Patrick and Lionel – two kinds of fierce

If triathlon had one person who could play both parts of the overly deferential, super polite comic characters Alphonse and Gaston, he would be Patrick Lange. Alphonse and Gaston were famous for coming to a door and one would say “After you,” and the other would say, “No, after you!” ad infinitum.

When Lange unleashed his dazzling 2:39:45 marathon at Kona last year to take third overall and break Mark Allen’s 27-year Ironman World Championship run record, Lange blurted out “I am sorry!” As if he had accidentally stolen a precious record from the legend.

On Saturday, Lange stayed true to character when he crossed the line at Kona with an 8:01:40 time that broke Craig Alexander’s 2011 race record by 2:16. One of the first things he blurted out in his excitement was an apology to Alexander for having the temerity for taking his record.

As he later explained, Lange said he hoped that the men who broke his records one day might be as kind and respectful – no bruised feelings from animalistic displays of chest thumping. “They are legends,” said Lange. “They deserve respect.”

“Yeah, he is fierce,” Sanders explained what lay beneath Lange’s mild-mannered demeanor. “I know him as a really humble, nice guy. But I also know in a race, he is not humble and nice. He will kick your ass! And he won’t be shy for that.”

Sitting nearby after the post-race press conference at the King Kamehameha, Lionel Sanders smiled at Lange, who just said he was afraid of the fight that Sanders would put up when he came to make the pass at Mile 23. “Was he afraid of me?” laughed Sanders. “I can answer that one for you! He wasn’t afraid of nothing! I know how it works. He was making up 40 seconds a mile on me.”

Coming into Kona in 2017, Lange was as far under the radar as a 2:39 marathoner who came within 5 minutes of a debut Kona victory last year if he hadn’t blundered into a drafting penalty could be. An early season injury that led to a 6th place finish at Frankfurt left many wondering if Lange was a one-hit, one-run flash in the pan.

As nice as he can be outside of sport, Lange realized that he needed to go all in if he wanted to win at Kona. Step one was to quit working as a physio 20 hours a week. The final step was to stop listening to sweet compliments about his potential and sharpen the blade of his killer instinct. For that he chose 2005 Ironman World Champion Faris Al-Sultan as his coach. “Faris changed minor details in training and turned out I needed a coach who gave me the feeling that I really have to work for it. Because let’s say three, four coaches I had before said ‘You are so talented. You can win any race.’ Faris was like ‘Huh?’ When we started together he was like ‘You will never win Kona.’ And ‘If you want me to be your coach for winning Kona, I am the wrong guy.”

With that self-satisfied attitude, All-Sultan told Lange, “You will never win a big race.”

Not at all insulted, Lange stuck with Al-Sultan. “It doesn’t turn me [off],” said Lange. “There are two ways to respond I guess. I could turn him down and say ‘OK. That’s my dream. I have to cancel it.’ Or I could work for it. And I worked my butt off. So I am really happy to have him.”

Emerging from the Energy Lab with a quick pass of 2014 Kona champion Sebastian Kienle and his sights set on the powerful Canadian 500 meters ahead, Lange was covering ground effortlessly with the speed of a cheetah. When told his stride was the men’s answer to Mirinda Carfrae’s flawless form, Lange said “Thanks. She has the best technique. I am looking up to her because her technique is perfect in running.”

Lange met Sanders at Mile 23 of the run. The same spot that Mark Allen left Dave Scott in his tracks during the 1989 Iron War. The same spot that Mark Allen passed Thomas Hellriegel to finish off his 13-minute deficit after the bike and take his final Kona victory. The same spot that Luc Van Lierde passed Hellriegel in 1996 to set a race record that lasted 15 years.

“It is an historical point,” said Sanders. “It is where all internal voices are screaming: ‘It is time to walk! It is time to walk now! ‘ Everyone at Kona hears the screaming. A lot of the limitations of this race are heat. The human body can only do so much to cool itself off. We wonder how much faster can we go on this island. Patrick has proven all of us wrong. Under eight hours once seemed so far away. Now it is just around the corner.”

Sanders, who debuted at Kona in 2015 with a 15th place, then fell to 29th last year, which he blamed on inadequate preparation. Sanders vowed never to disrespect this race again. Mission accomplished with his 8:04:07 masterpiece. As Barry Shepley noted, Sanders redeemed himself with the fastest-ever Kona bike-run split at Kona. [4:14:19 bike and 2:51:53 run equals 7:06:12, 2:40 better than Lange]. Fastest Canadian time ever. Third fastest time ever at Kona. And still in his 20s!

Lange had something to prove on the bike – last year his split was 4:39 and even take away the 5-minute penalty, it was too slow to win. His swim was fine – 12 seconds faster than last year. “The bike was on and off, lots of peaks and valleys the first hour and a half,” said Lange. “Unfortunately, I lost the group on the climb to Hawi. It was really hard conditions with heavy crosswinds. It was hard for me. I am a little light [5-11 and 140 pounds, 10 pounds lighter than Craig Alexander]. So it was hard for me to stay on the bike. I was fortunate to have David McNamee by my side. [Lange and McNamee had virtually equal swim and bike splits]. With McNamee, Lange worked his way to the first chase pack and arrived at T2 9 minutes down on bike record setter Cameron Wurf and Sanders.

“I was a little bit weak starting the run,” said Lange. but I found a good rhythm with David leading up to Palani, which kept the focus high. [Lange set the best race run split with 2:40:00, while McNamee was next best at 2:45:30] As Lange gradually worked past McNamee on his way to an auspicious negative split, his struggle was not over. “At the end, entering the Energy Lab I had some stomach issues. So I stopped for a few seconds. When Sebastian passed me he was smiling and I thought, ‘Oh he is looking really good.’ But further down the highway I was happy to overtake him.”

Sanders was in no mood for surrender, fighting and grinding for every step.

Sanders is a big man for a triathlete, his muscularity is reminiscent of Spencer Smith. And his form, not unlike the barely controlled frenzy of a jazz drummer, elbows akimbo and head rolling like Olympic triple champion Emil Zatopek, was in striking contrast to Lange’s ethereal smoothness. “I’m a bad runner,” he says. “I am a very ugly runner. I’ve been ugly since Grade 3. I’m not going to try and change that now. I can run well in a 70.3 and I still think there is room to improve over the Ironman distance. I’m always going to have trouble on the run. It’s freaking hot!”

By 21.6 miles of the run, just after the Energy Lab, Lange had whittled Sanders’ lead to 97 seconds. But Lange’s first target on the road back on the Queen K was Sebastian Kienle.

“I was quite aware that I have to take some chances,” said Kienle. “I cannot make a conservative race and wait for the run. That would probably not cut it. And therefore I was well aware I would probably have to pay. Some people say it is probably stupid to try something you are well aware you are probably not capable of. But I mean like Patrick, you always need to try something you are probably not capable of. That’s the whole story of long course and being an Ironman in my opinion. Sometimes into the bike, I was not sure I was going to finish the bike. Probably every single km on the run I was quite sure I am not going to finish this race. But yeah, that is what it is all about. Sometimes you have to try something and you are probably going to end up in a glorious victory or in a disaster. “

By this point, Kienle was in survival mode and Lange passed him like a jet fighter. Sanders, on his way to a 2:51:53 marathon, was a tougher get. Despite his ramped up pace, it still took Lange three more miles to catch the Canadian.

Sanders was discouraged but not devastated. “I love a fight and this race provided it,” he said. “This was the best battle I have ever been involved in. I would say it hurts to get passed at 23 miles into the marathon. But I love that. Patrick is a freaking animal and so I knew it was a very humbling experience when I tried to go with him for a second. It lasted for about one second. [Laughs.] I love a fight. I love it. It was good fight. I am not down.”

At the finish, Lange looked delighted as he became the sixth German to win the Ironman World Championship, following Thomas Hellriegel (1997), Normann Stadler (2004, 2006), Faris Al-Sultan (2005), Sebastian Kienle (2014), and Jan Frodeno (2015, 2016) into very select Ironman company.