Three-time ITU World Champion and 2012 Olympic Silver Medalist Javier Gomez of Spain proved his talents stretch beyond draft-legal racing with a convincing win in Panama Ironman 70.3 today. On the women’s side, Canadian Angela Naeth became the first two-time champion in the history of the event, reclaiming her title from 2012. All told, nearly 1,000 professional and age-group athletes competed in the race, which doubled as the Latin American Championships.
After a delayed start, the pro men set a blistering pace in the swim, aided by a swift current in the Panama Canal. Gomez, who emerged first from the water first in just over 16 minutes, lost no time in the .4-mile run along a concrete path to the transition area. Right on his heels was Belgium’s Axel Zeebroek, with Americans Andrew Starykowicz, Matt Charbot, and Boulder-based Aussie Richie Cunningham about 30 seconds down.
Starykowicz, easily the strongest rider in the field, quickly made up the gap between him and Gomez as soon as he hit the bike (his 2:02:25 split was the fastest of the day by over 90 seconds). The four-loop bike course—a different format from prior year’s races—was a point of contention for many of the pro athletes, who were concerned about traffic with the age-groupers on the course at the same time. Sharp turnarounds added to the tactical headaches.
“The first lap, especially, was really dangerous, “ said Cunningham, who finished fourth. “There were just a ton of people we had to weave around. I didn’t see any crashes, but a lot of us came close.”
By the time the men hit the run, the temperature neared 90°F, and many parts of the two-loop course along the Amador Causeway offered minimal shade. Still, that didn’t do much to slow Gomez, who took only about two miles to make up the 2:50 he lost to Starykowicz on the bike. Displaying his dazzling ITU speed, Gomez locked up the win with a race-best 1:11:59 run split.
“It was a tough race—the bike course was too flat for me and usually I’m not good in the heat,” said Gomez, who finished in 3:38:28. “But I actually felt quite good. Once I was able to catch [Starykowicz], I pushed the pace for a couple more miles to open up a gap, and then held off so I could stay controlled since the heat was getting stronger, and it was windy at the end. I’m happy to have won in these conditions.”
With strong performances across the board, Charbot—another ITU standout—finished second in 3:42:12, calling the finish “one of the top five races of his career.” Betrand Billard of France turned in a solid bike and run to nab third (3:43:24) and round out the podium.
As for what’s next for Gomez, the 30-year-old says he’s keeping the possibility of racing the 70.3 World Championships in September open, but will otherwise look to defend his ITU World Championship title this fall, with his ultimate focus on the Rio Olympic Games in 2016.
“70.3 races suit my natural ability, but for right now, I’m ready to fight for a gold medal in Rio,” says Gomez. “Maybe after that, I can focus on long distance.”
The women’s race offered more fireworks than the men’s, with Naeth and Scotland’s Catriona Morrison battling it out until the final two miles for the top spot. After making up more nearly two minutes on swim leaders Mary Beth Ellis, Laurel Wassner, and Rebeccah Wassner, Naeth took charge of the race early on in the bike. Her 2:15:04 split was more than three minutes faster than any other women.
Despite a lead of about 2:30 going into T2, Naeth did not have the victory locked up just yet. Germany’s Svenja Bazlen, Morrison, Canadian Heather Wurtele, and American Heather Jackson—all strong runners—were in hot pursuit. Morrison (a four-time world duathlon champion), made the first move, first overcoming Bazlen, then setting her sights on Naeth, eventually passing her and holding on to the lead until the last mile-and-a-half of the race.
“That’s when the wheels fell off,” said Morrison, fresh from her January 18 win at Ironman 70.3 Auckland. “But that’s the risk you take in racing, and I’ll give it to Angela. It was a tough day.”
For her part, Naeth said overcoming the less-than-ideal conditions was just a matter of digging deep. “I just kept thinking, it’s all in your head. You have to have the belief that you can do it, so I just kept trying to go forward,” said Naeth after crossing the finish line in 4:04:58. “Plus the crowd was so supportive. I loved it.”
While Bazelen was able to stay strong for third, defending champion Wurtele was not so lucky: She suffered heatstroke in the final miles of the race and did not finish. In a surprising turn of events, American Ruth Brennan Morrey—a psychologist and mother of three from Rochester, Minn.—turned in the fastest run on the women’s side (1:21:31) to leapfrog her way to fifth place.
Ironman 70.3 Panama
Panama City, Panama – Feb. 16, 2014
1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run
1. Javier Gomez (ESP) 3:38:28
2. Matt Chrabot (USA) 3:42:12
3. Bertrand Billard (FRA) 3:43:24
4. Richie Cunningham (AUS) 3:45:42
5. Andrew Starykowicz (USA) 3:46:26
1. Angela Naeth (CAN) 4:04:58
2. Catriona Morrison (SCO) 4:06:16
3. Svenja Bazlen (GER) 4:08:12
4. Heather Jackson (USA) 4:13:24
5. Ruth Brennan Morrey (USA) 4:14:22