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Countdown To Kona: Rivals For Life (2006)

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With the Ironman World Championship set to take place three days from today, we take a look back at each race from the past three decades. Today, we go back to 2006 and the year the race was decided by 71 seconds.  All of the following photos and text are taken from the book, “30 Years of The Ironman Triathlon World Championship” by Bob Babbitt.

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Normann Stadler of Germany did more than win the 2006 Ironman World Championship in Hawaii.

In the process, he created an Ironrivalry with Australia’s Chris McCormack that will last forever.

In front and flying. Stadler won in 2004, but in 2005 had two flats. The last time he was visible in Kona, he was flinging his Kuota bike into the lava fields after being unable to get the sew-up off his wheel.

So the question was out there: Was this guy too fragile to win his second Ironman title? He melted down as defending champion in 2005 and really hadn’t had a good race since his 2004 win. Three-time champion Peter Reid questioned Stadler’s running ability in a pre-race interview, wondering if he could win again running a 2:57:51. Not a bad question, by the way. Since 1984, the only marathons slower than Stadler’s for the winners were Scott Tinley’s 3:01:33 in 1985 and Scott Molina’s 3:02:42 in 1988.

But Stadler was doing his best to minimize the marathon. If he build a 10-minute lead and ran the same 2:57, someone would have to run sub-2:47 to beat him. As every good runner knows, it’s one things to run a 2:49 like McCormack did in 2005 – the fastest run of the day, by the way – to salvage a lousy race and finish sixth overall. It’s quite another story to run that fast when you need every second to win and can’t afford to have one bad mile.

McCormack has had a lot of bad miles in Kona. The fact that he has won Ironman events in Australia and Ironman-distance events in Roth, Germany, never seemed to carry over to the lava fields. In 2002, he led off the bike and blew to the moon nine miles into the run. In 2003, he finished but walked most of the marathon. In 2004, he dropped out again, this time in the Natural Energy Lav. And the guy who picked him up and drove him back to town? Six-time Ironman World Champion Mark Allen.

In 2006, McCormack was sitting with Faris Al-Sultan, Luke Bell and Chris Lieto in the chase pack behind Stadler. Lieto started to move away and McCormack started to go with him. Then he reconsidered.

His patience paid off when he got off the bike 10 minutes down, even though Stadler had obliterated the bike course record with a 4:18:24.

At the top of Palani Hill, McCormack was still eight minutes back of Stadler with Al-Sultan two minutes back of McCormack.

“I was clipping off six-minute miles and had taken 90 seconds out of Normann,” says McCormack. “There’s no way I could run a 2:55 marathon after a 4:18 bike ride. Normann’s not that good a runner. He’s going to pay for going so hard on the bike.”

But Stadler was not crumbling, He was giving up time but holding form.

The lead went from four minutes to three minutes to two minutes and eventually just under a minute. Then it was over.

Seventy-one seconds. That was the final gap. A stop to pee. Sitting too long in transition. Rubbing on sunscreen. Seventy-one seconds – the third closest finish for the men in the history of the event.