Drama at the 2015 Asia-Pacific Ironman Championship

Image courtesy of @jedro_

The city of Melbourne hangs deep on the southside of Australia, about as far south as one can go without swimming to the island of Tasmania.  And while the northern hemisphere is celebrating the coming of spring after a tough winter, Melbourne is just coming off of a long hot summer and melding into pleasant autumn temperatures.  Temperatures and weather that are very conducive to ultra-distance triathlon.  And as the locale for the third running of the Ironman Asian-Pacific Championship that perfect weather would be most appreciated by those who came looking for goals ranging from revenge, to competition, to the coveted automatic Kona qualification for the lucky few.

The race favorites, inarguably some of the world’s best ultra-distance endurance athletes, came to this contest prepared, and unprepared.  When athletes push their bodies as relentlessly as these beasts, a lot can happen, and it’s not always good.  Chasing races around the world, from continent to continent, following the seasons even as the seasons migrated across the globe, they’ve endured a relentless lifestyle of full-time training and careful monitoring of their bodies and their capabilities.  Some would show up healthy, some would cancel due to injuries, and some would get sick or injured in the days before the race and still show up at the starting line.  Others would sicken or break during the race and drop out.  But the victorious would reap the benefits of their efforts and beat the odds, and survive the long day.  All finishers would be winners, but the overall winners were those who trained smart, raced smart, and did what they do best.

Last year’s champ, Dirk Bockel would not be showing up this year – due to a hip injury that occurred during his winning run last year.  At the time, he pushed through the pain, won the race, but now sits on the sidelines. Instead, a new stable of competing professionals would line up on the sand just south of the pier at Frankston, a Melbourne suburb.  Likewise last year’s overall female champ is here today to race but having only recently recovered from a bad stomach bug leading up to the race. Caroline Steffen had lost precious weight, rest, and hydration in the previous week, but the will to compete had her standing in the pro line on race morning.

The Swim

Despite the good weather and good chop conditions, with a very low tide lapping the beach, starting conditions were challenging, to say the least.  With the sun up, the men professionals went off the line promptly at 7:20AM. Luckily they had been allowed in the water for some welcome warm up time, and perhaps all of them had been here test swimming for a few days prior, so they knew the water deepened as expected a few meters out, enough for those important dolphin leaps to get moving quickly beyond the competition; but then they would hit a substantial sandbar about 30 meters out, forcing them to power back up to a standing position again and do their high-stepping bounding through shin deep water for yet another 30 meters before they could finally swim unencumbered. These are the kinds of unexpected conditions that one can’t really anticipate, nor train for. And it’s such surprises that can throw a well-trained athlete off their pace, and perhaps set them up for adrenaline infused injury.

So with the thousands of appreciative spectators lining the pier just a few yards above the swimmers for the first several hundred meters, the men professionals, and then the women professionals entertained them in the morning chill with this macabre flailing dance through the surf.   But once they hit deep water, the crowd was thrilled with the speed and tactics of these true professionals.

With a light chop and little wind, conditions were good for an iron-distance swim.  Once free of the pier the lead swimmers made their way through a series of 6 high-angle turns around an obstacle course of buoys, taking them out to deep water then back in close to the pier then back north along the shore before turning back to the finishing chute.

Unique to an Ironman swim start, but something we will undoubtedly see more of in the future, the race officials opted for a rolling wave start for the throngs of eager age groupers following the pros.  This was done by grouping them into mini-waves of about a dozen swimmers and starting them every 5 seconds or so.  The days of the traditional Ironman mass swim start when a couple of thousand swimmers would hit the surf en masse in a flailing free-for-all are going away.  No doubt a slew of athlete deaths in recent years during big swims played a leading role in this movement. This rolling start technique serves several purposes.  Not only does it spread the athletes out at the swim start thus enhancing safety, it also relieves congestion on tight bike courses where unintentional drafting could be a problem, especially on two loop bike courses like they would be riding today.

In the swim today, as the lead pack of 6 pros came back to shore they would once again have to deal with the sandbar to get to dry land and on to their bikes.  Estonian Marko Albert was first out in 45:18, leading in Australians Todd Skipworth, Brad Kahlefeldt, Luke Bell, and Germany’s Nils Frommhold.  With the great conditions and the adrenalin of race-day fever Albert set a new swim course record today, whittling 4 seconds away from the old record.

The women came in 6 minutes later led by Australian Annabel Luxford, followed by Switzerland’s Caroline Steffen side by side with Bree Wee of the US. Fellow American Laura Bennett would come in 19 seconds later; but in the first real drama of the day she would sadly withdraw before making it out on the bike due to a nagging foot injury that she has been nursing for a while, perhaps now aggravated by the sandbar experience.

The Bike

The mostly flat bike course took the racers out of T1 generally north where they would hook to the left near the 45 kilometer point before turning back, and then repeat the loop for their full 180 kilometer ride. With most of the ride on a commandeered 3-lane roadway it was a lot of flat miles with a brief climb when the roadway dipped deep into a mile long tunnel and back out again, crossing under a creek and a couple of major roadways.  That would be just before the turnaround, so the riders would get a brief reprieve from the numbing effects of flat course riding.

At the 45 kilometer mark near the out-and-back turnaround, after a lot of changing of positions, we see a line up with Frommhold leading, followed by Bell, Albert, and Kahlefeldt.  The women came into the turn led by Luxford and Steffen with fellow Australian and 70.3 champ Mel Hauschildt coming in a couple of minutes back. This would only be Hauschildt’s 2nd ever full 140.6 attempt.  Likewise Luxford was showing great form on her Ironman debut having only recently moved up from a successful career at the 70.3 distance.

Back in Frankston the crowds were growing impatient waiting for the riders to return to start their 2nd loop. As expected Frommhold and Bell led the way in making the turn, having stretched the lead out a bit further with Albert and Kahlefeldt some 4 minutes back.  Likewise, with the women, the leaders remained somewhat intact with Steffen now slightly ahead of Luxford followed by Hauschildt some 3 minutes back. As is her usual racing tactic, seeded favorite and 3 time World Champion Mirinda Carfrae was tucked in about 7 minutes further back, but the leaders knew, and respected that she had her secret weapon of a killer run always in her arsenal.

Back at the final turnaround at the 135 kilometer mark the men blasted through again led by Frommhold and Bell, but now with Aussie Todd Skipworth and Cupcake Kiwi Callum Millward coming around 8 minutes back, having displaced Albert and Kahlefeldt.   And in a come-from-behind move Canadian Jeffrey Symonds was tucked in a few seconds behind Millward. At the same final turn we see the women’s Steffen, Luxford, and Hauschildt come through with a 4th place position filled by Yvonne Van Vlerken.

Back for the final transition from bike to run we see Nils Frommhold, first off the bike, having now put 90 seconds or so on his rival Luke Bell. And surprisingly 11 minutes behind the leader we see Australian Timothy Van Berkel followed by (but not to be confused with) Switzerland’s Jan Van Berkel. True to form Steffen and Luxford dismounted first, followed some 4 minutes back by Hauschildt.

The Run

Image courtesy of Aidan Rich. aidanrich.com.au

Image courtesy of Aidan Rich. aidanrich.com.au

As a point to point marathon the Melbourne route can be challenging to any athlete.  There is always an advantage in being able to see your competition on turnarounds and loop courses.  Any chance to size up a competitor’s position and condition relative to one’s own can help tremendously with on-course strategy. Here today at the Asia-Pacific Championship race there would be no such opportunities.   All one could do would be to look north toward the town of St. Kilda and the finish line and do the best you could.

With the heat building throughout the day, nutrition and hydration become key components of everyone’s race strategy.  With a relatively flat race course utilizing a narrow bike path for much of its route this is a beautiful course meandering through various beachside communities with fabulous views. With the runners taking over the white-stripped bike path there is a constant squadron of bikes following along on the adjacent roadway, making for a surreal juxtaposition of struggling runners while casual peddlers stream along beside them.  The more savvy runners knew to ignore the white-stripped centerline on the bike path and seek out the shortest tangents when navigating the many bends on the curvy path; those who didn’t and respected their conditioned reflex to always stay in one’s lane, would lose precious seconds over the many miles on a long run where seconds and distance did really matter.

Meanwhile in the women’s field, throughout the run Hauschildt makes steady progress, chipping away at the time difference separating her from the two leaders.

In the men’s race we see Frommhold move ahead of Bell after many hours of close competition, with Bell eventually being overtaken by chasers Tim Berkel, Symonds, and Kahlefeldt.  At 25 kilometers into the 42 kilometer run we see Frommhold’s lead down to just below 7 minutes with Symonds only seconds behind Van Berkel.

Image courtesy of Aidan Rich. aidanrich.com.au

Image courtesy of Aidan Rich. aidanrich.com.au

By 25 kilometers the race-day drama continues and steps a huge notch as Hauschildt has taken the women’s lead from Steffen, who battles on, weakened by her recent illness. Likewise we see more prophetic drama at 31 kilometers as Symonds has taken over the men’s lead.

With a slight headwind to counteract the growing temperatures Hauschildt is strong and muscular as she powers over the course.  A formidable force of athletic endurance with a determined powerful stride balanced with her beautifully sculpted arms swinging in that trademark rhythm that had carried very far in an impressive career in sports.

With 7 kilometers to go Symonds leads Van Berkel by a minute and 15 seconds, with Frommhold now in 4th position behind Kahlefeldt 4 minutes back from the lead.  The struggles and drama continue, with Hauschildt walking a bit at the 28 kilometer mark.  She has a 5+ minute lead on Luxford, but struggles to get back her running form. With the crowd and commentators going crazy with speculation on what malady she faced that would force her off her pace,  she would eventually stop and remove her shoes and socks to treat brutal blisters on the soles of each foot.  But she would soon be back up and struggling to get back into her strong running form, but  now with Steffen gaining back precious ground.

 The Finish

Jumping ahead to the men’s finish, the 2015 Asia-Pacific Ironman Championship is taken by Jeff Symonds with a time of 8:04:28.  Raised in Penticton Canada on the folklore of the sport, this is his first Ironman win. He is followed up by Tim Van Berkel and Brad Kahlefeldt.

In the dramatic women’s race, Hauschildt makes a miraculous recovery and starts to pull away again from Steffen who had made it to within a minute and 50 seconds of overtaking the lead position. Hauschildt is once again on her way to victory.  This would be her 2nd Ironman victory in only her 2nd ever Ironman race (having won at Port Macquarie last year), and she takes the ribbon in 8:52:50.

And then the drama continues just 6 minutes back in the battle for 2nd place, with Steffen struggling mightily in the last few yards only to be passed by Van Vlerken at the finish line to take 2nd place by a soul-crushing 10 seconds.

A Pleasant Technology Note

Today’s race was the one of the first successful deployments of athlete-mounted GPS tracking devices that allowed for an impressive interactive interface on the Ironman Live website where one could select and track individual athletes, with their stats, including splits and pace; along with a zoomable map showing each athlete’s movement over all three courses.  Pretty awesome technology from a company that usually has trouble keeping a live feed going for the duration of a race.  Job well done, WTC.

Hopefully the trend in Ironman technology advancement will continue as we move onto the next set of Regional Championships with the African Championship in Port Elizabeth South Africa on March 29th, the North American Championship in The Woodlands Texas on May 16th, the Latin American Championship in Florianopolis Brazil on May 31st, the European Championship in Frankfurt Germany on July 5th, and culminating with the World Championships at Kona Hawaii on October 10th.  Look for TRS Triathlon Race Reports from all of those events.

About the Author

Randy Cantu
Up until Randy Cantu got this sweet gig writing for TRS Triathlon his greatest claim to fame was that he has read more blogs written by Ray Maker of DCRainmaker.com than anyone else in the universe. You see, Randy is Ray's long time editor (and occasionally writes for DCRainmaker.com). So with that pedigree he had no where to go but sideways, here to TRS Triathlon. Randy splits his time between Augusta GA and Boulder CO, an odd combination, but sports writing is an odd business anyway. In real life Randy is an actual certified Project Manager for a software company, which pays the bills, but his heart is in the world of endurance sports. So that's why he also does quirky things like make drone videos of endurance sports events, and as soon as the FAA gets off his ass he hopes to turn that into a full time business. You can find out more about Randy at randycantu.com. Follow him on twitter: @cantucan.