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Countdown To Kona: The Rookie (2002)

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With the Ironman World Championship set to take place seven days from today, we take a look at back at each race from the past three decades. Today, we go back to 2002 and the year Tim DeBoom paced his way to his second victory in a row. 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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Aussie Chris McCormack has won it all: a short course world title, Wildflower, Ironman Australia, Escape from Alcatraz. He likes to lead early and he likes to lead late. Make your move and say your goodbyes. Thanks for playing and don’t forget your lovely parting gifts. Strategy has never been part of the Chris McCormack game plan. Keep it simple. The fastest and most aggressive guy wins, so strap ‘em up tight and let’s go.

On Ironman morning, the rain was coming down in buckets. The swim became one of the toughest in history.

“The swells were huge,” remembers two-time champion Peter Reid. “You’d be with a group of guys and then a swell would hit and no one would be around you. Then the swell would hit again and we’d all be right together. It was really strange. Even with the bats out there, I didn’t even see the turnaround until we were almost on top of it.”

The rain slacked off during the swim, but it doubled the effort during the first hour of the bike ride.

“I went to the front because I didn’t want to be caught in a drafting situation,” says rookie McCormack. “ I wasn’t planning on leading.”

But 30 miles into the bike ride there he was, just like in a short-course race, leading the way. He looked easy, relaxed. Before he knew it he had 30 seconds on defending champion Tim DeBoom, Reid, New Zealand’s Cam Brown and the rest of the Pips. That’s right… The pips.

It’s business as usual on the Kona Coast. The defending champion – this time Tim DeBoom – is the equivalent of Gladys Knight.. All the characters hanging on his every gear change are affectionately called The Pips. He makes a move, they make a move. He stands pat, so do they.

McCormack has never been a Pip. Nope. He likes to blaze his own trail. But Ironman history says that it pays to be a Pip. Mark Allen learned over time it was better to hang with Dave Scott then it was to try and ride or run away from the guy.

“I planned to ride with the group,” insists McCormack. “I have watched the race so many times I know that going off the front on your own is suicidal in Hawaii. When I got a gap, I didn’t fell like I was riding hard and felt I could handle the pace.”

DeBoom knew better. He went from 10th to third to second to first in four years. The Ironman is about paying your dues, about putting in your time in the lava fields. Sure, Luc Van Lierde of Belgium won it in 1996 in his first attempt, but you have to go back to Dave Scott in 1980 to find the last rookie to win in Hawaii. DeBoom was staying in control and knew the runners were with him. The cyclists (Thomas Hellriegel, Jurgen Zack and Normann Stadler) were now working with McCormack to build the lead. But DeBoom has learned over time to follow your plan and never deviate.

“I was hoping that they might be going a little too hard,” admits DeBoom.

Peter Reid was sure of it.

“When I saw them coming back form Hawi their mouths were open from the effort. I thought they were going way too hard way too early.”

McCormack couldn’t disagree more.

“Everyone is saying that I went too hard on the bike and left my legs on the Queen K,” says McCormack. “That’s absolute rubbish.”

Rubbish? Natascha Badmann was making rubbish of the women’s field for the fourth time. She went through the women’s filed like Sherman through Atlanta and built a big enough lead to mail in the marathon. Amazingly she made ground on the male pros on the out and back to Hawi. The question wasn’t if she’d win, but by how much?

McCormack was doing the same math. “Let’s see,” he says to himself, “I’ve got eight minutes on the field off the bike. If I run a 2:58 marathon, DeBoom or Reid would have to run 2:50 to beat me. I thought ‘This race is mine. They’re never going to catch me.’”

In this case ‘Never’ came pretty darn early. Hellriegel went by McCormack before they made it to Pay and Save Hill and the parade was on. DeBoom, Reid and Brown raced past the cramping McCormack and all three caught 1997 champion Hellriegel who held on to fourth. DeBoom took his second win in a row proving that patience is indeed an Iron virtue.

“I thought, ‘I have a shot here to win this.’ Insists McCormack. ‘Then I started cramping. Mentally I was alert and ready to go. I wanted to push forward, but my legs wouldn’t let me. It was the most frustrating moment of my career. I thought, ‘Man, this is a nightmare.’”

No Chris, it’s much more than a nightmare. It’s the Ironman.