March Madness: Previewing The Most Competitive Race Ever Outside Of Kona

Aaron Hersh previews the deep field of athletes set to race in this Saturday's Abu Dhabi International Triathlon.

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Aaron Hersh previews the deep field of athletes set to race in this Saturday’s Abu Dhabi International Triathlon.

Athletes gather for the pre-race press conference in Abu Dhabi. Photo: Aaron Hersh
Athletes gather for the pre-race press conference in Abu Dhabi. Photo: Aaron Hersh

Craig Alexander thinks the field at the 2011 Abu Dhabi International Triathlon could be the “most competitive ever, outside of Kona” and his big statement is supported by the figures. The men’s field boasts 17 Ironman champions, 3 Ironman world champions, as well as multiple Olympians and sub-8 hour Ironman finishers.

Races typically invite the marquee athletes to participate in the press conference, so Chris McCormack, defending champ Eneko Llanos, Faris Al Sultan and Craig Alexander were all invited, but the athletes not present truly speaks volumes about the quality of the field. The third, fifth, sixth and eighth place finishers from last year’s Ironman World Championship are all racing on Saturday, but none of them were invited to the press conference. Neither was 7:52 iron-distance finisher Rasmus Henning. Including Alexander, McCormack and Llanos, seven of the top eight finishers from the 2010 Ironman World Championships will face off on Saturday. This is truly a special field.

The caliber of the field is unquestionable, but the racers’ current fitness is another story. Since it is only March and Kona is still seven months away, some athletes may not be prepared to race their best. According to Alexander, “a lot of people racing Kona won’t be as fit” and could wilt under the Arabian sun. Others such Marino Vanhoenacker are racing Ironman in about a month and could be in excellent form. More so than just about any other race, the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon is impossible to call, which is what will make it so exciting. Any one of eight to ten men could win without it being an “upset.”

And the women’s field is also incredible. Chrissie Wellington and Mirinda Carfrae aren’t here, but nearly every other championship-level long-courser is. The race appears to be a match up between Caroline Steffen and Julie Dibens, last year’s second and third place finishers at the Ironman World Championship respectively, but there is a long list of other contenders that are also capable of winning.

As Leanda Cave put it, “Julie [Dibens] is a hard ass, but so are the other girls.” Herself included. Led by Rachel Joyce, Angela Naeth, Catriona Morrison and Cave, the women not grabbing headlines are just as dangerous as the favorites. Dibens says, “no one really knows what their form is,” so the outcome of Saturday’s race is as unpredictable as the March Madness NCAA basketball tournament.

Despite the 200K bike, a big pack of racers arrived at T2 together because of the relatively cool temperatures, low winds and flat course last year.

Faris Al Sultan alluded to less-than-fair play, as well, saying “men weren’t spaced out as far as they should have been.” This Saturday, wind will be up and temps in the 90s are predicted so the athletes are expecting the bike to weed out the weaker athletes and leave fewer people in contention. Julie Dibens says the extra 20K of cycling beyond the iron distance will play a huge role in deciding the winners. Caroline Steffen agrees and says she is “definitely stronger on the bike” than last year.

The outcome is impossible to predict accurately because of the unique distance, early time of year and incredible depth, but look for the strongest cyclists to try and separate from the rest of the field on the bike.

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