How Braden Currie (Nearly) Raced the Perfect IMWC St. George
We get inside insight into the tactics, the race plan, and the lead pack dynamics (and yes, that final-mile duel) that put Kiwi Braden Currie on the podium at the Ironman World Championship.
Little in triathlon appears to faze Braden Currie—not running in the lead of the Ironman World Championship, and certainly not the pre-event hype of rivals.
The New Zealander flew into St. George under the radar, but left with a podium and a reminder that he’s consistently one of the very best in this brutal sport.
“I don’t really care about that stuff, but no matter what I did or said, probably the only way I was going to get coverage was to put it out there on the course,” Currie said, having led the race deep into the marathon before being overhauled by Kristian Blummenfelt, and then much later by Lionel Sanders within sight of the finish.
“I’ve watched a little bit of the live coverage back, and there’s an element of what were those commentators thinking? They know I’ve outrun Javier Gomez [in Cairns in 2018], been top 10 twice at Kona and won Asia-Pacific Championships three times over, and they didn’t even back me off the bike to be able to run with the top guys. I guess that’s part of racing, and it’ll probably be the same next time.”
That next time might come as early as October, where given the changing face of the long-distance side of tri, the 35-year-old could well head to the Big Island of Hawaii as one of the few contenders with a solid Kona pedigree—a seventh-place in 2019 backing up his fifth a year earlier. Having posted 7:54:18 in Utah and cracked the top three, Currie will quietly fancy his chances—especially given the race in St. George, while impressive, still wasn’t perfect.
Inside the race
“It was the best swim-bike I’ve ever had, and probably the most tactically controlled race in my professional career,” he explained. “But the run performance was nowhere near my best. Had I run the way I ran against Gomez, or even Ironman New Zealand last year where I ran 2:40 quite comfortably, it would probably have been a different story.”
The hilly course and hot conditions in St. George looked ideally suited for a gritty performer like Currie. As did the timing of the event, which allowed him to arrive fresh from a southern hemisphere summer where he’d already won the Port of Tauranga Half for a third time. In the U.S., his training base was Cedar City at about 6,000 feet of altitude and a short 40-minute drive from St. George.
“Altitude has worked really well for me in the past, and meant the race altitude didn’t feel hard whatsoever,” he said. “We had a two-week training block before tapering in St. George, so [we] spent a lot of time on course reconnaissance and testing, which allowed us to have a really structured and tactical race plan to stick to.
“Even before leaving New Zealand, I’d done a lot of training at a place called the Snow Farm at about 6,500 feet of altitude, but like any lead in, it could have been better. When I got off the plane, I probably didn’t sleep more than two hours for the first five nights due to the altitude, time zone change, and travel. I tried to stay relaxed and missed a couple of key sessions, but just had to accept that I shouldn’t be doing them.”
If the prep went well, the race start was even better. Currie led the swim for the first 800m, before settling into a small front pack that put time into the chasers. “The hope was that Kristian wouldn’t make the front, so it was a real bonus when we figured out he hadn’t. I had a quick transition and was first through and on to the bike.”
The lead pack
The bike leg saw a line of five quickly form at the front, including Currie’s compatriot Kyle Smith, Germany’s Florian Angert, Denmark’s Daniel Baekkegard, and Sam Laidlow of France.
“I had a plan to set a pace I knew was within my numbers, and try to keep it as controlled as possible—not have someone go to the front who would just blow it apart. Everyone seemed happy with the plan, and it was just a good, honest group. We had the head race referee with us the whole ride, and no one even got a warning.
“Every time someone was on the front they rode strong, and we never had the fluctuations in power you often get in Kona when someone accidentally ends up on the front, and then tries their best to get everyone to go past them so they can hide again.”
At the first turnaround at around 13 miles, the group could see Kristian was isolated, with the chasers, soon to be led by Australian Cam Wurf, about three to four minutes back.
“No one panicked. I knew the big section up to the steeper climb was quite rough chip and similar to what we ride in New Zealand, and you can only go so fast on that stuff. It was not until the top, at about 64 miles, that we got a time split that was four-and-a-half minutes back to Wurf.
“I was on the front, sat up, did a big fist pump and smiled back at the boys because it was a moment when we knew that as long as we didn’t do anything stupid in the next 25 miles, we should be off the bike first.” Currie’s 112-mile ride looked perfectly judged. His eventual split was 4:16:30, just 45 seconds slower than Wurf’s race-best. (In contrast, Wurf would eventually fade on the run to finish 18th overall.)
“We’d done lactate testing, which seems like the latest craze for all athletes. But it’s probably more that we’d also worked with how my heart rate was responding to altitude, and my lactate recovering from the travel, training block, and this course, in particular. So, we had a really strong base of numbers I knew I could work off.”
On to the marathon, Smith was passed for the lead in the early miles, the pair exchanging fist bumps as Currie struck out for victory, believing it was within his grasp.
“I normally run well off the bike, and it was four minutes back to Kristian, who I thought was probably the key contender. If I ran a 2:42-43, he’d have to go well under 2:40 to catch me, and because it was hot and the ride was hard, I didn’t see that being possible—especially considering we don’t really run that at Kona, and it was harder here.
“It was hard to manage. I took off from transition and headed uphill at near 6:30/mi. pace, then once over the crown I was running at 5:15/mi. But that’s the way you had to attack the course—run off feel and effort, not pace.
“I got through the first 14 miles and had lost maybe 45 seconds, then Kristian just stepped it up and 10-15 minutes later had the gap down to 30 seconds, and I pretty much realized that was it. I eased up a little to control my race in the hope that he was going to blow up, but he had an incredible run—and I was hurting in the last three miles.”
That final sprint
Currie looked set for a well-deserved runners-up spot until Sanders—who had also judged his effort exceptionally well all day—came past in the final throes to match his second-place from 2017 in Hawaii.
“It was a pretty tough moment, and I didn’t really see it happening,” Currie explained. “We’d got to the top of the last descent, with about two miles to the finish. I was absolutely shattered, but thought if I run around 6:00/mi. it’ll be enough unless he pulls out a miracle.
“We went around that last turn, and I had about 10-20 seconds. I tried to put the hammer down, but he came up beside me, and I didn’t have anything to retaliate with. You always look back and think could I have pushed it more, but I was just happy to be at the finish and that I’d raced the race the way I’d hoped I’d be able to at a world champs.”
Braden Currie’s Ironman sessions
Braden has had four previous Ironman wins, split between a pair of victories in both Cairns and Taupo, but says St. George was his best swim-bike combination to date. So, it made sense to ask him to share a session from each discipline.
Total: 3000m including warm up and cool down
Main set: 16 x 100m (each interval off 1:30)
Braden says: “I see 100s as the baseline to everything, and about seven days out, this is probably the key set. It’s a little trickier being in yards in the U.S., but I know that if I can swim 16 x 100s holding 1:08 for each 100m (or 1:02-03 in a yards pool), I’ll probably be swimming in the front bunch. We sit at about 1:12-1:14 pace overall on race day, and tend to go out over the first 400m-800m at around 1:05 pace. The aim of the set is to gain the get-out speed, but mostly give me confidence that I can get through the first 1km and hold the intensity required.”
Bike Explosive Power
Total: 5 hours
Main set: 5-hour ride, including 12 x 15-second intervals (at over 1,000 watts)
Braden says: “I started working with a new cycling coach, Ben Reszel, eight months ago, who is technical and data focused. Every session is different, and I’m yet to repeat one. There’s been no such thing as a baseline test session, but an interesting one incorporated mostly on longer rides, and that I hadn’t done in the past is explosive power. On a five-hour ride, Ben might throw in 12 x 15 seconds at over 1,000 watts at any time during the ride. It’s just about trying to keep the body feeling alive!”