Ironman Arizona is Fast — Especially for Sanders and Kessler

Starky rode a course record. (Photo: Orbea)

Ever since IM Arizona was moved from April to November in 2008, it’s been sort of a weird race. (IMHO, etc.) So late in the year and after Kona, but with such a fast course, it attracts both people looking to kick off their next season and those who want to end this year with something they can write home, or to sponsors, about. 

As a 2,000-point race, there’s also $100,000 to win, which isn’t nothing. First takes home $20,000 and tenth wins $750, almost enough to cover the cost of the race.

The 100+ person pro field is fairly demonstrative of exactly this phenomenon. Men’s defending champion Brent McMahon must have been hoping he’s recovered from his 9th place at Kona, while women’s defending champ Meredith Kessler has to have a totally different hope, I’m sure, after a long and disappointing day in Hawaii. (Does walking much of that marathon mean she’ll be faster or slower in Arizona? I’m going to guess faster?) And they both faced a strange array of competition, from Olympian Sarah Haskins finally making her Ironman debut to 2014 Arizona champion Julia Gajer to Jordan Rapp racing after a mechanical took him out of Kona to, of course, the Starky. Like, I said, it’s a race that draws an odd, but highly competitive, field.

That oddity starts in Tempe Town Lake right by the ASU campus—which, yeah, I don’t know if I would swim in if there wasn’t an Ironman win on the line. The bike course is then three relatively flat and possibly windy loops. And it finishes with a popular flat, flat, flat two-loop run along the lake and park bike path. Temperatures and conditions have been mild (for Arizona), with even a little rain, which should make for a very fast day. 

Sanders Puts It All Together

The top men swam fast today. I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise, but still, it was fast. McMahon was out of the water in 47:08, just two seconds behind Marko Albert. They had a solid two-minute lead over the next group, which included TJ TollaksonAndrew Starykowicz, and Maik Twelsiek. Rapp was another three minutes behind that group, and Lionel Sanders hasn’t started that swim coaching yet and had a full seven minutes to make up on McMahon. 

Starky then did what Starky does, and got on his bike and rode and rode. He rode so fast so quickly that by 10 miles he was in the lead. Then he kept going, until he eventually set a new bike course record of 4:03:36. Needless to say, everyone else got left behind in that process, just not as far behind as he would have liked. Back in the pack, Sanders was riding his way up through the field. By halfway, the only people between him and the front were Tollakson, Albert, and McMahon. The defending champ got a flat, and Sanders moved past yet one more person.

Starky was first off the bike, obviously, with Tollakson over 12 minutes back. Sanders was another two minutes behind, with Twelsiek, who crashed early in the ride. To be clear, they didn’t exactly bike slow. They biked around or under 4:15. That just wasn’t fast enough. Rapp, McMahon, and Albert followed behind those three.

Unfortunately for Starky, Ironman Arizona is a triathlon, and there were more than a few people behind him capable of making up 15 minutes on the run. By four miles in, Sanders had moved into second. He just kept going one person at a time. It started to pour rain, something that has to be a little welcoming on the run, if not the bike. As the wet miles ticked on, Sanders closed on Starky, but he wasn’t the only one on a tear. Further back, McMahon plowed through everyone between him and the front. Just after 18 miles, Sanders took the lead and at 23 miles McMahon pass Starky too for second. 

Sanders just kept ticking off people, one at a time. (Photo: Lauren Goss)

Sanders just kept ticking off people, one at a time. (Photo: Lauren Goss)

Although McMahon was closing slightly, Sanders held him off with a 2:46 run for a 7:58:22 win. Beforehand, Sanders said he hadn’t had the race he wanted yet this year. “I have not had an Ironman this year that I’ve felt was executed well from start to finish. I would like to execute a good race from start to finish.” Guess that finally worked out. Tollakson managed to edge in for the last podium spot, with Starky right behind after some brief walking episodes. Rapp and Twelsiek followed with solid runs and fast days all around.

Kessler Leads from Start to End

The women’s race was a bit less exciting, simply because it was a bit more decided early on. As was expected, Haskins and Kessler were first to hit the shore, around 48:25. Gajer followed two-and-a-half minutes later, with Amanda Stevens. Behind them, Michelle Vesterby was at least a little recovered from her 4th place at Kona, and came out of the water in just under 53 minutes. Another few minutes behind her were Laurel Wassner and Melanie McQuaid.

Kessler got on her bike first and after that really didn’t want to give up the lead. Ever. At all. By just a quarter of the way into the 112-mile ride, she had over three minutes on Haskins. By halfway, she had nine minutes on second-place Gajer. (Haskins had some kind of mechanical and fell over 15 minutes back.) Stevens and Heather Jackson were just behind Gajer then, but really it was all about Kessler today.

By the end, Starky was not the only one who had set a new bike course record. Kessler came into T2 10 minutes ahead of Stevens with a record 4:42:13 ride. Stevens had closed the gap and passed Gajer in the final lap to start the run with a two minute lead over third. McQuaid and Vesterby were another three minutes behind that. All biked in the low-4:50s.

Kessler set a bike course record on her way to a win. (Photo: Chris Barker)

Kessler set a bike course record on her way to a win. (Photo: Chris Barker)

Through the first half of the run nothing changed much. It may have seemed like Kessler had the whole thing in the bag, let’s all just go home now. But no one told the good Doctor Stevens, who just kept running as hard as she could, without making up much, if any, time. Guess it’s just because Kessler is so feisty.

Ironman Live’s coverage:

Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 2.25.35 PM

The defending champ took the win in 8:44, with a much faster marathon than at Kona (3:08). Stevens was next in 8:52:31, and it was a bit of a wait after that before Gajer crossed the line, followed by Darbi Roberts and Vesterby. Haskins ultimately pulled out.


  1. Lionel Sanders – 7:58:22
  2. Brent McMahon – 8:00:57
  3. TJ Tollakson – 8:04:17
  4. Andrew Starykowicz – 8:05:56
  5. Jordan Rapp – 8:08:05


  1. Meredith Kessler – 8:44:00
  2. Amanda Stevens – 8:52:31
  3. Julia Gajer – 9:03:15
  4. Darbi Roberts – 9:05:10
  5. Michelle Vesterby – 9:11:31

About the Author

Kelly O'Mara
Kelly is a reporter and writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. She quit triathlon for a few years, because triathletes can be annoying, but now she's back into it and only hanging out with the non-annoying triathletes. She blogs about stuff at Sunny Running.

Most Recent Articles