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Ironman: Racing your own race

Photography by Baron Sekiya | Hawaii 24/7

Karin Stanton/Hawaii247 Contributing Editor

There may be 1,800 triathletes crammed along the Kailua Bay start line Saturday morning, but apparently they are not racing each other.

Listening to a panel of top pros – including defending Ironman world champions Craig Alexander and Chrissie Wellington – at Thursday’s pre-race press conference, triathletes might respect each other, but they don’t have much concern for how anyone else’s day is going.

The race course will take them on a 2.4-mile ocean swim, then a 112-mile bike leg along the Kohala Coast’s baking lava fields and tricky winds and a 26.2-mile marathon that winds up back at on Alii Drive finish line.

The athletes who have been here before know that, just as the slogan says, ‘anything is possible’ once the cannon boom starts the race. Even the rookies say they are ready for whatever the race throws at them.

Among the highlights from Thursday’s press conference, where, oddly enough, the women did most of the talking:

Chrissie Wellington

The two-time defending champ comes in as a huge favorite, having never been beaten in an Ironman-distance race and having smashed the all-time Ironman-distance women’s record just three months ago.

The 32-year-old Brit blasted the rest of the field July 7 at the Quelle Challenge in Roth, Germany, setting a new record time of 8 hours, 31 minutes, 59 seconds.

Wellington acknowledged the contributing factors: Roth is fast course; her competitors help push her to new limits; her family and friends support is inspiring.

“It’s been an empowering year for me,” she said. “I’m definitely faster across the board this year.”

Following last year’s win, Wellington switched coaches and then decided she didn’t require a coach at all.

“Ultimately I’ve just drawn on the lessons I’ve learned before and tweaked it a little bit,” she said. “I love pushing my body to the limit. I’m stronger on the swim, I’m stronger on the bike, I’m stronger on the run.”

Having overcome a 10-minute struggle with a flat tire last year and still set a new course record on the run (2:57:44), Wellington is ready to whatever race day throws at her.

“No one has bigger expectations than myself than me. I’m prepared to really dig deep,” she said. “I’ve reached the pinnacle of this sport and I’m so proud to wear that crown. So I do not let the weight of expectations of the additional pressures that come with it drag me down. I let that pressure be the wind beneath my wings and I let it buoy me up and give me energy that I need for the race.”

Her race plan?

“I want to win in the fastest time I possibly can and with the maximum time between myself and the next girl.”

Wellington, who has won only raced (and won) Kona twice, said she believes this may be the deepest field of women ever in Kona.

It includes two other world champions in Switzerland’s Natascha Badmann (1998, 2000-02, 2004-05) and Australia’s Michellie Jones (2006), and two Ironman World Championship 70.3 winners in Australia’s Mirinda Carfrae and American Samantha McGlone.

Yvonne Van Vlerken

Van Vlerken held the Ironman-distance women’s record for a year before Wellington took a 13-minute chunk off it this summer. And the Netherlands native was about that far behind Wellington crossing the finish line last year in Kona.

Van Vlerken, 31, said she has been working hard on her swim during the last year and is much more confident and relaxed.

“I’m not afraid anymore,” she said, “and I promise I won’t look at all the fishes like last year.”

Van Vlerken said she’s comfortable as the “dark horse” and would be happy with a top three finish.

“I always like the role of underdog. Last year I was the underdog here. I’m still new in the sport,” she said. “If you get first or second in your first race here like Crowie or Chrissie, that’s amazing. I think I still need some more experience. So I will be very happy with top three. Especially this year, with such a tough field.”

Michellie Jones

The “winningest” triathlete in history said she’s excited to be back after sitting out last year’s race with an injury.

“I hope we provide a race that you will all remember,” said the Olympic silver medalist, two-time ITU World Champion and 2006 Ironman champ. “I’m happy after 21 years to still be out here racing. I think the secret is you have to love what you do.”

Jones, 40, compared Wellington’s achievements to Roger Bannister’s breaking the four-minute-mile.

“Chrissie definitely has set the standard,” she said. “She’s showing people that it can be done.”

Mirinda Carfrae

Every year, there are a handful of rookies to get excited about. This year one of them is Carfrae, the Ironman World 70.3 champion

“The Ironman is certainly the big brother of Ironman 70.3 racing,” the 29-year-old Australian said. “I thought Clearwater was a big deal, until I came here.”

Carfrae said after doing shorter races “where you’re basically red-lining,’ staying patient throughout the day will be a challenge.

“I think naturally I am an endurance athlete. I train better over longer distances I’ve known for a long time that ultimately Ironman would be where I end up,” she said. “But, having said that, your guess is as good as mine as to how it’s going to go. I will give this race my best. I’ve had a lot of really good training and I am really well prepared.”

Over on the men’s side:

Alexander, who won in only his second try, leads a stacked field that features five other former world champions – Chris McCormack, Normann Stadler, Faris Al-Sultan, Tim De Boom and Luc Van Lierde.

“There are six or seven guys who are going to be ultra-competitive,” Alexander said. “The game plan is to get prepared, get fit and race your own race. You have your best races here when you race your own race.”

Alexander, 36, knows he will face elite cyclists and some of the sports fastest runners.

“You can’t have a weakness here if you want to do well,” he said. “I know what I’m capable of in all three disciplines. I know I can do the things I need to do.”

Eneko Llanos

The Spaniard said he’s through finishing second at big events, although he is proud of his races at the last two Frankfurter Sparkasse Ironman European Championships and last year in Kona.

“The training has been good. I feel motivated. I want to get first place,” he said. “I think I’m ready.”

Terenzo Bozzone

The 24-year-old New Zealander snatched the Ironman 70.3 World title last year at Clearwater and is making his Kona debut.

“It’s a privilege to be here. I’m still young,” he said. “I’ve been here in Kona since the end of August. Learning about the course. Learning about the elements. It’s a privilege to be racing Eneko and Craig.”

Bozzone said he would have to remember to be patient during the longer distance race, but did admit “I’d love to be out front. You get more TV time that way.”

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