January 2014

IRONMAN 70.3 South Africa: A fairy-tale ending.

A triathlon is a triathlon, is a triathlon. Except it isn’t.

In the same way that a fish isn’t a dolphin and the 100 metre sprint isn’t a marathon, all triathlons are not the same. All triathlons have a swim, bike and run section, as advertised, and all of them run those disciplines in the same order. The difference, obviously, is in the distances involved.
Starting at sprint distance, they get progressively longer (Olympic distance), until at the extreme end is the longest event of them all, the Ironman, which with a 3.8 km swim, 180 km cycle and a run of 42 km, is a beast of an event to conquer.

Sitting firmly between the shorter races and Ironman distance event is what was originally known as the Half Ironman, but is now branded as Ironman 70.3. (70.3 refers to the sum of the distance in miles of all three disciplines). In the past, Ironman and Ironman 70.3 were often compared with each other, and fanatical proponents of the longer event loudly proclaimed to anybody who would listen that the 70.3 race wasn’t a proper distance. But that really wasn’t true. It was simply a figment of someone’s testosterone fuelled ego, a case of mine is bigger than yours, so it must be better.

The 70.3 has blossomed into a unique discipline of its own, with specialist training and professional athletes who dedicate their entire lives to the race. Events are held all over the world and the top racers, both male and female, travel the globe earning a living (often a meagre one) competing against each other.

In South Africa, the Ironman 70.3 event is held every year in late January, in East London (Buffalo City), in the Eastern Cape. The 2014 race saw a glittering array of top 70.3 athletes assembled on our shores. World champions, ex-world champions and stars of the future were all here to battle it out. Topping the list was three-time winner of the South African Ironman 70.3 and former world champion in the distance, Britain’s Jodie Swallow.

The top male contender and favourite to win, James Cunnama, is a local boy and being Jodie Swallow’s boyfriend, he was also the crowd’s emotional favourite. Everyone loves a fairy tale. The trouble is, he has never won an event on South African soil, despite coming very close, and this year he was hoping to get the monkey off his back. James wasn’t going to have it handed to him on a plate though, and he would have to work really hard to beat some of the best in the world who were here to beat, not help him.
Race day dawned to what couldn’t have been better weather. There was no wind to speak of, the sea was a calm 17 degrees Celsius and the skies were cloudy, which would help keep the temperatures down.

At 6:45 a.m. the Pro racers left in the first of the start waves. Marko Albert (EST) was first out of the water in 23 minutes and 39 seconds, with Will Clarke (GBR) and Faris Al-Sultan (GER) breathing down his neck and only lagging by a couple of seconds. In his first race as a professional, South African Olympic distance proponent Rudolf Naude was also in this leading group. In the second bunch out of the water, Romain Guillaume, Andreas Giglmayr (AUT) and James Cunnama (RSA) were getting ready for a ding-dong battle of note.

Clark was first out of T1 on the bike after a blistering transition, but was soon passed on the road by Guillaume, who had taken off like a homesick angel in an effort to cement a solid lead going into the run. After only 12 km, ex-Ironman World Champion Faris Al-Sultan also passed Clarke to take over second spot. But it was back in the pack where war was starting to break out. Six or seven of the top guys were busy destroying each other in an effort to catch the leaders.

Local boys Cunnama, Kyle Buckingham, Matt Trautman and Stuart Marais were giving no quarter to Bert Jammaer of Belgium, and Brazilian Igor Amorelli. Trautman was first to break away and hit half-way in third place, in an attempt to reel in the two front runners. However, after the turnaround the cyclists were riding directly into a headwind and Cunnama put the hammer down to power past Trautman into third.

Into T2, Guillaume was leading by a massive 2:11, with Germany’s Al-Sultan, then Cunnama and Trautman over a minute behind. This left the little matter of a 21 km half marathon run to decide the race.

Guillaume continued to hold his first place, but Al-Sultan was slowly slipping back into fourth, allowing Cunnama and Clarke to take over second and third. Guillaume must have known he was in trouble when he looked over his shoulder and saw the Brit and Safa charging into view. With only 4 km to go, Cunnama finally took the lead from Guillaume and very shortly afterwards Clarke moved into second. The two leaders were neck and neck and almost sprinting, and there was still 1.5 km to go.

It was shaping up to be a monster battle on the red carpet, but Cunnama put in a last kick to move into a lead he wouldn’t lose. Clarke never gave up, but ultimately he had to concede 23 seconds to Cunnama on the line.

But what of the women’s race? They were still out on the course and deserving of our full attention, so eyes down and keep reading please.

Swallow, the three-time winner of this race was doing her usual thing. Beating the course and her competitors into submission. To start with, she was the first woman, and fourth overall, to exit the water. In other words, she destroyed most of the Pro men in the swim. Astonishing. Having 47 seconds shaved off her time in the swim certainly wasn’t what Lucie Reed (CZE) was hoping for.

Poland’s Maria Czes’nik and Simone Braendli of Switzerland found themselves 2 minutes further back and must have been devastated.

Lucie Reed is made of sterner stuff though and renowned for her bike power, and she was giving it her all. At the turnaround she was still 70 seconds back, but now Czes’nik and Braendli had been joined by Susie Hignett (GBR), although the three of them were making no progress on the leaders. It was at Hallway that Swallow made her move, putting herself two more minutes ahead of the chase group by the time she got off the bike to head onto the run course.

It was now just a two-horse race, but in the real world there is no athlete on earth who was going to catch Swallow, and despite her best efforts Reed was never going to take the win. She knew it, we knew it, game over.

At the line, Swallow took her fourth consecutive Ironman 70.3 South Africa title in 04:37:00, a massive 3 minutes and 47 seconds ahead of second-placed Lucie Reed. Simone Braendli took third in 04:42:39.

The result meant that the fairy-tale script had finally been written. Cunnama and Swallow. Boyfriend and girlfriend. Together on the podium.

To read it, it seems trite, but to have been there and witnessed the pain and raw emotion of the moment is to have understood just what it takes for these two young athletes to live, train and race 70.3 all day, every day. It certainly put a tear in this romantic’s eye, and I’m supposed to be an impartial observer.

More information
Visit www.ironman703.co.za

Top 10 men
1. James Cunnama (RSA) – 04:05:00
2. Will Clarke (GBR) – 04:05:23
3. Romain Guillaume (FRA) – 04:06:23
4. Stuart Marais (RSA) – 04:06:37
5. Igor Amorelli (BRA) – 04:07:57
6. Faris Al-Sultan (GER) – 04:08:41
7. Bert Jammaer (BEL) – 04:10:56
8. Johannes Moldan (GER) – 04:12:37
9. Kyle Buckingham (RSA) – 04:13:41 1
10. Marko Albert (EST) 04:13:55

Top 10 women
1. Jodie Swallow (GBR) 04:37:00
2. Lucie Reed (CZE) 04:40:48
3. Simone Braendli (SUI) 04:42:39
4. Camilla Lindholm (SWE) 04:48:14
5. Jeannie Collogne (FRA) 04:51:08
6. Maria Czes’nik (POL) 04:51:51
7. Lynette Van Der Merwe (RSA) 05:00:00
8. Jeanni Seymour (RSA) 05:01:08
9. Edith Niederfriniger (ITA) 05:02:24
10. Claire Horner (RSA) 05:09:35

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Western Province triathlon Championships 2014

Only a few years back, events were hastily put together by volunteers and harassed officials from the local triathlon administrative body (In many cases, those poor officials were coerced into helping.) They did a sterling job with what they had, pulling help from wherever they could, liaising with local authorities for permission and organising road closures, marshals and traffic officials on the day. Organising a triathlon is not a job for the faint hearted or those with a short attention span.

In 2014, things have changed. The sport has grown, and the small child that was a fringe sport in the late 90s has had a spectacular growth spurt and is now a petulant teenager of the new millennium. It is a sport that is demanding its proper place in a society filled with similar ‘edge’ events. It is also a sport that needs proper organisational skills and talent.

With the World Triathlon Series coming to Cape Town this April (talk about an older sibling and massive peer pressure), the eyes of the triathlon world are on Cape Town, and the sport in the Western Cape, like any kid in its first year at high school, needed a new set of clothes and a proper haircut.

Luckily, the Western Province Triathlon committee aren’t short sighted. Realising that they are administrators and not organisers, they roped in the help of professional event organiser Olivia Ness and her team from Raw Events to run the logistics of the Western Province Triathlon Championships. Good move. Greater success.

Those who entered the race on Sunday, 19 January probably thought that a 6:30 a.m. race start was stupidly early. They certainly changed their tune when the temperatures soured into the thirties by midday. With the weather playing along like a well conducted orchestra (without the wind section, which is unusual for any event held in Cape Town in the summer), the athletes were treated to the first of many pleasant surprises on the day, the venue.

The Val de Vie Estate in Paarl is simply stunning, with manicured lawns, perfect water quality and a secure environment for spectators and family. Val de Vie threw its doors wide, gave the athletes a huge welcoming smile and made a lot of friends
in the process.

So the triathlon circus rolled into town for what was going to be an amazing day of racing. With Raw Events doing the rah-rah side of things, and the indefatigable Tony Bradford of WP Triathlon and his team pulling the strings, making things happen and just being everywhere, this event took sprint triathlon in the Western Cape to a whole new level.

Checking the line-up at the start, it was clear that this was going to be a quality race, despite many top contenders treating it as part of their taper before Ironman 70.3 in East London a week later.

In the men’s race, Xterra Champ Stuart Marias, Ironman star Matt Trautman and up and coming local star Frederick Wagenvoorde were all on the line, along with a host of other class talent like Theo Blignaut. There was also the added entertainment of multiple Olympic gold medallist and Val de Vie resident Ryk Neethling lining up as the swimmer in a relay fun team. That must have got a few egos twitching.

Heading up the women’s field was race favourite Di McEwan, Olympian (on the serious comeback trail), Marie Rabie and Robyn Williams, who although concentrating more on off road races these days was looking to pick up the pieces left by those in front should they have a bad day.

First out of the water after a brilliant swim was Theo Blignaut, followed 18 seconds later by Fred Wagenvoorde and then Ryk Neethling, who gave the others a fighting chance by swimming backstroke. Stuart Marais was trailing by a massive 2 minutes going into the swim/bike transition and had set himself up for a huge effort if he wanted to take the win.

Onto the bike and it was out on the road towards Paarl, looping through the verdant vineyards before heading back towards Franschhoek and then the return road to Val de Vie. Stuart Marais was hammering the ride on his mean, green Trek tri-bike to claw back the minute and a half he had lost to the leaders on the swim. He eventually managed to pull a minute back on Wagenvoorde and 4 minutes and 30 seconds on Theo Blignaut, to come into T2 second with less than 30 seconds to close the gap. The run was frantic, with Marais slowly closing on Wagenvoorde to eventually power into the lead 1 km from the finish with his customary kick, eventually winning by a miserly 20 seconds.

The women’s race was a far more sedate affair in comparison, although no less fast at the front with Marie Rabie clocking the fastest swim time of anyone (male and female) on the day. But it was Di McEwan who was the runaway winner, taking the win by almost 4 minutes from Rabie, with Robyn Williams another 1 minute 45 seconds back. Such was McEwan’s domination that her coach, Neil MacPherson, was on course calling split times and urging her to slow down in an effort to save herself for Ironman 70.3, where she will be starting as one of the favourites.

After the hustle and bustle of the big boys and girls in the early races, the day moved on to include youth and kiddies races later in the morning before the prize-giving at the polo club. Here, the farmers market was in full swing and competitors were able to get a delicious bite to eat and a cold beverage to quaff, while catching up on race tales with their mates.

1. Stuart Marais
2. Frederick Wagenvoorde
3. Theo Blignaut

1. Dianne McEwan
2. Marie Rabie
3. Robyn Williams