Olympic speedsters are setting new standards for long-course racing.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
Last November, Iván Raña, a 33-year-old short-course champion from Spain who competed on three Olympic teams, showed up on the Mexican island of Cozumel to take a shot at his first Ironman. Despite his Olympic appearances, Raña is far from dominant on the ITU circuit. He hasn’t won a race since 2008. But even as a relatively anonymous Olympic racer, the long-course novice blitzed the field at Ironman Cozumel by running a blazing 2:44 marathon and winning by eight minutes over his closest rival in a course record 8:15. Only two weeks before, Raña cruised to victory at Ironman 70.3 Lanzarote four minutes ahead of the runner-up in a time of 4:07.
As spectacular as they might appear, Raña’s performances weren’t unusual. Many other Olympians have had similar success this year at their first long-course races, setting course records and decimating fields of stellar athletes—in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and St. George, Utah—that included 70.3 and Ironman world champions (see “Debut Long-Course Wins” here). In fact, this year’s showdown between the ITU speedsters and long-course veterans should only grow fiercer as the two fastest short-course stars moving to the half-iron distance this year—Lisa Norden of Sweden and Javier Gomez of Spain, last year’s Olympic silver medalists—get into the thick of their race seasons. In April, Norden easily won the half-iron-distance Challenge Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands, out-swimming her nearest competitor by five minutes and coming off the bike with a seven-and-a-half-minute lead. With her new coach, three-time Ironman world champion Craig Alexander, she’s now set her sights on winning the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in September. “That is my very main goal for the year,” she says. Gomez won his debut half-iron-distance race in May at Half Challenge Barcelona, which doubled as the 2013 European Half Distance Triathlon Championships, beating two-time Ironman world champion Chris McCormack by 11 minutes. And although he had hoped to race Vegas this year, having secured an automatic entry like Norden by winning last year’s Hy-Vee Elite Cup race, he’ll have to wait until next year because, unfortunately, it’s only one week before the London ITU World Triathlon Series Grand Final. But he’s planning to add another half-iron-distance race at the end of his season after defending his title at the Xterra World Championship. “I really like the 70.3 distance and I’m looking forward to doing more,” he says.
While many recent long-course world champions started as short-course specialists—McCormack, Alexander, Leanda Cave and Mirinda Carfrae, to name a few—the current crop of Olympians are clearly the fastest ITU athletes ever to step up to the longer distances and will likely be this year’s exciting wild cards for Kona and Vegas. They’ve reached the pinnacle of triathlon speed and efficiency: capable of swimming less than 17 minutes for the opening leg of an Olympic-distance triathlon and running 10Ks off the bike in 30 minutes or less. Yet the ease with which many of these former Olympians have transitioned to long-course racing in recent months, setting course records in their first attempts at the Ironman and leaving their closest competitors minutes behind, has been breathtaking. They’ve already altered the way long-course events are won or lost, adapting these events to their style of racing. Get ready for more sub-50-minute Ironman swims, head-to-head battles on the marathon course and sprint finishes.
“It’s all getting faster,” says long-course veteran Kelly Williamson, last year’s runner-up in Vegas. “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.”
Adds two-time Olympic medalist Bevan Docherty about his short-course comrades, “They’re turning these longer-distance races into a race instead of an individual event. They can work together and key off each other, and that’s what I’m trying to do as well.”
“Faster is faster,” says Joel Filliol, former coach of two-time Olympic medalist Simon Whitfield as well as the Canadian and Great Britain Olympic teams, adding he isn’t surprised at the recent performances. “If you’re faster over a shorter distance and you do the work required, you’re going to be faster over the longer distances.” Filliol, who coaches Carfrae, Danish Olympian Helle Frederiksen, who won her debut Ironman 70.3 in San Juan in March, and rising short-course star Mario Mola of Spain, says whether ITU athletes can dominate long-course races at the world championship level later this year remains to be seen. “I have a lot of respect for the men and women who are currently winning Ironman, so I don’t think it’s going to completely change, but you can imagine a scenario in which [ITU athletes] will be able to challenge for the win.”
One reason, points out Docherty, who set the course record at Ironman New Zealand in his debut at the distance in March, is that “not every short-course athlete is going to make the conversion successfully. It’s different racing. Some people are suited for it; others are not.”
Last year’s Ironman 70.3 world champion, Sebastian Kienle, agrees: “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.”
Yet given the large number of recent Olympians testing the waters in half-iron and iron-distance events this year, many experts believe it’s likely that a handful of these athletes will not only challenge long-course veterans for the finish-line banners, but set new standards for performance at Kona and other marquee long-course events.
“Where we used to see Ironman athletes who might have a weak swim and strong cycle and run, those athletes who come from an ITU background don’t have any weaknesses,” says Justin Trolle, an ITU coach in Colorado Springs, Colo. “They’re strong in all areas. They’ll have strong swims, they’ll get off the bike in the lead and they’ll be looking for those 2:41, 2:42 runs. So I think we’re going to see times across the board improve. I think we’ll start to see that 2:40 marathon time, which used to be the golden number for athletes at Kona and was hard to reach, falling pretty quickly.”
With superb running and swimming mechanics developed from years on the ITU circuit, these athletes have the basic tools to hold a fast pace at the longer distances, especially when they approach their mid-30s, begin to lose some of their short-course speed and gain a little more endurance. “The reason why ITU athletes are successful, even at an early stage of tackling the longer distance events, is that they are generally the better athletes,” says John Hellemans, a physiologist in Christchurch, New Zealand, who coaches the Netherlands Olympic team and was a long-time coach of New Zealand’s national team. “They are faster swimmers and runners than their Ironman specialist counterparts. Actually, the latter in many cases take up Ironman because they are not fast enough for the Olympic-distance events, let’s be honest.”
As for why so many short-course speedsters are testing the long-course waters this year, the reasons are varied: a new challenge, an opportunity to earn more prize money and gain new sponsors, a chance to work on non-draft cycling skills and the need to take a year off from the grueling ITU World Triathlon Series circuit before starting their next three-year campaign to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“I’m ready to switch it up a bit,” says two-time Canadian Olympian Brent McMahon, the winner of this year’s Ironman 70.3 U.S. Pro Championship in St. George. “Rio is still three years away and I may go back, but I’m kind of liking this distance.”
“My main goal this year is to challenge myself and take myself out of my comfort zone,” Norden says, adding that she also needs a break from five straight years of living out of a suitcase while training in camps and traveling on the ITU circuit. “A big goal in my career is to win the world champs in every distance in the sport of triathlon. I won the sprint world champs, I won the Olympic-distance world champs and I want to win the half-Ironman world champs. This year is the perfect year for me to do so.” She also thinks her focus on endurance and time-trialing this year will make her a stronger short-course athlete with a “bigger toolbox.” “What this big base will hopefully let me do in the future is build a higher peak.”
For Gomez, the non-drafting Olympic and long-course races this year provide a nice physical and mental reprieve from the physical ITU swims and head-to-head battles he’s had to contend with on the draft-legal bike and run course. “Don’t get me wrong, non-draft races are hard,” he says. “You have to go really hard for two hours, but they’re not as stressful as the races in ITU. The mental game is really important because any small mistake can cost you the race. You need to be really, really quick in transitions, and you need to really be smart during the race. In a non-drafting race there are things that could go wrong, too, but it’s more fair. It’s just yourself and your bike, and there’s not that interaction with others like in ITU.”
Having coached many Olympic hopefuls, Hellemans understands the need for those athletes to jump off the ITU treadmill this year and mix in some long-course races. “The road to the Olympics is brutal, much tougher than the road to Kona. The Olympic journey consists of two or three years of relentless worldwide competition with relatively little reward—and for many athletes, significant sacrifices in cost and relationships. At the end of the three years, a mere 70 athletes of each gender make the cut. The rest go home at best empty-handed, but more likely battered, bruised and broke. Ironically for the majority of athletes who make the grade, it all means little unless they end up on the podium.” Contrast that, he adds, with the opportunity to do “a race of slightly longer distance, usually in some nice place, with little pressure on a nice bike and with a high chance of success.”