If last weekend’s Ironman 70.3 U.S. Pro Championships were any indication, 2013 will go down as the year of the ITU invasion into long-course racing.
With the London Games a distant memory and the road to qualify for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics another year away, ITU athletes searching for new challenges are making their debuts this year at premier half-iron distance and iron-distance races and, in many cases, beating the better-known stars of long-course racing at their own game.
Case in point, last weekend’s inaugural IM 70.3 St. George, which doubled as this year’s IM 70.3 U.S. Pro Championships. Two-time Canadian Olympian Brent McMahon entered the race as one of the least-heralded athletes in the field, listed 53rd on the start list of 53 male pros. Yet he beat a stellar line up of long-course stars that included last year’s Ironman 70.3 world champion Sebastian Kienle. Second place went to another relatively unknown ITU athlete, American Kevin Collington, while Andy Potts, a former ITU athlete who represented the U.S. in the 2004 Olympics, held off two other ITU speedsters who led the race in the early miles of the run, Russian brothers Ivan and Denis Vasiliev, for the final podium spot.
[Pick up the July/August issue of Inside Triathlon, available on newsstands June 18, for more on the impact ITU athletes are having on long-course events this year and how the experts predict they’ll do at Vegas and Kona.]
In the women’s race, which featured an equally deep field of long-course stars that included last year’s Ironman and Ironman 70.3 world champion Leanda Cave, German Olympian Svenja Bazlen nearly stole the show in only her second 70.3. With a strong swim and a powerful bike on the hilly St. George course, she came into T2 with a five-minute lead, but was run down in the final miles by American Meredith Kessler and finished second. American Heather Wurtele rounded out the podium in third with former ITU Australian Annabel Luxford in fourth.
“It’s really cool to see the ITU girls for better or for worse—they’ve already beaten me this year a number of times—but it’s going to raise the game with Ironman,” said American Kelly Williamson, last year’s runner up at Vegas who was fifth in St. George and was beaten by Bazlen at the Ironman 70.3 San Juan earlier this year. “It’s all getting faster. No matter how well we do we can’t get complacent because there’s always someone right there on your shoulder trying to take your spot. It’s good to see the cross over.”
“I think it’s absolutely great,” said Kienle. “I don’t think the best ITU athletes are necessarily better than the best 70.3 or long-course athletes, but they are making the field deeper. It’s great that after the Olympic season they are trying to do something else and I’m thrilled because I’m always looking for good competition.”
Bazlen’s strategy at St. George was to race the 70.3 like an Olympic distance race—hard from the start and hang on at the end. “I knew I had to gain a lot of time on the bike so I pushed hard, I pushed everything I could,” she said. “And then it was, like, let’s see what happens on the run.”
VIDEO: Brent McMahon Impresses At 70.3 St. George
While many people regarded her performance a surprise, Kienle didn’t, having trained with Bazlen for many years at training camps in Spain. “When she decided to give 70.3 a try I was pretty sure she was going to win something,” he said, adding that she will get faster with time as she fine tunes her nutrition and pacing strategy for the longer races. “Honestly I think she’s still underperforming. Just based on her running abilities, she could have been way faster on the run for sure.”
“I think it was more experience versus not experience and experience really won,” said Lisa Norden, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist from Sweden, noting that she’s also familiar with Bazlen’s talents having trained and raced against her, but that Kessler smartly paced herself through the bike and was better able to use her run. Norden, the fastest ITU female moving to 70.3s this year, came to St. George intending to do the race but decided a few days before not to start because of a plantar fasciitis injury. Look for her to be a favorite at the Vegas Ironman 70.3 World Championships.
McMahon, who also hopes to qualify for Vegas, said he discovered after doing a number of 70.3 races that the half-iron distance suits him. “I’m just learning this game after two Olympics,” he said. “I’ve been moving up the distance. I’ve still got room to improve, so it’s exciting.”
“I’m ready to switch it up a bit,” he added. “Rio is still three years away and I may go back, but I’m kind of liking this distance.”
McMahon came to St. George two weeks before the race and pre-rode and ran the course to figure out how to parcel out his energy. “Certain ITU athletes do really well and certain athletes struggle a little bit” at the longer distances, he said adding that he’s discovered the keys for ITU athletes like himself moving up to the 70.3 are to conserve a little bit, pace yourself and pay close attention to nutrition. “For me that’s the game, nutrition. You blow that at this distance and you’re going to struggle. That’s what I’ve learned coming from ITU to here. Nutrition is basic.”
Bevan Docherty, a New Zealand Olympian who moved up in distance to Ironman and 70.3 races this year, discovered that the hard way last weekend when he couldn’t keep his nutrition down on the bike and was forced to drop out in the early miles of the St. George run. But he noted that when the nutrition strategies go right for former ITU athletes, the mental strength they’re able to summon from having to race side-by-side with their competitors in draft legal events gives them an edge.
“What’s happening is they’re turning these longer distance races into a race instead of an individual event,” he said. “They can work together and key off each other and that’s what I’m trying to do as well.”
Adds Potts: “They have experience racing in tight pockets and they’re willing to fight tooth and nail for a single place. I think it’s that mental attribute that gets them into that competitive space. And they’re willing to extend their bodies to the end of what they’re capable of doing.”
Kessler, who has finished 49 Ironmans, but never done a short-course race, will get to experience a little short-course pain when she takes on her first Olympic-distance race in Maryland at the Columbia Triathlon May 19. “I always think that these ITU girls are coming into our dark side of 70.3s and Ironman distance, and now I’m going over to their dark side,” she said, adding “I don’t know what I’m going to do when we’re done by 10 am, just in time for breakfast.”
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