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It was a race we all thought was sewn up, long before the gun had even gone off, but Kona once again proved to be predictably unpredictable. Anne Haug’s run form is always a legitimate threat at any race she starts, but no one quite thought it could carry her to the Ironman World Championship title—at least, not this year.
The defending champion Daniela Ryf has shown zero chinks in her armor so far this season, so it seemed highly unlikely anyone would threaten her indomitable reign. The only athlete who was fancied to get close was last year’s second-place finisher Lucy Charles-Barclay—and she will certainly wake up tomorrow knowing she left everything out there. After exiting the water with a solid five-minute lead over the chase pack, Charles-Barclay proceeded to stamp her authority on a race she looked determined to win.
Out on the Queen K, she seemed calm and in control, her pedaling smooth and rhythmical, looking at one with her bike. Could this be her day? Could she lead from gun to tape? Her chances were looking stronger and stronger, especially as Ryf was still nowhere to be seen. The race forming behind Charles-Barclay was an interesting one, with a tidy group of women riding together behind her, including Sarah Crowley, Anne Haug, Imogen Simmonds, and Carrie Lester. Conditions were tough, especially with the winds on the descent from Hawi, and Crowley later admitted she took risks to stay in contention.
The ghosts from races past can often be tough to overcome, so Charles-Barclay must have been thinking about when—not if—Ryf would steal the lead and sail past her. The fact she powered home to T2 without ever being overtaken was something she will be proud of, and the six-minute lead she took out onto the run course made it seem like this was now her race to lose. There were fleeting moments during the early miles on Ali’i Drive when you could see she was allowing herself to think about—just for a second—how it would feel to really win this race. And then Haug started springing her way through the 26.2 miles and suddenly it seemed like maybe this wouldn’t be the Brit’s day after all. In fact, there was a pack of fleet-footed women tearing through the run course and for the first time in a number of years, the women’s race seemed like it could go in a myriad of directions. Ryf was looking good on Ali’i Drive, but by this stage the deficit she had to make up would make it impossible—even for her—to successfully her crown.
The fact Charles-Barclay held onto the lead for as long as she did (up until mile 15) is a testament to how much this race means to her and how badly she wants it. There came a time when she looked like she might fall out of the top three (after Haug had taken the lead, Crowley had passed her, and Laura Phillip was looking dangerously strong), but she clawed her way back into second place in the closing miles, with the combination of form and fight that you rarely see, even on the Big Island. In doing this, she proved she has guts and grit by the bucket load—and if nothing else, it’ll make her hungrier than ever to win this race next year.
Haug’s victory was obviously exciting for her, but exciting, too, for the entire women’s field. She came within a minute of breaking the run course record, despite less than ideal preparation leading into this race due to injury.
Shortly after Ryf’s victory at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Nice last month, her coach Brett Sutton posted a blog about how tough it is for an athlete to stay at the top of the sport like she has. Although a valid point, it still didn’t seem like Ryf was even remotely capable of having a bad day. Until today. The seemingly-unbreakable defending champion was, in fact, breakable—and her cracking threw the doors wide open for a new victor to be crowned. This is significant not just because it added a whole new level of drama and interest to the race, but because suddenly there were at least a handful of women today who thought they possessed a very real chance of becoming world champion. They will leave Hawaii with a head full of dreams for the year ahead; a whole new generation of talent has rushed in, and the bar has been raised once more. The unbeatable one is beatable. The year ahead will be an interesting one.