The sport of triathlon owes a debt of gratitude to Life Time Fitness CEO Bahram Akradi for pioneering half a million dollar purses for Olympic distance triathlons. Starting in 2002, the Life Time Fitness races showed the sincerest form of respect in its belief that its foremost practitioners were worthy of major league money. Not because they wanted to do triathlon a favor, but because the sport represented the values of his company - and would help sales. And now the sport owes an equal debt to Hy-Vee’s CEO Ric Jurgens for picking up torch that Akradi lit and carrying it forward with its million dollar purses for the Hy-Vee elite races. Equally important, Hy-Vee apparently is not being satisfied with a quick hit and run of publicity that comes with offering a big prize purse and is sticking with its affiliation for the long term.
The commitment of Hy-Vee to the sport of triathlon is healthy because it is fueled by a combination of idealism and commerce – choosing triathlon to serve as the best symbol of the healthy lifestyle advocated by the Midwest grocery chain with $6.9 billion in annual sales. The million dollar purses and an similarly generous amount of promotion for the Hy-Vee elite races, in combination with several thousand age group participants racing on the same weekend, marks an important step in the evolution of triathlon from its niche roots to a sustainable major commercial enterprise.
Along the way, Hy-Vee has not only attracted premium fields in its original incarnation as a draft-legal, ITU World Cup race, but those fields have put on some stirring races starting with Laura Bennett’s 2007 home country win to the now legendary six-man, photo finish duel in 2009 won by Simon Whitfield over Brad Kahlefeldt, Jan Frodeno, Kris Gemmell, Jarrod Shoemaker and Javier Gomez.
While those races proved that draft-legal triathlons that are decided almost solely on the run can be electrifying, the switch to the non-drafting format of the World Triathlon Corporation 5150 series this year should open up some intriguing racing dynamics that will shift the equation for winning.
Amplifying the change will be a return from the isolated, flat ground of the last two years back to the demanding inclines that are part of the terrain around the Iowa State Capitol grounds at the start-finish line. Back in 2007 when the bike and run course featured a tough climb up to this same state capitol, the challenging terrain allowed for a bike breakaway by Rasmus Henning to get a lead on some dangerous ITU runners that he held off through the run. By contrast, the flat-as-a-board multiple lap bike course of the past two years resulted in a huge pack formed by the 60-plus ITU mandated fields. Effectively, despite some futile attempts at a break, the bike became a parade waiting for the run.
No longer – the bike is back. With elite men’s and women’s fields reduced to 30 entries each – just like the smaller Life Time Fitness elite fields required by the narrow roads around Lake Minnetonka, enforcement of non-drafting will once again be a reasonable option. And with smaller fields, a bike breakaway will once again be a viable option.
This will favor strong cyclists with an overall game like Sarah Haskins and Nicola Spirig and Andy Potts and Matt Reed. In essence, the Hy-Vee course will demonstrate that individual effort, non-drafting races for big money will work. Theoretically it will be a return to the original individual time trial values of the sport as it was conceived in both the Ironman and the USTS races of the 1970s and 1980s.
With so many new questions to be answered by the 2011 edition of the Hy-Vee elite races, a look at the strongest contenders for the $151,500 top prizes awarded to the men’s and women’s champions is in order. It should be noted that while the first place checks have been reduced from $200,000, the prize money for 2nd through 30th – plus $5,000 primes for the lap leaders - adds up to a larger guaranteed purse. In the last two years, the theoretical purse was a million dollars. But much of the allocated prize money that paid through 50th place went unspent.
Here are the contenders – in order of this prognosticator’s favorites. Of course the choices are subject to proper scorn and derision, but are offered to start the debate for the races which will take place at 1 PM and 4 PM Sunday Central Daylight Time in Des Moines, Iowa.
Men’s Elite contenders
Andy Potts, 34, Colorado Springs CO
Rasmus Henning thought he might have beaten Andy Potts at Oceanside 70.3 in April if he had been completely healthy. And Hunter Kemper thought he would have beaten his nemesis at Austin if he and virtually the entire men’s pro field had not been misdirected in the swim and Potts not gained a 2-minute edge. But Andy Potts has let his deeds do the talking through a remarkable, almost undefeated season. Potts won 70.3s at California, Florida, and Vineman, took Olympic distance or equivalent titles at Philadelphia, Escape From Alcatraz and Capital of Texas Tri at Austin. One of the few exceptions was his second pace finish to Matt Reed at Life Time Fitness Minneapolis. This near perfection plus Potts’ equal strength in swim, bike and run make him the favorite. The only hint that Potts is vulnerable was a heat-related DNF at the Boulder 70.3.
Matt Reed, 35, Boulder CO
Reed gets major props for being the only man to beat Potts this year – at a much-appreciated return to form at Life Time Fitness Minneapolis. But before that Reed was a big question mark after several seasons of intimidating success. Prior to 2011 Life Time Fitness Minneapolis, Boom Boom Reed was 8th at Vineman 70.3, 6th at Boulder Peak, 5th at Rev 3 Quassy, 2nd to Potts at Philly, 2nd to Flip Ospaly at St. Anthony’s -- disappointments broken only by a win at Rev 3 Knoxville.
Jarrod Shoemaker, 29, Maynard MA
The Jarrod Shoemaker of 2009 who won a World Championship Series race at London and the ITU World Duathlon Championship and the J Shoe of 2010 who took the USA Elite Nationals would be a co-favorite at Hy-Vee 2011. But 2011 has been tough – 2nd at the Clermont Sprint National, 48th at WCS Sydney, 6th at the Monterrey World Cup, 20th at WCS Madrid, and DNFs at Hamburg and London (a crash he could not help). He proved at Carlsbad that he still has 14:12 5k speed, but so far this year Shoemaker has not been up to his standards.
Filip Ospaly, 35, Czech Republic
This old ITU warrior showed he had new life going long last Fall with a win at the Los Angeles Triathlon and a 2nd at the 2010 Ironman 70.3 worlds. This year he has split his focus between Olympic and half Ironman distances, taking 3rd at Nautical South Beach, winning St Anthony’s, falling to 39th at WCS Kitzbuhel and 10th at the European Championships, and making modest improvements with a 4th at Life Time Fitness Minneapolis, 4th at Cap Tex Triathlon and a win at Austria 70.3.
Kris Gemmell, 34, New Zealand
Gemmell was 2nd at Hy-Vee last year and 4th in that incredible duel to the finish in 2009.
But after a good start this year – wins at the Oceania Championships and at Singapore 70.3, the New Zealander has fought a muscle inflammation and a debilitating virus which led to a dismal day at WCS Sydney and not up to standards 7th at St. Anthony’s ameliorated by runner-up finishes at New Orleans 70.3 and Memphis in May.
Greg Bennett, 39, Boulder CO
The man who had a perfect 2007 and $500,000 in prize money at the Life Time Fitness-Toyota Cup Series and a 4th at the 2004 Olympics is 39 and knocking at the door of his possibilities once again. In 2011 Bennett took 7th at WCS Sydney, 2nds at St. Anthony’s, Chicago, and New York City, and 3rds at Boulder Peak and Life Time Fitness Minneapolis and Philadelphia.
Hunter Kemper, 35, Colorado Springs CO
The three-time Olympian and 2005 ITU World Cup Series Champion has had a rollercoaster 2011. After an off-form 30th at WCS Sydney, he showed he has recovered from three years of sacroiliac joint issues with a win at the Ishigaki World Cup. After a 3rd at the Monterrey World Cup, 2nd at the Cap Tex Triathlon and 3rd at the Edmonton World Cup, Kemper had a miserable DNF at WCS London – the first US Olympic qualifying event -- and took 6th at Chicago.
Rasmus Henning, 34, Denmark
Despite two mysterious and discouraging DNFs due to temporarily paralyzing cramps at Abu Dhabi and Challenge Aarhus, the two-time Hy-Vee champion seems back on track for Kona with runner-up finishes at 70.3 in California and Texas, a win at Challenge Buenaventura and a dominating return to form win at Timberman 70.3. But beware betting the house on Henning for a third Hy-Vee title. He and his new coach Matt Dixon say Henning is an Ironman triathlete now and does not have his old speed. Are they just sandbagging to deflect the pressure? Henning says Hy-Vee turned him down for an organizer’s slot at first, and then let the old champ back in.
Chris McCormack, 38, Australia
So far, Macca proved one thing in his quixotic quest to make the 2012 Australian Olympic team at age 38: If you spend a decade chasing Ironman glory, it’s virtually a lock you've lost the foot speed to contend on the ITU Olympic distance level. Proof? Macca killed a good field at Challenge Cairns with a swift 8:15 time on virtually no training. In the WCS arena, he was off the back in London, DNF’d at Kitzbuhel, and was 26th at Hamburg. And along the way he DNF’d at Abu Dhabi with bike cleat issues. One plus for Macca going into Hy-Vee – his bike power remains competitive at any distance and should be of value on Hy-Vee’s challenging 4-loop non-drafting course.
Stuart Hayes, 32, Great Britain
This year Hayes won Liverpool 5150, was 2nd at 5150 Klagenfurt, 4th at St. Anthony’s, 8th at the Mooloolaba World Cup, and a disappointing 46th at WCS London, 35th at WCS Madrid and 25th at WCS Sydney and 13th at WCS Kitzbuhel. Not yet up to his 2010 level in which he won WCS Kitzbuhel, was 2nd at the Mooloolaba World Cup and took 8th at WCs London. His record at Hy-Vee? He was 31st in 2010 and 19th in 2009.
Cameron Dye, 27, Boulder CO
After a breakthrough 2010, Dye was 5th at Life Time Fitness Minnesota, 9th at Chicago, 4th at Philadelphia, 3rd at Cap Tex Triathlon, 2nd at Memphis in May to Kris Gemmell, 2nd at Rev3 Knoxville 2nd to Matt Reed, 3rd at St. Anthony’s and won Nautica South Beach Miami. He's still recovering from a spill taken at the Life Time race in Minneapolis.
Kaleb VanOrt, 24, Mishakawa IN
The former Notre Dame cross country and track runner won the 2010 USAT Age Group Nationals, the 2010 USAT National Duathlon Championships and took 1st at the 2010 Life Time Fitness-Toyota Cup Chicago elite amateur title. In his first year as a pro, VanOrt was 6th at Nautica South Beach, 3rd at the Clermont Sprint, 6th at Life Time Fitness Minnesota, and 5th at Memphis in May.
Gwen Jorgensen, 25, Madison WI
After her Star is Born breakthrough 2nd place at the London World Championship Series event that qualified her for the 2012 US Olympic team and her subsequent win at the ITU World Cup in Tiszaujvaros, Hungary, Jorgensen seems like a good bet for the Hy-Vee win. That's because her first-pack swim and repeatable 33:45 10k run seem to take care of the numbers. Especially in ITU races where even the best of them can sit in during massive interminable bike packs. But what makes this race so interesting is that Hy-Vee is non-drafting and the terrain is not flat and she will have to earn her win partially on the bike – her weakest link so far.
Sarah Haskins, 30, Colorado Springs CO
Haskins could prove that the new Hy-Vee course with its hill approaching the finish at the Iowa State Capitol building may tip the balance toward the biker over a superior runner like Jorgensen. This year Haskins proved over and over again that her bike skills give her a big advantage on North American non-drafting circuit when she is fully healthy. In 2011 Haskins was 2nd at the Clermont Sprint Nationals, won Nautica South Beach Toyota Cup, St Anthony’s, the Monterrey World Cup, the Cap Tex Triathlon Toyota Cup, and Life Time Fitness Minnesota. But in the draft legal ITU World Championship Series where her bike skills are neutralized, she took 15th at WCS Kitzbuhel and 34th at WCS London.
Sarah Groff, 29, Hanover, NH
Still basking in the glow of making the 2012 Olympic team with her 7th place at WCS London, Groff had an excellent all round year with 3rd at St Anthony’s, 3rd at WCS Kitzbuhel, 13th at WCS Hamburg and 7th WCS Madrid.
Laura Bennett, 36, Boulder CO
The 4-time ITU World Championship medalist, 2007 Hy-Vee winner and 2008 Olympic 4th place finisher had a decent 2011 with 6th places at WCS Sydney and WCs Kitzbuhel, 8th at WCS Madrid but a disappointing 24th at WCs London. Now it’s a Texas Death Cage one-on-one match between Bennett and Sarah Haskins for the third and final US Women’s Olympic Triathlon slot. So Hy-Vee just might be a very hot warm up duel between the two most decorated US Olympic-distance women stars.
Lisa Norden, 26, Sweden
The 2009 and 2010 edition of Sweden’s greatest Olympic distance triathlete would be a big favorite here given her 2007 Under 23 ITU World Championship, a silver at the 2009 ITU World Championship Series Grand Final, 2010 wins at WCS Hamburg and the Los Angeles Triathlon. But early in 2011, Norden finished an off form 9th at Sydney and 12th at Madrid before discovering a stubborn inflammation of the tendon in her foot and took take six weeks off running until she teed it up at London and hobbled to 34th place after a good swim and bike. Odds are Norden is better after a month more recovery from the tendon, but not enough to contend for the win.
Nicola Spirig, 29, Switzerland
Spirig replaces 2009 Champion Emma Moffatt who withdrew due to injury. One of the few WCS competitors who can win it on the bike, Spirig is an excellent candidate to take advantage of the challenging non-drafting bike at Hy-Vee. She won WCS London in 2009 that very way, and also has wins at WCS Madrid in 2010 the 2008 Kitzbuhel World Cup and the 2007 Eilat World Cup -- and 6th at the Beijing Olympics. So far this year, Spirig is not on form, taking 12th at WCS Hamburg and 8th at London.
Alicia Kaye, 27, Maynard MA
Alicia Kaye arrived in the first rank of US women this year with a win at the Washington DC 5150, 2nd places at Cap Tex Tri, the Philadelphia Triathlon, Life Time Fitness Minneapolis and Chicago.
Mirinda Carfrae, 30, AUS
The 2010 Ironman World Champion and 2007 Ironman 70.3 World Champion has not been invincible this year. But she is plenty good, as proven by her 2nd at Ironman New Zealand, 1st at Ironman 70.3 California and 2nd places at Rev 3 Quassy, Eagleman 70.3 and 3rd at Vineman 70.3.
Rebeccah Wassner, 36, New Paltz, NY
Wassner seems to have mastered the non-drafting Life Time / Toyota Cup racing shown by her 3rd at Life Time Fitness Minnesota, a win at Philadelphia, and 3rd at Nautica South Beach. In 2010, she took 2nd at Life Time Fitness Minneapolis and won New York City.
Sara McLarty, 28, Clermont FL
McLarty is the reigning champion of the 2010 Life Time Fitness / Toyota Cup Series thanks to 2nd at Los Angeles, 4th at New York City and 6th at the Dallas US Open last year. McLarty has proven that her swim and bike skills can place her in a breakaway and hard work has shown she can hold that lead in some cases on the run. This year McLarty was 9th at the USAT Sprint Nationals, 2nd at Miami International 5150, and 7th at Nautica South Beach Miami.
Pip Taylor, 31, AUS
Taylor was hot in 2009 with a 2nd at Kansas 70.3 and wins at Vineman 70.3 and Memphis in May. Her good streak continued in 2010 with another 2nd at Kansas 70.3 and 3rd at Branson 70.3. This year Taylor was 7th at Memphis in May and 5th at Boulder Peak.
Becky Lavelle, 36, Los Gatos CA
Becky Lavelle ruled the US non drafting circuit in 2006 and was first alternate for Us women at the 2008 Olympics. This year, after taking 14 months off for the birth of daughter Caitlin, she has won the San Francisco Triathlon at Alcatraz and the Santa Cruz Triathlon, placed 6th at New York City, 5th at Life Time Fitness Minneapolis, and 3rd at the Washington DC 5150, 3rd at Austin Cap Tex Triathlon and 4th at Rev 3 Knoxville.
Dr Amanda Stevens, 34, Colorado Springs CO
Amanda Stevens comes into Hy-Vee with a win at Memphis in May, 4th at Rev 3 Costa Rica, 3rd at Philippines 70.3, 5th at Eagleman 70.3, 5th at Ironman South Africa and won the Subaru Sooke Triathlon. Last year she was 3rd at Ironman Cozumel, 4th at Ironman 70.3 Worlds, 2nd at San Francisco Triathlon at Alcatraz, 2nd at Ironman 70.3 Florida and 2nd at Ironman 70.3 Galveston.
If I have left anyone off who ends up winning this race, I will happily and humbly congratulate them and once again admit that picking triathlon winners is a fool’s errand.