On a relatively mild day in Kona, Switzerland’s Daniela Ryf not only surprised the triathlon world on Saturday by breaking Mirinda Carfrae’s course record of 8:52 by an incredible six minutes, she also surprised herself. Ryf’s season had been mostly positive—boasting a satisfying win at Challenge Roth and an unbelievable performance to take the Ironman Zurich title only a week later. “Doing Roth and Zurich was a risk, but it was good for my head,” said Ryf.
But the season wasn’t all good. She was forced to pull out of Ironman Frankfurt due to cold temperatures, and worse yet suffered a sub par finish at 70.3 World Championships in Mooloolaba. Despite being a pre-race favorite, Ryf uncharacteristically struggled on the bike, but still toughed out the run to finish fourth.
“After Mooloolaba, I wasn’t so sure where my bike form was,” said Ryf after her record-setting day in Kona. “When you start doubting yourself it can be dangerous, you can actually talk yourself down.” Ryf did what she could to recuperate after the result in Mooloolaba—getting extensive massages and putting in a big block of training at her team’s camp on the volcanic island of Jeju in South Korea. As disappointing as her performance at 70.3 Worlds was, Ryf still took something away from it.
“[Mooloolaba] was a really good experience for me because I realized that the race is not finished after the bike, I can also run ok,” said Ryf. “I always thought I had to get away on the bike and I’m just going to hang in and run.” Despite Ryf’s new found confidence in her run, she still needed encouragement.
“I had great support,” said Ryf of her coach, Brett Sutton. “We had some talks, and he was pretty sure my form was there, it was just that I was doubting.” Even leading into race week, Ryf seemed unsure about her fitness and her prospects for beating her main rival, Mirinda Carfrae, head to head.
It wasn’t simply a case of cagey pre-race mindgames. “I don’t train with any power meters,” said Ryf. “So coming to Kona and training in the strong wind, I didn’t actually know how I was doing.” Ryf figured that, due to the notorious Queen K winds, she was still stuck in a cycling rut. But Sutton knew otherwise.
“My coach’s advice was, ‘Just go out there and enjoy yourself,’” said Ryf. “We had done some good training, so I wasn’t unfit in Mooloolooba, it was just a day that didn’t work.” Ryf says that Sutton told her to remain calm because he knew where her fitness was, even if she didn’t.
During the race, Ryf had her usual good swim and rode with the group behind Meredith Kessler in the beginning stages. “After about 30k, I tried to take a turn out front,” said Ryf. “I just thought, ‘I’ll see how the legs are, and I’ll try to push it.’ No one else took a turn again, and I never looked back.” While Ryf had eventual fourth-place finisher Anja Beranek stay with her for a while, no one took a turn for the entire rest of the day.
“My legs hurt a lot into the headwind, but I just had to dig deep because I didn’t know where the others were,” said Ryf, who broke away from Beranek with 20k to go. “And that was a good thing because I could increase the lead and not even know about it.” said Ryf who actually opened a huge eight-minute gap on Beranek by T2.
Without any splits given to any of the athletes on Saturday’s event, Mirinda Carfrae, the next major challenger, had no idea that Ryf had entered T2 with a massive 22-minute lead on her.
Once onto the run, Ryf didn’t take any chances and began running like Carfrae was right on her heels. Heading out onto Ali’i Drive, Ryf took off—averaging 6:25 per mile through the first three miles. Before mile 10, Ryf looked a little worse for wear, but certainly wasn’t in trouble. She was still running near 6:30 per mile pace and Carfrae wasn’t gaining much at all.
It was a risky move, but since Ryf also didn’t have any information about time gaps, she only had the good feeling in her legs and the fear that Carfrae could come by—like she did when Carfrae erased a 14:30 deficit coming out of T2 and took the title in 2014.
Though she felt good, she was never thinking about the course record until much later in the race. “My coach was following me online, and he sent a message to one of my friends who was 4k from the finish. [Sutton] said, ‘Ok, you can go for the record, just keep your pace.’
“I didn’t know where I was, so I picked it up a bit,” said Ryf. “At Palani, I really started to push it, and you know when the crowd really starts to scream and shout? That last 2k, I didn’t feel anything. I just kind of sprinted into the finish, and I had no idea.”
It turned out that not only were Ryf’s doubts from 70.3 Worlds entirely unfounded, but the setback also forced her to reset her approach to racing and discover a newfound faith in her run. “To break this record where so many legends have raced is incredible,” said Ryf. With another win in Kona under her belt, and a women’s field seemingly unable to answer her strengths, it’s time to think about Ryf as one of the new greats.