Fast Times at Clearwater Beach

Ironman 70.3 may still be a redheaded stepchild to its glorious parent, Ironman Hawaii, but the quality of her champions and the inherent competitiveness of the distance have lent credibility and prestige to the new distance.

First off, the negatives: Ironman Hawaii offers a $560,000 prize purse and Ironman 70.3 Clearwater offers $90,000. Winners at Kona get $110,000; winners at Clearwater get $20,000. Unlike Xterra Worlds in Maui, which offers a nice weekend a short island hop away, little pressure, (and a bigger prize purse) and a better post race party two weeks after the rigors of Kona, Clearwater offers blazing speeds and a talented albeit smaller field and a slightly less possibility of a meltdown. That’s why Kona champions like Chrissie Wellington and Chris McCormack and Craig Alexander didn’t take the bait. And why the scheduling of the race in November after Kona, while ideal for the Florida climatic conditions, discourage slightly rational Kona competitors (Rebekah Keat, Paul Amey, Sandra Wallenhorst, Yvonne Van Vlerken, Eneko Llanos, Kate Major, Joanna Lawn, Chris Lieto, Torbjorn Sindballe, Bella Comerford, Marino Vanhoenacker, Faris Al-Sultan) from further damaging their bodies and egos.

The positives: When Craig Alexander and Sam McGlone won the 2006 inaugural 70.3, they were clearly world class triathletes who could win short (McGlone was a 2004 Olympian and Crowie won a Life Time Fitness $200,000 payout in 2005) and long (both were killers at the 70.3 distance). They were also destined for Ironman greatness, with both Crowie and Sam shaking up the old guard with stirring second place finishes in their Kona debuts the next year – and Crowie taking the Big Papaya a year later. In 2007, Andy Potts used his ITU World Cup winning speed to run down Oscar Galindez by a nail-bitingly close 4-second margin in a duel to the line, while McGlone’s 70.3 rival Mirinda Carfrae dominated and served notice she was a future threat to the Duchess Wellington’s Kona reign.

While Clearwater is playing catch-up to Kona, the logic of a worldwide series that allows its best athletes to race four to six times a year without damaging their bodies, and lets athletes have an endurance test while going flat out will eventually rise to Kona’s level.

While Clearwater is flat and crowded with 1,800 competitors that makes for an age group draft fest, the smaller pro fields are carefully monitored by the Jimmy Riccitello led marshals and have a fair contest. The first year, marshals gave stop and go penalties to Craig Alexander and Terenzo Bozzone. Karen Smyers also received a very questionable call that cost this paragon of sportsmanship and fair play her 20-year pristine, draft-free record. Last year, another call tweaked red-hot cyclist and emerging 70.3 contender David Thompson’s bid to make the podium. This year, Simon Thompson’s return to his 2004 Olympic form posited him as one of the favorites. But when the lead pack accordioned going up a slight incline before the Timex bike prime at Mile 32, Thommo inadvertently entered the draft zone and was faced with the impossible-to-comply-with rules necessity of passing all eight men lined up in front of him. Sharp observation by Riccitello’s marshals requires clean riding at least 10 meters apart. While the pro packs do derive an aero benefit, it’s nothing like the unenforceable draft train enjoyed by age groupers crammed on the course.

Yes! You do have a prayer of winning Clearwater after a full effort at Kona. Lisa Bentley finished 1:32 behind winner Samantha McGlone in 2006 a month after her best-ever third place at Kona. Last year, Clearwater defending champion Sam McGlone finished second to Mirinda Carfrae a month after her runner-up finish at Chrissie Wellington at Kona.

No! You don’t have a prayer of winning Clearwater after a full effort at Kona. Defending champion Craig Alexander hung on grimly for a 4th place finish at Clearwater last year a month after his debut second place at Ironman Hawaii. This year’s defending champion Andy Potts gutted out a tough 6th place finish at Clearwater a month after his impressive 7th place at Kona (after virtually no long distance bike or run training). Want further evidence? The 7th and 8th place finishes of Nina Kraft (who DNF’d at Kona) and Erika Csomor (a dominant 70.3 racer who whipped a healthy McGlone at California.) And so not forget Kate Major’s 8th place Clearwater finish in 2007 after a noble 3rd at Kona.

Youth will be served. Terenzo Bozzone is 23, and despite a two junior triathlon world titles and two junior duathlon world titles, some thought he was over the hill after his epochal, record-smashing 3:53 Wildflower win in 2005. But after failing to make the 2008 New Zealand Olympic team, which awarded the third slot to Shane Reed, who pledged to work in a team support role for eventual bronze medalist Bevan Docherty, Bozzone focused on the 70.3 series and it paid off handsomely. Still Bozzone had his moment of doubt and pain. “I couldn’t believe it. On the bridge on the way out for the second lap of the run, the man with the splits indicated that Richie Cunningham was catching up. I thought ‘My race is over!’ But then the man carrying the splits passed me and said ‘No worries mate. Nobody’s catching you.’ My emotions went from the bottom right back on top!” Second place finisher Andreas Raelert offered true high praise for the champion. “Terenzo is very young and he is a complete triathlete. He is very strong on the swim, (third-best 22:17) and also the bike (sixth best 2:01:28) and the run (third best 1:12:57). He was the best athlete on the day and a real winner.”

Age will be served. Joanna Zeiger is 38. After a smashing early career highlighted by a rousing 4th place at the inaugural Olympic triathlon in Sydney and a bronze medal at the 2001 ITU Olympic distance Worlds in Edmonton, Zeiger was struck by a series of back and leg injuries which threatened her career. After a long and painful and frustrating road to recovery which involved solving the mysteries of bike fit and stride mechanics, Zeiger took two Ironman wins, gave up on Kona, and eventually focused on her best distance, the 70.3. This year, Zeiger’s wins at Eagleman, Vineman and Muskoka 70.3 as well as 5430 long course triumph punctuated by a 1:18 run restored her confidence that her health was back. “I used to be a feared runner within the sport, but it went away with so many injuries,” she said. ”I really worked hard at getting that back this summer.” With the aid of new coach Phil Skiba of Philadelphia, Zeiger regained her youth. His formula: Do what’s required for race success – and nothing more. No more endless two-hour runs to satisfy her Type A drive. “All she needed was a rational approach - and stick to the plan,” said Skiba.

Zeiger called her first World title the second biggest thrill of her career after the Olympics. And she didn’t mind serving as a poster child for the elder set. “This has been a year for the old people,” said Zeiger. “A 38-year-old woman won the Olympic marathon and 40-year-old Tom Evans won Ironman Florida in the phenomenal time of 8:07! People who say that 38 is washed up don’t know what the capacities of the human body are. I just take care of myself and don’t make the same mistakes I made at 28.” Indeed, Zeiger was the complete triathlete while smashing Mirinda Carfrae’s course and world record for the distance by 4 minutes 37 seconds! On Saturday, Zeiger’s 23:06 swim was second best, her 2:13: 43 bike was third best, and her 1:21:58 run was best on the day. While her run was three minutes slower than Carfrae’s 2007 mark, Zeiger’s swim was 3:27 better and bike was 5 minutes faster - adding up to an incredible 4:02:48 day in the sun.

Dedication. Late last year, Becky Lavelle was devastated by the suicide of her twin sister Jenny, who killed herself and her newborn son in the grip of severe postpartum psychosis. Rather than hide from the world, Lavelle and her family recounted Jenny’s story to the world and created a foundation dedicated to educating new mothers about the dangers of this widespread but long ignored disease. By mid season, Lavelle also regained her will to compete in her sport, winning the Life Time Fitness Series. She topped off what she calls “the best season of my career” with her first World Championship podium, a stellar third place finish at Clearwater. “I have a picture of Jenny on my bike. It helps to look down and see I can dig deeper when I need it.”

Indeed, Lavelle did dig deep for the podium. In the first mile of the run, former ITU World Cup star and two-time Xterra Champ Julie Dibens passed Lavelle. At Mile 3, long shot Mary Beth Ellis passed Lavelle as well, knocking her back to 4th. But at Mile 6.5, Lavelle marshaled up a rally and passed Dibens for the podium. “I hadn’t done any 70.3 races this year, so I was a little tighter than usual,” said Lavelle. “I fought off cramps the last 2-3 miles. So I wasn’t thinking how happy I was, just trying to not collapsing until I crossed the line.”

Siri Lindley is a great coach. In 2006, Mary Beth Ellis was coming off a running career topped by a 2:41 time in the Philadelphia Marathon. She signed on with Lindley as her coach to start triathlon and competed in just three age group races before turning pro. After a 2007 season laid the groundwork, Ellis made huge inroads in 2008, winning the Lake Stevens 70.3 and placing high at several Olympic distance events. At Clearwater, Ellis emerged from the swim fourth in a tight pack of five in 23:31, had the fastest bike split in 2:13:18 and closed with the second fastest run in 1:23:19. Her 4:04:07 second place finish earned her $9,000 and also broke Mirinda Carfrae’s 2007 course record and is the second fastest women’s time in 70.3 history. Just as she guided a 35-year-old Susan Williams to bronze at the 2004 Olympics and Mirinda Carfrae to the Ironman 70.3 world title last year, Lindley helped the 31-year-old Ellis to a World Championship silver in just her second year as a pro.

Even with great coaches like Siri Lindley, some days things just go south. Defending champion Mirinda Carfrae had been on top of the 70.3 world all year, with wins at Geelong, St: Croix, Buffalo Springs, Newfoundland and a close second to Erika Csomor at California. She also had a strong showing at the Olympic distance, with thirds at St. Anthony’s and Escape From Alcatraz and a 5th at the City of Los Angeles Triathlon. Also, she had prudently resisted the siren call of Kona, declaring that at age 27 she could wait another year for her body to mature before following in Samantha McGlone’s footsteps to the Kona start line. In addition, Carfrae says she had the greatest training block of her life leading up to Clearwater, clearing her mind and all her resources for the defense of her title. When she finished 15th, behind three age group amateurs, Carfrae was shocked but made no excuses. “If I could tell you what happened, I’d be happy,” she said. “I felt awful from the start and I was hurting the whole day – only I wasn’t going that fast. I put it down to maybe it’s just been a long year. Or maybe I trained a little too hard for this race. Last year my worst race of the year was at Singapore, and this felt a lot like it. It was disappointing to not only not go well, but to well and truly get my ass kicked. I’ve never been off the podium in a long course race and today I was well off. When I started the bike, it didn’t feel great. I thought ‘Man, what’s going on here? You’re a world champion and you can’t just rise to the occasion?’”

Maybe Bozzone won it in transition. Winner Terenzo Bozzone and runner-up Andreas Raelert emerged from the water just 4 seconds apart – 22:17 to 22:21. While Bozzone started slow on the bike, he eventually bridged the gap to the lead pack by the end of the ride, and came to the bike-to-run transition 2 minutes 13 seconds ahead of Raelert. Raelert then passed about 10 men with a race-best 1:10:53 run, but fell 32 seconds short as Bozzone’s third-best 1:12:57 run held on for the win. While official results did not include the transitions, Raelert’s total transition time gave away 22 seconds to Bozzone. Bozzone’s total swim-bike-run splits thus were just 9 seconds faster than Raelert’s.

While the clock ran out on Raelert’s charge for the lead, had Bozzone’s transitions not been clearly superior, leaving the young New Zealander out of sight of the German near the end, the adrenaline boost that often goes to the hunter (citing Andy Potts’ come-from-behind win over Galindez last year) might have carried Raelert to the win. But no excuses are in order – both Raelert and Bozzone were fighting for Olympic slots on the transition-crucial ITU World Cup circuit early in the season.

Amateur Brooke Davison had the performance of the day. Davison, a 37-year-old age grouper from Boulder, Colorado, finished 5th overall in 4:12:10. While she was 9 minutes 22 seconds behind Zeiger’s world record time for the distance, her mark would have beaten Sam McGlone’s 2006 world championship winning time. Davison’s 25:02 swim time this year was 7th fastest in the field, just 2 minutes back of Zeiger. Her 2:16:14 bike split was 6th fastest in the field, just 2 minutes 31 seconds back of Zeiger. And while her 1:27:24 run was merely 10th fastest, the combination left her 5th overall. Looking at Davison’s 2008 results, this was no fluke. Davison won the St. Anthony’s age group overall women’s title by 4 minutes. She won the Boise 70.3 age group title and placed 9th woman overall. She took the Boulder 5430 long course age group title and 3rd overall, just 6 minutes behind pro Joanna Zeiger. She won the Boulder 5430 sprint title overall and took a decisive victory at the USA Triathlon age group nationals at Hagg Lake, Oregon. Now Davison joins the exclusive club - mothers-of-three who kick ass in triathlon – that includes 1990s USTS star Jan Ripple and 5-time Ironman champion Heather Gollnick.

Who overcame better against circumstances? Terenzo Bozzone winning overall despite competing with a hand in a splint, broken in a bike crash a month ago in Kona? Duathlon star Catriona Morrison finishing 9th despite starting off the season with knee surgery and severely rolling her ankle a week before Clearwater? David Thompson scoring the 4th best bike split (2:01:21) and finishing 20th despite a hobbling patella femoral injury to his left leg in August and a fractured metacarpal in his right hand suffered September 2?

Were fast times at Clearwater for real?

The case for No: While the leading pros were watched like hawks by Jimmy Riccitello-led draft marshals, were Joanna Zeiger and Mary Beth Ellis really 4 and 3 minutes faster than an on-form Mirinda Carfrae last year? Did Terenzo Bozzone really smash Andy Potts’ 2007 race and world best time for the distance by 2 minutes? Was the 8th place finisher in women’s 40-44 bike split of 2:16:18 – just 2 minutes 25 seconds slower than Zeiger, 8 minutes faster than pro Nina Kraft, and 4 minutes faster than pro Erika Csomor – legit? Could the course have been short?

All things considered, yes, the fast times were for real: Many factors played into these amazing times. Number one, at age 20 in 2005, Terenzo Bozzone smashed to smithereens (by six minutes) the long-standing Wildflower course record achieved by the greatest names in the sport. Cutting two minutes off Potts’ 2007 winning time seems was well within Bozzone’s capabilities. Number two: Mirinda Carfrae surrendered 2 minutes on the swim and 5 minutes on the bike to Julie Dibens last year before finishing with a devastating 1:18: 41 run. Zeiger’s balanced swim-bike-run combination, albeit aided by being part of a legal pack of four women with superior swim-bike combos pushing one another the whole way, could have at least equaled Rinny’s mark. Number three: Let’s acknowledge that Clearwater’s super flat bike course, combined with a largely amateur field of 1,800 qualified World Championship competitors, with waves starting every five minutes, cannot be adequately policed for drafting. And let’s stipulate that a strong cyclist starting back in the field can legally pass an unending stream of slower riders for roughly an hour and get a tremendous draft effect. That said, 35-39 women’s amateur star Brooke Davison’s 2:16:14 bike split probably derived some benefit from riding among clots of amateurs – but she is still within range of the best women pros. And, Ironman Hawaii-weary Nina Kraft and Erika Csomor were riding alone and well off their usual pace. As for the 8th place finisher in women’s 40-44, if she is a cycling specialist, her time was likely improved by riding legally past a stream of slower age groupers, but
she could well have been Brooke Davison’s equal on two wheels. Was the course short? Not likely. Race director Steve Meckfessel ran St. Anthony’s for years and runs Ironman Louisville and distances were always on target. One age grouper reported that his cyclometer registered 55.9 miles at the end of the ride. Also: Perhaps the best measurement is the fastest men’s bike splits. Watched carefully by Riccitello, Oscar Galindez rode a second-best 2:00:28 last year. This year, Galindez rode a race-best 1:59:55, just 33 second faster. This year’s fastest women’s bike split of 2:13:18 by Mary Beth Ellis was just one second slower than Julie Dibens’ 2007 race best split. This year Dibens reported she could not break away as she had done in 2007, and rode 2:13:22.