The second running of Challenge Taiwan saw calm and cool conditions early in the day, a building wind on the bike and the sun’s ever-increasing intensity, forcing the professional contingent to face a marathon start in broiling heat. Afternoon cloud cover brought welcome relief to the latter stages of the pro race, while age groupers enjoyed a mostly shady run, despite still thick humidity. Within the changing conditions, two athletes from New Zealand posted powerful performances en route to victory. Dylan McNeice, back in Taiwan to defend his 2013 title, claimed his fourth lead from the start iron-distance win, and Britta Martin, the 2012 Ironman Western Australia champion, originally from Germany but a long-time New Zealand resident, literally ran away with the women’s title.
All eyes were on pre-race favorite Dylan McNeice, watching whether the young Kiwi athlete, two-time winner of Challenge Wanaka and Challenge Taiwan’s inaugural champion, would again score a start-to-finish victory. As expected, McNeice exited the swim in 46:11 with a several minute margin over the rest of the men’s field, his closest rival Eric Watson (AUS) landing in 49:38. Watson, with a similarly strong swim background to McNeice, entertained spectators by covering the final 200-meters with the butterfly stroke. New Zealand’s Guy Crawford was hot on Watson’s heels, then three minutes later came Fredrik Croneborg (SWE), Taiwan local Yang Mao Yung and Brad Wauer (AUS). Nick Baldwin (SEY) followed solo after a short gap, after which the remainder of the men’s field completed the 3.8-kilometer course.
Riding solo for the entire course, McNeice extended his lead to nearly a thirteen-minute gap by the 100-kilometer mark, but dialed back his pace to ultimately reach T2 with a seven-minute buffer. Two packs of male pros were in hot pursuit of the race leader, but despite their best efforts could not put a significant dent in his power. By the time they transited through T2, Till Schramm (GER) was running in second place, and by the six-kilometer mark the men’s top five was nearly solidified, with Jason Shortis (AUS), Croneborg, Schramm and Baldwin forming the chase train to McNeice. Only Shortis and Croneborg would ultimately flip-flop places, with “Freddy’s” fleet feet moving him into second place. Despite very little jockeying for position the marathon was hardly mundane, as both Croneborg and Shortis steadily ran time into McNeice’s lead, and in the final stretch came uncomfortably close to threatening a repeat victory.
“I got some inaccurate information. I never truly believed it, but at the same time there were moments where I had to believe it,” said McNeice. “At 20-kilometers I was told I had 13 minutes, and then the next time around at that same point, at about 32-kilometers, I was told I had six minutes. I knew it was Freddy coming, and I knew I couldn’t give him an inch, so that’s when I started running hard. if I hadn’t he would have caught me easily. Then with one-kilometer to go I was told I still had six minutes, so I stopped at the last aid station to get some Coke and water and sponges. I started moving again and I sort of hobbled to the finish line, and it turned out I only had about 30 seconds in the end. I had no idea he was so close. It was pretty much a surprise to cross the finish and have Freddy and Jason basically patting me on the back shortly after!”
Fortunately for McNeice he reached the line before being forced into a sprint finish, firming up his fourth iron-distance win. “On the run I thought it was all over,” he said. “In every other one of my wins I’ve felt really good getting off the bike, but not this one. I knew I could get to the finish line but I was really hot and really uncomfortable and I just had to force in heaps of nutrition and water. I figured I’d be caught.”
Notably, Shortis’ third-place podium performance marked the 43-year-old’s 77th iron-distance competition–due to the fact that he’s a “slow learner,” he joked at the post-race awards banquet. His marathon time, 2:57:39, was second only to Croneborg, who covered the course in 2:56:09.
As is commonly the case anytime she toes a start line, Hillary Biscay, fresh off a win one week ago at the HITS Napa Valley Triathlon, was the first female out of the water in 53:23, followed a minute later by Kate Bevilaqua (AUS). Beviliaqua made quicker work of T1, however, and hit the highway in first. Bevilaqua pushed the cycling pace to enjoy a comfortable lead for much of the 180-kilometer course, however equally strong Britta Martin met up with her in T2 and ultimately nabbed the marathon lead. Rookie pro and mother of two Jessica Fleming (AUS) spent the day cycling in third position, but Belinda Granger (AUS) chased closely behind, hoping to hit the podium in her 50th and final iron-distance appearance.
While Martin took off with impressive foot speed from T2, Bevilaqua showed signs of struggle, finally pulling the plug near the 10-kilometer mark, citing fatigue from an overly ambitious early season. Left to her own devices in the lead, Martin made steady gains throughout the 26.2 miles, finally logging 3:04:16, the fastest women’s run by more than 22 minutes. That, coupled with her 4:54:37 race-best bike split ultimately earned the victory with a 29-minute margin. Overcome with emotion at the finish, Martin dedicated the race to her father who recently passed away and to her mother, whose birthday fell on race day.
Fleming backed up her own impressive ride (4:57:36) with a 3:26:30 run, quick enough to hold off Granger and claim second place. Rounding out the women’s top three, Granger was elated to post a podium-worthy performance in her final go at the iron-distance. The official Challenge Family Ambassador (and unofficially the sweetheart of Challenge Family racing worldwide), Granger was lauded at the post-race awards with a special Taiwanese “victory bear” trophy to commemorate her significant milestone.
In her awards speech, women’s champion Martin raved about the Challenge Taiwan experience. “Everything here has been amazing. Besides the organization, which is wonderful, the people in Taiwan are just awesome. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as welcomed in another country as here,” she said.
Martin also spoke about her relatively short-term experience in the sport in comparison to Granger. “I’ve only been doing triathlon for five years, but it’s been a huge learning curve for me,” she said. “Not only am I a stronger person because of it, but also a better person. Anyone that’s raced this distance knows, that last 20-kilometers in the run does something to you.” Challenge Taiwan marked Martin’s first race since Kona 2013, after which she “changed everything.” Thus the win symbolized a fresh start to her career and fair warning to the rest of the women’s professional ranks that she is certainly an athlete to watch.