Thursday, October 15, 2009

Ironman Hawaii 2009 - Sideline Report &Thoughts

First congratulations to the winners, Craig Alexander and Chrissie Wellington. This is a very hard race to defend and repeat at, but both of these amazing athletes did it in style and with class. Wellington's win was the more predictable of the two. But the two-time winner, continued to raise the bar by breaking Paula Newby-Fraser's long-time course record. As for Alexander, he showed that the men's race has become more strategic( more on this in a bit) and, that it's not necessarily who is absolutely the fastest in each leg, but who puts together the best swim/bike/run on race day. After all - it is a triathlon, not three separate events!

Next up for recognition are four athletes to watch out for in the future. Mirinda Carfrae showed that in her first Ironman race ever, that she may be the one who'll go after Wellington and give the World Champion a run for her money in years to come. On a day where most wilted in the heat on the run, Carfrae broke the run course record for women running a quick 2:56 split for the her marathon. In finishing an impressive fourth place, Tereza Macel completed an improbable and never before done, trinity of high-level Ironman wins and places, with wins at Ironman Lake Placid and Canada, and then a 4th place at Ironman Hawaii! Both Andreas Raelert(3rd) and Rasmus Henning(5th), seem to have torn a page out of the Craig Alexander play book - wait in the weeds, and then run to your final place. Still new to Ironman racing, both of these men with their ITU run pedigrees can run much faster with a bit more experience. Watch out for these two.

I had the opportunity to watch much of the Pro Men's race on the bike up close. Most of These guys have figured it out to a T. About half way out to Hawi a large group formed that at times had 25 of them all legally spaced out 10m apart along the road in a 250m long line. It was a sight to behold. There was from time to time, a shuffling of the deck or a move off the front or from the rear, but they all knew that they had 25 seconds to resolve all this and sort themselves out again and then settle back into the long line. Eight of the top ten men in the race spent a good portion of the bike ride in this group. It was only Chris Leito and Faris Al Sultan who did not. Clearly, the strategy now with the men is to get in this group on the bike and stay there as long as you can, because if you can, and you can run well off the bike, your chances of being in the money and on the podium are highest.

Chrissie Wellington right now is in a class of her own. However, behind her it's good to see that the competition in the woman's race is getting deep, fast. Some have criticized other Ironman races this year with having weak woman's race fields. Not so at Ironman Hawaii. My wife Paolina Allan was off the bike in 16th place last year. This year, in almost the same exact running time on the race clock she was off the bike at T2 in 35th place! That is a dramatic jump in the depth of the field in one year and it is good to see.

Something needs to be done about media on the race course during the bike leg. My understanding is that there are some restrictions on this, but on race day it was hard to tell. There were mobile media in cars and on motos all over the place. In similar sports like Pro Road Racing there is a specific protocol for where media can be on the course and how long they can be there for. The WTC should look into this in more detail. I witnessed numerous incidents of cars and motos riding alongside athletes in cross-winds for a very long time. In some cases doing interviews with athletes during the race!

Another issue that should be looked at is to figure out what do do about the women's Pro race and the timing of their start. Right now with a 15 minute head-start, about half to 1/3 of the woman's field has their own race on the bike while the other half to 2/3 of the woman's field get's gobbled up by large packs of fast cycling age-group men at some point during the bike leg. The race for these women amongst the age-group men is very different than for the women that have the open road around and ahead of them. Indeed, the top-10 results of the women's race was directly impacted this year because of this, with the disqualification of Rebbecca Keat. I realize that there is no easy solution to this, but it seems a bit un-fair to have one race with a group of people that have to race under two completely different sets of circumstances on the bike.

My apologies - more minor complaints: I realize the WTC is a bit hamstrung due to the space on the Kona Pier and the layout of the King Kam hotel grounds. However the post-finish-line area at this event is a bit disorganized and not of the standard at many other WTC events and certainly not at the level of a World Championship event. The finish line itself is historical and magnificent, but beyond that it get's a bit crazy. The flow of people into and out of the area is hard to figure out. There is no where to sit down( no chairs anywhere). I talked to many athletes who just wanted to sit down somewhere after being on the go and on their feet for 9+ hours. The ground is all there is to sit on, and with the beach right there, and the whole area covered in sand and athletes all slick with sweat, sunscreen, Gatorade, coke and who knows what else, as soon as they sit down on the ground they are, in the parlance of beach-volleyball Corn-Dogged! Also the ground back there is all uneven and hard to get around on for people with blown out and wobbly legs.

OK enough of the complaints. This years Ironman Hawaii lived up to itself. It was a deceptively hard and demanding race. Winds were moderate and I am told, it was hotter than "normal" - whatever that is. It seems, blast-furnace-hot to me on the Kona coast, all the time. To use a golf analogy - this is a race where very few people actually hit par. A handful of very select people, go under par, while the rest are way over par. Paolina's day was illustrative of that. Last year, she was 22nd. A year later, in much better shape, with experience and acclimatization on her side, hoping to move up a few places, and it still went backwards for her ending up in 31st. Still not sure what went wrong. One thing Paolina did learn this year is that you can't make the whole year or even the whole trip to Ironman Hawaii revolve around the race. That may sound odd, but it's true. For her it was the going early and training with some of the best triathletes in the world for three weeks before Ironman Hawaii that was the real value in the trip. She learned a great deal. Many thanks to fellow Pro Charlotte Paul and her husband Kristian Manietta for taking Paolina under their wing for a few weeks.

This year I was able to take my bike with me and It was a real pleasure to be able to get out on the famous Queen K and get some riding in. It's extraordinary to note that the shoulder on Hwy 19 is the biggest, widest and best paved shoulder of any road that I have been on, any where in the world. You could use track racing tires on this course! Kudos to the local government and the WTC if they had and hand in this. It's like that for nearly 50 miles all the way out to Hawi! If you like the lunar landscape scenery of the lava fields and even if you don't, it's nice to know that you have that much room to ride on. It gives you peace of mind.

The real essence of this race came for me when I headed out on the run course to the infamous Energy Lab. No one, other than athletes are allowed into the energy Lab on race day and that was fine with me - it's not a place I wanted to go as I had a bit of a melt-down in there myself a number of years ago. Instead, I stood on a barren stretch of the Queen K just along from the Energy Lab and watched a long procession of runners pass me on a relentlessly sunny and very hot day, it was completely silent except for the squish, squish, squish sounds of wet feet, in wet shoes. Everyone very quiet and alone in their thoughts and trying to do everything they can to get across that finish line at Ironman Hawaii. That's what its all about.

Paolina finished and there were some emotions. We stood and chatted with some other Pro women for a bit and then went back to the Condo. Then it was time to be tourists for 2 days! The high-light was making it to the summit of Mauna Kea by car just as the sun was setting( below)! Standing on top of the earth's tallest mountain( if measured from the sea-floor), way above the clouds looking out at that magnificent sunset seemed to be worth it. I some how think we will be back.


eXpat said...

Interesting to get a close up perspective on the whole endeavour. Those shoulders are why they have races like that on the Big Island and not on Oahu, where good cycling opportunities are limited. The heat there is something else. I ran three marathons on Oahu which pretty much eliminated any desire to run a marathon again.

Fleck said...

Agreed on the heat. It always seems really hot to me in Kona. Real vets of the race told me that this year it was hotter than "normal". Also there was absolutely no cloud cover all day, which I am sure added to the heat index

Brown said...

That was an interesting take on Kona. You obviously like throwing stones, without offering solutions. More respect is deserved to THE original Ironman.

Sam, Australia.