If you’ve covered Kona for a long time, race week can feel a little bit like Groundhog Day (cue up grizzled tri-journalist grumblings at a bar on Ali’i): You go to palm tree-lined condos to photograph pro bikes, you have meetings at the same three restaurants in town, you see a lot of the same faces, you cover the underwear run, you talk about what the wind will be like. You talk about the contenders you know; you talk about the course you know every inch of; you make predictions on how it’ll all go down. The dynamics and the names might change, but not drastically from year to year. You mostly know what you’re going to get when you land.
The 2021 Ironman World Championships (in 2022) were different. There was still talk of wind and temperatures (of course), and many of the names were the same, but so much else was unknown. At those new-to-us bars and restaurants and meetings throughout race week, the pros, coaches, and industry mucky mucks kept saying some variation of “we don’t really know what’s going to happen.” And triathletes don’t like that. They like knowing what to expect. We were strangers in a strange land looking for an anchor to something familiar.
In some way the strangest thing about Saturday’s race ended up being how familiar the outcome might have looked at a glance. If you just scanned the names, saw their finishes, and skimmed the final order in the results, there was that sense of comfort and a return to triathlon normalcy: new names, old names, domination, athletes wilting in the heat—it could feel like we’ve been here before. But the way it played out in the hot streets of St. George was different. The men and women raced a world championship in an entirely new time in the year, on a new course, against fields we’d never seen. They were stepping into the unknown and gambled on untested strategies. For some, the gamble paid off, and for others it didn’t at all. This race was all about the unexpected.
The headline “Daniela Ryf Dominates Again” could give you a sense of flashback, maybe of nostalgia for simpler times—times when you knew she would win, and we were arguing more about “by how much” than “if.” In those days there would be other women who would fly and die or hang on for dear life in the hot sun. And all those things did happen on Saturday. But before we get wispy about the “good ol’ days of 2018,” we need to cast our gaze slightly less further back. Back to May 1, 2022, when no one thought Ryf could do it, and no one even marked her as much of a contender. In hindsight, of course Ryf should have been a favorite, but this time last week, she just wasn’t.
The rest of the women’s field probably knew better than to write her off, though. They certainly knew better after only a few miles on the bike. There was no pretense that Ryf was over the hill. Just the opposite. Every woman in the pro race we spoke to afterwards echoed the same statement: “When Daniela came by, I knew that if I tried to go with her, I would die.” And they would have been correct. For most of the women on the day, riding with Ryf was like stepping into the unknown, and it was a risky step to take. Was this the Ryf of 2018 or was this the Ryf of 2020? Like the course, the conditions, and the field, the ability of the woman riding through the field was unknown. You could ride with her and hope she would fade, or you could ride with her and face potentially health-threatening punishment. How do we know this? We saw it in the men’s race: the repercussions of going too hard, racing outside yourself, and venturing into the unknown of this course and this race.
At the end of the day, we saw the Daniela Ryf of old and most of the women made the right bet. After the race, Ryf was tired, and she had fought some stomach issues—just like all of us do in long-course racing—but otherwise appeared superhuman. The unknown that we know after Saturday? She’s not actually superhuman, she’s just really really good at triathlon. As she said: She’s not back, she just never really went away.
Behind her, we saw experienced racing from two ladies with vastly different experience. Defending Ironman world champ Anne Haug stuck to her plan and did what she does best, didn’t bet more than she could cover, but also came up quite short in the face of Old Days Ryf. In up-and-coming Kat Matthews—someone insiders picked for the win back on May 1—we saw a level of experience far beyond her years. Though she nearly hospitalized herself and went so deep that she needed hours before regaining normal functioning, she went perfectly deep. A step too fast, and she would have truly hospitalized herself out on the wide, exposed neighborhood boulevards of St. George. A step too slow, and she could have easily been overtaken by a dangerous Haug, who can notoriously smell blood in the water from minutes back. She went all in, and bet just right.
The rest of the women’s field looked absolutely shredded—both on the results list and in the finish line area post-race. Some ventures into the unknown didn’t pay off. What you see on the results: crowd favorite Heather Jackson finishing in 11th place, a fine performance in a championship field, but almost 42 minutes behind Ryf and 33 behind Matthews. For perspective, in 2019, 40 minutes down would have put you out of mention in 17th place. What you don’t see: She was toast after the race. Totally toast. That’s called venturing into the unknown and encountering something dangerous and unexpected.
In some ways the men’s race was both more predictable and less than the women’s, and in an unknown and unpredictable environment the consequences for getting it wrong were far more severe.
Up front, we saw a pack of five, largely non-veteran championship-level long-course racers (with the exception of Braden Currie) take control of the race all day. They worked together to increase their chances of success, and they even pumped their fists at the top of the big Snow Canyon climb when they heard they’d held off dangerous pro cycling and “serious problem person” Cam Wurf. Wurf, for his part, wreaked havoc on the bike, but in a way that was less obvious than his previous escapades in Kona. We didn’t see the Aussie—fresh off a team win at Paris Roubaix with Team Ineos—ride away from the group, pulling guys into a solo pack, then shredding them in dramatic fashion to be the last man standing in T2. Rather, we saw—or what we couldn’t really see—was Wurf doing damage from within. Though he never put appreciable time on the enthusiastic pack of five up front, he still ended favorites’ races out on the hilly roads before they even set foot onto the ground. Risks were taken and prices were paid. It wasn’t in the same dramatic fashion we often see in Kona, but the damage was no less severe.
More obviously than the women’s race, the men’s race was a story about precision calculations: Blummenfelt, a racer who is known for his laser-accurate training, did the same out on the roads of St. George. He pushed himself hard—another racer who spent an extended stay in the MASH-style med tents—but he pushed himself just right to take the win. He never buckled or wavered, and it’s safe to say that he probably would have outraced any tall German IMWC record holder on that hot day in Utah last weekend.
Second-place Sanders also raced a precisely calculated race—arguably the most calculated race he’s ever raced—and timed his pass on Braden Currie almost to a Hollywood-style scripted storyline. With the crowd on its feet at the finish line, we watched the Canadian “sprint” by an ailing Kiwi as tall waves of heat distorted the ground-level shot on the sizzling pavement. Hollywood, for sure.
Currie, on the other hand, raced beautifully and artfully, with emotion and enthusiasm and camaraderie (with his bike packmates), but not necessarily with a scientific eye. It’s unlikely his plan was to come off the bike with four minutes on the next podium contender, go through the half at sub-2:40 pace, only to get swallowed up by two methodical men who had timed their entire day to absolute precision. Currie ran with heart, no doubt, but when you run with heart, your heart can get broken.
And broken hearts—after a trip into the unknown—were littered all over the results: One-time race leader, Kyle Smith faded to 11th place, almost 20 minutes back from the front; pre-race favorites Sebastian Kienle and Sam Long were relegated to the bleachers in 14th and 15th respectively, over 25 minutes back. Even Dangerous-Human, Problem-Maker Cam Wurf had to shuffle it in after doing so much damage to the field and finished back in 18th place, over 40 minutes behind the action at the finish line tape.
On the ground and in the conversations and tears that followed, we saw professional, serious triathletes—the best in the world—confront something unknown and unknowable on Saturday. That’s a rare thing in a sport that builds its entire ethos on the precision of schedules and workouts and numbers. In St. George, triathletes came face-to-face with something totally unknown, placed their bets in the face of it, and took their repercussions—for better or for worse.