Rasmus Henning of Denmark won it with a race-best run and Nikki Butterfield of Australia took the women's title with a women's race-best bike to take the men's and women's titles at the third Abu Dhabi International Triathlon.
Under cooler-than-usual temperatures in this opulent Middle Eastern capital, Rasmus Henning broke Eneko Llanos' 2010 Abu Dhabi International Triathlon race record by 13:13 to finish in 6:21:44 with a 27-seconds margin of victory over Faris Al-Sultan of the United Arab Emirates. Henning, who trailed Al-Sultan by 4:16 after the swift 200 kilometer bike, ran down the captain of the home country Abu Dhabi Triathlon team with a race-best 1:06:12 20-kilometer run that caught Al-Sultan with 5 kilometers to go. Eneko Llanos of Spain, who won the inaugural Abu Dhabi International Triathlon in 2010, came back from 15th on the swim and 8th after the bike with second-best 1:07:09 run to take third, 31 seconds back of Al-Sultan.
The drama of the race for the win was underlined by the recent struggle of both contenders to overcome discouraging setbacks and regain their best form. Henning, who won two $200,000 titles at the Olympic distance Hy-Vee Triathlon and looked ready to storm the Ironman-distance scene after a sizzling 7:52 win at Challenge Roth in 2010, fell into a slump with several DNFs due to mysterious violent cramps that had him contemplating retirement. Al-Sultan has been struggling to match the form that took him to a win at the 2005 Ironman World Championship - but had raised hopes recently with a win at the prestigious Ironman Frankfurt.
"This win is a big relief and a big confidence boost," said Henning. "I have had some dark times in the past year and a half and was considering retirement. Now I have figured out how to beat the cramps and can race to win at the highest level."
"I had no hints of the cramps that has made my racing difficult in some races over the past year and made me DNF twice," said Henning. "My legs felt good both on the bike and the run and I could hold a high pace without any cramps or muscular problems. I could push the body to its limits today and it was a great feeling. I did not know how fast I was running but it felt pretty fast and actually quite easy today. It would make sense to have ironman legs after those 200 km on the bike but it rather felt like this was a short distance race and that made me run very good today."
Clayton Fettell of Australia led the men out of the water despite a navigation error during the first loop of the swim.
Fettell was soon joined by Paul Ambrose and the two Aussies rode quite a while in the lead. Eventually Faris Al-Sultan and Andrew Starykowicz bridged up to the leaders but Starykowicz ran into a volunteer and crashed to the ground. He still managed to get to the second transition first with a race-record 4:28:50 ride and a 35-seconds lead on Paul Ambrose, but his day was over with what seemed to be a broken shoulder.
Much to the delight of the locals, Al-Sultan moved into the lead on the run as Ambrose started to fade. But a bit further back, Rasmus Henning was flying along and he caught the German towards the end of the run.
Young mum Nikki Butterfield broke Julie Dibens' 2010 women's race record by 8:03 to hit the finish in 7:00:22 with a 2:38 margin over runner-up Angela Naeth of Canada and 4:07 over third place finisher Caroline Steffen of Switzerland and 4:39 over current Ironman 70.3 World Champion Melissa Rollison of Australia. Butterfield, who returned full-time to triathlon after a career in women's pro cycling, came back from 5:50 down to leader Jodie Swallow on the swim with a women's-best 4:55:47 bike -- 2:37 better than Naeth -- that gave her a 1:43 margin on Naeth, 2:58 on Steffen, and 5:57 on Rollison.
While Butterfield's 1:15:10 run was 3:14 slower than Rachel Joyce's women's race-best 1:11:56 clocking, Joyce's 5:08:57 bike left her out of contention for the win and happy to close in 5th place. More pertinent to the race for the win, Butterfield's 20 km run was 1:03 better than Naeth, 1:18 better than Steffen and gave up just 55 seconds to Rollison, whose usually dominant run was hamstrung by a rolled ankle in a training three weeks ago. Jodie Swallow, who had a two minuter lead after the swim, held in the leasd pack for much of the bike before fading to a 6:04 deficit at T2 and 10:08 back and a 6th place finish after a painful run.
Butterfield, who carried young daughter Savana over the line, electrified the tri world with a rush to the lead via a devastating bike at the $1 million Hy-Vee Triathlon last summer. While she faded to 4th place in Iowa, Butterfield closed the deal at one of the sport's most prestigious new titles with another great bike and a gutsy run that gave her time to luxuriate in the applause at the finish and contemplation of the $50,000 she had richly earned.
Still, Butterfield said she could not bask in the glory of her first major triathlon win for long.
"I am very happy with my race today," she said. "But I am reminded that a 20 kilometer run is a very different animal from an Ironman marathon. That's my goal now and I know I have a lot of work to do. "
Jodie Swallow took charge of the women's race and emerged from the swim with a 2-minute lead. But just like Fettell, she also managed to swim off course.
Swallow rode a long time by herself, but eventually she was joined by Caroline Steffen, Angela Naeth, Nikki Butterfield and Melissa Rollison. Towards the end of the bike Butterfield pulled away and came into the bike-run transition with a pretty nice lead.
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Abu Dhabi International Triathlon
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
March 3, 2012
S 3k / B 200k / R 20k
1. Rasmus Henning (DEN) 6:21:44
2. Faris Al-Sultan (GER) 6:22:11
3. Eneko Llanos (ESP) 6:22:44
4. Andreas Boecherer (GER) 6:24:38
5. Frederik Van Lierde (BEL) 6:25:12
6. Dirk Bockel (LUX) 6:27:11
7. Luke Bell (AUS) 6:28:16
8. Paul Ambrose (AUS) 6:31:15
9. Fraser Cartmell (GBR) 6:31:53
10. Clayton Fettell (AUS) 6:32:21
1. Nikki Butterfield (AUS) 7:00:22
2. Angela Naeth (CAN) 7:03:00
3. Caroline Steffen (SUI) 7:04:29
4. Melissa Rollison (AUS) 7:05:00
5. Rachel Joyce (GBR) 7:06:05
6. Jodie Swallow (GBR) 7:10:29
7. Emma-Kate Lidbury (GBR) 7:19:35
8. Eva Nystrom (SWE)7:26:24
9. Christie Sym (AUS) 7:27:10
10. Diane Riesler (GER) 7:27:46