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Kona: How The Race Was Won

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They say that in order to understand the future, you need to examine the past. With this year’s Ironman World Championship set to take place tomorrow, it is the perfect time to look at how the champions from the past five years took home the title. We’ll just have to wait until Sunday to see if history will indeed repeat itself.
2004: Scandal Rocks Kona
The Mumuku winds were in full force on race day in 2004, with speeds up to 30 mph blowing riders all over the Queen K Highway. Three-time Ironman Hawaii champion Peter Reid was the favorite going into the race, and the reclusive Canadian had spent the few weeks leading up to the race in seclusion in a cabin on Mauna Kea preparing to defend his title. But the previous year’s runner-up, Germany’s Normann Stadler, had plans of his own. Stadler took off from the lead pack on the bike early on, and rode his way to a more than 24-minute lead over Reid heading into T2. Stadler didn’t rest on his laurels heading out onto the run, and despite Reid besting Stadler’s marathon time 2:46:10 to 2:57:53, Stadler still crossed the finish line slightly more than 10 minutes ahead of him.

In the women’s race, the woman to cross the finish line first would not be the champion at all. Germany’s Nina Kraft started raising eyebrows when she began picking off the pro men’s field on the bike. Kraft continued her dominance on the run course, eventually crossing the finish line more than 15 minutes ahead of defending champion, Natascha Badmann. By the end of the month, it became achingly clear to everyone in the triathlon world what her race strategy had been: EPO. Meanwhile, the real winner, Switzerland’s Badmann, used her tiny stature to duck the winds, sporting a 5:31:37—the fastest pro women’s bike split of the day as well as a 3:11:45 marathon to come in 6 minutes ahead of American Heather Fuhr.

Men
1.    Normann Stadler (GER) 8:33:29
2.    Peter Reid (CAN) 8:43:40
3.    Faris Al Sultan (GER) 8:45:14

Women
1.    Natascha Badmann (SWI) 9:50:04
2.    Heather Fuhr  (USA) 9:56:19
3.    Kate Major (AUS) 10:01:56

2005: The Iron Maiden Goes for Six

Like so many before him, Germany’s Faris Al-Sultan came to the Big Island in 2005 looking for the retaliation that only a world championship title can bring. Al-Sultan had finished third the year before, and this time he was ready to taste victory. He exited Kailua Bay in third place, then posted the second fastest bike split of the day in  4:25:22, pushing him into second. By the time he headed out of T2, he had his sights on the leader, Torbjorn Sindballe, whom he passed early on to take the lead, crossing the finish line in 8:14:17.

In the women’s race, a full-fledged David vs. Goliath had been brewing for months between Switzerland’s Natascha Badmann, who was going for her sixth world championship title, and Michellie Jones, the silver-medal winning Olympian and Ironman Hawaii rookie. After an impressive swim, Jones pulled to the front on the bike and exited T2 in first place. After a typical mediocre swim, Badmann’s fast bike split still only put several minutes behind Jones heading out onto the run, and her dreams for a sixth title seemed all but lost. But injuries Jones had sustained during that year’s Escape From Alcatraz began creeping up 10 miles into the run, and at mile 18 the Swiss Miss made her move. Badmann ran a 3:06:24 to claim her sixth Ironman World Championship title, and after 2005’s EPO debacle, finally got the finish line glory that she deserved.

Men
1.    Faris Al-Sultan (GER) 8:14:17
2.    Cameron Brown (NZL) 8:19:36
3.    Peter Reid (CAN) 8:20:04

Women
1.    Natascha Badmann (SWI) 9:09:30
2.    Michellie Jones (AUS) 9:11:51
3.    Kate Major (AUS) 9:12:39

2006: Friends to Enemies

After a disappointing 2005 race where he suffered a flat and a meltdown in the lava fields, Normann Stadler arrived on the Big Island with a score to settle. Stadler exited the water in 22nd place, but by the time he rolled in T2 after a 4:18:23 bike split, he was well ahead of the competition, and no one could pass him on the run. But one person came pretty close. Aussie Chris McCormack battled to get to the front during the run, posting a blazing 2:46:01 marathon and crossing the finish line just a little more than a minute behind Stadler. The two embraced, things seemed good. Shortly after the event, however, Stadler accused McCormack of drafting on the bike, and McCormack shot back by saying that Stadler’s lack of respect gave him incentive to train harder for next year. Ever since the media world has looked forward to what each one will say have to say about the other in the pre-race press conference.

In her second Hawaii Ironman, Michellie Jones showed the world that she could dominate both Olympic and Ironman racing. Jones exited the water in 5th place, and by the time she entered T2 she was well in front of the pack and she never let it go, posting an impressive 3:13:08 run split and crossing the finish line more than six minutes ahead of second place finisher, American Desiree Ficker.

Men
1.    Normann Stadler (8:11:56)
2.    Chris McCormack (8:13:07)
3.    Faris Al-Sultan (8:19:04)

Women
1.    Michellie Jones (9:18:31)
2.    Desiree Ficker (9:24:02)
3.    Lisa Bentley (9:25:18)

2007: Wellington’s Debut

McCormack kept his promise to Stadler that he would be prepared to challenge him in 2006. During the 2007 training year, McCormack started working a little bit with Ironman legend Mark Allen, who encouraged him to do some altitude training and work on his long run training. But McCormack never really got his duel with Stadler. The German began throwing up on the bike and had to pull out of the race. As usual, uber-biker Torbjorn Sindballe led the bike pack, which also included Chris Lieto, Tim DeBoom, McCormack and Aussie Craig Alexander. So McCormack waited for the run to make his move, first passing Alexander and DeBoom and hoping that Sindballe and Lieto would slow down enough for him to catch them as well. McCormack took the lead in the Natural Energy Lab, but continue to hit 6+-minute splits just to be safe. He clocked a 2:42:02 marathon and 8:15:34 winning time, proving that after several attempts at the Hawaii Ironman, he had finally won the game.

By now, the name Chrissie Wellington is synonymous with the Hawaii Ironman. But in 2007, it was just another pro name on the roster. The Canadian darling, Samantha McGlone was the one to watch heading into Kona, and her 9:14:04 second-place performance was a great one. Even now, looking at Wellington’s splits: 58:09 swim, 5:06:15 bike and the second-fastest pro women’s marathon (at the time) 2:59:57, they only seem slow in comparison to the times she has posted since that race. Wellington took off on the bike and left the other women guessing (who the hell was that chick?), and she continued to run fast enough on the marathon to keep them from ever getting a second glance, clocking a 9:08:45 finish—the fastest women pro’s finishing time since 2002.

Men
1.    Chris McCormack (AUS) 8:15:34
2.    Craig Alexander (AUS) 8:19:04
3.    Torbjorn Sindballe (DEN) 8:21:30

Women
1.    Chrissie Wellington (GBR) 9:08:45
2.    Samantha McGlone (CAN) 9:14:04
3.    Kate Major (AUS) 9:19:13

2008: The Real Deal

After an impressive 2nd place finish in his Kona debut in 2007, Craig Alexander was primed to make his move into the ranks of Ironman world champions. He is a good swimmer, always out in front on the bike and his run has single-handedly made this year’s race a question of who else can run a sub-2:40—because he most likely will. Crowie was in 11th place heading out of T2, and frankly didn’t seem like much of a threat to Spaniard Eneko Llanos, Chris Lieto and Normann Stadler, who were quickly establishing themselves as the main contenders of the day. Stadler’s legs cramped up, forcing him to walk the last several miles of the course and effectively ending his chances of a third title that year. Alexander slowly began picking off runners, eventually emerging out of the Energy Lab in the lead and clocking a 2:45:00 marathon to take home his first Ironman championship title in 8:17:45.

The overall theme for the 2008 women’s race may well be: What if? What if Wellington, who’s amazing lead was stunted by 20 minutes after a flat tire, had never happened? Her 5:08:15 bike split was still impressive, but what would it have been otherwise? And, more importantly, what if Aussie Rebekah Keat had never thrown her an extra CO2 cartridge? Nevertheless, she did, and Wellington never looked back, closing the gap on her 20-minute flat enough to still come in to T2 in first place. But her Team TBB teammate Belinda Granger was relatively close behind, and Wellington was out to break records that day. She posted a 2:57:44 marathon—the fastest women’s marathon record ever—and claimed her second title in 9:06:23.

Men
1.    Craig Alexander (8:17:45)
2.    Eneko Llanos (8:20:50)
3.    Rutger Beke (8:21:23)

Women
1.    Chrissie Wellington (9:06:23)
2.    Yvonne Van Vlerken (9:21:20)
3.    Sandra Wallenhorst (9:22:52)