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Triathlon Then And Now

A look at how Triathlon has changed since the 80s.

Javier Gomez would have every right to wonder what on earth had just happened. The man many considered to be a favourite for Olympic gold had finished a disappointing fourth in Beijing in 2008. Now, just over a year later, he’d seemingly done everything right to make amends and take the 2009 ITU World Championship Series Grand Final on Australia’s Gold Coast. After a fast bike ride, Gomez had quickly taken charge out on the run course, running each kilometer in under three minutes. At the start of the run, three men went with the Spaniard – Britain’s Alistair Brownlee, Olympic champ Jan Frodeno and his countryman MaikPetzold. After just two kilometres at the torrid pace, Petzold was dropped. Then it was Brownlee’s turn to attack – his move proved to be too much for Frodeno. Then there were two.

Gomez would run a blistering 29:10 for that 10 km run. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough, according to the ITU race report: “Ramping up the speed through the final turns with the sheer agony and hurt of a brutal race behind him, Brownlee continued his run through the line, assuring himself the race win and world championship victory some six seconds ahead of Gomez with a phenomenal run split of 29:04 on an accurate course.

Brownlee’s incredible run signaled a wave of change in the sport of triathlon. Are you a guy with dreams of winning a World Championship Series event? You better be able to run under 30 minutes after swimming 1,500 m (in under 18 minutes) and biking 40 km (in under an hour). In other words, to compete at that level you will need to swim at almost a national level, bike amongst the best in the country and run – well, Kip Kangogo won last year’s Canadian National Road Race Championship in 29:47.

As he ran toward the line at Challenge Roth in July, 2011, Felix Schumann had to be happy. The German was on his way to an impressive 8:18 Ironman, fourth overall at one of the most prestigious triathlon events in his country. There was only one problem. He was only a few seconds ahead of the fifth place athlete. Turns out, though, he didn’t need to worry about losing any prize money – just his pride.

A year before it had been South Africa’s James Cunnama, who would go on to win Ironman Florida later in the year, who faced being “chicked” by Chrissie Wellington. The British three-time world champion was on her way to breaking her own world record by an astounding 12 minutes. To do that she ran a 2:48 marathon – fast enough to qualify for the Olympic trials in most countries –completing the race in 8:19:13 and finishing sixth overall, one spot behind Cunnama.

A year later it was Schumann’s turn as Wellington was on her way to yet another world-best time. This time she shaved a minute off the record, but to do that she’d had to run a scorching 2:44 marathon.

Wellington has single-handedly raised the women’s game in Ironman racing. When she pulled out of the 2010 Ironman World Championship due to illness, Mirinda Carfrae (see sidebar) won the event by setting a new run course record – her 2:53:32 marathon split was competitive with some of the men who finished in the top 10 in Kona, but most importantly sent a message that if she could ever come off the bike close to Wellington, she could possibly be the first woman to get across an Ironman finish line ahead of her. (Wellington has never lost an Ironman race in her 12 starts.)

Chrissie Wellington burst on to the triathlon scene in 2007, winning first Ironman Korea and then, just a few months later, shocking both the women’s field and the triathlon world with her first of three-straight Ironman World Championship titles. Her coach in those days was Brett Sutton, a controversial Australian who now leads Team TBB, a team filled with Ironman champions. Sutton’s latest protégé is Mary Beth Ellis, who had enjoyed a bit of success over the half-Ironman distance thanks to two runner-up finishes at the Ironman World Championship 70.3, but had struggled to try and compete with the world’s best over the Olympic distance. Last July Sutton directed Ellis to do her first Ironman in Austria, where she dominated the day with an 8:43:34 performance that made her the third fastest woman in Ironman history.

Ellis is just one of a slew of women who have gone well under nine hours in an Ironman race over the last few years, no-doubt fueled by the inspiration and necessity to race that fast in order to be competitive. Rebecca Keat managed an 8:39 while chasing Wellington in Roth a few years ago. Sandra Wallenhorst, Erika Csomor, Kate Allen, Belinda Granger, Bella Bayliss and Yvonne Van Vlerken are others who have joined that elite club since 2007 after witnessing Wellington’s impressive racing feats.

These are just a few examples of how much things have changed in the world of Ironman over the last few years. So, how did we get to where we are now?

The 80s – Triathlon Grows Up

The afternoon that ABC’s Wide World of Sportsaired the dramatic footage of Julie Moss as she crawled towards the finish line of the Ironman World Championship inspired many athletes to become involved in the sport.It was athletes like Dave Scott, Scott Tinley, Mark Allen, Paula Newby-Fraser and Erin Baker and Sylviane and Patricia Puntouswho changed the face of Ironman and turned it into a race as opposed to an exercise in survival. (It’s interesting to note that through the early 80s it was American men who dominated the sport, while the women came from Zimbabwe (Newby-Fraser), New Zealand (Baker) and Canada.)

While the Ironman World Championship might have been the most prestigious triathlon through the early 80s, as the decade progressed other events arrived on the landscape that offered prize money and prestige to winners, too. (It wasn’t until 1987 that the Ironman World Championship actually offered prize money.) The USTS (United States Triathlon Series) included a series of events across the United States that culminated with a championship event in Hilton Head every year.

Included among the big-name races of the time were events like the Nice Triathlon (which Mark Allen would win 10 times), the Chicago Triathlon, Ironman qualifiers in Canada and New Zealand and the St. Croix triathlon.

The few athletes in the sport who were trying to make a living as triathletes were forced to race often and at virtually every distance. Even Dave Scott, who was so dominant in Kona that his nickname was simply “The Man,” would regularly be seen at Olympic distance events. (One of my fondest Dave Scott memories was at the Los Angeles USTS event when Scott racked his bike next to me and then had his wife help him dress some horrific-looking road rash that seemed to cover one side of his body. Turns out he had crashed on his bike the day before, but wasn’t going to let that stop him from competing. If I wasn’t convinced he’d earned his nickname before, that day confirmed it.)

Quebec’s Puntous twins, who had risen to triathlon stardom thanks to their first and second-place finishes in Kona in 1983 and 1984 (Sylviane, who won those races, would finish second in 1986 and 1987) would regularly compete in shorter events like the USTS series, too.

Here in Canada, it wasn’t unusual to see some of the world’s top athletes chasing down a paycheck – Scott Tinley was one of the highlighted athletes at the Milton Triathlon (held just outside of Toronto), Allen competed at the Markham Triathlon and almost all of the world’s top athletes competed at the second “unofficial” world Olympic distance championship race held in Kelowna in 1988 (which was won by Mike Pigg). The year before New Zealand’s Rick Wells had shocked the triathlon world by winning the first unofficial world Olympic distance championship, which was held in Perth, Australia. It was the first sign that the sport was becoming an international phenomenon.

Thanks to the efforts of Canada’s Les McDonald, though, the world of triathlon truly changed in 1989 with the first Triathlon World Championship held in Avignon, France. While this event was the beginning of a new era in the sport, it was won by two athletes were very much part of triathlon’s Ironman tradition – Mark Allen and Erin Baker.

1989 truly was the year that the triathlon world got turned upside down as it also marked the year Allen was finally able to beat Scott in Kona in a race that has become known simply as the “IronWar.” The race is so legendary that there’s even been a book written about it – you can check out the review in our Warm Up section.

The 90s – The Specialization Era

The first ITU World Championship and congress held in 1989 didn’t just signal that the sport was becoming more international (which it was), it also began the gradual process that has seen triathlon become much more specialized. As triathlon edged closer to Olympic recognition, draft-legal racing became the order of the day. According to Les McDonald, who spearheaded triathlon’s entrance into the Olympic movement, draft-legal racing became a necessity because Olympic competition required virtually instantaneous results – you couldn’t have a winner declared after the fact, once the officials had figured out who got drafting penalties and who did not.

As triathlon edged towards the Olympics the landscape was considerably less Ironman focused. Here in Canada, ITU world champion Joanne Ritchie was every bit as well known in the triathlon community as the Puntous twins had been, as was the 1990 ITU silver medalist, Carol Montgomery.

As the ITU started to become a dominant force on the governing side of the sport, the World Cup series was created. ITU president McDonald had come from a skiing background, so it was no surprise he would set up a similar “world cup” model in triathlon. Once the ITU moved to draft-legal racing for the elites, the days of “jack of all trades” triathletes were gone – if you wanted to have any hope of attending the first Olympic Games triathlon in 2000 you had to basically commit to competing on the ITU World Cup circuit. The days of racing at short course events through the first three or four months of the season, then switching over to distance training to prepare for Kona were over. Even Greg Welch, the 1994 Ironman World Champion, began to spend more time competing at shorter-distance and draft-legal events as he sought the elusive Olympic dream.

By the late 90s Ironman was dominated by Ironman specialists, and Canadians were very much in the forefront of that movement. Heather Fuhr won the Ironman World Championship in 1997. Second that day was Lori Bowden. Bowden finished second again in 1998 and won in 1999. Peter Reid took the first of his three Ironman World Championship titles in 1998. Fuhr, Bowden, Reid and other top Canadian Ironman competitors like Lisa Bentley were now becoming Ironman specialists. They had no aspirations on an Olympic games appearance – they were competing in three or four Ironman races every year and peppering their race schedules with a few half Ironman and a very occasional short course race.

The one exception to that trend here in Canada was Mark Bates, who won his fourth national Olympic distance title and finished second at Ironman Canada (in his first Ironman) in 1997. As impressive as his results were, though, Bates might provide proof of the necessity of specialization – he wouldn’t be part of the Olympic team in 2000.

The new millennium – Welcome to the Olympics

By the time Bridget McMahon outsprinted Michellie Jones for the women’s gold medal in Sydney and Simon Whitfield brought our country to a rousing celebration with his dramatic win, the Olympic movement had more than changed our sport. Olympic recognition provided not only government support for our top athletes, but also boosted the sports popularity.

At an elite level, the separation between Olympic distance and Ironman racing (full- or half-distance) has only increased since that first Olympic race. Even Whitfield, who was known to participate in some longer races at certain times of the year (he and fellow-Olympian Samantha McGlone sprinted to the line at the 2006 Muskoka Chase, where the men left about 18 minutes behind the women) found himself being forced to focus more and more on the specificities required to swim, bike and run with the likes of Javier Gomez and Alistair Brownlee in Olympic distance racing. Along with national team funding, the ITU series offers millions of dollars in prize money, as do a number of short-distance races around the world.

Ironman racing has become the next step for many of the world’s top Olympic distance competitors, too. McGlone would follow her Olympic experience with a world 70.3 championship and a runner-up finish in Kona. Michellie Jones did her first Ironman after she was told she wouldn’t represent Australia at the 2004 Olympic games. Ditto for Andreas Raelert, who found out he wouldn’t be part of the 2008 German team that competed in Beijing and promptly finished second at the Ironman World Championship 70.3 race and followed that up a few weeks later with a convincing win at Ironman Arizona. Andy Potts competed at the 2004 Olympics, then narrowly missed out on his chance to race in Beijing four years later – he went on to become an Ironman 70.3 world champion and top finisher in Kona.

Once all those former Olympians moved up in distance, they typically never went back. (Yes, there is Chris McCormack – see sidebar.) Why would they? After having tried to keep up with the likes of Javier Gomez or Alistair Brownlee and their sub-30 minute 10 km pace, the pace for even a fast half- or full-marathon at the end of a triathlon would feel pedestrian. (For a women’s equivalent, just substitute Emma Snowsill’s 33:06 10 km from the 2010 WCS event in Budapest last year.)

There’s also been a dramatic increase in the number of Ironman events around the world, too. In the 1980s there were just a handful of Ironman qualifiers around the world and it wasn’t until 1998 that the Ironman series expanded to more than seven events. Since then the series has expanded to 27 events and there are more than 50 Ironman 70.3 races around the world, too, providing lots of race options for athletes who choose longer distance racing.

Which might explain how we’ve got to where we are today. Athletes like Gomez and Brownlee can focus on nothing else but going fast for a 1.5 km swim, a 40 km bike and a 10 km run, which enables them to run at the other-worldly pace they can sustain off the bike. While Wellington is “a freak of nature” according to her closest competitor, MirindaCarfrae, she’s being pushed to ever-impressive feats because of the immense potential of the women coming behind her and her desire to, well, win and set a new standard for women’s athletics.

Throughout the 70s and 80s Virginia Slims sponsored the Women’s Tennis Association. It was a time of dramatic change in the women’s game that saw a huge rise in popularity and a move towards more equitable prize money with male tennis players. The cigarette company’s motto seemed appropriate at the time: You’ve come a long way, baby. Triathlon, a sport that has only existed for about 35 years, has come a lot further.

Just ask Javier Gomez. 29:10 never felt so slow.


Game Changer: Alistair Brownlee

The two-time Triathlon World Champion will wear the mantle of Olympic favourite for the next year. Brownlee finished 12th at the Beijing Games, but by the following year had become the dominant force on the ITU scene. In 2009 he won all five of the ITU World Championship Series events in which he competed. A stress fracture forced him to sit out much of the 2010 season, but he was able to return to form and win in Madrid and take the European Triathlon Union (ETU) Title.

2011 did not start off well for the 23-year-old Brit – a fall in Sydney ended in a 29th place finish. That was pretty much the only blemish in a near-perfect season (he would finish third at the World Sprint Championships) that saw Brownlee win his second World Triathlon Championship along with another ETU win and WCS wins in Beijing, Madrid and Kitzbuhel.

The only question now is whether or not the baby-faced speedster will be able to handle the immense pressure he’ll face over the next year as the favourite for Olympic gold in his home country next year.

The Competition: Mirinda Carfrae

The 2010 Ironman World Champion managed to silence some of the “Chrissie wasn’t in the race” comments with her impressive 2:53 marathon and sub-nine hour winning time. Carfrae grew up playing basketball but finally realized that at just over 5’ 3” her basketball potential was limited.

That led the 30-year-old into the world of triathlon. Carfrae spent a few years competing on the ITU circuit, but struggled to compete at the highest levels over the shorter distance. Just as she was wrestling with her future in the sport, Ironman announced the new 70.3 series, which gave Carfrae the opportunity to compete and make money at a distance that seemed perfectly suited to her talents.

By 2007 Carfrae had become the 70.3 world champion, setting the stage for her seemingly inevitable move to Ironman. In 2009 she finished second to Wellington, then won Kona in just her second attempt at the distance.

As good as she is over the longer distances, Carfrae is no slouch when it comes to short course racing. At the Hy-Vee 5i50 US Championship (which offered well over a million dollars of prize money) Carfrae finished an impressive second. She’ll need all that speed and more if she’s to ever challenge Wellington, though.

Gentleman Champion: Craig Alexander

The three-time Ironman World Champion is possibly the best 70.3 athlete in the world – he won the inaugural Ironman 70.3 title in 2006 and came back to win again this year after the event moved to Lake Las Vegas.

With 30 half-Ironman wins to his credit, Alexander has thrived on the development of the Ironman 70.3 series. Alexander grew up competing on the ITU circuit, where his now-famous rivalry with fellow Aussie Chris McCormack began.

Other than the fact that they’re both two-time Kona champs, though, the similarities end there. The modest, soft-spoken and down-to-earth 38-year-old is revered throughout the triathlon community as much as he’s feared once he gets onto the run course. A devoted husband and father, Alexander became one of only four men who had ever defended the Ironman World Championship title when he won in 1989.

The Future: Paula Findlay

For two years in a row the Canadian redhead has claimed at least two ITU World Championship Series events – last year she won two and this year she was on a great roll with three wins. The season didn’t end as well as it started, though, thanks to a hip injury that sidelined her just before a home-town appearance in Edmonton.

All of which might prove to make life a bit easier on Findlay over the next nine months as she prepares for a seemingly inevitable Olympic appearance. While she’ll still wear the mantle of Canada’s gold-medal hope for the London games, a bit of the heat will be taken off thanks to the injury and subsequent recovery.

Which makes her even more of a favourite in our eyes, but we won’t tell anyone.

Olympic Dreams: Chris McCormack

The triathlon world was stunned to learn last March that defending Ironman World Champion, Chris McCormack, had decided to forsake Ironman racing for a go at Australia’s Olympic team. What seemed like a very outside chance has become a bit more of a reality over the last six months – after struggling early in the season at ITU events, McCormack ended up being the only Australian man to finish the Grand Final event in Beijing. Right now he sits as the fifth Australian in the ITU standings and appears to be on the right track to at least compete for a spot on the start line in London.