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Despite a blustery few days pre-race, competitors were greeted with ideal conditions on Sunday morning for the inaugural Ironman Asia-Pacific Championship in Melbourne, Australia. The waters of Prince Philip Bay at the Frankston Foreshore swim start were uncharacteristically calm. Local Daniel Hoy, a journalist with the Herald Sun, claimed, “I live near here and I’ve never ever seen it this flat in 37 years.” Overcast skies made for a chilly bike leg, with many athletes donning vests, arm warmers and extra jerseys. These same cool temperatures were welcomed on the run, as was a slight “Southerly” that picked up in the afternoon hours, meaning athletes benefitted from a mild tailwind along the entire point-to-point marathon course from Frankston into St. Kilda and the finish line. All told, the calm and cool day was perfectly crafted for an exceptionally quick race right from the start.
The Men’s Race
Predictably, Australia’s Clayton Fettell led the swim, gapping his competitors by a 1:15 margin. Next up a pack of twelve, including Luke McKenzie, Luke Bell, Greg Bennett, Paul Matthews, Eneko Llanos and Frederick Van Lierde exited en masse. Noticeably absent was pre-race favorite Craig Alexander – the five-time world champion would hit T1 a full 4:45 back from Fettell, in the company of New Zealander (and 10-time Ironman New Zealand Champion) Cameron Brown. The pairing would prove a portent of things to come, as the Aussie and the Kiwi would spend much of the 140.6 miles in close proximity.
The top-seeded men stayed split into two major groups until near the halfway point on the bike, when a hard-driving Alexander closed the gap to his rivals. Early race leader Fettell held strong in his solo charge and remained in front until the 153km mark, but he eventually succumbed to the powerhouse pro roster chasing hard from behind. The men continued to tear up the course all the way to T2, with Van Lierde and Alexander both pushing the pace. Cameron Brown and Spain’s Eneko Llanos tailed them tightly, and fellow Aussie Joe Gambles managed to join the group that slightly gapped the others, including cycling strongman Luke McKenzie and iron-rookie Greg Bennett.
The race was a close one through the swim and bike legs, but on the run it turned to edge-of-your seat excitement. Witnesses in Melbourne watched as Alexander, Brown, Llanos and Van Lierde ran in a compact group, legs churning a lightning-fast pace and each man unwilling to give an inch to the others. The foursome remained tight until well past the 10km point, when Alexander and Brown each turned on an extra engine and the race elders – at 38 and 39 years old respectively – pulled away from their junior foes. Spectators looked on in awe as the age-old rivalry between Aussies and Kiwis played out on the Ironman Melbourne marathon course. Near the 30km mark Alexander managed to open a slight lead, but the soft-spoken Brown would not relinquish his spot at Alexander’s side. As the two ran stride-for-stride down Beach Road, they were escorted by a pack of at least 40-50 recreational cyclists, clearly enjoying the brilliant display of athleticism. The duo, who had turned in the two fastest bike splits of the day (Alexander went 4:24:43 and Brown went 4:24:48) showed no signs of fatigue in their perfect run form.
Approximately 9km out from the finish, Alexander mastered a slight incline and again gapped Brown. This time the home-turf advantage played out – Alexander’s lead grew and as he flew toward the finish it became readily apparent that Ironman Melbourne’s inaugural victor would proudly carry the Australian flag. Alexander’s 2:38:46 marathon and 7:57:44 overall time showcased the course’s lickety-split design, given ideal conditions such as today’s.
In rapid succession the next four men filed through the finish chute – Brown in 8:00:12, Van Lierde in 8:01:26, Llanos in 8:02:23 and Australian David Dellow, boyfriend to eventual women’s winner Caroline Steffen, in 8:04:19. Making his Ironman-distance debut in his home country, Paul Matthews finished an impressive 6th in 8:05:58. And Greg Bennett, though struggling somewhat following a knee injury that derailed his training for nearly two weeks, proudly laid claim to the title of Ironman and validated the Kona qualification he earned by winning the 2011 Hy-Vee 5150 U.S. Championship. Bennett crossed the line in 9:04:01.
At the finish line, the first words out of the ever-humble Alexander’s mouth were, “Can I just say hats off to Cameron Brown. What a warrior!”
The Women’s Race
Also no surprise was today’s women’s swim leader, Great Britain’s Rachel Joyce. She exited the water with a :45 lead, and the entire rest of the women’s pro field seemed to file into T1 in one large group behind her.
Heading out onto the EastLink Tollway, Joyce was joined by Switzerland’s Caroline Steffen and the two easily opened a gap on the other women. By the EastLink Tunnel (approximately one quarter length of the course) Joyce and Steffen had put five minutes into the field. By the halfway point turnaround they enjoyed an 11:40 lead on Joanna Lawn, Rebekah Keat and Carrie Lester and 4:30 more on pre-race favorite Mirinda Carfrae and Belinda Granger. The gap grew and grew as Joyce and Steffen were swept up in the momentum and motivation of the men’s pro race – Steffen eventually pulled ahead of Joyce and rode with the second pack of men for quite some time. Her 4:35:29 bike split certainly “chicked” quite a few of them.
With a massive lead off the bike, it was obvious that Steffen and Joyce, barring any disasters, were shoe-ins for the podium. What wasn’t certain was whether running phenom Mirinda Carfrae could close a 29-minute gap to secure an all-Australian victory sweep, or in fact whether she would run fast enough to even crack the top three. Steffen and Joyce showed no signs of duress, and the “Swiss Miss” powered her way through a 3:01:22 marathon to an overall 8:34:51 finish, the second fastest women’s Ironman time in history (the record belonging to Chrissie Wellington’s 8:33:56 at the 2011 Ironman South Africa). Following her win, Steffen shared a long and luxurious embrace with her boyfriend David Dellow, prompting commentator Whit Raymond to exclaim, “It’s a four-event sport. Swim, bike, run and smooch your sweetheart at the finish!”
Joyce’s 3:05:02 run was slightly slower than one might have expected following her race-best run split at the recent Abu Dhabi International Triathlon, however it was speedy enough to cement her second place finish here in Melbourne. The Brit proudly claimed her position with an overall time of 8:46:09. Following her finish, Joyce was ecstatic. “To break nine hours, that’s been on my to-do list for awhile now. That was a great way to start the year!”
Never one to give up without a fight, Carfrae indeed clawed her way into third, picking off first Carrie Lester, then Michelle Vesterby, then Rebekah Keat and finally Joanna Lawn by the 26k mark. Her 2:58:29 marathon split was nowhere near her Ironman World Championship run course record of 2:52:09, yet it still stood out as the fastest women’s run of the day. The two-time World Champion crossed the line as the first Australian female to a roar of cheers from her home country crowd.
“I started the run and I thought, oh, this is gong to be a long day,” Carfrae stated after finishing. “On both the bike and the run I just didn’t have any pop. But that’s racing. No excuses! And both Caroline and Rachel put together great races, so full credit to them.”
The top three Ironman Melbourne women share another podium in common – each finished within the top five in 2011’s Kona competition. If today’s race is any indication, triathlon fans are in for a highly engaging and fiercely competitive female pro season ahead.
Ironman Asia-Pacific Championships
Melbourne, Australia – March 25, 2012
2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run
1. Craig Alexander (AUS) 7:57:44
2. Cameron Brown (NZL) 8:00:12
3. Frederik Van Lierde (BEL) 8:01:26
4. Eneko Llanos (ESP) 8:02:23
5. David Dellow (AUS) 8:04:19
1. Caroline Steffen (SUI) 8:34:51
2. Rachel Joyce (GBR) 8:46:09
3. Mirinda Carfrae (AUS) 9:04:00
4. Jo Lawn (NZL) 9:06:53
5. Gina Crawford (NZL) 9:11:16