CLEARWATER BEACH, Florida -- Two days of relentless northerly winds have whipped up the usually placid Gulf of Mexico into wicked turbulence, leading World Triathlon Corporation officials to switch the Ironman 70.3 World Championship swim from the ocean to the protected harborside waters of Clearwater Beach.
Co-favorite Matt Reed understood that safety comes first for the 1,800 age group contenders, but was a littler sad. "I wish we would swim in the ocean," said the 6-foot 5-inch two-time Ironman 70.3 winner. "The waves would have broken us up a lot more and the pros would have had a fairer race."
"The pros would be champing at the bit to get in the ocean, "said two-time Ironman 70.3 World Championship third place finisher Richie Cunningham of Australia.
While no pro women commented on the switch, amateur age group rules for this swim would seem to favor the better pro cyclists. The age group men and women will be stating in a time trial format one at a time, which would very likely spreads out the packs of the fastest age group men, who often provide an aerodynamic boost to the lesser pro women cyclists.
Whatever the swim situation, the race will very likely produce the usual hot competition for World titles at the 70.3 distance.
Three-time XTerra World Champ Julie Dibens is champing at the bit to finally take a the gold at Clearwater after two fourth place finishes. "I've said the last two years that this is the race I have very much trained and aimed for," said the woman who beat Chrissie Wellington at the Boulder 5430 long course. "Winning XTerra is more of a bonus for me, I ride 363 days a year on my road bike and twice a year on my mountain bike. I feel that this race is very much what I'm all about and this distance is very good for me and I can use my bike strength to my greatest advantage here. I've come up short here twice but I've put in more distance in my run training than ever before and staying healthy has also helped a lot."
Men's co-favorite Matt Reed says that the 5-week break after winning the Toyota Cup series finale at Dallas has left him in prime fitness. "I race pretty hard there and felt good the next two weeks of training." Timing, said Reed, has been good all year. "I caught a cold from my young son and my wife Kelly recently, and it gave me the impetus to rest a little more. So I feel really strong and ready."
Clearwater rookie Greg Bennett comes into this race optimistic thanks to a win at Augusta 70.3, his first try at the distance. But he also feels chastened by the difficulty he found in ramping up the distance. "I was going really well 60k into the bike at Augusta, but after that it hit me like a ton of bricks," said the 2004 4th-place Olympian and three-time Toyota Cup champion,. "It hurt! So I rode the rest of the bike carefully and took off on the run. I was OK for the first 14k. I had a 5 minute lead at the time, but the last 7k was hell."
Bennett says his subsequent DNF at Austin 70.3 could be blamed on racing three times in a month in his return to competition after a shattering collision with a car in mid summer. "This year I'm approaching Clearwater with the goal of having fun - and Augusta was not fun," he said. "If I like it, I'll be back and really give it a go next year."
Bennett's wife, four-time ITU World Championship medalist Laura, was also recovering from season-long injuries. She also won her maiden 70.3 race in Augusta, and also had a tough time at Augusta. "It took me two and a half weeks to recover after that race," she said. "I'm here to see what it's like to race with the best in the world at this distance and see how it all unfolds. If I like it, I'll be back."
Defending Ironman 70.3 World Champion Joanna Zeiger has her fingers crossed that the solution she found for a crippling dizziness that destroyed the first eight months of her season will hold on Saturday. The problem actually started last November, just a few weeks after her Clearwater win when she led Ironman Arizona into the run until she had to pull over and sit down and quit the race. She soldiered through Ironman 70.3 at New Orleans in an off form third place. But at Boulder's 5430 long course, she passed lout halfway through the run and had to be carried from the race in an ambulance. "Finally my father, who is a doctor, figured it out," said Zeiger. "My blood pressure was low, and this meant that I wasn't getting enough salt during the races." A change of diet and race day nutrition, heavy on the salt, got her through Ironman 70.3 Austin with a win. "Now my training times are better than ever," said Zeiger.
Last year's surprise silver medalist Mary Beth Ellis is also confident she can have a good race. "I only did one 70.3 race this year and it did not go well," she said, referring to her 9th place at Ironman 70.3 California. "But my Olympic distance races well and I think I have more speed and I am more fit then last year. " Surely her win at Escape From Alcatraz was good proof.
Defending champion Terenzo Bozzone was positive that his recent excursion to Kona and his 11th place finish there do not augur a repeat of the hard times encountered by defending Clearwater champs and first time Kona finishers Craig Alexander in 2007 (4th) and Andy Potts (6th in 2008). "For me Kona was a big learning curve this year," said the 24-year-old Bozzone. "Afterwards, I sat on the couch for two weeks back home in New Zealand. Then I felt perfect, and I had a half a dozen good speed workouts. I'm happy!"
Phillip Graves, the brash 20-year-old Englishman who set a mark this year at Ironman UK as the youngest man ever to win an Ironman, says he has recovered well in body and spirit after his 41st-place finish in his Kona debut. "Hawaii was only five weeks ago and a lot of people who raced there have passed this race up," said Graves. "This is a completely different race and will be full on from start to finish." Graves said Kona was a great learning experience. "I pushed it a little too hard on the swim and the beginning of the bike," he said. "I learned you have to have patience."
But Graves is saving that patience for the Ironman. "I feel like I've recovered and so I will just go in and give it a shot. I like to race from the front."