The Full Israman is an epic Ironman distance adventure whose rugged unrelenting hills present nearly 10,000 feet of climbing into a desolate Israeli desert plain and whose hot desert winds wear down even the most seasoned competitors.
Just ask Petr Vabrousek, a 39-year-old Ironman glutton from the Czech Republic. who has completed over 125 Iron distance races including regular stints at vicious venues like Lanzarote, Ironman UK in Wales, and Challenge Wanaka in New Zealand.
After winning the Full Israman this Friday by a razor thin margin of 54 seconds over 23-year old Netherlands up and comer Bart Candel, Vabrousek said unequivocally, "This is the hardest Ironman I have ever done. Bar none. It was brutal."
Vabrousek's time of 10:22:38 wasn't near the Israman race record of 9:24:40 set by Israeli pro Gilad Rotem on 2010 [on a widely acknowledged easier course setup]. It wasn't just Vabrousek's slowest Ironman distance winning time. "It was my slowest Ironman anywhere, ever," he said.
In addition, his 3rd-best bike split on the day - 6:05:21 - was his worst-ever Ironman bike split. Vabrousek is not known for his bike prowess, but he is respectable. He set a bike time of 5:10:21 on his way to a 6th place finish at the notoriously tough Lanzarote bike course last year. At the 2007 edition of the Silverman Triathlon, he broke the then standing course record with a time of 9:48:07 that included a 5:30:08 bike split that had total climbing very similar to this year's Israman course.
And yet, Vabrousek said of his 6-hour effort -- "I think I rode really good today." So what made this course on this day so daunting?
"Everyone knows the climbs are tough - 10,000 feet of elevation gain matches the toughest tests in the sport," he said. "But today the desert side winds were brutal. Today there were times when I was riding hard but felt I was standing still. Another factor that makes this race so hard is the bike to run transition is still at 600 meters of elevation. So you don't get the advantage of a long downhill to finish the bike."
That 600 meters downhill starts the run and that declivity takes place over 10 precipitous kilometers. "When you start the run on such a speed downhill, you trash your legs," he said. "People may think that is easy, but with my 80 kilograms weight, my quads are screaming. My feet are screaming. Once I hit the flat, your speed is gone and all you have left is will. Usually I race in very light shoes, but here I ran in my heavy training shoes to absorb the punishment."
Vabrousek's race was a battle all the way with German Marc Pschebizin, the 2011 Israman champion and winner of the Inferno Triathlon and Challenge Wanaka, and 23-year-old rising Dutch pro, Bart Candel.
The anticipated clash with U.S. star Chris Lieto was dashed when Lieto was struck with a stomach flu the day before the race which left him unable to digest food. Hoping for the best, the condition persisted through the night before the race and, seriously debilitated, Lieto pulled the plug a few hours before the start.
Starting in the gloomy pre dawn on Eilat's beach on the Red Sea, Vabrousek hung in with a pack that included fellow Czech Republic triathlete Tomas Bednar, Pschebizin and Candel After wandering 200 extra meters in the dark, Vabrousek emerged from the choppy, 70-degrees Fahrenheit waters in 1:05:53, 15 seconds better than Pschebizin and 6:25 better than Candel.
In an unusual circumstance, Vabrousek came out of the waster first, but he took his time putting on clothes and socks and gave up the lead to Pschebizin after 2 k on the ride. " He was going hard up the hill because he is about 20 kilos lighter than me," said Vabrousek. "I let him go and didn’t try to stick with him. I just hoped to get on him a little bit later on the hills."
By the top of the climb and on to the first turnaround, Vabrousek was comfortable with his 4 minutes deficit to Pschebizin. But he was shocked to see Candel on his wheel - having made up his 6:25 deficit after the swim. "I got really surprised to be caught by Bart," said Vabrousek. "He was riding unbelievably strong. I tried to keep him in sight, but I let him go as well. I thought he probably did a little too much too early."
By the second turnaround on the desolate terrain atop the hills - the road ran just 30 to 100 meters parallel to a barbed wire fence that separates Israel from Egypt -- Vabrousek found himself just 2 minutes back of Pschebizin and 3 minutes back of Candel. "So I knew it is not that bad, and I managed to catch Candel maybe 20ks before the end of the bike. He didn’t look good. So I didn’t expect him to be a factor in the race any more."
Vabrousek arrived at T2 in the lead and once again he took his time, allowing Pschebizin to take the lead starting the run. "I started 30 seconds back of Marc and managed to pass him and take a 2 minutes lead 10 kilometers into the marathon," said Vabrousek. "At that point, my legs were paying for the downhill. I was kind of lucky because we were running a out-and-back 12 kilometer loop and I could check what was happening behind. I saw that I was gaining on Marc. He was close to 4 minutes back with 18 kilometers to go. But Bart was coming on hard. He was 5 minutes back with 18 ks to go. Then with 12k to go he was just 2:30 back. I knew I was in trouble. If we both kept the same pace, I knew he would catch me with 6k to go. So I had to dig deep from kilometers 30 to 36 to make sure that he would be nowhere close with 6k to go. It worked. I had over 2 minutes advantage and I just kept checking. Each kilometer I ran backwards for a while to check if I could see him anywhere. As long as I had a minute, there was no need for a sprint to the finish."
Vabrousek closed with a 3:11:21 marathon and won by 54 seconds over Candel, who closed with a race-best 3:08:43. Pschebizin faded to a 3:17:09 marathon, taking the final spot on the podium. 4:55 back of Candel.
As for how Vabrousek felt after his struggle? "I am sore, but I am already looking forward to my next race," he said.
The women's Full Israman contest concluded with an all-Israeli podium. Dora Heller won in 12:41:42, 19:30 ahead of runner-up Irena Mazin and 25:16 ahead of 3rd-place Keren Meretz.
In the past two years, Heller and Mazin traded wins while maintaining their contrasting strengths and styles. In 2011, Heller swam 1:41:44, falling 14 minutes back of Mazin. Heller then unleashed her superior bike power with a 6:20:29 split that erased Mazin's lead and gave Heller a 23 minutes advantage starting the run. On the marathon, Heller's 3:42:13 only gave back a minute to Mazin and brought the now 44-year-old nurse and mother of two to the finish in 11:44:27 with a 22 minutes margin of victory.
Last year, Mazin got her revenge. She swam 1:28:02 but only gained 2 minutes on Heller. On a harsh day where the weather at the top of the bike course flirted with zero degrees centigrade, Mazin biked 6:48:18 but Heller exploded to a brilliant 4:58:13 split that seemingly put the race out of reach. Shockingly swiftly, Heller seemed trashed by her super fast bike split and, with the balance of power suddenly switched, faded and stumbled to a 5:19:17 marathon. Still, Heller held on until six kilometers to go when Mazin passed her on her way to a 3:29:25 run that brought her to the line in 11:45:45 with a 2:29 margin of victory.
With the stage set for the deciding match, organizers had made the bike course even more difficult. As Heller explains, in previous years, once the first 10 kilometer climb was done, the Full Israman bike course included two relatively flat out and back loops.
This year, Heller says, "The two loops were on very rugged, hilly sections. You couldn’t call them rolling hills. They are more short, sharp, jagged hills with the return from the turnaround facing both the hills and a mean headwind."
Heller had her usual women's slowest swim of the few Full Israman contenders, but she was delighted to find she was just 3 to 4 minutes down on her rivals - including Mazin and Keren Meretz.
It took Heller through the initial long steep climb and long slog with a tailwind and back to the turnaround at the end iof the first half of the bike to catch Mazin and Meretz. But with a tailwind over the next 45 kilometers, Heller could gain only two minutes on Mazin and Meretz.
"I knew that wouldn't be enough because they are faster runners," said Heller. "So on the way back against the wind I had to push it hard. I did and I opened up a gap of 22 minutes."
Heller said her home court advantage - she trains on similar terrain near her home 100 kilometers north of Eilat in the middle of the rugged Negev - and thought her rivals made a mistake on this new bike course.
"I think riding with the wind early on the bike, people were overestimating their powers badly," she said. "I knew they would pay for it later."
On the first, fast steep 10k downhill on the run, Meretz made a surprising surge and came within 9 minutes of Heller. But after that, the natural order asserted itself as Mazin re-passed Meretz.
Sure enough, Heller held even with the better pure runners and finished in 12:41:42, 19 and 25 minutes to the good over Mazin and Meretz.
In the Half Israman, last year's Full Israman runner-up Lior Zach Maor of Israel won in 5:12:19, trailed by runner-up Anders Stampe of Denmark in 5:19:16 with Maarten van Kooij of the Netherlands 3rd in 5:20:18.
Nina Pekerman, who won the Full Israman in 2010, defended her Half Israman women's title in a time of 5:43:45, 54:49 ahead of runner-up Oriane Hertz and 56:41 ahead of Lilach Bar-Natan, thus making this category an all-Israeli podium.
January 25. 2013
Full Israman - S 2.4 mi. / B 112 mi. / R 26.2 mi.
1. Petr Vabrousek (CZE) 10:22:37 * M 40-44
2. Bart Candel (NED) 10:23:31 * M18-24
3. Marc Pschebizin (GER) 10:28:26 * M40-44
4. Tom Marmarelli (ISR) *M25-29
1. Dora Heller (ISR) 12:41:42 * F45-49
2. Irena Mazin (ISR) 13:01:12 * F40-44
3. Keren Mertz (ISR) 13:06:58 * F40-44
Half Israman - S 1.2 mi. / B 56 mi. / R 13.1 Mi.
1. Lior Zach Maor (ISR) 5:12:19 * M40-44
2. Anders Stampe (DEN) 5:19:16 * M30-34
3. Maarten van Kooij (NED) 5:20:18 * M30-34
1. Nina Pekerman (ISR) 5:43:45 * F35-39
2. Oriane Hertz (ISR) 6:38:34 * F35-39
3. Lilach Bar-Natan (ISR) 6:40:26 * F40-44