Melissa Hauschildt, back in top form after a bad massage gave her an injured rib that sabotaged her Ironman 70.3 defense and canceled her Kona debut, smashed the women's field to win Challenge Laguna Phuket by a 16 minutes 25 seconds margin of victory over newcomer pro Parys Edwards and 18:06 over 3rd place Radka Vodickova.
Ruedi Wild, whose early season highlights included a win at St. Anthony's and a runner-up finish at the $500,000 Hy-Vee Triathlon, won his first half distance professional race by a 1:19 margin over Laguna Phuket resident and Swedish citizen Frederik Croneborg and 3:23 over 6-time Ironman winner Luke McKenzie of Australia.
A most challenging venue
While Laguna Phuket has earned a place in triathlon history with its 21 years of a middle distance event made glamorous by its tropical resort venue and a usually select group of international pros, it proved once again it is no walk in the park. On Sunday, the Thai blue skies were not tempered by tropical breezes and the very asphalt sizzled under 42 degrees Celsius temperatures and triathletes melted when confronted by 90-plus percent humidity.
"People don’t believe me, but this race makes Kona seem air conditioned," said veteran pro Luke McKenzie.
Added to the challenge of this Challenge is the bike course, which features three sharp hills that boast 21-degree inclines and worse - three 21-degree downhills, two of which offer super sharp corners, protected by hay bales, at the bottom. Adding to the stress, the rest of the course features unending stretches of sharp corners winding through narrow streets of modest neighborhoods filled with free-running dogs and cats and other rural animal denizens of this tropical wonderland.
While most of this year's pro contingent managed to wind their way past all the obstacles
Kevin Collington started to skid on one of the precipitous declivities and while his rear wheel slid out, Luke Bell ran up on him and both went down in heap. Collington ended upside down in a ditch and shook it off before soldiering on to a 6th place finish. "Luke wasn't so lucky," said Collington. "I think he broke his hand."
Like many pros, winner Wild says he has "a love-hate relationship with the course. I kind of like it but every time I finish one of these things I wonder what I am doing here. I come every year and every year I forget just how tough it is."
Luke McKenzie says this race is tough but does not claim it is the toughest half Ironman. "The hills are really hard and the humidity has an effect," he says. "But you also get a little bit of rest on the downhills." However, is has no ambivalence about its potential risks: "Lucky it was dry today. It's such a technical course with so many treacherous turns. It's mossy out there. And there are some 20 percent gradient downhill turns which can be on wet roads. And you're on a TT bike and you're doing everything you can not to slip off your bars. I'd say it would be absolutely carnage if it rained."
While Melissa Hauschildt was saving some of herself for the Bahrain money, Laguna Phuket offered the lure of a 4th victory at this venue and her first opportunity for a hit out while fully healthy after her massage injury debacles in September and October.
Hauschildt's first acid test of her rib was the swim, which she passed with flying colors, just 1:26 back of Vodickova's women's-best 26:54 and 4:54 ahead of last week's Laguna Phuket Triathlon winner and dangerous cyclist Parys Edwards.
"I was less than 2 minutes back of Radka, so I passed her 13 kilometers into the ride," said Hauschildt. "I felt really strong on the bike but I didn't push it too hard because I was definitely thinking of Bahrain next week. I worked very hard on the flats and the uphills, but cruised on the downs."
While Edwards worked very yard on her ace - the bike - her 2:33:59 split surrendered 4:23 to Hauschildt and she never shook Belinda Granger until the run. Vodickova, wilting in the heat, didn't even try to contest the two leaders. Despite her superior swim, Vodickova's 2:41:14 bike split left her 3 minutes back of Edwards at T2.
" It was my hardest race actually," said Vodickova. "Ever. It was so hot I was overheated already after the swim. I suffered so much. And yes, I was thinking of Bahrain and I only wanted to finish."
While suffering in the heat, Edwards saw opportunity in her rival's split focus. " I decided I might try to push a tiny bit harder at the start of the run," said Edwards. "So Radka would think I was strong runner - and maybe save herself for Bahrain."
Sure enough, Hauschildt's women's-best 1:27:06 run gave her a commanding margin of victory over Edwards, who could only muster 1:32:08 run. Vodickova cruised home with a 1:34:44 run to take 3rd.
Hauschildt was happy with her victory - and the big lead that made a redline, nerve-racking finish unnecessary. "I'm glad I didn’t have to absolutely kill myself," she said.
Unlike the women, two of whom were saving themselves for the $500,000 Challenge Bahrain next weekend, the men's race was wide open - although Luke McKenzie and Frederik Croneborg were tired at the end of long seasons.
The leading contenders arrived relatively close at the finish of a 1400 meter swim in the salty Andaman Sea polished off with a 500 meter dash in the freshwater lagoon. Defending champ Rasmus Petraeus of Denmark led the way with a 23:06 split, followed by Croneborg (24:06), Wild (24:09), McKenzie (24:29), with last week's co-winner Massimo Cigana trailing in 28:33.
The bike leg started with a pack of eight men in tight formation. But as the terrain got hillier, McKenzie took the lead and only Croneborg and Wild could hang on. McKenzie planned to break free in the nasty hills that started halfway through the leg, but equipment issues foiled his plan. "I knew I had a chance when I took the lead," said McKenzie. "But I just couldn’t get rid of Freddy and Ruedi. Probably because I had too big a gearing on the climbs. I didn’t change my gearing since Kona and my 42 chain ring is just too big for these climbs. I was doing everything I could just to get each pedal stroke over."
Croneborg and Wild were simply happy they could stay in McKenzie's wake. "I was real lucky to bike with Luke today.," said Croneborg. "Luke is quite quick in the corners. But I think we kept it under control. Still, you cannot go slow. You have to go with the flow in the downhills and charge the corners."
"I was glad I could stay with him," said Wild. "But I wasn't actually able to help him a lot because he was so strong. Of course we all know with a 7 meter draft-free zone you still get a legal pull and I did save energy for the run."
The three men started the run together. "I ran 2 or 3 k with Ruedi, but he was running a 3:40 to 3:45 per kilometer pace and I knew I couldn't sustain it," said McKenzie. "So I just decided to lock it in at a the 3:50 to 3:55 range. On a day like this, it’s not a speed run. It's more a survival run. I think that decision is what got me through."
Croneborg instantly surrendered to ITU short course veteran Wild, but it paid off with a higher podium finish. "We got off the bike at the same time, but I already know Ruedi is a better runner than me," said Croneborg. "I knew he had it under control. So, my goal was just to keep second and I passed Luke on the first lap of the run."
Ruedi's 3rd-best 1:21:20 run, second-rate at any other course in better weather, brought him to the finish in 4:02:43 with a solid lead on Croneborg (1:22:40 run) and McKenzie (1:24:40). Massimo Cigana, who got left on the swim and run, closed with a race-best 1:19:53 run to take 4th, 3:51 back of McKenzie. Defending champ Rasmus Petraeus, whose 2:24:01 bike split was bad enough without a 3-minute penalty tacked on, ran 1:21:09 to finish 5th, 47 seconds behind Cigana.
Challenge Laguna Phuket
Laguna Phuket, Thailand
November 30, 2014
S 1.9k / B 88k / R 21.1k
1. Ruedi Wild (SUI) 4:02:43
2. Frederik Croneborg (SWE) 4:04:02
3. Luke McKenzie (AUS) 4:06:06
4. Massimo Cigana (ITA) 4:09:57
5. Rasmus Petraeus (DEN) 4:10:44
1. Melissa Hauschildt (AUS) 4:27:40
2, Parys Edwards (GBR) 4:42:05
3. Radka Vodickova (CZE) 4:45:48
4. Stef Puzka (AUS) 4:48:54
5. Beate Goertz (GER) 4:50:19