Alexander, Wellington run their way to victories in Kona

Australian Craig Alexander (pictured) won his first Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon, while Chrissie Wellington from England, a surprise victor last year, repeated with ease.

On its thirtieth anniversary the Hawaiian Ironman reverted to form, as the superior run splits won the day. Alexander's 2:45:01 marathon was the difference maker, a split he used to hold off several strong runners to win in 8:17:45. Spain's Eneko Llanos, a former fifth place finisher in Kona, improved to second by crossing the line in 8:20:50.

In Wellington's case, she was simply the far superior athlete. Though forced to stand by the side of the road with no way to inflate a spare tire, she finally made her way back onto the course and quickly moved to the lead and sped to victory.

The race started quickly, with a trio of swimmers, Andy Potts, Benjamin Sanson and Pete Jacobs, exiting the water in just over 48 and a half minutes. Potts was six days distant from a second place finish in the Toyota U.S. Open Olympic distance race in Dallas. The trio traded the lead on the bike, and many predicted Potts might stay in front for the bulk of the bike ride. But Kona bike course record holder Torbjorn Sindballe had a different idea. At just over 10 miles into the bike leg the big Dane overtook the trio, making up a 3- minute deficit in the swim in only that short distance.

Hillary Biscay towed the women through the field, hitting the ramp first in 54:35. On her feet were two Ginas, Kerr and Ferguson, Nina Craft, Leanda Cave and Dede Griesbauer. Wellington was just under two minutes back.

Griesbauer went to the front on the bike and the field, with the exception of Kraft, immediately fell away from her. But Wellington was charging, much as was Sindballe in the men's race. By the 16 mile mark Wellington was in front, and would have been on her way to the fastest bike split of the day were it not for a stroke of bad fortune.

In the week prior to the Hawaiian Ironman a canopy of volcanic ash provided entrants relief from the sun's rays, and hope for less than withering heat on race day. On race morning it was clear Madame Pele played her familiar joke with Ironman hopefuls. The heat would bedevil many of the race favorites, and as the morning wore on the heat stoked the winds, which conspired to slow the riders on their march toward the Hawi turnaround and kill the chance for a bike course record.

American Chris Lieto, sixth here last year, held Sindballe's bike pace for 60 miles, while former Kona winner Faris Al Sultan hoisted himself up to third, less than a minute from the lead. This was the best the German's fitness and health would take him. "I got a virus in Malaysia," he said after the race. "I never recovered. I just continued to do eight races this year, and they all ended up like this. I should've taken a rest." Al Sultan would fade to an overall finish of 12th, in 8:39.

Just after the turnaround at Hawi, with the wind now at the backs of the riders, Sindballe pulled away from Lieto and everyone else.

Last year's winners, male and female, each experienced equipment problems during the bike ride. Chrissie Wellington's flat tire, roughly halfway into the bike leg, came when she was 5 minutes up on second place. Her crisis turned into a nightmare when she used up her CO2 cartridges while failing to inflate her spare. Good sportsman Rebecca Keat offered a lifeline in the form of a cartridge, and Wellington was back in business, albeit 10 minutes later. Men's winner McCormack's mechanical was fatal to his race. His snapped front derailleur cable gave him only the small chain ring to ride in. He decided against continuing when apprised by the neutral support vehicle the repair would take 15 minutes. Wellington now found herself riding more than 5 minutes behind Griesbauer, Belinda Granger and Cave. Macca was out entirely.

Sindballe led into T2 with a 4:17 lead over Lieto, with two-time Kona winner Normann Stadler (pictured) :13 back of Lieto. Eneko Llanos, riding a strong, controlled race all day, was next at 5:21 down from the lead. The fastest ride of the day went to Estonian Ain Alar Juhanson, with a 4:26:14 to Sindballe's 4:27:40.

This would be the high water mark for Sindballe who, after finishing the race far back, said, "I planned this race perfectly. i executed it perfectly, for half the day. But last night my stomach plugged up — I couldn't get anything into my system. It was enough to make a good start, but not to finish."

At the 6-mile mark of the run, Stadler took over the lead, with Llanos close enough to smell the exhaust of the lead vehicle, just :26 in arrears. All the challengers were starting to fall back, but a dangerous Alexander had crept up into 8th, less than 4 minutes down.

A half hour behind the men, Wellington rode into T2 as the first place woman. It took her all of 30 miles after mounting her newly inflated tire to regain the lead. She rode a further 6 minutes into the field in the final 30 miles of the ride. Granger separated herself from the rest of the riders to enter T2 next. Yvonne Van Vlerken, fresh off her 8:45:48 world best over this distance earlier this year in Germany, showed she can compete in the heat, riding in with the fastest bike split of 5:05:34. Wellington's 5:08:15 was second best.

Out on the run course, 10 miles in, Llanos took over first place from Stadler. The former Olympian and Xterra World Champ held the lead in the Hawaiian Ironman for the first time in his career. Stadler stuck to his heels like glue. The stiff wind that pushed the riders home on the bike blew full in the faces of the riders-turned-runners once they headed outbound on the Queen K Highway. Stadler ran in Llanos' wind shadow, declining to face the headwind on his own.

The wind was no problem for Craig Alexander. Perennial Kona runner-up Cameron Brown from New Zealand was no longer able to hold the Aussie's furious, often sub-2:40, marathon pace. Between miles 12 and 13 Alexander closed from 1:40 down to 1:15 down. At mile-14 Stadler stopped to stretch a cramp, and left to Llanos alone the job of holding off the relentless Aussie.

The final mile before entering the Natural Energy Lab, most of which was run into the wind, Alexander ran a 6:16. That was enough to haul in Llanos, who gave up the frontrunner's spot just as the runners turned off the Queen K and commenced their descent toward the beach.

But the Ironman is a brutal race, and the Energy Lab is the most brutal segment of it. Llanos was vanquished, and Stadler beaten. Nevertheless, with several proven runners only two minutes in arrears, victory was not certain. The Natural Energy Lab is the Ironman's archetypal personal test, like the Slough of Despond in John Bunyon's Pilgrim's Progress. It's not the weight of one's sins and sense of guilt that bedevils Ironman runners during this horrible stretch of road, it's the heat, and the pain, and the doubts, and the knowledge of the distance yet to run.

But run Alexander did, down through and out of the Lab, and stretched his lead in the process. With 5 miles to go the precious gap to Llanos was almost 2 minutes. In those final miles he tacked on another minute for good measure.

After the runner-up Llanos came Belgian Rutger Beke, finishing inside the top 4 in this race for the fourth time. After crossing in 8:21:23 Beke said, "All the people who thought I was done? I kept telling people, 'It's fine, I'm good, don't worry.'" Ronnie Schildknecht of Switzerland was fourth, in 8:21:46.

By the time Wellington (pictured) had reached the 5-mile mark of the run, she had a 10-minute lead. Not since the early days of Paula Newby-Fraser's Ironman career, when she took the winning Kona time from 9:30 down to 9 hours flat, has a woman been this dominant. Van Vlerken proved to be the best of the rest, only losing about 3 minutes to Wellington between miles 5 and 20.

But the other world best holder Sandra Wallenhorst of Germany, who went 8:47 in Austria this year to claim the best Ironman-branded time, had very good legs on the day. Her 2:58:36 marathon tightened things, though she would settle for third in 9:22:52. Van Vlerken would run a 3:04:27, for an overall time of 9:21:20 and a runner up spot. Erika Csomor and Lindsay Corbin finished fourth and fifth.

"I took great satisfaction in smashing Yvonne in Almere on her home course," said the irrepressible Wellington after her victory. "It gave me a great deal of confidence coming into this race."

Her 2:57 marathon did not surprise her in the least. "I can do much better — I can run 2:51."

Wallenhorst, at 36 years old a late comer to top-caliber racing, said, "The birth of my young son has inspired me to a new level. Chrissie, Yvonne and I were on the attack this year. It was the same thing today. i'm really happy with my race. I'm much happier with my third place here, today, than with my win in Austria in 8:47."

2008 Ford Ironman Hawaii World Championships

Top 10 men
1. Craig Alexander (AUS) 8:17:45
2. Eneko Llanos (ESP) 8:20:50
3. Rutger Beke (BEL) 8:21:23
4. Ronnie Schildknecht (SWI) 8:24:46
5. Cameron Brown (NZL) 8:26:17
6. Patrick Vernay (NCL) 8:30:23
7. Andy Potts (USA) 8:33:50
8. Mathias Hecht (SWI) 8:34:02
9. Michael Lovato (USA) 8:34:47
10. Eduardo Sturla (ARG) 8:36:53

Top 10 women
1. Chrissie Wellington (GBR) 9:06:23
2. Yvonne Van Vlerken (NED) 9:21:20
3. Sandra Wallenhorst (GER) 9:22:52
4. Erika Csomor (HUN) 9:24:49
5. Linsey Corbin (USA) 9:28:51
6. Virginia Berasategui (ESP) 9:29:15
7. Bella Comerford (GBR) 9:34:08
8. Gina Ferguson (NZL) 9:36:53
9. Gina Kehr (USA) 9:37:06
10. Dede Griesbauer (USA) 9:39:53