Evergreen Star Quality
At the age of 43, Cameron Brown still remains one of the world’s most formidable Ironman competitors. Steve Landells discovers just why the legendary Kiwi has been able to defy the sands of time in the world’s most gruelling endurance discipline.
It is hard to believe now given the avalanche of Ironman titles, the years and years of sustained success and his age-defying feats spanning more than a quarter of a century that Cameron Brown’s first taste of the triathlon should have been such an underwhelming experience.
Aged 14 at the time, the Pakuranga College student’s debut over the sprint distance in Devonport on Auckland’s North Shore was in his words “a bit of a nightmare.”
“I did alright on the bike and the swim, but it was quite a warm March day and I got such severe dehydration I couldn’t go to school the next day. I was pretty rooted.”
Brown had finished down in the 30s that balmy late summer day, yet revealing the first glimpse of the determination and dogged persistence which has have come to define the Kiwi’s career he refused to become too despondent by the experience.
He simply dusted himself down and returned to training with greater enthusiasm. Some nine months later, the hard work was rewarded with victory in his second ever triathlon to take the New Zealand Secondary Schools’ title.
“I just liked the challenge of doing better the next time,” he explains of his trademark persistence. “I tried to not just improve in one event but in all three.”
Possessing the same fierce work ethic and perseverance as his father, Dave, a builder by trade, the East Aucklander’s remarkable career was underway and it wasn’t too much longer before he came to national attention when, as an 18-year-old, he defeated Kiwi triathlon legend Rick Wells at the Whangamata Triathlon in 1990.
“He was God back then and still is,” says Brown of Wells, a former world short course and long course champion. “To be standing on the start line next to my hero was a huge moment and to win him that day was a surprise.”
With a fierce passion for the sport and with an unrelenting desire to improve, he moved out to Japan in the early nineties to further his career. Brown was earning a growing reputation on the ITU circuit and his success was noted by 1988 world Ironman champion Scott Molina, who later went on to coach Brown.
“The fact that he went over to Japan so early, and lived and raced there when he didn’t speak a word of Japanese impressed me,” says Molina. “I thought that this dude was committed.”
It was at the 1995 ITU World Triathlon Championships in Cancun, Mexico when Mark Watson – a rising triathlete at the time – shared a room with Brown and so began a close friendship which has lasted more than 20 years.
The pair spent more than a decade training together and Watson now a presenter for Radio Sport believes it is Brown’s meticulous and ultra-professional approach coupled with his mental strength, which mark him apart from his peers.
“Cam has redefined talent,” says Watson. “When we think of triathlon talent we think in terms of how well can you swim, bike and run. Yet Cameron was never the most talented athlete in these areas and if you weighted each element out of ten you might give him seven for the swim, a nine for bike and seven for running.
“Yet if you were to mark Cameron out of ten for passion and desire and for attention to detail he would mark ten out of ten. He has made the definition of talent something far broader. He found other ways of pulling back on the guys, who were maybe a little more talented.”
According to Watson, Brown’s his knowledge in all areas of triathlon including equipment, nutrition and pre-hab techniques is exemplary, his commitment to the sport never less than 100 per cent.
“If Cam had a calf strain and you asked him to get up at 3am and spin on his head ten times to cure it, that’s what he would do,” adds Watson. “He would always have a drink bottle with him and he would take one to bed. He will go through 16 bottles of water on the bike during an Ironman. We would be sat on the sofa watching TV smashed after a brutal training session and Cameron would be sat on the middle of the floor stretching. He was always very good at doing the things we were probably too tired to do.”
Cameron enjoyed success on the ITU circuit. He finished second in the junior division at the 1992 ITU World Championships in Canada and would go on to claim nine top-ten at ITU World Cup events.
However, a decision in 1995 to allow drafting in the bike race in ITU events blunted his natural strength on the bike. The new rules made triathlon more of a straight foot race and as a 33-minute 10km runner he lacked the basic speed to be competitive at the sharp end.
He gravitated towards the Ironman and made his debut over the distance at the 1997 Ironman NZ in Auckland. Yet much like his first ever triathlon, his maiden Ironman appearance also proved a chastening experience.
“That day I wore a wet suit that was far too restrictive and I ended up stopping a couple of times on the bike that day,” he explains. “I remember with 30km left on the bike, my wife had to give me a chiropractor session.
“I managed to finish with a 3:06 marathon, so I did finish in about 23rd. If I hadn’t completed the race that day, I reckon I wouldn’t have done another ironman for a long time.”
Adopting the same perseverance, patience and precision which has come to define his career he returned to his favourite race two years later for his second attempt at Ironman NZ – the first ever in Taupo – and on this occasion enjoyed a far more memorable experience.
Defying predictions, Brown put in a stunning display to place second just 13 seconds adrift of American Tim DeBoom, who would later go on to win successive World Championships.
The Kiwi earned another second place finish – this time behind German Thomas Hellriegel – in the 2000 edition before in 2001 clinching the first of his ironman titles courtesy of an outstanding 2:45 run to overhaul Dane Peter Sandvang.
Victory in his home Ironman was “a dream come true” for the tough-as-teak Kiwi. Yet Watson believes it was his performance at the World Championships in Hawaii later that year which gave him the belief he could live with the very best.
Twelve months earlier the Aucklander had disappointed, finishing a distant 26th on his World Championships debut in Kona and just days before his second appearance in Kona, Watson says Brown started to have major doubts.
“He told me ‘I feel like crap, mate’ and I have booked my flight for Sunday,” he says. “When I checked his flight times I said, ‘that’s around the time the pro race will finish.’ So I said to Cam, ‘let’s look back at our training diary, I bet no athlete in the world will have trained as hard as us.’ Cameron rebooked his flight, turned up that day and finished second (behind DeBoom) and I really think that was the moment he really believed. From that point on he was unstoppable.”
It is hard to disagree with Watson’s sentiments as Brown has gone on to enjoy a glittering career in the sport. He has claimed four podium finishes in Kona (two second and two thirds), the European Ironman title in 2006 plus those dozen Ironman NZ crowns – a word record number in an individual Ironman event.
Molina, who began coaching Brown after his 26th place finish at the 2000 World Championships, says he marvelled at the Kiwi’s whole-hearted commitment to the sport, which was evident from the outset.
“He was totally open to my views,” says Molina. “In the first few months I asked him to double his volume and he stepped up his training as suggested. What I didn’t know at the time was if he had the orthopaedic structure to do that volume but over time he proved incredibly durable – perhaps as durable as any pro-triathlete who has ever lived.”
His work ethic was matched by his structured approach to training and all elements have come together to create one unique Ironman performer.
“He’d grind out those track sessions and pool sessions,” explains Molina. “He’d then go home make a healthy meal get to bed at 8.30pm then repeat it the next day and do this for weeks.”
Brown himself believes several factors have contributed to his ongoing success in the sport. He has managed – up until more recent years – to avoid the curse of injury which he says is down to having “a pretty solid running form” and good biomechanics.
His perseverance he insists has also played a part but above all his undimmed passion and love of what he does has also been a huge factor.
“I love training and if I didn’t enjoy it, it would be too hard for me,” he explains. “I love getting out on the trials to go for a run or on the road for a bike. Okay, when it is 10 degrees Celcius and pissing down with rain it is bit harder, but it is generally just a matter of having a plan and setting those short and long term goals,” he explains.
However, there is another crucial factor in his success, which cannot be ignored – his family. Led by his colossus of a wife, Jenny, and his two sons, Braeden, 14 and Josh 12, the trio have proved have provided the much-needed stability and support necessary for Brown to excel in ironman.
At times Jenny admits to feeling “like a solo mum” and they have to put up with his “grumpy” moods brought on by the relentless demands of training, but Brown recognises the crucial part she has played in his success.
“She has supported me in races all over the world and knowing that I have that total support makes it much easier to push through the hard times,” he admits.
Molina also offers an insight into the importance of family to Brown by adding: “He takes his responsibility as the provider for the family damn serious. To go home without a pay cheque eats at him like nothing else.”
In March this year Cameron Brown created history to land not only his 12th Ironman NZ title but also shatter the course record by more than seven-and-a-half minutes in 8:07:58.
At the aged of 43 years and nearly nine months (note, he celebrates his 44th birthday on June 20) he had bettered his own world record as the oldest ever winner of an elite ironman race.
Naturally, the questions of when he will finally retirement are never far from the surface yet as Brown admits after his most recent Taupo success – which was more than 10 minutes quicker than his previous best in Taupo – the prospect of quitting could not be further from his mind.
“I’ve just gone faster than ever, so it is now a case of taking care of the body and making sure I stay injury free. The enjoyment factor is there still every day.”
During a near 30-year career in the sport he has few regrets – he would have liked to have stepped on the top rung of the podium at the Ironman World Championships. He perhaps should have dipped below eight hours at Ironman Asia-Pacific Championships in Melbourne in 2012 (he finished second just 12 seconds outside the eight-hour barrier).
Yet he refuses to dwell on the past. He has future goals to fulfil and fancies a crack in future at Ironman Austria – regarded as one of the world’s fastest Ironman events – and he fully intends to be on the start line in Taupo next March to attempt to secure Ironman NZ title number 13.
Yet in keeping with Brown’s shy and unassuming manner it is perhaps best placed to other to explain his success.
“Like others such as Meb Keflezighi and Dara Torres, Cam is refining what is possible to do as a 40 something athlete,” explains Molina. “He’s been excelling in the sport for 25 years and I think he’s one of the best examples to show that a great work ethic trumps talent most of the time.”
Watson believes Brown’s ongoing success has not always fully been appreciated by the New Zealand public yet his legacy will be a very simple one once he does eventually retire.
“The greatest ingredient to his success has been passion and desire and that is the message coaches will take out of Cameron Brown’s career, says Watson. “The head is just granite. A lot of guys wave the white flag in pressure situations but not Cameron. When you race him you know if you are going to beat him you are going to suffer like you’ve never suffered before. He is a legend and will go down as New Zealand’s greatest ever endurance athlete.”
Images: Korupt Vision
Text By: Steve Landells