any sport--from ultrarunning and marathoning to cycling and swimming. Get your copy now!

I'm Here to Win: A World Champion's Advice for Peak Peformance, by Chris McCormack with Tim Vandehey, published by Center Street, is recommended.


  1. Thanks for a fantastic review, Wyatt.

    Tim Vandehey

  2. Tim: Great writing and a wonderful story through and through. You and Macca did an awesome job on the book, which will go down as a classic and must-read. Thanks so much for your feedback!


  3. I am a tri fan ... meaning I have little to no interest in doing one, but will be a fan on the side (virtual).

    So -Yeah - good write up. Will put this on my to read list.