Jan Frodeno returned to the winner’s circle in style with a dominating swim, bike and run to take the 2019 Vega Hawaiian Ironman World Championship in record time.
The Olympic Gold Medalist in triathlon (2008), 2-time 70.3 World Champion, won this championship in 2015 and 2016. Then he fell into hard luck the two years since his two wins and he came here after skipping the 70.3 World Championship last month, all his focus pointed to this race. It paid with a victory as he walked the last couple of steps to the line in 7 hours, 51 minutes and 13 seconds, eclipsing Patrick Lange’s course record of 7:52:39.
The Ironman Champion the past two years, Patrick Lange, looked to be in the driver’s seat after hanging onto the front swim pack. Aussie Josh Amberger towed the 9-man swim group that jumped to a robust 5-minute lead on the überbikers. Amberger ran up the ramp in 47:28 followed by Jan Frodeno (on the bike above), Amberger, Kona rookie Alistair Brownlee, Daniel Bakkegard, Tim O’Donnell, Maurice Clavel, with Lange, Braden Currie, Jesper Svensson rounding out this speedy group.
A 17-man pack followed just over 3 minutes back, which included Andi Boecherer, Patrik Nilsson, Ben Hoffman, Andy Potts and David McNamee. Then the Matts, Russel and Hanson, Wurf, Sebastian Kienle and Lionel Sanders were just under 5 minutes down out of the water.
Brownlee took the bike out like it was an ITU race, riding out of the saddle all the way up Palani Hill, dropping 4 of the 9 front pack swimmers right off the back of the bike train. Turning a cadence of near 100rpms most of the way, a good 15 beats a minute faster than typical for lead male pros, he was not riding a quiet bike leg.
This 5-man pack of Amberger, Clavel, Frodeno, Brownlee and O’Donnell (on his Trek Speed Concept above) rode alone, with the überbikers making up about half the swim gap by the turn at Hawi. Lange, dropped early from that front bike group, kept getting passed on the bike ride. He pulled the plug at Kawaihae, just before that last climb up to the bike turnaround. Contemporaneous race coverage reported that he ran a fever the night before the race.
The wind, blowing from the East, kept picking up, hitting the riders from the side at about 30mph. McNamee, 3rd last year, was another race casualty, dropping from the race in the early miles. Now two-thirds of last year’s men’s podium was out of the race.
Brownlee took a rear wheel change at Hawi, but charged back and rejoined the front pack, while Amberger and Clavel fell off. It was now these three – Frodeno, Brownlee and O’Donnell – until the century mark of the ride where Frodeno put in a furious charge to the finish, soloing from Brownlee and O’Donnell. Jan was alternating in and out of the saddle, but staying with his arms in the custom armrests on his Canyon Speedmax, a bike handling specialty of his countryman Wolfgang Dittrich a quarter-century ago.
The chase group pulled by Cameron Wurf got to within 2 minutes of the leader and remained right there, not gaining or losing an inch. Riding an uncharacteristically quiet and patient bike leg were Lionel Sanders and Sebastian Kienle (above), with Matt Russell taking advantage of his good swim to chip away on the bike, placing himself within striking distance.
Frodeno’s shift into overdrive put time on everyone, including the überpack. Brownlee drifted back and finished with that Wurf/Kienle group. Frodo’s bike time was about 4:16, a very fast leg on a day with challenging winds.
When onto the run Brownlee gathered his legs under him and charged, matching Frodeno’s same pace, these two running faster than anyone else in the race. Tim O’Donnell quietly settled into an economic stride. With a rough year full of illness, injuries and crashes it looked like TO might’ve hit Kona on the way up rather than – as is so often the case – one stale month after one’s best fitness.
The only other runner to match pace with Frodeno was Kienle. The former winner was in 3rd place by 9 miles into the run, 2 minutes behind TO, and 5 behind the leader Frodeno. By the Palani hill Alistair Brownlee began to look like the world’s fastest triathlon runner powerless to tap into that talent. Almost no one, ever, wins in his or her first attempt at this race. AB was in the mix throughout, but if the wheels are going to come off Palani is as good a place as any.
O’Donnell looked like someone preparing to not get 2nd place by mile-10, but then a lot of people run well through mile-10. TO has been here before, and by the time the runners exited the Natural Energy Lab – usually the last place something really bad happens – he still held a 3-minute lead over Kienle.
Germany was having a great day, in the men’s and women’s races. But the USA was not doing badly. Ben Hoffman was quietly moving up and as he ran through 20 miles he was in 4th, just passing former pro bike racer Cameron Wurf, whose results in 2019 showed he formally moved from to fully-formed Ironman racer. Back a ways Chris Leiferman was having quite a run, in 9th by mile-20, and with ambition for more.
The one athlete poised after the bike to do well was fan favorite Lionel Sanders, well placed off the bike and running step-by-step with Kienle early on. But it was not Lionel’s best day and he faded. Two gladiators, Alistair and Lionel, finished 21st and 22nd.
Upon finishing Frodeno said, “This last week was such a roller coaster. Thank you for reaching out,” he said to the crowd. “I got so many messages.” He was apprised of the impending record, but said he “Just wanted to finish. Honestly I don’t care about the record. It’s a championship; the Wimbledon of our sport.” About that record: It happened on a day that probably wasn't the fastest day this race has seen. About the crowd: “They are amazing. Such a unique finish line. All you’re doing is waiting for Alii Drive, the hardest 500 meters in our sport.” To the crowd, “You are amazing.”
Tim O’Donnell never broke stride or form. His wife, multiple Ironman champ Mirinda Carfrae, dropped from the race and was at the finish to greet him. He also broke 8 hours.
Vega Hawaiian Ironman World Championships
October 12, 2019
S 2.4 mi. / B 112 mi. / R 26.2 mi
1. Jan Frodeno (DEU): ): 7:51:13 (47:31; 4:16:03; 2:42:43)
2. Tim O'Donnell (USA): 7:59:40 (47:38; 4:18:12; 2:49:44)
3. Sebastian Kienle (DEU): 8:02:04 (52:17; 4:15:06; 2:49:57)
4. Ben Hoffman (USA): 8:02:52 (51:01; 4:24:01; 2:43:08)
5. Cameron Wurf (AUS): 8:06:41 (52:25; 4:14:45; 2:55:03)
6. Joe Skipper (GBR): 8:07:46 (52:28; 4:16:19; 2:53:31)
7. Braden Currie (NZL): 8:08:48 (47:41; 4:30:30; 2:46:25)
8. Philipp Koutny (SUI): 8:10:29 (52:20; 4:15:15; 2:57:51)
9. Bart Arnouts (BEL): 8:12:27 (57:03; 4:19:48; 2:51:08)
10. Chris Leiferman (USA): 8:13:37 (52:29; 4:24:41; 2:52:19)
[PHOTOS: Eric Wynn]