Sunday will be just the third time Ironman 70.3 San Juan has taken place. Entering the race, there are only two winners in its young history.
Americans Kelly Williamson and Tim O’Donnell were victorious in 2011 and 2012, and they come into this year’s edition with a big target on their backs.
After all, everyone wants to beat the champ.
“It is natural to feel a bit of extra pressure when you’ve won the event in the past, but I also know that carrying that pressure doesn’t do me any good,” Williamson told us via e-mail on Thursday in between a workout and hopping on a plane to Puerto Rico. “When you step back, this race is just like any other one; it is a new year, a new event, and a different field.”
Williamson will certainly have to be at her best in order to win the St. Patrick’s Day race. Reigning Ironman and Ironman 70.3 world champion Leanda Cave of Great Britain, 2012 San Juan runner-up Linsey Corbin of the United States, and Australian Mirinda Carfrae—a former 70.3 and Ironman world champion herself—are all in the field.
On the men’s side, O’Donnell – who returned to his Boulder, Colo. home from Australia with Carfrae, his fiancé, last weekend – will be challenged by a mix of Americans and international athletes looking to test their early-season fitness. Maxim Kriat (UKR), Michael Lovato (USA), Matt Reed (USA), Paul Matthews (AUS), Faris Al-Sultan (GER), Richie Cunningham (AUS), Dirk Bockel (LUX) and Andrew Starykowicz (USA) will all be making the start and are potential podium finishers. Brad Kahlefeldt (AUS) and Manny Huerta (USA) also add an interesting twist to this deep field as they work to transition from Olympic-style racing to 70.3 non-drafting events.
“My goal is definitely to defend my title here in San Juan,” O’Donnell said. “It is by far the best field ever seen here so that will be a challenge but it will be a great gauge of early season fitness.
“With 50 guys it will change the dynamics of the race, possibly opening it up to some of the pure runners being able to ride in with a group and stay in contention.”
Williamson arrives in Puerto Rico after winning a half marathon in mid-January and taking third at Panama 70.3 a few weeks later. She said the one difference between Panama and San Juan is her fitness, since it’s still early in the season.
“Panama came really early; about two weeks earlier than it did last year, which was already pretty early,” she said. “I didn’t quite feel like I was firing on all cylinders at Panama. It felt like the entire race was forced. But I did it because I knew that I could gain fitness from the effort.”
O’Donnell was the 2010 and 2012 Ironman 70.3 U.S. pro champion, and in 2011 he finished second. But 2011 wasn’t the worst year for him because he happened to win the Ironman U.S. championship instead.
Not a bad trade off.
San Juan is the first race of O’Donnell’s season and it’s part of a campaign to return to the Ironman World Championship start line for the third year in a row. He didn’t finish the race in 2011, snagged a top-10 finish in 2012 and will look to improve on that for 2013.
O’Donnell, Williamson and rest of the pro field—plus the age groupers—will navigate the protected waters of Condado Lagoon for their 1.2-mile swim, to be followed by a quick transition and a 56-mile bike ride around the northern slice of the island that the winds will buffet. After that, a two-loop run course that totals 13.1 miles and that brings the athletes into the old part of San Juan (cobblestones included) will complete the race.
“I love the run course here in San Juan,” O’Donnell said. “Not only is it challenging but running through old San Juan and along the sea wall in the National Park is really spectacular.”
Added Williamson: “I am excited to get back to such a beautiful place that has been good to me the past few years. Honestly, you’d be hard pressed to find many locations more suited for a race like this then San Juan. Definitely a top notch event.”