Act Two: From Chrissie Who? to the Triathlete from Another Planet

KAILUA-KONA, The Big Island of Hawaii – Last year the brilliant new Quantum Leap Up the Ironman Evolutionary Chain had the rookie good manners to wait until mile 80 of the bike before putting her stamp on the race. But the new 2008 model Chrissie Wellington charged along the Queen Kaahumanu Highway with the insistence of the heroine of Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It. This year, Wellington emerged from the waters of Kailua Bay not five minutes down on the women’s leaders as she had the year before, but a minuscule 2 minutes back of Team TBB teammate Hilary Biscay, Ginas Kehr and Ferguson, Massachusetts pro Dede Griesbauer, penitent pro Nina Kraft, and 2002 short course World Champion Leanda Cave. In contrast to the stealth longshot of 2007, Wellington looked more like a lion running down antelopes as she carved up the last of the pretenders by the Hawaii Veterans Cemetery at Mile 20.

While she had sailed through the bike during the third straight atypically mild weather last year, this time Wellington faced the return of maleficent mumuku winds, which only added to her advantage. She had a 5.5 minute gap just a few miles from Hawi, the midpoint turnaround of the 112-mile bike. The remaining curiosity was more akin to the awe of watching Secretariat win by 31 lengths than the remotest prayer of a duel to the line. The sole anticipation centered on by how much she could crack five hours for the bike - and whether she could topple Paula Newby-Fraser’s 1992 course record of 8:55:28.

Then, Big Island fire goddess Madame Pele, who hates to be taken for granted, tested the Wellington Express. A puncture took the air out of her tire and rising expectations, and the 31-year-old prohibitive favorite pulled over in front of a peaceful grass field and faced reality.

“I thought ‘Oh bugger! My parents flew in from England and I might not even finish the race!’” recalled Wellington. For those unfamiliar with Ironman Hawaii protocol, this was not the minor issue that could be handled swiftly in the Tour de France. There one of several technical support vans would be awaiting with a mechanic and a new wheel -- chop chop NASCAR pit stop style -- just 30 seconds lost. By contrast, Ironman Hawaii has only one technical support van, and it faithfully shadows the men’s leader only.

With the can-do spirit with which she helped dig ditches for sanitary Nepalese water pipes, Wellington replaced the tube in her clincher tire and inserted two CO2 cartridges. Both failed to launch. “I obviously failed to use them properly,” said Wellington. “But what can you do? Panic? Get angry and sit beside the road and cry? My coach Brett Sutton always says ‘You get a flat, you deal with it. It’s not over until it’s over.’ And then I thought of my teammate Bella Comerford, who got a flat and lost more time than I did and came back to win Ironman South Africa.”

Once her CO2 canister failed, Wellington took stock and peed behind a nearby bush, calmly ignoring NBC cameras. Then she stood beside the road, waving her wheel like a hitchhiker as five very surprised rivals sped past, including Team TBB teammate Belinda Granger, who was leading the charge.

"I might have been stranded there until I'd be finishing with a glow stick," said Wellington later. "But then something happened that is the epitome of Ironman. Bek stopped and gave me her spare Co2. If not for her, I might not have finished the race."

Good Samaritan Bek was Aussie Rebekah Keat, who finished 6th last year. Keat didn’t think of herself as a Mother Teresa or a Saint Bernard rescuing an avalanche victim. "I just thought she's probably going to beat me anyway," said Keat.

Keat, of all competitors, has a strong sense of fair play and sympathy for a rival who'd had a bad break. In 2004, she tested positive for a tiny amount of a urinary metabolite of nandrolone. While the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled the result was due to supplement contamination, Keat nonetheless served an agonizing two year ban. "I thought if I give her my spare, she'll make sure I get another," said Keat. "I think that's what it's all about. I wish someone would do it for me some day. But if I was a World Champion and flatted, I'd bring some spares next year."

Once she got going again, Wellington virtually skipped up to the Hawi turnaround and put the hammer down on the high-speed downhill dash back to Kawaihae. Riding through the white knuckle side gusts like a rodeo broncobuster, Wellington cruised past Granger for the lead at Kawaihae and never looked back.

After her stunning 2007 win at Kona where she mowed through the field on the bike and put away fellow rookie sensation Samantha McGlone with a near-record 2:59:58 marathon, Chrissie Wellington returned with a forbidding resume – a 9:03 win at Ironman Australia, a sub-9 hour win at Ironman Frankfurt, a crushing win over the women at the rugged, Alpe d’Huez long course where she finished a slim minute behind the winning man. To top it all off, Wellington took care of any lingering doubts harbored when German Sandra Wallenhorst scorched Ironman Austria with an 8:47 accompanied by a 2:54 marathon, and Dutch duathlon star Yvonne Van Vlerken destroyed Paula Newby-Fraser’s Ironman-distance world best with an 8:45 at Quelle Challenge Roth, trailed closely by Hungarian duathlon star Erika Csomor.

Rising to the challenge and wanting to silence self-doubt, Wellington signed up late at the ITU long distance World Championship, held on Van Vlerken's home ground of Almere, Holland. When the 4km swim, 120km bike and 30km run were over, Wellington had beaten Van Vlerken by an astounding 25 minutes.

While she proved to be universally beloved, friendly to a fault, respectful of tri-history and her fellow competitors, Wellington has the added virtue of being honest – not another mealy-mouthed pro athlete platitudinizer! - about her killer instincts. "I'm obviously aware of what other the other athletes have been doing," said Wellington. "Therefore I want to raise my game to beat them of course. So when I raced Almere, I took an immense amount of satisfaction in smashing Yvonne Van Vlerken and by the margin that I did, of course."

Ironman legends from Mark Allen to Dave Scott to Greg Welch had various estimates of the Britisher coming into Kona this year. "In a league of her own,” "the only one who can beat her is Chrissie herself," “No one in the same area code," and "a freak of nature" were the gist of the comments. But three-time sub-9 hour Ironman Van Vlerken said it best: "I don't think about Chrissie," smiled the diminutive Dutchwoman. "She's from another planet."

Playing out the string

Part of the glory of any Ironman victory is the roster of great athletes who inevitably fall victim to the pace and pressure and simple health-destroying grind of the necessary training - not to mention the sizzling pace of race day.

Before the race, last year’s second best rookie Samantha McGlone (ankle), 2006 winner Michellie Jones, and 2006 3rd place finisher Lisa Bentley all withdrew due to injuries.

Somewhere along the way, many other great triathletes gave way on race day. Leanda Cave (8th in 2007), Rebecca Preston (5th last year), Fiona Docherty (Zofingen winner) Nicole Leder (multiple Ironman winner), Kim Loeffler (top 10 finisher) all faded before the end. Last year's heroes like Joanna Lawn (4th in 2007) Granger (9th in 2007), Keat (6th in 2007) Desiree Ficker (2nd in 2006) all eventually faded from contention.

But then there were two protagonists from 2004 who were ironically linked by history, both toiling in relativev obscurity on the day.

Perhaps the greatest, gutsiest performance against the odds was turned in by 6-time champion Natascha Badmann.

Last year, Badmann was likely Wellington's greatest challenger, even a tougher nut to crack than then-Ironman 70.3 World Champ Samantha McGlone. Badmann had set a world best at the 70.3 distance at Eagleman, crushed the field at South Africa, and was closer to the front after her swim and first 10 miles of the bike than ever, according to coach Toni Hasler, who calculated that the then 40-year-old Swiss Miss was on target for another 4:52 bike split in calm weather. If so, Badmann would have beaten Wellington with a 3:10 run split – four minutes slower than her best. All at age 40!

But sadly, we’ll never know how it would have turned out. Badmann crashed horribly in a construction zone leaving town and bravely tried to fight the pain to finish. After two long, complicated operations to repair her clavicle, shoulder, ribs and back, Badmann fought hard to rehab, but was simply unable to put on her clothes, brush her teeth or touch her nose for months. It was 10½ months after the crash before she could even ride a free-standing bike, run, or even swim with a freestyle stroke. Against great pain, she was only able to ride her beloved, radically aero Cheetah bike three weeks before October 11. As it was, Badmann's 1:08:01 swim was a miracle – just 12 minutes off her best and still five minutes faster than Olympic gold medal winning cyclist and multiple Ironman winner Karin Thuerig's 2002
2002 Kona swim split. Badmann's 5:25:08 bike was just 20 minutes slower than Van Vlerken’s race-best mark and faster than 8th place finisher Gina Ferguson and Ironman Western Australia winner Charlotte Paul (11th). Finally, the painful jarring of the run was just too much for Badmann, who came back to Kona to honor the 30th anniversary of the event she loves like no other.

Without letting on how much it hurt, Badmann’s effort to simply wave to the crowd on the Tuesday Ironman Parade was a profile in courage.

Also toiling in relative obscurity was Nina Kraft, the talented German who admitted taking EPO before the 2004 edition of Ironman Hawaii. During that race, Kraft led Badmann by an embarrassing 20-minute margin off the bike, and dropped her head in shame as she crossed the line well in front. In response, Badmann even asked her coach and boyfriend Toni Hasler: "Am I too old now?" To Kraft's credit, she admitted her sin without waiting for the B sample – although she refused to finger her supplier - and promptly served her two-year-ban. Since then, Kraft has humbly returned to racing, turning in some fine performances. Last year, she qualified for Kona at Brazil, but missed the Ironman Hawaii slot meeting. Then she fought through injuries with a gutsy performance at Ironman Louisville, but turned down the slot – perhaps better to let the simmering resentment that greeted an entirely innocent Rutger Beke at Kona after he won his case to throw out a false positive. All in all, Kraft had served penance for her infamous choice.

On this day, Kraft came in with newly dyed blond hair. Her 54:46 swim got her started with the leaders. But whether wind or heat or lingering physical problems prompted her to withdraw before finishing the bike is not yet known.

Game and style points to Badmann.

The contenders fight back, albeit briefly

Van Vlerken, after struggling through an atrocious 1:06:49 swim, arrived at Hawi to a big surprise.

"There somebody told me I was just 2 minutes back of Chrissie," she said. "I wondered 'What happened?' I didn't know she had a flat tire and thought for a moment that I was riding really well. Then I realized I can't be riding so good! Because I saw Erika Csomor coming back from Hawi and she had a great gap on me."

While Wellington had drawn confidence from her sound defeat of Van Vlerken at Almere, the new Dutch Ironman star was not absolutely crushed given her condition. "After Roth, I had a shoulder injury and could not swim for four weeks," explained the petite blond Dutch athlete. "At Almere, the swim was about 600 meters long, and it made it worse, and I got out of the water 5 minutes behind. Mentally that was a hard knock. On the bike, my head was down and I was struggling. Finally, I came back and ran 1:55, about the same as Chrissie."

Van Vlerken seems to have come to terms with Wellington's alpha position in the sport. "I have come from duathlon, so I'm still working on my swim. Right now, I took swim lessons before Roth and did 53 minutes with a wetsuit. And now, I have broken nine hours in three of my first five Ironmans (8:51 at 2007, 8:57 at 2007 Almere, and 8:45 at 2008 Roth).

On this day, Van Vlerken emerged from the water 34th and got Pac Man happy picking off her competitors. "I got a little carried away because I enjoyed catching all those girls," said Van Vlerken. "But I paid for it late on the run."

At the end, Van Vlerken's 5:05:34 ride into the winds was the best of the day, but she deferred credit to Wellington. "I had the fastest bike, but only because Chrissie lost 10 minutes with the flat."

In fact, Van Vlerken came into T2 a close third behind Belinda Granger and passed the Australian a kilometer out on Alii Drive. By the Energy Lab, Wellington had reasserted a 12-minute lead, but Van Vlerken had to watch out for the hard charging 36-year-old German Sandra Wallenhorst, who had overcome a 1:03:21 swim and lost 9 minutes to Van Vlerken on the bike. Starting her run six minutes ahead of the German, Van Vlerken had three minutes in hand by the time they hit the Natural Energy Lab of Hawaii at Mile 16.

"I was having some troubles," said Van Vlerken. "I was swollen and my belly was hurting. I didn't know what was wrong, but I could not digest the drinks or the gels."

Van Vlerken, who whipped Wallenhorst in a head to head matchup this fall, said she wasn’t worried. "There was no way I was going to give up second place."

Indeed, clutching her side, the Dutchwoman held on by a 1-minute, 22-seconds margin for the $55,000 runner-up prize.

On the run, Van Vlerken’s 3:04:27 was enough. But Wallenhorst’s 2:58:36 put her third, and as a runner, moved the 8:47 Ironman Austria victor ahead of the fleet-footed likes of Ironman Hawaii greats Paula Newby-Fraser, Erin Baker, Lori Bowden, Karen Smyers, Heather Fuhr and Kate Major.

After Csomor’s 3:03:05 brought her to fourth place, Montanan Linsey Corbin scored top American and fifth place in style wearing a cowboy hat after a 3:09:16 marathon and a PR 9:28:51 finish.

But in the end, it was Wellington's day. Underscoring that fact that she may have come to the Ironman party late in the usual athletic life but was never a fluke, Wellington crossed the line with a PR 9:06:23 time – sixth fastest ever – and breaking Lori Bowden’s Ironman Hawaii marathon record with a blazing 2:57:44 clocking. By most estimates, Wellington was parked for 11 minutes. Playing the if only game, that would have made it a finish line dash with Newby-Fraser’s record time of 8:55:28. But Wellington's sights were set even higher. At the rain-soaked, abridged awards ceremony Sunday night, Mark Allen said he wondered if Wellington would break 8:50 if she had not been brought to earth by the flat.

While Sam McGlone was contemplating a rematch before her injury, she had declared that she was preparing to run a 2:55 marathon. So it was frightening when Wellington was asked before the race if she could run faster than her near-record 2:59:58.

"Absolutely!" said Wellington.

If conditions are good, what could that be?

"Two fifty-one!"

At the end, Wellington proved more than equal to the task of defending her championship. During the week, she embraced the crowds, stopping to take pictures with anyone and everyone, mugging happily like the reincarnation of Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball at the press conference. And, in an era in which nervous contenders most resemble bug-phobic Howard Hughes to avoid even shaking hands with strangers lest they get a cold or a stomach ailment on race day, Wellington kissed babies and adults and children left and right on Alii Drive the week before the race.

"I think for some people, the crown weighs heavy," said Wellington. "For me, it's light as a feather and it's lifted me up. It's been the wind beneath my wings this year."

But at the end, she realized the magnitude of what she had done at the end and wept at the finish line – after offering profound thanks to Keat. "Last year I was overwhelmed and might not have realized precisely what I'd done,” said Wellington. "This past year has taught me the magnitude of the event and really what being a world champion means. I think that makes the euphoria when you're running that last mile even deeper."

Pro women results

1. Chrissie Wellington (GBR) 9:06:23 - $110,000
2. Yvonne Van Vlerken (NED) 9:21:20 - $55,000
3. Sandra Wallenhorst (GER) 9:22:52 - $35,000
4. Erika Csomor (HUN) 9:24:49 - $25,000
5. Linsey Corbin (USA) 9:28:51 - $15,000
6. Virginia Berasategui (ESP) 9:29:15 - $12,500
7. Bella Comerford (GBR) 9:34:08 - $10,000
8. Gina Ferguson (NZL) 9:36:53 - $9,000
9. Gina Kehr (USA) 9:37:06 - $7,500
10. Dede Griesbauer (USA) 9:39:53 - $6,000