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.”
RELATED VIDEO: Brent McMahon Impresses At 70.3 St. George
That’s how the day in San Juan unfolded for Frederiksen, who came in with no expectations for her first long-course race and ended up the surprise winner, beating a field that included Ironman 70.3 and Ironman world champions Cave and Carfrae: “The swim was pretty comfortable, and I had a big lead; there was no fighting or anything [she beat the second woman out of the water by 45 seconds]. And the bike was comfortable. But the run was the hard part. Because you’re running so slow, the feeling in my legs was that they got so fatigued. Normally, in an ITU race, it’s the breathing. You can’t breathe because you’re running so fast. Here it was just my legs. I felt like every single muscle fiber was dying one at a time.” Frederiksen’s half-marathon split on the hilly course? At 1:25, it was the second fastest among the pro women.
As remarkable as her performance was in San Juan, the way she trained for the race—or actually didn’t train, at least the way one might assume for a 70.3—was even more impressive. It was, she says, largely the same sort of training for short course, with a bit more focus on longer sessions on a time-trial bike. That’s the great thing about being an ITU athlete moving up in distance, explains Norden. “You have the skills; you just need to add a bit more endurance.”
But don’t just think that your short-course training is going to get you through a 70.3 at the front of the field. Norden’s, Frederiksen’s and Gomez’s versions of training are vastly different from what the typical age grouper or local pro might do for an Olympic-distance or even a 70.3 race. “These athletes are coming in with a high degree of fitness,” Filliol says. “They’re able to train 30 hours a week.” While that may be the typical volume of long-course pros, the difference is how they allocate their time. With the need to make the first pack on the bike, ITU athletes devote about a third of their weekly hours to swimming and another huge chunk of time to drills and other sessions that promote speed and mechanical efficiency on the bike and run.
Long-course pros and the rest of us mere mortals, by contrast, get fitter and faster by piling on more volume. That achieves what Trolle calls “fatigue resistance.” “For a long time, the gains we’ve been seeing in long-course racing have come from fatigue resistance,” he says. “It’s not about getting faster; it’s about slowing down less. And that’s been the basic premise behind long-course training—going longer, doing a lot of long, slow distance. The whole idea has been trying to reduce fatigue. You don’t go out particularly fast by any short-course racing standard, but you manage to hold that pace consistently throughout the entire race.”
That training philosophy may have reached its final limit, as top athletes in Kona nowadays aren’t going much faster than they did in the 1980s or 1990s. “I think we’ve gotten to a critical point where we don’t see much more improvement coming out of that logic,” Trolle says. “We’re getting to the point where long-course athletes aren’t slowing down much between the start and finish of the swim, bike and run. Their fatigue resistance is really high. With the ITU athletes coming in, I think the difference is they have more speed and they’re more mechanically efficient. In order to run as quickly as they do, they have to run with good form. And because their natural speed is so high, they start from a higher point. That’s why they’re able to succeed at such a very high level.”
But while racing a 70.3 may not be a problem for ITU athletes, moving to the Ironman can be, because of their inexperience with nutrition and lack of fatigue resistance when running a marathon off a 112-mile bike. “How robust is an athlete’s stomach in processing calories?” asks Filliol. “That’s something that some athletes struggle with and is not such a critical issue in short racing that may require some training and adjustments.” In training his short-course athletes for Ironman races, Filliol also focuses on lots of riding at Ironman and half-Ironman race paces. “For most ITU athletes, that’s where they’ll want to put the most time,” he says. “They’ll want to be conditioned on the bike, so they can use their run. Spending time on a time-trial bike might seem simple, but just getting used to riding in a time-trial position is important.”
Another consideration, says Hellemans, is whether an individual has the mind-set to suffer over a long day. “ITU athletes are fit and fast enough, but do they have the mental capacity to be patient and to suffer in a way which is very different from the short and intense discomfort experienced during the shorter-distance events?”
For those reasons, short-course superstars like Gomez and Norden, who are competitive enough to vie for medals at the next Olympics, regard the Ironman as a one-way street, one they won’t go down until their ITU careers are over. “You can always go back,” says Gomez, shrugging. “Look at Macca; he did it. But to go back and be competitive to win races in ITU, I think that’s very difficult, and I’m not sure that I could do it.”
Norden, who plans to continue racing some World Triathlon Series races this year and then return full time to short-course racing next year, adds, “One of my hesitations from staying away from the ITU too long is that it’s ever-developing. The bar is being raised by new kids on the block.”
While Norden, like Gomez, plans to wait until 2017 to make her Kona debut, Docherty is moving on, having already won silver and bronze at the Olympics, and at 36 years of age is anxious to see what he can do this year at both Vegas and Kona. Since his weekly schedule already includes a two- to three-hour run and a four- to five-hour ride, he plans to continue training for both races basically like a short-course athlete. “It’s worked well for me,” he says. “I hope my years of conditioning and years of training get me through.” After all, why change what works? The Olympians have provided plenty of evidence that short-course athletes rule—at least for the early season 70.3s and Ironmans. But let’s wait to see what happens at Vegas and Kona.
Debut Long-Course Wins
2002 ITU world champion
Race: 2012 Ironman Cozumel
Notable: Course record 8:15; ran 2:44 marathon
2004 silver and 2008 bronze Olympic medalist
Race: Ironman New Zealand
Notable: Course record 8:15; swam 2.4 miles in 45 minutes; ran 2:49 marathon
Beat: Cameron Brown, a 10-time winner of the race, by 19 minutes
Race: Ironman 70.3 San Juan
Notable: Course record 4:11; biked 56 miles in 2:16; ran 1:25 half-marathon
Beat: 2012 Ironman and 70.3 world champion Leanda Cave and 2010 Ironman and 2007 Ironman 70.3 world champion Mirinda Carfrae
2012 Olympic silver medalist and 2012 ITU world champion
Race: Challenge Fuerteventura, half-iron-distance race
Notable: 4:26 finish on hilly course; beat closest competitor by 7 minutes
2004 and 2012 Olympian
Race: Ironman 70.3 St. George U.S. Pro Championship
Notable: Ran 1:13 half-marathon on hilly course to finish in 3:51
Beat: 2012 Ironman 70.3 world champion Sebastian Kienle
2012 Olympic silver medalist, 2012 Xterra world champion, 2008 and 2010 ITU world champion
Race: Challenge Barcelona, half-iron-distance race
Notable: 1:11 half-marathon off hilly bike; beat closest competitor by more than six minutes to finish in 4:05
Beat: 2007 and 2010 Ironman world champion Chris McCormack by 11 minutes
History’s Greatest Triathlete?
While Javier Gomez didn’t win triathlon gold in London, losing to Great Britain’s Alistair Brownlee in the final miles of the run, his dominance in ITU, non-draft races, Xterra and long-course races is unparalleled in the sport.
Last year, the Olympic silver medalist from Spain won the World Triathlon Series Grand Final in New Zealand, soundly beat Brownlee at the sweltering non-draft Hy-Vee Triathlon in Iowa, and in his first off-road triathlon came up with a surprise win at the Xterra World Championship in Maui. This year, he won the cold and hilly Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon in San Francisco as well as his first half-iron-distance race in May in Barcelona against two-time Ironman world champion Chris McCormack.
With such versatility and his now proven strength at the longer distances, could Gomez—who wants to win the gold medal at the Rio Olympics in 2016 and says he’d like to take a shot at both Vegas and Kona—go down as history’s greatest triathlete?
“Javier is an aerobic animal,” says Justin Trolle, an ITU coach in Colorado Springs, Colo. “He doesn’t have many weaknesses. I’d love to see him race Kona. He’s so strong in the swim. He’s a really good cyclist. He’s very good in the heat and the cold—it doesn’t matter the conditions. And he’s such an efficient runner. In a longer distance, he would be a force to reckon with. If Javier does decide to switch over to Ironman, I would say he would be very, very difficult to rival.”
Two years ago, Gomez showed up in Kona to watch the race for the first time. He got on the Queen K Highway and pedaled his bike behind Craig Alexander, watching closely as Alexander suffered on the run course and stopped to massage the cramps from his legs before winning his third world championship title. “I was really excited to be there,” Gomez says. “And I realized, I saw, how hard that race is. Every Ironman must be hard, but that one especially in those conditions.” Gomez could race Kona this October if he wanted to complete a qualifying Ironman because he won the Hy-Vee triathlon last year. But he’s planning to wait until 2017 to avoid any training distractions before the Rio Olympics.
“I’m pretty sure I can go faster in Rio,” he says. “I know I can be in the mix, but if I want to try to win a gold medal, I need to go faster. And I think I can go faster.”
By faster, Gomez means run faster than he did in London. So starting this year, he’s been tailoring his swim and bike workouts around his run training. It’s not surprising, given that the man he calls the better athlete in August last year ran 29:07 in his gold-medal-winning 10K and even had time to high-five the crowd before finishing. Gomez made the mental calculation between Brownlee’s split and Gomez’s equally impressive 29:16 10K and estimates that “if I wanted to beat him [in London] I would have had to run 28:50,” which he says wasn’t possible then. “I wasn’t able to beat Alistair, but I was at my best level at that race of the year, and I was really happy with the silver medal.” So it’s back to the track in hopes of shaving 30 more seconds from his 10K time over the next three years.
“My training is based around the run,” Gomez says. “I’m trying to train like a runner, so I build everything else around it. … If you want to run in 29 minutes flat, you cannot also cycle 500 kilometers a week and swim too much. You have to sacrifice something.”
Now 30 years old, Gomez believes age won’t limit his ability to go faster at Rio—and he’ll still have time to tack on a second career in long-course racing after 2016. “Winning Ironman Hawaii is as important to me as winning the Olympic Games,” he says.
In Rio, he admits he’ll be facing stiff challenges from younger athletes such as Spain’s Mario Mola. “Only a few years ago, I was the young kid trying to beat the old ones,” Gomez says with a laugh. “And suddenly now there are all of these young kids trying to beat me. It is what it is. Mario will beat me one day. But if I can keep on improving, if I can keep doing good times on the run, I will be happy.”
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