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When Mirinda Carfrae crossed the finish line in second at the Ironman World Championship last Saturday, the typically cheery Australian had tears in her eyes and a look of defeat as she hugged boyfriend Tim O’Donnell. Even with a new run course record of 2:52:09 she couldn’t break Chrissie Wellington, who reclaimed her world title in a battle from the back.
“It was a tough day out there today,” Carfrae said after the race. “Walking down as defending champ and getting body marked, I almost burst into tears. I’m not one for tears but I felt quite emotional at the start.”
When winning the title in 2010, Carfrae separated herself from the rest of the women by a sizeable seven minutes. She made the day look easy as she soared through the field with a record-setting 2:53:32 marathon that was even faster than many of the top men.
But despite her impressive performance, last year’s win came with a small asterisk: Chrissie Wellington was not there. It was a game changer when Wellington dropped out the morning of the race. Instead of a predictable one-woman show similar to the one in years past, the other pro females had a chance to contend for the world title with what you might call a more level playing field. Rinny seized the opportunity and rightfully earned the Kona crown. But would she—and the rest of us—always wonder, “What would’ve happened if Chrissie were there?”
Saturday presented the opportunity to answer that question. Carfrae set out to defend her title and prove that she was the one woman who could beat the unstoppable Brit on the Big Island. In the days leading up to the race and in the early stages, Wellington appeared slightly vulnerable. Her recent bike crash resulted in road rash and a torn pectoral muscle (as we later found out), and there was an obvious shift in her pre-race mental state. On race day, she got out of the water in a slow-for-Chrissie 61 minutes and never fully closed the gap on the bike. It seemed almost possible that this could be the year that the Queen of Ironman fell from grace.
But Wellington fought. She fought hard. She clawed her way to the front after mile 16 of the run, averaging just over 6:20/mile pace. And Carfrae fought hard too. She didn’t have the power on the bike that the stronger cyclists had and started the run in eighth, about three minutes behind Wellington. “You can’t give a champion like Chrissie a second let alone a few minutes like she had,” Carfrae said.
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Carfrae said she felt horrible during the start of the run. “I just got off the bike and took it mile by mile. I went through the half a little bit slower than I normally do and thought I was maybe in for a three-hour marathon.”
After the halfway point, Carfrae said things started to look up. “I finally got my legs under me and started to feel like, okay, maybe I can pull her back. My main concern at that point was that I was still in fourth or fifth place—I had Rachel, Leanda and Caroline to pass. I was trying to pick off one at a time and put together the best marathon that I possibly could.”
With 10K to go, she held on to a bit of hope, hearing various splits from both officials and spectators. “Chrissie was still three or four minutes ahead of me at the top of the Energy Lab with 10K to go, and that was a huge ask,” Carfrae says. “I would’ve had to have another Hy-Vee performance to catch her and I don’t think I had that in me at the end of the race. Nothing’s impossible, anything’s possible, and I didn’t know what was going on up ahead. Great champions have fallen at the finish line before and you never know. I just kept ticking off one mile after another, one cone after the other, and tried to get to the finish line.”
She passed the three women to put herself in second by mile 22, but ran out of room to make up time on Wellington. She reached the finish line in 8:57:57, 41 seconds faster than last year but just under three minutes slower than Wellington. After she gave a quick speech and got her lei, O’Donnell—who dropped out before the run not feeling well—gave her a bear hug as she started crying. “I probably came across as disappointed at the finish line, but it was more that it was just an emotional finish,” Carfrae said. “That race is something else. When you give everything… and I really gave everything on that marathon. It was tough—physically, mentally, it was a real battle inside my mind. There were a couple tears at the end of the race, but not because I didn’t win, but from exhaustion.”
In a way, beating Chrissie would’ve served as a bonus validation to her 2010 win. To know that she’s the world champion with or without Wellington in the mix had to have meant a lot. Rinny fought tooth and nail to try and catch her, but in the end she just couldn’t close the gap. Were some of the tears from realizing that she couldn’t contend with Chrissie? Maybe. Will she ever be able to defeat her in Kona in the future? We’re eager to see.
“Everyone says they struggle here, but my last two years I was more holding myself back in the first half of the race. This year I was actually pushing and she was running away from me,” Carfrae said. “…I was trying to put together the best marathon that I possibly could. If that meant I could’ve passed Chrissie that would’ve been a dream come true, but she was just too strong for me today.”