Knibb Dominates, Sanders Back on Top at Oceanside

Lionel Sanders overtook Sam Long a little more than 1 mile into the run and methodically built out his lead from there at Oceanside 70.3. With every official run split, he extended his lead all the way to the finish line. You could see the emotion pouring out in the finishing straight, as he high-fived fans and grabbed the finish line tape. In his post race interview Sanders said, “The game has changed for sure…I have had to work at every discipline to win here again…I had to fight hard right until the finish.” After a somewhat difficult (by his standards) 2023, he is back on top and is now leading the IRONMAN Pro Series.

Taylor Knibb led the women’s race wire to wire -- well, almost wire to wire. She stopped in T1 to put on socks and got onto the bike with a 1 minute deficit. It did not take her long to get back in front, as she went on to put more than 10 minutes into the rest of the field on the bike. She even managed to have a quick conversation about the bike course record with Mirinda Carfrae in T2. Knibb tied Daniela Ryf’s bike course record and joked after the race that, “Maybe she can postpone her retirement and we can go after the bike course record (next year).” Knibb credited Daniela (who was not even there) for motivating her over the final hour of today’s ride. She was still able to put together a strong run off of her record-tying bike to secure the win by more than 10 minutes. That’s one way to validate your 70.3 World Championship slot.

Men’s Race Recap

The professional fields were greeted by cool early morning temperatures. It was 45 degrees when the men went off at 6:40am. It would warm up to 60 degrees by the end of the race and winds would not get above 5mph. A front pack of 3, including Magnus Manner (22:58 split), Matthew Sharpe, and Marc Dubrick, took out the swim, with a big chase pack 30 seconds back. Florian Angert, Justin Riele, Jelle Geens, and Patrick Lange were all in that group. Braden Currie came out of the water 1 minute back. Lionel Sanders had a strong swim and was only 1:30 down. Jackson Laundry was right behind him. Sam Long was 2:30 down and Joe Skipper was 3:30 down.

The big question was how long the front bike pack could hold off the uber bikers. Belgian short course star, Jelle Geens, hit the front of the bike 12.2 miles into the race, with Marc Dubrick on his wheel. Long, Sanders, and Laundry were 1:30 down. The Oceanside bike course is an honest one, with 3 main hills to navigate. By the 26 mile mark, the trio of Long, Sanders, and Laundry, hit the front of the race. Any chance for Dubrick or Geens to run away from the rest of the field quickly evaporated. By the 42.5 mile mark, the lead pack of 5, consisting of Long, Sanders, Laundry, Riele, and Maximilian Sperl, broke the race open. Geens was hanging 20 seconds back of the 5th wheel in that group but would enter T2 2:45 behind the group. They were able to put more than 2:00 on a very strong ITU cyclist in just 13.5 miles.

Long had the best T2 & got out onto the run in 1st, followed closely by Sanders and Laundry. Sperl battled some early cramping and Riele fell off of the hot pace set by the leaders. Sanders hit the lead after the 1 mile mark. By 4.8 miles, his lead over Long was up to 18 seconds. At the 8 mile mark, his lead had grown to 36 seconds. The podium began to finalize itself by the 9.7 mile mark. Sanders’ lead was up to a minute over Long, with Laundry another 26 seconds back.

Sanders emphatically raised the finish line tape, stopping the clock in 3:46:24. The top-5 results:

Sanders 3:46:24
Long 3:47:35
Laundry 3:48:22
Geens 3:50:01
Sperl 3:50:38

This is Sanders’ 3rd win in Oceanside. He went back to back in 2016 and 2017. He was most recently 2nd in 2022. On today’s (surprise to some) swim he said, “Swimming is by far the most difficult discipline to improve if you don’t have any talent like myself.” Sam tipped his cap to his friendly rival, saying, “It was really great to race with Lionel. I’m proud of my performance. I just got outclassed.” Laundry added, “It (the race) was tough. We rode really hard. It was not easy at any point in time.” The men’s race certainly lived up to its pre race hype.

Quick Take #1: Lionel Sanders did some sandbagging in his race week YouTube video and I hope you did not fall for it. He poked some fun at his age, and said that his most recent run workout (3x3k) was not anywhere near the caliber of past workouts. While that might be true, that looked more like a race week workout meant to be done close to 70.3 race pace. I would imagine that he has done plenty of recent running faster than that workout. While it is true that he has not won a full distance race since 2017, he was 2nd at the St. George World Championship in 2022. At this point in his career, no matter what he says, Lionel is still a race favorite when he is on a start list.

Quick Take #2: Lionel Sanders is now leading the IRONMAN Pro Series but the full distance races are looming. Are 3 140.6 races in a season too many? How do you peak for that many full distance races? Can someone podium at all 3 of their full distance races? Those are questions we will try to find answers to as this race series develops.

Quick Take #3: A lot of top racers already had their slots for the 70.3 World Championship. Slots will roll down quite a bit in both races.

Quick Take #4: IRONMAN announced prior to the race that it would not be using Race Ranger due to a firmware issue. They expect this to be resolved for IRONMAN Texas. It is unclear how this impacted the race. Riders did seem to be bunched up on some of the climbs. It seems like more riders were able to latch onto some of the stronger riders making their way through the field.

Women’s Race Recap

Lauren Brandon, one of the strongest swimmers in the sport, was a late withdrawal. Three women, Fenella Langridge (25:23), Taylor Knibb, and Kate Curran, led out the swim. Paula Findlay and Grace Thek came out 1 minute back. Emma Pallant-Browne, Tamara Jewett, and Danielle Lewis, were 4 minutes down. Knibb took her time in T1 to put on socks. That gave Langridge the opportunity to build an early 1 minute lead on the bike. By the 12.2 mile point, however, Knibb was back at the front of the race. By the halfway point, Knibb’s lead had grown to 3 minutes over Langridge. Findlay was 5 minutes back. Pallant-Browne and Thek were 6:30 down. Lewis was 8 minutes down and Jewett was 10 back.

By the end of the bike, Knibb had tied the Oceanside bike course record and gapped the field by more than 10 minutes. Findlay came into T2 in 2nd, with Langridge right behind her in 3rd. Lewis and Thek came off the bike a little further back in 4th and 5th place, respectively. At the 7.3 mile point of the run, Pallant-Browne passed Findlay to move up into 2nd place on the road. Pallant-Browne was then disqualified post-race for speeding through Oceanside's notorious downhill speed trap, but successfully appealed the DQ and was reinstated. Pallant-Browne has been a victim of some bad recent luck. She suffered from heat exhaustion at T100 Miami and then crashed on her bike in training last week.

Here are your adjusted top-6 (accounting for Pallant-Browne's DQ and then reinstatement):

Knibb 4:09:55
Pallant-Browne 4:20:49
Findlay 4:21:48
Thek 4:23:16
Lewis 4:25:11
Langridge 4:25:20

Knibb dominated this race but places 2 through 6 were tightly contested until the finish line.

Quick Take #1: If you are a woman focusing on the IRONMAN Pro Series, consider choosing races that do not feature Taylor Knibb. The point allocation would have been radically different if she was not in this race. A strong 2nd place finish here could get less points than a weaker 2nd place finish elsewhere.

Quick Take #2: With the excitement for the IRONMAN Pro Series, early season professional races are seeing their pro fields get filled prior to deadline registration. It appears as though IRONMAN did not foresee this being a problem. They will now let athletes know whether or not upcoming races are nearing capacity. It does not seem like preference is given to gender when it comes to sign up. What happens if 100 men sign up first for an event? Do the women only get 20 slots? Can there be a waitlist to get into races that have closed? What happens if big names cannot get into their preferred races? These issues need to be ironed out.

Quick Take #3: IRONMAN – increase the prize purse at Oceanside! As a $50k prize purse race ($7500 for 1st>>> $1000 for 8th), it consistently outperforms other races in the same category. PTO gave the women’s Strength of Field in Oceanside an 89.67 rating. They assigned the men an 85.42 rating. T100 Miami was 91.53 for the women and 92.46 for the men -- a 5X larger prize purse race, and with far fewer athletes competing. (Editor's Note: this is why PTO's SoF calculation is a flawed doesn't account for overall field depth, just the "top end.") It is great that PTO put pressure on IRONMAN to create the PRO Series and give out substantial year end bonuses to their athletes. At the same time, it is a travesty that this race only pays 8 deep. So many good professional athletes did not make any money today. Considering it's the season opener, and the number of athletes flocking to these events, IM should consider moving prize money around and paying deeper at these Pro Series events.

Photos: Donald Miralle for IRONMAN