A day in this coming October could change David McNamee’s life. That’s when he sets out to win what is arguably the world’s toughest athletics event – an eight-hour ordeal in the sweltering heat of an Hawaiian island for the Ironman elite triathlon championship of the world.
For the last two years, McNamee has come third behind Germany’s Patrick Lange and for the 30-yearold Scot this is simply not good enough. “My whole life revolves around that one day in Hawaii,” he says. “Winning is the only option.
“I don’t want to be second or third in the world. I want to be the best, no matter what, and I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Up to now it has meant rejecting a lucrative career in accountancy, moving to Spain from his beloved Scotland and subjecting himself to a six-hour a day relentless training routine of running, cycling and swimming which is among the most punishing in sport.
So why did this Olympicstandard athlete switch from orthodox triathlons to an event which seems to have all the ingredients of unadulterated torture? Olympic triathletes swim 1.5 km, cycle 40 km and run 10km, while a full Ironman involves a swim of 3.8km, an 180km cycleride and a full-length marathon.
McNamee says it’s all about suffering. “The long-suffering of Ironman was more appealing than the suffering of short-course racing,” he says. “I’ve always been better when it’s long drawn-out suffering. That’s what I excel at!
“I am very interested in the mental aspect of the sport because you are out there for so long in pretty awful conditions and your brain goes to lots of different and strange places.
“It’s a mental as well as a physical battle and you have a great sense of accomplishment when you succeed. Ever since I changed to Ironman racing my passion for it has grown.”
McNamee’s family in Ayrshire wasn’t particularly sporting, although his dad ran a bit, and still does. The youngster entered a New Year’s Day triathlon in Edinburgh. “I wanted a new challenge and wanted to see what a triathlon was like.
“The weather was below zero, but I loved it and from that first race I was hooked.”
After gaining an accountancy degree at university, McNamee was expected to become something in the City and his family were surprised but supportive when he decided to become a professional athlete.
“So long as it was what I wanted to do and could support myself financially, they were happy,” he says. “It was hard at the beginning but fortunately everything seems to be clicking into place.”
Now teamed up with runningshoe specialists Hoka One One, McNamee says: “Having tested their shoes over the past months it’s been incredible to feel my legs fresher than usual after a hard workout.
“Ironman is such a musclerelated sport that it was great to find shoes that were more cushioned and felt faster than any I have previously worn. This, with the brand’s desire to continually improve, has me looking forward to the years ahead.”
Welcoming McNamee on board, Hoka One One sports marketing manager Elizabeth Brown said: “Our athletes continue to add immense credibility to the brand and our new line-up promises to offer even more strength and depth across all disciplines this year.”
With two world championship bronze medals, McNamee is quietly establishing himself as one of the greatest British male Ironman athletes. He has run sub 2.50h marathons in all his four Kona appearances and his 2018 time of 8.01.09 is third fastest in the race’s history.
But when he suddenly left the British triathlon programme at the end of 2014 after being tipped for a place in the Rio Olympics along with the Brownlee brothers, pundits were quick to point out he could be making a big mistake.
After all, he had achieved half-adozen top ten finishes in the world triathlon series and a seventh place in the 2014 Commonwealth games despite a serious bike crash which damaged the tendons in his arm and hand.
“I was lucky to train with the very best,” he remembers. “Training with the Brownlees really motivated me to do well. But at the same time it can be frustrating when the two best athletes in the sport come from your country.”
So at 26, after the Commonweath games, McNamee switched to elite Ironman triathlons, reckoned some of the toughest ordeals in sport and it’s not hard to see why.
Held every autumn on Big Island, Kallua-Kona, Hawaii, since 1978, the world championship was originally dreamed up by US Navy commander John Collins, stationed in Hawaii, to settle an argument about whether runners, cyclists or swimmers were the fittest. “Whoever wins will be called Ironman,” Collins said.
Fifteen competitors started the first race and 12 finished. Now numbers are limited to 1,700.
Looking back on his decision to abandon his Olympic goal – and the Lottery funding that accompanied it – McNamee says: “The truth was I knew it would be difficult to make the Rio Olympics in my own right but the underlying issue was I no longer had the excitement and drive to go to the Olympics that I once did. I realised I needed to look elsewhere and see what drives me.
“Making the jump was a logical step. I always knew I would finish my ITU career young. I had always been drawn to Ironman and knew I would be much happier switching to long course events.”
The following year, McNamee won the Ironman UK race. “It was truly horrific – they picked the nastiest climbs and the whole bike course was on rough country roads.” But the win qualified him for Kona where he got a creditable 11th place.
Last year, apart from getting his second Kona bronze medal, McNamee finished second at IM 70.3 in Barcelona and is now in training for a race in April. Now based in Girona, Spain, McNamee is ramping up his training towards the crucial months of August and September, aiming to peak for the championship in October.
Much of his preparation focuses on swimming. “This is the shortest section and is sometimes regarded as the poor relation of the triathlon, but if you have a bad swim you are already on the back foot. Neglect swimming and you’re making a big mistake.”
McNamee admits it was a wrench leaving Scotland and likes to get back whenever possible but Scottish winters made training difficult. “I seemed to spend most of my life travelling to foreign training camps so it made sense to locate to Spain.
“Training is going really well and I feel I am a better athlete than I was last year. I know what I have to do: instead of running a 2.45 marathon I have to get down to 2.41 or 2.42. If I can combine that with a good swim and a good run on the bike I should be in with a chance.
“Ironman is the ultimate tough sport. If you come away saying: ‘I was awful but I gave it everything’ then you can walk away feeling proud. But if you quit then you will always quit.
“I want the world championship and nothing else will do. That’s what people will remember – not who came third. You can’t get a better incentive than that.”