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In 2012, Meredith Kessler was ready for redemption. Her race in St. George 2011—what was slated to be her 40th Ironman—was derailed by dehydration and a lack of sodium at mile 22 on the run, where she passed out and wound up in the ER.
“I plan to give that part of the course the bird as I pass by,” she said, pre-race. “This will be my 44th Ironman, and the last on this course. We have this amazing opportunity to make some history here.”
Given her experience the year before—and her prolific Ironman experience, in general— Kessler knew better than anyone else toeing the line to expect anything on race day. Especially in St. George, on a notoriously challenging course in the windiest month of the year.
“This is Ironman, this is tough,” Kessler said then. “Not every race will be fast. Time won’t be a factor here.”
With Wurtele absent from the start list in 2012, Kessler, who was runner-up in 2010 and was set to repeat that finish in 2011 before her collapse, was the de facto favorite of the day. But she first had to get through the swim, bike, and run in one piece.
As did Ben Hoffman. The American pro had yet to win in St. George, but he had come close, finishing in second in 2010 and just off the podium in a tight 2011 race. He knew St. George very well; aside from his prior races, he also trained there in college and later as a pro. With the St. George race changing over to the 70.3 distance in 2013, this would, essentially, be his last attempt to nab an Ironman win there (until this weekend, of course, when Hoffman will be racing for the world championship, but there was no way of knowing that ten years ago).
While both Kessler and Hoffman were prepared for a difficult day, perhaps neither knew just how extreme things would get on May 5, 2012. Here’s how it all played out.
Chaos and chop in the swim
“At roughly 7:02 a.m. and out of nowhere the wind started to blow between 15-20 mph,” a local newspaper reported. “Within a matter of minutes there were two foot white caps on the water.”
Hoffman, who said that the wind “came from all angles,” recalled battling swells measuring up to five feet at times. “We were swimming all over the place. I laughed at the ridiculousness at first, but then became concerned for my safety, and especially that of the other racers.” (In fact, at least 80 athletes had to be pulled from the water that morning and did not finish the race.)
For her part, Kessler recalled feeling like she was “in a washing machine,” during the swim. “I thought I was going to end up on an episode of Lost,” referring to the TV show about plane crash survivors who wind up as castaways on a desert island after landing in the ocean.
Despite the epic conditions, both Kessler (first out of the water in 52:42, with a nearly six-minute lead on the next woman) and Hoffman (third out, just 14 seconds behind Heath Thurston in 52:44) fared pretty well in the swim: Kessler’s split was just 50 seconds slower than what she posted in 2010, and Hoffman’s was close to the same as years’ prior.
“Pummeling” gusts on the bike
As scary as high winds can be in open water, they’re even more dangerous when you’re on a bike. At one point, Hoffman was hit by a sand blast, which pushed him off the course. “I was blown off the road, but I was able to keep it upright, but it was obviously scary,” he said post-race. “I just tried to keep it together.”
Kessler shared a similar experience, saying she set her record high (52 mph) and a record low (6 mph) at various portions of the course, during which she often struggled to stay on the bike. “It was the kind of day that truly defines…what an Ironman is,” Kessler said. “I questioned my sanity out there.” Later, she likened herself to a “flailing duck…trying to stay calm on the outside, but pedaling frantically [to stay afloat] underneath the surface.”
Unlike the swim, the bike was obviously impacted by the winds: Hoffman’s 5:10:01 split, the fastest of the day, was about 30 minutes slower than his 2011 split. Kessler posted a 5:57:14, 20 minutes slower than 2010. Still, their splits were strong enough to put both in the lead going into the run.
The run: Warm and windy
“The marathon seemed like a breeze after tackling such a tough swim-bike combo,” said Kessler after the race. Still, a marathon is never easy, especially in 80-degree temps with a seemingly unrelenting headwind. “My darkest times were battling the surf, headwinds up to Gunlock and Veyo, and suffering through the final miles of the run,” recalled Hoffman. “But I always had people nearby to encourage me onward, and I have never wanted a win as bad as this one.”
And he got it, crossing in 9:07:04, nearly 19 minutes ahead of runner-up Maik Twelsiek of Germany. As did Kessler, with her wire-to-wire victory in 10:12:59, some 24 minutes ahead of fellow American Jessie Donovan.
Afterwards, Kessler said it was her tenacity and mental fitness, more so than her physical fitness, that powered her to the finish line during what remains one of the toughest Ironmans to date, even a decade later.
“You could have been the fittest person out there,” she said. “But if your mind wasn’t set up and prepared, it would have been nearly impossible to finish.”
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