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Anything can (and did) happen at the African World Championship race.
The Ironman motto, “Anything Is Possible,” proved prophetic on a hot, humid day in Port Elizabeth, South Africa with a pro race that had it all: rolling swells on the swim, crashes on the bike, and stunning come-from behind performances on the run. At the end, American Ben Hoffman and Finn Kaisa Lehtonen took top honors at the 2016 Standard Bank Ironman African Championship, earning automatic spots at the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii and a hefty share of the $150,000 prize purse.
Estonian triathlete Marko Albert and Eric Watson from Bahrain led the men’s swim in a churning Nelson Mandela Bay, exiting the water in 49:36 and 49:37, respectively. As they exited T1, they were pursued and overtaken quickly by a large chase pack that included several past podium finishers, including South African Kyle Buckingham and Bas Diederen of The Netherlands.
Diederen and Albert battled for the front for much of the bike, riding within seconds of each other for almost the entirety of the ride. The two uber-bikers knew they needed to pad their lead on the bike, as the field included star runners such as Hoffman, Aussie Tim van Berkel, and German Boris Stein, all of whom worked their way into the top five entering T2. Diederen’s 4:29:42 bike split got him onto the run with a slight advantage over Albert and only two minutes ahead of the rest of the men’s field.
That stellar effort, however, came at a price—shortly into the run, Diederen fell apart in the heat and humidity of the day. Albert seized the lead at mile 5 and tried valiantly to hold off the charge from Hoffman and Van Berkel, only to fail at mile 13, when both passed Albert to begin a thrilling throwdown for first place.
Hoffman would be the one to emerge victorious, clocking a blistering 2:45:50 run to break the tape in 8:12:37. Berkel came second in 8:14:50, while Albert held on for third place in 8:18:51.
Defending champion Jodie Swallow set out to dominate the race from the very beginning. With a 52:11 swim—a four-minute advantage over the rest of the women’s field—it appeared she was well on her way. Her lead remained strong on the bike as she sliced through tough winds; a crash shortly after the halfway mark however, derailed her efforts. Though Swallow was well enough to get back onto the bike and try to hold her lead, her injuries proved to be too much and she withdrew from the race.
Annabel Luxford, the second woman to exit the water, had biked her way within 90 seconds of Swallow by the time of the crash. Inspired by her role as the new race leader, Luxford sped to a 4:49:17 bike split, entering T2 with more than 12 minutes over Lehtonen, her closest competition.
Luxford looked strong heading into the run, making her victory seem all but guaranteed. But as Lehtonen exited T2, spectators remarked that she looked stronger. Would it be possible for her to bridge a 12-minute gap?
Lehtonen worked relentlessly, clocking consistent 6:58 minute miles in hopes of moving to the front of the race. Her steady pace allowed her to catch Luxford at mile 16 as well as coast to a 9:06:49 victory.
After losing the top spot, Luxford’s pace slowed considerably, allowing Brits Susie Cheetham and Lucy Gossage to run into the second and third podium spots, respectively.
2016 Standard Bank Ironman African Championships
Port Elizabeth, South Africa – April 10, 2016
2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run
1. Ben Hoffman (USA) 8:12:36
2. Tim Van Berkel (AUS) 8:14:50
3. Marko Albert (AUS) 8:18:51
4. Matt Trautman (RSA) 8:19:24
5. Boris Stein (GER) 8:19:50
1. Kaisa Lehtonen (FIN) 9:06:49
2. Susie Cheetham (GBR) 9:09:48
3. Lucy Gossage (GBR) 9:11:42
4. Asa Lundstrom (SWE) 9:15:33
5. Annabel Luxford (AUS) 9:28:31