To look back into the beginnings of the legendary Ironman New Zealand race one must go all the way back to 1985; to the pre-history of ultra distance triathlon. The sport has grown and ebbed and grown again during that time. And now with the successful culmination of the 31st running of this venerable race we have seen another tradition continue beyond all expectations. And, a couple of new remarkable records would be set before the final call at the finish line.
IMNZL, though not as ancient as the seminal Kona World Championship, with its 1978 lineage, still holds a place of honor to her sister race. That distinction ranks New Zealand as the oldest Kona Qualifier; quite an honor in the ever increasing stable of IM races worldwide.
Likewise, going into today’s event, we had the makings of some remarkable new records…and we weren’t disappointed.
Situated in the geographic center of the North Island of New Zealand, Taupo in some ways is a perfect setting for an ultra endurance event such as the Ironman, but at times this can be a brutal environment. The weather leading into this year’s race was fair, though there was a bit of rain the evening before, and even a few umbrellas spotted at starting time, but not much wind. Nothing like the memory of the 2012 race when severe weather led cautious race officials to delay the start by a full day and to reduce the distance from 140.6 miles to 70.3 miles. Similarly, in 2006 they were forced to reduce it to a bike-run on a much shortened course. A sure disappointment for many, but a testament to the vagaries of such an intrinsically unpredictable endurance race.
Amongst the sport’s watchers and statisticians, expectations and excitement ran high leading into this year’s race. With over 1,200 registered age-groupers from 53 countries (and a stable of elite pro triathletes) the contest was primed for excitement.
Heading up the race favorites were Cameron Brown and Meredith Kessler. Brown, of Auckland, was close but no cigar last year, pulling in a strong 2nd place finish behind Marko Albert of Estonia. But also unique about Cameron is his tenacity and perseverance for this race. Not only has he podiumed consistently for the past 15 years, he holds the distinction of having actually won this race for 10 of those finishes. And he would attempt to do so again this year; and get this – at the age of 42. Brown already took the distinction of being the oldest elite Ironman winner ever last June by claiming the top victory at Ironman Cairns. Despite his impressive pedigree the odds were probably against him this year going into a race noted for youthful power and for being unforgiving to aging bodies.
Likewise Meredith Kessler of San Francisco came into this race with a lot of pressure on her; having won the event for the past three years. Though this year she would be racing on tired legs from her very respectable 7th place finish at Challenge Dubai (140.6) a bit over a week ago. And that race came on the heels of her top victory at Ironman70.3 Auckland in January.
Other top contenders in the men’s category were fellow New Zealanders Terenzo Bozzone and Dylan McNeice. Bozzone would also be racing when most normal triathletes would be in the midst of a weeks-long recovery, after outright winning Challenge Dubai last week; a somewhat tainted victory in light of his course-cutting penalty. And McNeice is also coming off a recent 140.6 victory at Challenge Wanaka a scant 2 weeks ago.
Since the final results of this March 7th race are out already, no sense in masquerading the end game for you here in this report, so you need to know that Cameron Brown did indeed pull off his 11th win at IMNZL and trumped that with his World’s Oldest Ironman Winner title, and yes, Meredith Kessler pulled in her 4th in a row IMNZL win. Impressive racing all around.
So with that suspense out of the way we can move on to how they got there.
With the stage set with an impressive array of very fit professionals, and hoards of age-groupers toeing the line, race day dawned overcast and drizzly but with more rain forecast for later in the day. Before first light, the beach on Lake Taupo came alive with the guttural performance of a traditional Maori Challenge dance. Quite the spectacle for the masses of athletes about to embark on this most demanding of physical contests.
When the pros hit the water, conditions were good, with low wind and mild chop, making for very fast racing. Making quick work of the prime conditions McNeice was first to exit the out-and-back swim course in an impressive 44:25, followed by 6 other males before Meredith Kessler led the women in at an equally impressive 49:35. McNeice’s performance was indeed notable as he set a new swim course record. In fact, conditions we so fast that the top three males broke the old record; that would be Graham O’Grady, and Todd Skipworth all beating the 2004 record of Brent Foster.
For our eventual champions, Kessler’s pace placed her a minute and 49 seconds ahead of her nearest competitor, Gina Crawford. And keep in mind that at this point Cameron Brown was 9th overall coming out of the water, well over 6 minutes behind the leader. But that would soon change.
Equally impressive were the fastest age group swimmers coming in at very respectable times of 50:34 for Hayden Corkin and a female first of 51:45 for Penny Hayes, both New Zealanders.
From there it was onto the gruelling two-loop bike course for 112 miles of fun and fury. Once through the tumult of transition and settled into their paces, the athletes placed themselves into strong strategic positions with O’Grady, Skipworth, McNeice, and Bozzone leading the field all within a few minutes of each other, and Cameron Brown hanging back by 6 and a quarter minutes in 6th place. By the 6 mile mark, Kessler was well over 3 minutes ahead of her nearest competitor, Gina Crawford, a position she would build on throughout the day.
By the 18 mile mark Cameron Brown had whittled 2 minutes off his deficit from the leaders and Meredith Kessler had lengthened her lead by up to almost 5 minutes.
At 30 miles Kessler was up 6 minutes on her competition and Brown was only 2 and half minutes back in his race.
Fortunately at this point in the race the rain stopped and conditions improved, but this good weather would not last all day.
By the 60 mile point Cameron Brown had moved up to third position, just a few minutes behind Bozzone and O’Grady, having overtaken McNeice. Kessler was now leading over Gina Crawford by well over 10 minutes at this point. She would add another 5 minutes to this lead by 85 miles.
Cameron Brown kept up his steady gains and strategic maneuvering so much that by the time he came into T2 he had passed O’Grady and was side by side with Bozzone. In the women’s race, Kessler maintained a solid 15 minute lead through T2.
The real race could now begin.
As expected, Brown started an early pull-away from Bozzone putting 20 seconds between them in the first few miles. But the unbelievable magic would continue as he added a full minute to this by the 10k mark, and another minute by the 10 mile point.
At the pivotal half marathon point we would see Brown leading the men’s race by 3:13 and Kessler leading her race by almost 18 minutes.
At 20 miles Brown leads by almost 5 minutes, and by 23 miles that has grown to 5:31.
Now that the weather had cleared a bit the appreciative local Taupo crowds were out in force cheering the champions onward. Most of the elite athletes enjoyed a sunny and balmy day for their races, but that weather would soon change after the top finishers were in.
But before the rains came Cameron Brown barrelled across the finish line in an amazing 8:22:13, with Bozzone 6:40 behind at 8:28:53. And rounding out the podium steps swim-leader Dylan McNeice came in at 8:38:05, almost 16 minutes behind the leader.
On the women’s side Meredith Kessler set a scorching new course record at 9:05:45, knocking a solid 2:21 off her own previous record here. This was followed by 2nd place finisher Gina Crawford in at 9:26:11, and Melanie Burke in third at 9:41:51, 36 minutes behind the lead.
So there you have it, at age 42, the oldest winner of an elite field Ironman, Cameron Brown; now an 11 time winner of Ironman New Zealand. And as she had dreamed and hoped, American Meredith Kessler took her 4th consecutive victory here. Solid racing all around.
And a tip of the hat to the blazing fast best of the age groupers: Daniel Plews (NZL) 9:08:24 and Zoe Clark (AUS) 10:12:37. Plews must be feeling pretty good about disrupting the Pro’s placement sweep by settling in at 14th place overall in a field of 20 elite racers.
With heavy rains and wind hitting the course briefly around the 11 hour mark and tapering off after a while the rest of the field continued to pour in, ultimately closing out the 2015 Ironman New Zealand, wrapping up a great 31st year of successful racing.