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Ironman South Africa in its first year as the African Ironman Championships attracted a strong and deep pro field ready to do battle for the golden ticket, decent money, KPR points and to test fitness against good competition. Plus of course South Africa is a very interesting and beautiful destination.
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19 degree water temps in the Nelson Mandela Bay made it a wetsuit legal affair for all athletes and with the sun coming up and giving the venue a stunning background the pro men charged into the water. Sylvain Sudrie had a great swim and managed to come first out of the water in 49:04 and Mike Aigroz was next a few seconds later. The front group was close together and included local favorite Kyle Buckingham, Ivan Rana, Eneko Llanos, TJ Tollakson and Frederik Van Lierde.
Air temperatures were a comfortable 21 degrees with a light breeze and that promised some possible fast times. But the bike course in South Africa is not an easy one and German Johann Ackermann, who had swum well, felt that rather fast and dropped back. Meanwhile a group of four set the pace up front containing Van Lierde, Buckingham, Sudrie and Bertrand Billard. And these 4 gained about 3 minutes in the first 40 over a chase group that included Bart Aernouts, Llanos, Aigroz, Konstantin Bachor, Cyril Viennot and Ivan Rana. James Cunnama meanwhile was a bit further back but not out of reach. The front four exchanged the lead multiple times but stayed together up to the 90k mark, but soon after Van Lierde drilled it and pulled away from the other 3 and managed to gain almost 5 minutes on Sudrie and Buckingham by 132k, and Billard started to fall away from the leaderboard. Rana and Aernouts were now riding in 4th and 5th position. Van Lierde stayed strong up front and pulled further away and when it was said and done had recorded the fastest bike split with a time of 4:32:45. He reached the bike-run transition 14 minutes ahead of Kyle Buckingham - the next man in transition. Dutch Bas Diederen and Belgian Bart Aernouts were next.
Folks wondered initially if the 2013 Ironman World Champion had possibly stepped too much on the gas during the bike segment and would now pay for it during the marathon, but Van Lierde was strong and fast on the run too. He extended his lead as those closest to him started to falter. Ivan Rana on the other hand looked great and soon moved into second place, and behind him fellow Spaniard Eneko Llanos also moved into the limelight and took over third place. But Bart Aernouts was running well too and stayed in podium contention. Rana ran the quickest and recorded a race best 2:48:44 run, but Van Lierde managed an impressive 2:49:45 for a total time of 8:16:35 and the Standard Bank Ironman South Africa title. Rana was second in 8:30:45 and Aernouts made it a Belgian-Spanish sandwich with his third place in 8:35:59.
“This victory is really important to me because it's my first big win after Hawaii 2013. And especially the way I raced in this stellar field,” said Van Lierde to slowtwitch. “Conditions were ok, but this is a hard course because the surface is really rough. 30°C at noon and a moderate easterly wind didn't make it any easier. Great race, great crowd. Loved it!”
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The pro women started after the men and as expected Jodie Swallow set the pace. The fast Brit quickly closed in on some of the slower men and was able shed all her competitors. When Swallow reached the swim-bike transition in 50:17 she had a 2 ½ minute advantage over Camila Pedersen, and 4 ½ over Lucie Reed. Susie Cheetham and Diana Riesler trailed Swallow by just around 8 minutes.
Swallow jumped on her bike and showed quickly that she meant business. When the Brit reached 40k she had established a 4 minute advantage over Pedersen and just about 10 with Riesler. Wutti was just ahead of Riesler, riding about 8 minutes behind the fast Swallow. Pedersen however was tenacious and started to pull closer to Swallow and at 90k was within 3 minutes of the leader. Pedersen then sliced that advantage in half as the winds started to pick up, and Swallow no longer looked quite as comfortable. Pedersen made the catch near the 120k mark and after that the 2 athletes stayed together. At 132k they led Riesler and Wutti by about 9 minutes, Lucy Gossage by 12 and Cheetham by 15. Over the last 50k Pedersen slowed down again and that allowed Swallow to reach T2 alone and 2 minutes ahead of the Dane. Riesler with a strong push in the final stages of the bike segment pulled closer to both frontrunners and reached transition 3:18 behind Swallow. Wutti was next but she was still 9 minutes out of the lead.
Swallow ran the quickest pace of the front running women and opened up a nice advantage. When Swallow reached 18k of the marathon she was 7 minutes ahead of Pedersen with Riesler now right behind the second placed female. Soon after though Riesler moved past Pedersen to take over the runner-up spot. With about 12k to go in the race Lucy Gossage charged past Pedersen to take over third place and chased after Riesler, and theoretically reached for the top spot. Gossage took over second place with 9k to go but Swallow was still almost 2 kilometers ahead of her and looked very well. Gossage came closer to the race leader and behind her Cheetham moved into third place, but Swallow was simply too good and too tough. The Brit ran a 3:10:56 marathon and that left her with a rough 5 minute advantage at the end. Cunnama greeted Swallow who was overcome by emotions as she crossed the finish line in 9:26:56. She had won several 70.3 titles in South Africa before but this was her first Ironman one, and Swallow raced in memory of Linda Scattolin, the Italian who had died after a tragic accident while training in South Africa.