Much pomp and circumstance and an endless field of red and white Challenge Family banners and Bahraini flags decorated T1 and marked the start of the highly touted Challenge Bahrain triathlon. The day dawned crystal clear and heated up quickly, pushing the thermometer higher than it had been all throughout race week. Professional athletes, age groupers and two members of the Bahrain royal family, His Highness Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa and His Highness Sheikh Khaled bin Hamed Al Khalifa, gathered on the shores of Bahrain Bay, and Challenge Family president Felix Walchshöfer proudly waved the green flag signaling the start to this historic event. With a half million dollars on the line in the professional field, the men and women were chomping at the bit to put everything on the line in what was, for most, the final race of the season. In the end, the $100,000 winning prizes would go to Michael Raelert (GER), refreshed and elated to return to racing after a long injury-laden hiatus, and Helle Frederiksen (DEN), capping her day with an effortless looking run through the Al Areen wildlife park.
The Men’s Race
In the men’s race two distinct packs formed early on and a mad scramble of eight competitors exited the water nearly in tandem, led by Dylan McNeice (NZL) in 21:12. Also in the group were top names including Pete Jacobs (AUS), Raelert, Tim Don (GBR), Brad Kahlefeldt (AUS) and Luke Bell (AUS). Twenty seconds later the next major players emerged, this time a pack including James Cunnama (RSA), Tyler Butterfield (BER), Tim O’Donnell (USA) and Fredrik Croneborg (SWE). Not surprisingly, reigning Ironman world champion Sebastian Kienle (GER) was two minutes in arrears, a safe spot for the uber-cyclist. Unexpectedly, he was accompanied by Dirk Bockel (LUX), who later reported having struggled through what felt like a boxing match midway through the water, and ultimately pulled out on the bike, citing deep hip pain. While Kienle was well positioned to push toward the front on the bike, a flat tire in the race’s early miles sadly ended his day almost as soon as he broke a sweat.
Meanwhile, fellow German Andreas Dreitz was putting on a clinic on the superhighway bike course, as he powered forward from his 20th-placed swim (22:45) to take the lead at the halfway mark and never look back, ultimately posting a lightning fast 1:57:21 split. His countryman Raelert kept the watts high as well, however, arriving at T2 only two and a half minutes behind Dreitz, and with Raelert’s record-setting run legs, he seemed to be setting up for victory. Dreitz, who appeared stiff and uncomfortable at the start of the run, came into his rhythm and picked up the pace, making Raelert work hard to bridge the gap. But by the halfway mark Dreitz was again showing signs of struggle, in sharp contrast to Raelert’s fluid form, and the pass was a foregone conclusion. When the inevitable happened and Raelert captured his rival, the men patted one another on the back in a show of support. Raelert then ramped up the pace, allowing no room for doubt that the advantage would stick.
Behind the battle for first it was Reed, 3:56 down and scantily clad in his signature budgy smugglers briefs, who kept a consistent quick turnover in third place. He was running scared, however, knowing that another Tim (Don), one of the sport’s fastest runners, was hot on his heels, having blown out of transition well ahead of the three competitors with whom he arrived at T2 and a minute and a half behind the man in third. With the temperature edging close to 90 degrees and not an ounce of shade on the run course, the race’s final leg was tough on everyone. But Raelert continued his fast forward progress, clocking a 1:10:19 run and ultimately reaching the Formula 1 track first in 3:36:04. Dreitz arrived second (3:38:23) with Reed running 1:12:04 to hold on for third in 3:39:26 and Don, posting a nearly identical run of 1:12:17, settling for fourth in 3:41:06.
Other notable top-10 performances included proud papa Eneko Llanos (ESP), running 1:11:40 to take fifth; Cunnama wrapping the season on a high note in sixth after a frustrating Kona DNF; Jeff Symonds (CAN), also with a 1:12:27 run for seventh; Massimo Cigana (ITA) earning eighth in his third consecutive weekend of racing; Bell coming ninth despite having crashed last weekend at Challenge Laguna Phuket and sustaining two broken fingers; and Tim Van Berkel (AUS) rounding out the top 10 and taking the final share of the men’s prize purse.
Champion Raelert repeatedly expressed his elation, not only with the win but with the opportunity to be back racing in full health in the sport he so loves. “Honestly of course the money going into Christmas is really nice, and I crashed my car earlier this year so that will help,” he said. “But for me I’m just more happy to be back in the family, back in races and back with the other pros. At the start line I was already really happy just to be back and in the pack with these guys, and so I felt I had already won, just being able to race. It sounds really weird but it’s really true, that’s how I feel.”
Runner-up Dreitz talked about his incredible 1:57:21 bike split. “I was pushing really hard. It’s just amazing,” he said. “I knew there was a live stream, and so many guys I know had said they didn’t care what time it was, they would be up watching, so knowing that also felt really good and motivated me. Then I just started running and had a good pace at the beginning, but after 12k I felt really bad. I was really happy the guys behind me were not seeing the live stream!”
Reed described what it was like knowing that Don was working hard to chase him down. “It was stressful! I think I was lucky there were so many turns in the park and he couldn’t really see me. But when you’ve got a guy like that behind you, you can never let up. It just stresses you out.”
Reed also raved about the unprecedented hospitality offered by Challenge Bahrain. “Coming here, I felt like I already won something. I thought even if I came last in the race I’d go home and have had a great experience. I hope it’s a game changer across the sport.”
The Women’s Race
Starting five minutes behind the pro men and a full half hour ahead of the age group athletes, the pro women were thrilled with the promise of a clean and fair race. Swim leader Jodie Swallow (GBR) did manage to catch one straggler from the men’s field at the final swim buoy as she swam 22:39, nearly 30 seconds ahead of her closest rivals. Next out were Annabel Luxford (AUS) and Meredith Kessler (USA), with Frederiksen, Mary Beth Ellis (USA) and Rachel Joyce (GBR) close behind. Caroline Steffen (SUI), Radka Vodickova (CZE), Mirinda Carfrae (AUS), Camilla Pedersen (DEN) and Melissa Hauschildt (AUS), several of the race’s other top names, had their work cut out for them if they hoped to catch the women in front.
Known to drive hard from the starting gun, Swallow pushed a hard pace on the bike, building a gap in the early miles but later, by the 60km mark, being joined by Joyce and Frederiksen. Luxford made up time as well and by the time the lead women reached the Bahrain International Circuit F1 course, the four were all together. Out of T2 they strode in shoulder-to-shoulder pairs, almost like schoolmates on an outing were it not for the fierce concentration and obvious competitive fire with which they ran. First came Swallow and Frederiksen, then Joyce and Luxford 30 seconds back. Angela Naeth (CAN) was also chasing hard in fifth after clocking the day’s fastest bike split (2:10:14) to keep herself in contention.
Swallow stayed glued to Frederiksen’s heels through the first several miles of the half marathon, but Frederiksen’s flawless form allowed her to slowly build an advantage. At the 8.6km checkpoint, Frederiksen’s lead was 23 seconds on Swallow, with Joyce another minute back but now ahead of Luxford by 15 seconds. Frederiksen’s gap grew and she showed absolutely zero sign of struggle, flying around the final kilometers and reaching the line full of emotion in a time of 3:55:50, her 1:17:00 run the quickest by more than two minutes. A battle brewed behind her for the silver medal spot, with Swallow and Joyce both pushing a fierce pace. Joyce ultimately gained the edge, passing her countrywoman and finishing second in 3:58:15. Swallow crossed just a few moments later in 3:58:39, with Luxford rounding out the foursome that owned the entirety of the bike and run, finishing in 4:00:17. Naeth captured the fifth spot in 4:00:48.
The remaining women’s prize money went to five of the sport’s top performers, showcasing just how competitive a field was assembled for the Bahrain race: Hauschildt in sixth; Steffen in seventh; Jodie Stimpson (GBR) in eighth; Pedersen in ninth; and Kessler completing the talented top 10.
Commenting on her flawless run performance and beautifully smooth form, women’s winner Frederiksen had this to say: “I actually did feel good–you know, in a surreal good way that doesn’t really feel good, but felt relatively good for the effort I was putting out. I could feel I was certainly conditioned enough. I’ve been doing a good running block and so I felt I was in shape to keep running this pace. I tried to tell myself: Stay in front of your feet, lift your legs, relax. Sometimes my thoughts wandered to the finish line and then I was like: No, come back! Come back! No going to the finish line. I didn’t look back at all because I was like: Can I run faster? No. If I look back and see that they’re close, can I make a difference? No. Just look forward then. I was really asking myself: Can you do any different than you are doing? No. So I just kept focusing on my lead bike and that helped me stay in the moment.”
In describing her race, Joyce talked about her bike tactics. “I was ready to kind of give it myself a little bit. And I had to–Jodie was riding so well out on her own, and because my transitions were so bad I was out the back of the group and I knew that I had to work pretty hard to get to the front. My tactic was to try and do some surging and try and ping them off the back, because I wanted to get rid of Helle. So I was doing some really hard surges but she was bloody persistent! I felt bad when I caught Jodie–I probably gunned it to get up there and I just had to sit in for a bit and recover. Then I did go past but she went past me again.”
In regards to the 20-meter draft zone, Joyce had this to say: “It’s a double-edged sword because it’s really good because everyone’s working really hard. But you also have to think about how long you have to overtake. When I was at the back of a group and I was in fourth, to get past them in a minute and a half takes a massive effort. You kind of burn a match every time you do that.”
Swallow described the pleasure and pain of racing with some of her favorite rivals. “I love racing head-to-head like that. I always feel better when I’ve got someone I like beside me. It was a pleasure to run beside Helle for 10k and then get spat out the back!” she said. “Helle and Rachel are intelligent beautiful girls and it’s quite nice to be around them. It would be better to be in front of them, but you know, I’m on the podium and that’s a good end to the season. We can go home smiling.”
Bahrain – Dec. 6, 2014
1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run
1. Michael Raelert (GER) 3:36:04
2. Andreas Dreitz (GER) 3:38:23
3. Tim Reed (AUS) 3:39:26
4. Tim Don (GBR) 3:41:06
5. Eneko Llanos (ESP) 3:42:04
1. Helle Frederiksen (DEN) 3:55:50
2. Rachel Joyce (GBR) 3:58:15
3. Jodie Swallow (GBR) 3:58:39
4. Annabel Luxford (AUS) 4:00:17
5. Angela Naeth (CAN) 4:00:48