I hope the World Triathlon Corporation starts doing high quality race coverage for all their major Ironman events. It is great to see the race unfold live with actual video on the course and commentating! Most races we are relegated to checking up on splits and the ‘live blog’ newsfeed. I have raced with Mr Matt Lieto and he is what you might call a pretty cool bro. Great to see him and Greg Welch doing the commentary. Greg has gotten better, I remember a few years ago he said “doing a good job of it” incessantly and I didn’t hear that phrase this year. We need commentators knowledgeable enough to actually comment on the sport but who also have some charisma. Greg and Matt and Michael Lovato all have insight into the race from their own competitive careers. I wouldn’t mind if Ironman swapped out Michael for someone with a little more flair. Not everyone is suited for that kind of work.
Ironman also needs to hash out a better way to get the commentators information immediately. At times it seemed they had no more idea what was happening than the rest of us. This is occasionally a problem with Tour de France coverage and is probably very tricky to fully resolve. Also, there were constantly times when the camera was trained on one rider but I wanted them to look forwards and back to see if the rider was breaking away or if the group was still nearby!
The women’s race was really exciting. They were finally given a clean field of play and sent separately from the male pros. Last year highlighted the need for this move since Steffen, Cave and Ellis all got penalties on the bike in part due to the lousy male pros who were lingering near them. They couldn’t quite get clear of this one guy. I was furious, he was far out of his own race and by riding in their group he completely changed the dynamic of their race. Anyways, it was so great to see a fair race this year. The women had a proper front group through the swim and bike and we saw the same type of dynamics we see in the men’s race. Carfrae was so impressive. She missed the swim group but rode hard enough solo to not give up too much time and then mowed down the field on the run. It is SO MUCH HARDER to swim and bike solo and to keep engaged and focused to the same level. Her performance was absolutely stunning and solidifies her status as one of the great – she cannot be written off as ‘just a quick runner’ when she rode that well and then blasted a run of that quality. Running fast off a hard ride is so much more impressive than running fast of a mediocre ride. Full credit to her.
The women who were in the front group must be kicking themselves. To have a group with that many strong riders they should have decimated Carfrae on the bike and ridden an insurmountable gap into her (the way the Germans and Macca did to Crowie in 2010). Maybe it was simply because it was the first year with a clearly defined front group for the women’s field and they weren’t sure of tactics. Maybe it was the typical dynamic of no one wanting to risk too much or give anyone else a free ride. We see that in the men’s field and in cycling races. It is incredibly stupid that someone from that group didn’t win. In my opinion they really messed up. With the firepower they had, they should have shredded the rest of the women’s field and come off with a massive lead. If they had worked aggressively and cohesively I can’t see how they wouldn’t put tons of time on everyone. Maybe next year Steffen, Kessler, Swallow and Joyce will put their heads together and come off the bike in 4:40 with 15 minutes on Rinny. They had better if they want to win. In men’s races if there is a big, non-cohesive group they will not necessarily get a big gap. But a smallish group with guys willing to roll together can annihilate the field.
The men’s race was a another year where all guys were willing to roll the dice. The lead group out of the swim is huge. I was impressed, several guys who are strong bike/runners but who I expected to miss the group made it in- Hoffman, Cunnama, Bracht. Guys will do whatever it takes for the first couple hours on the bike to stay with the group. The result, especially in hot conditions, is predictable. Guys blow up and get blown off the back one by one and then a few hours in everything splinters. Guys make the choice to ride so aggressively irregardless of the impending cost. They want to be in the race and the only way to do that is to stay with the group. I notice lots of strong guys who can win smaller Ironmans who ride poorly, probably because of the aggression and accelerations and the strange dynamic of the ride – whereas at a smaller race they can roll at their own preferred rhythm without the crazy surges. By the end of the ride there seemed to be small clumps of guys, some in the low 4:20s, some in the mid and high 4:20s, a few in the mid 4:30s and some up to 4:40. The winner Van Lierde was the guy who managed the pace the best all day. Interestingly 2nd and 3rd went to aggressive riders who held on well.
I tracked the Chicago Marathon Sunday morning and saw the same dynamic. There were maybe a dozen guys together through the half in 1:01:52 but only two survived the whole race at that pace. Guys gradually fell off through the second half. It was interesting to watch the top American Dathan Ritzenhein start slower (way out of top 10 through the half) and run fairly steady and work his way up to 5th as the more aggressive runners fell off. His strategy was fine to place but would not work to win, he was maybe six minutes behind. In Ironman with a more dramatic effect from being in the group on the swim and bike it would be harder to claw your way back into the race. If you want to win but can’t make the swim group you have to be an absolute monster on both the bike and run. Kienle definitely is but we saw him tire later in the ride after riding through the field. He ran well enough to place on the podium but not well enough to truly contend to win.
With Starky aka Mr 404 bike split at the front there was alot of talk of ‘uber bikers’. Starky is unquestionably an amazing rider. I rode HARD at the Rev3 half in Florida last fall and Starky still put 10 minutes or so into me. Kienle is super powerful as well. However, I think we should reflect on yesteryear’s ‘uber biker’ Normann Stadler. He was a mediocre swimmer and thus had to ride back to the group then ride a big enough gap into the group to hold off the quicker runners. Normann did this twice, the 2nd time he rode the bike course record of 4:18 then got off to run 2:56 for the win. That is not blazing fast but it is still sub 3 hours! I never thought Chris Lieto was quite at the same level as Normann simply because Chris was a good enough swimmer to start nearer the front of the ride and his rides always left him too spent to run well. There is a big difference between being strong enough to go off the front and being strong enough to go off the front and then back it up on the run. Normann set the standard for doing this. Admittedly it is probably harder now since the group has more strong riders than a decade ago and they seem to be willing to ride more aggressively. McKenzie and Kienle almost pulled it off with great rides and solid runs but came up a little short. Starky had a rough day and was well out of the race on the run. It will be interesting to hear their reflections on the race and also to see how they manage in the coming years. If you want to be compared to an uber biker like Normann you better win the thing!
Andrew Messick talked during the race about how Ironman is now a truly global brand. I think, but am not positive, he alluded to the fact that they may start rotating the Ironman World Championships. I got briefly distracted during the interview with him so I’m can’t say for sure. If it is true, HOORAY! They have already announced this step with their 70.3 championship race. This will be great. Establishing a series of ‘majors’ was a great first step. Currently we have a ‘major’ in Asia-Pacific, Europe, and the US and then the world championships in Kona. I would love to see a system where all the top tier Ironman athletes race 3 Ironmans per year, one in Asia-Pacific, one in Europe, one in the Americas. If we take Kona off it’s pedestal and have 2 majors and then 1 world championship we can have a key Ironman in each area and have all the main guys race each other multiple times.
I am against leaving the championship in Kona forever and excited for it to move. From a racing perspective, this will shake things up. Kona has it’s own unique conditions and challenges and everyone can prepare for those but ultimately Kona favors certain types of athletes. With the championship shifting every couple years we could see different skill sets come to the front. From my perspective, Kona is impractical for our biggest event. It is expensive and difficult to get to. It is a small town. There are not many spectators and for those that are there, the course limits how much of the race they can see. Look at pictures from the bike course from Roth, Frankfurt, even Ironman Wisconsin. We can do better than Kona. We will have to part with tradition but I think we need to as the sport moves forward. Every year the ITU tries new things and takes steps to improve the sport on their end and finally Ironman is taking steps in the right direction.
I will also say I was not impressed with the sponsors for the race. We will know Ironman has made a bigger splash as a sport once we see bigger companies than GoPro willing to pay for the title sponsorship. My other sponsor grievance was the Reconjet glasses. I don’t see how Ironman could endorse those in good conscience. It is a pair of sunglasses with a heads up display. UNBELIEVABLY DANGEROUS! Do you know someone who has crashed on their bike? Do you know someone who has been hit by a car while biking? I most certainly do. Riding comes with a certain level of risk. All we can do is pay very careful attention out there and try to respond to our surroundings appropriately. I do not like seeing people riding with earbuds as it reduces their awareness of what is going on around them. Normally when riding by someone I try to give them the courtesy of an ‘on your left’ but I don’t waste my breath if I see earbuds. If they get startled when I come around, that is fine since they chose to tune out their surroundings. To add visual distractions is just ridiculous. All I can say is I hope no one with kids wears these and if you do wear these, please make sure you are an organ donor. At the end of the day, it can be nice to be outdoors once in a while enjoying some exercise without a screen! My apologies for going negative but this seems like a clear cut safety issue.
Anyways, we got to see a new champion win with a smart day and an old champion rise to a whole new level. Our Minnesota contingent seemed to fair well enough, Michelle Andres was our first Ironwoman under 10 hours! Kratz rocked a 10:22 and Neilsen and Hankee were both super solid under 11 hours. I haven’t heard what Fox thought of the race and she seemed to have more of an interesting day. Cancer wasn’t a big enough challenge for the year for Blackstock so she decided to rock at Kona as well. No big deal. I don’t really know how our men did, I think we had two there. Sorry guys.
Always a great day for our sport!