On an unusually mild summer day in Colorado, the Ironman 70.3 Boulder professional start list was packed with athletes ready to show their home-turf prowess–and enjoy a pre-race sleep in their own beds–in the high-altitude town that has become triathlon’s training Mecca. With so many accomplished athletes at the start it was anyone’s guess who would finish triumphant, and the battles for victory certainly did not disappoint. Ultimately, Joe Gambles (AUS) proved that he’s not yet ready to relinquish the title he’s held for three consecutive years, landing his fourth Boulder win less than a mile from his front door. And 2010 Ironman 70.3 World Champion Jodie Swallow (GBR), newly arrived to Boulder to train for the summer months with coach Siri Lindley, staked her claim on the women’s race with a surge in the run’s final miles.
The Men’s Race
Although James Seear (AUS) was first out of the water in 23:06, there was no clear men’s leader early on, as David Giardini (USA), Kevin Collington (USA), Richie Cunningham (AUS), Paul Matthews (AUS), Tim Don (GBR), Gambles and Callum Millward (NZL) formed a fast train to T1, all within 10 seconds of one another. Chasing closely behind were Paul Ambrose (ASM), Greg Bennett (USA), Ben Hoffman (USA), James Hadley (GBR) and Leon Griffin (AUS).
Determined to push the pace on the bike, Gambles quickly took up the lead, and by mile 30 had gapped the rest of the group by two and a half minutes. Hot on his trail in the chase pack were Seear, Don, Collington, Cunningham, Millward, Matthews and Bennett, with Hoffman, Ambrose and Giardini a minute-plus in arrears. By the time “Smokin’ Joe” Gambles returned to the Boulder Reservoir and T2, he had built a buffer of four minutes over his nearest rivals.
“I have a new coach, Neal Henderson, and I wanted to test myself on the bike and really ride fast,” said Gambles afterward. “There was some improvement. I was just really hoping I had a good enough lead.”
Hightailing it out of T2 in order not to waste a single second of that lead, Gambles struggled to strap on his watch and actually had to stop and backtrack a few paces to retrieve it after dropping it to the ground.
“I dropped it and I thought: I guess I don’t need a watch. But wait, I don’t want to get a penalty! So I quickly turned back to get it. And then I thought: If I lose by 10 seconds I’m not going to be happy with myself!”
Gambles’ four-minute gap was truly the calm before the storm, as a tornado of talent came flying in off the bike course together: Cunningham, Seear, Don, Matthews, Millward, Bennett and Collington finished the 56-mile course nearly in unison, and flew rapid-fire out onto the run course to the delight of spectators. The one man that soon emerged as the fleetest of all was Don, however, as the Brit left his cohorts in the dust, carving 2:10 out of Gambles’ lead by the start of lap two. Anticipation grew among the rapt spectators as to whether Don would sustain the momentum needed to catch Gambles, and while his 1:11:49 half marathon was by far the fastest on the day, “Smokin’ Joe” found his own reserve of speed and managed to clinch the victory in a time of 3:42:13. Don, in turn, clocked 3:44:05.
“From mile four I was on my limit,” said Gambles, obviously elated with his Boulder quadruple crown. “My legs were stinging after that bike, so I sort of tried to ease into the run and not go out too crazy. But I was gradually slowing down and Tim was closing, so I had to push, and I’ve never pushed so hard. And full credit to Tim, especially considering what he and his family have been going through recently.”
Gambles comment was in reference to a family emergency that led to both Don’s late entry into the race as well as his being overcome with emotion at the finish, visibly sobbing as he crossed the line. While Don originally planned to race in his home country (Ironman 70.3 UK), he stayed behind in his adopted home of Colorado to tend to his young daughter’s health. Three-year-old Matilda underwent emergency surgery earlier in the week to address a bleeding cyst on her brain, thus Don immediately postponed his training and racing plans, spending day and night by her side at Denver Children’s Hospital. Don chose to race only after Matilda was successfully discharged and could be out on the course to cheer for her father on what was a highly emotional Father’s Day for the entire Don family.
“We came out of hospital on Friday, so I’ve been there the whole week with my wife and Matilda,” said Don. “We’re just thankful they found it. We’re not out of the woods–we still have lots of tests and scans over the next few months, but the surgeon is happy with how it looks.”
“I wasn’t myself on the bike,” he continued. “But I’ve only done one 40-minute ride this week and two five-kilometer runs. But I was on the start line, so I was there to race.”
Richie Cunningham, another long-time Boulder resident, rounded out the men’s podium, using his own impressive foot speed to break away from the field of world-class men behind him, finishing in 3:46:54.
The Women’s Race
Jodie Swallow used her well-honed swim skill to build a minute buffer over the rest of the field right from the start, exiting the water in 23:59. Next into T1 were Laura Bennett (USA) and Leanda Cave (GBR), with another minute gap to the fourth woman to emerge, Rachel Joyce (GBR). Rebekah Keat (AUS), also a pre-race favorite, followed less than a minute later and Jeanni Seymour (ZAF) trailed Keat shortly thereafter. Similar to the men’s field, all of these top female contenders make Boulder either their permanent or temporary in-season home.
Reports from mile 30 on the bike course had Swallow holding the lead, but just barely, as Joyce had powered her way to within 10 seconds of her countrywoman. The two would remain that close for a majority of the race, with Joyce occasionally catching and passing Swallow, but with Swallow ultimately dominating the long-distance duel. Behind the British leaders a battle for third brewed, with Bennett, Cave, Keat and Seymour all jockeying to gain the upper hand.
Joyce arrived at T2 just ahead of Swallow, while their order flip-flopped as they transitioned to the run, and despite an exceptionally close race–practically within arm’s reach–for the first 11 miles, Swallow eventually surged and scored the faster half marathon split and the overall victory in 4:07:39. Joyce celebrated second place in 4:09:00, backing up a similar finish at Ironman 70.3 Kansas just one week ago.
Although Seymour did bank some time against the other competitors, finishing the bike more than a minute ahead of Cave, two minutes ahead of Bennett and another 30 seconds in advance of Keat, her hopes for third place were whittled away by the hard-charging women behind her. By lap two of the run, Cave had ahold of the final podium spot, with Bennett hot on her heels. And while Seymour still sat in fourth, Keat made every effort to bridge the gap and potentially earn the podium position for herself. In the end, Keat’s stellar speed netted the day’s fastest run split (1:22:35) and fourth place; Cave kept control of third and Bennett came fifth, the three women crossing the line in 4:13:03 (Cave), 4:13:23 (Keat) and 4:13:38 (Bennett).
Swallow raved about the fan support from Boulder’s triathlete-friendly community. “I’ve only been here six weeks and it just felt like everyone was cheering me on, so thank you!” she said. “I had my boyfriend James out there, too, and I saw Rinny out on the course and then with racing so close to Rachel, they all gave me so much inspiration.”
“It was a really fun race!” said Joyce, showing her love for tough competition. “I had to work really hard to catch Jodie on the bike. On the run I kind of held back a little bit at first, and then I started to feel good coming into the second lap. I caught Jodie but then she just surged away once, then twice and then I was completely off the back.”
Swallow had this to say about the intensity of racing in close proximity to a rival almost the entire way: “I love it! It’s what I’m good at. I was average at ITU, but I’m actually good at this, so to race like that, it sort of incorporates the ITU tactics into the 70.3 and I really love it.”
Ironman 70.3 Boulder
Boulder, Colo. – June 15, 2014
1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run
1. Joe Gambles (AUS) 3:42:13
2. Tim Don (GBR) 3:44:05
3. Richie Cunningham (AUS) 3:46:54
4. Callum Millward (NZL) 3:47:23
5. Paul Matthews (AUS) 3:47:50
1. Jodie Swallow (GBR) 4:07:37
2. Rachel Joyce (GBR) 4:09:00
3. Leanda Cave (GBR) 4:13:03
4. Rebekah Keat (AUS) 4:13:23
5. Laura Bennett (USA) 4:13:38