Contributor Brad Culp gives his take on the weekend of triathlon. In this edition: Let pros swim, Oceanside is overrated, and Starky is back.
There’s no such thing as a good race recap. I should know because I’ve written and read more than anyone else on earth not named Timothy Carlson. Don’t worry if you don’t know who that is—it’s not important for this article.
We’re going to try something a little different starting this weekend. Instead of giving you another play-by-play full of arbitrary splits and quotes from a press release, I’m going to do my best to share the good, bad, and ugly of each weekend’s marquee events. I’ll watch the handful of races that I can, talk to those who raced, and hopefully provide insights you wouldn’t otherwise get. There will be plenty of opinions, and I’ll do my best to offend as few people as possible. But I’m going to start with Sunday’s Ironman South Africa, so my apologies in advance…
Ironman South Africa
From my perspective, shortening the pro swim was a mistake. Professional Ironman triathletes can and should be competing on a 140.6-mile course, excluding the most extraordinary circumstances. The fact that two age-groupers tragically lost their lives doesn’t change how I feel. While we still don’t know the details surrounding the unfortunate age-group situation, historically, swim deaths are due to underlying heart conditions and not water conditions—which (shouldn’t) pertain to the pros. If conditions were indeed unsafe, then there shouldn’t have been a swim for the age-groupers who are there racing for the experience, a medal, and a few minutes of bragging at the office.
The professionals are racing for a bit more, and they should be able to handle 2.4 miles in moderately rough seas. There were six Kona slots on the line (four for the men and two for the women), and with those come sponsor incentives, contracts for next year, and basically their whole livelihoods. I understand the nearly impossible logistics of having the pros swim a different distance than the age-groupers, but I think a contingency plan should have been in place to allow the pros to do the full 2.4-mile swim while the age-groupers patiently waited to do a 138.2-mile duathlon.
Thankfully the swim truncation didn’t make any difference in the women’s race, because Lucy Charles proved once again that she’s the best swimmer in the history of the sport and the fastest iron-woman in the world not from Switzerland. The finish gives Charles (now Charles-Barclay after her winter wedding) the summer off from Kona qualification concerns, so she can focus on winning the Challenge Roth title that slipped away in the final hundred meters last year.
This is part of what I love about the new qualification system: Aside from being more fair and making for more exciting races, it allows top-tier triathletes to race when and where they want. I think it will ultimately benefit Challenge and independent races, which obviously wasn’t Ironman’s intent. Please don’t let them know.
Lastly, we have to mention Ben Hoffman because everyone seems to like him for some reason. He ended last season with a stress fracture in his back and kicked off this year with his third Ironman South Africa title in four years. He recently announced that he’s expecting his first child with his wife, Kelsey, who is exponentially more fun to hang out with. Not a bad start to 2019 for Hoff.
Ironman 70.3 Oceanside
Oceanside is overrated; both as a place and a race. Don’t get me wrong: It’s one of the best-run events in North America and it’s an almost-beautiful surf/military town. But for a place located smack-dab between La Jolla and Laguna Beach, you might be disappointed upon your first visit.
I don’t mean to pile-on. It’s where I moved right after college, so I think that gives me free reign to poke a little fun. It’s also where I did my first real triathlon, and it used to be where every Kona contender kicked off his or her season. It was shaping up to be that again this year, until Lionel Sanders, Patrick Lange, and Jan Frodeno all pulled out. That left Ben Kanute as the lone big fish in the pond, and he took a narrow win over Rodolphe Von Berg, whose name I just spelled right for the first time. It’s also one you should get used to reading.
The women’s race wasn’t a race because Daniela Ryf has decided to spend this spring dominating the big North American races for a change. Holly Lawrence did manage to run two minutes faster than Ryf, but that still got her to the finish a few minutes after Ryf had already finished her celebrations and interviews. Something tells me Ryf’s 1:24:07 run could’ve easily been five minutes faster, but she’s looking ahead. She’ll now spend a few weeks training in LA before shattering the Ironman world record in Texas in three weeks.
Ironman 70.3 Texas
Three years ago, Andrew Starykowicz was grinding his way to the top of the Ironman 70.3 ranks. He was the guy giving Lionel Sanders a run for his money all season long. Then he needed hip surgery. Then he got hit by a truck and nearly died. Last season was all about seeing if his body could still compete at an elite level. This season is all about proving he’s still the fastest triathlete in history on two wheels, and that he can run pretty well for a big guy whose lower body has been through a lot of trauma.
After watching the win slip away in the final 5K at Ironman New Zealand, “Starky” set out to make a statement in Galveston, which was something of a tune-up race in between Taupo and Ironman Texas in three weeks. He won the race on the heels of a blistering 1:56:16 bike split, which I’m going to say is a course record without looking it up. After the race, Starky told me that gearing played a huge role in building a seven-minute lead on his rivals: “I don’t know why more guys aren’t riding a 55-tooth chainring at a race like that. We had a tailwind going out and I was still putting out power in my 55×11 while other guys where just spinning their legs or coasting in their 53s.”
It’s worth noting that Starykowicz and Michi Weiss have arguably been the two best Ironman athletes in the world since Kona, and they’re set for a head-to-head showdown at the North American Championship. Starky has had some choice words for Weiss in the past—both on and off the course—so expect fireworks in Texas.
The women’s race was actually a contest on the run. South African Jeanni Seymour edged out the win with a 1:18:01 half-marathon, which was 98 seconds faster than Starykowicz. While she may not be a household name just yet, it’s Seymour’s ninth Ironman 70.3 title and she’s only 27.