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Million-dollar bonanza: PTO Championship Preview

We preview this weekend's Championship race at Challenge Daytona

Photo by: Jose Luis Hourcade

To be exact, it is actually a $1.15 million day for many of the world’s top triathletes, who are starting to congregate in Daytona, Florida for what promises to be one of the biggest spectacles the sport has ever seen. So mark your calendars – triathlon fans won’t want to miss this day.

The race features a 2 km swim, an 80 km bike all followed by an 18 km run, a nice round 100 km total, that promises to be long enough to require outstanding endurance and strength, but also short enough to require the speed of an Olympic-distance racer.

Which will make Sunday’s race even more fun to watch – with some of the world’s greatest long-distance athletes in the field taking on Olympic and draft-legal world champions, it is going to be fun.

So here goes – a first look at the race ahead. With 100 of the world’s best set to compete, there are no-doubt some names we should be mentioning that we haven’t, but we’ll continue to monitor the week’s activities and come back with another update on Friday.

Paula Findlay on the bike – she is the defending Challenge Daytona champion. Photo: Talbot Cox

The women’s field

It’s almost easier to name the big names in the sport who won’t be in Daytona – unfortunately, though, two of the biggest names in the world of distance racing, Daniela Ryf and Lucy Charles-Barclay, won’t be making the trip to Florida this weekend. Draft-legal cycling wizard Flora Duffy has now pulled out of the event, too.

That hardly means we’re not in for one heck of a women’s race. Defending Kona champ Anne Haug won’t even be wearing race number 1 – that’ll be worn by Sarah Crowley, who has taken third in Kona twice and, last year, became the fastest Australian ever on the Big Island – a heady performance considering that means she went faster than former course record holder Mirinda Carfrae. Third up on the stacked list is 2016 Ironman 70.3 world champ (second last year the Nice 70.3 worlds) Holly Lawrence.

The list of potential winners and podium finishers goes on for a while. Anyone who saw Carrie Lester’s incredible race at Ironman Mont-Tremblant last year knows she’s capable of a huge day. Heather Jackson is another perennial top-finisher in Kona. Laura Philipp debuted with a top-five performance in Kona last year, her swimming continues to improve and she’s also finished on the podium at a 70.3 worlds.

And, of course, here in Canada we’re going to be rooting for 2012 Olympian Paula Findlay, who is the defending Challenge Daytona Champion and, based on the training stats we’ve seen this summer, is in outstanding shape once again.

Fresh off a win at the Ironman Asia-Pacific Championships where she beat Crowley, Amelia Rose Watkinson will certainly be another woman to watch – the race in Australia was just her second full-distance race, so that’s a big win. Or Emma Pallant, another 70.3 podium finisher who brings international running skills to the mix,

And does anyone want to count 2012 Olympic gold medalist Nicola Spirig out? Yeah, me neither. While she was gearing up for her silver-medal performance in Rio, Spirig won two 70.3 races. She’s super-strong on the bike and knows how to come up big when it counts.

This could go on for a while, but I’d be remiss not to mention Michelle Vesterby, Meredith Kessler and the rest of the Canadian contingent – Rach McBride, Angela Naeth and Amelie Kretz.

Related: Daytona-bound Canadians and who they will be racing at the PTO Championship

Lionel Sanders and Pablo Dapena duel during the run at the 2019 Challenge Daytona race, won by Sanders. Photo: Talbot Cox

The men’s field

While defending Kona champ Jan Frodeno isn’t racing in Daytona this weekend, there is hardly a shortage of huge names in this field. Two-time Olympic gold medalist Alistair Brownlee will wear race number one and is likely the favourite for Sunday’s race. After ripping through a course-record win at Ironman Western Australia last year, the elder Brownlee (his younger brother, Rio silver-medalist Jonny, is racing, too) turned his sights to earning a spot in Tokyo, so he’ll arrive in Daytona this week with a nutty combination of long-distance strength and short-distance speed. This fall he finished in the top-10 at the sprint-distance world championships, then the following morning he won the insanely tough Helvellyn Triathlon. Earlier this month he pushed world champ Vincent Luis to his limit at a world cup race, too, so you know that Brownlee is in top form right now. Luis would no-doubt dearly love to repeat the feat on Sunday, but since it’s his first long-distance race, that’ll probably be a big ask.

Brownlee’s apparent fitness and favourite status will no-doubt get Sebastian Kienle and Canada’s own Lionel Sanders more than a little fired up heading into Sunday’s race. The 2014 Ironman world champ and the defending Challenge Daytona champ are amongst the fiercest competitors and best bike/runners our sport has ever seen, and they’ll need to use those skills to their fullest on Sunday because Brownlee will have some speedy swimmers joining him at the front of the race early. Like Brownlee, Javier Gomez has enjoyed some long-distance success over the last few years, including two 70.3 world titles, while also keeping his hat in the ring for Tokyo next year. The guy is a five-time ITU world champ and also has an Xterra world title to his name – he knows how to put things on the line when it counts.

As with the women’s race, the list of potential champs and podium finishers goes on. Ben Hoffman and Timothy O’Donnell are both Kona runner-ups with a slate of big wins to their names. Rudy von Berg has steadily signalled he is amongst the world’s best middle-distance racers, confirming that in style with a third-place finish in Nice last year. Pieter Heemeryck took the Challenge World Bonus last year, proving his consistency, and he was also the first winner of Challenge Daytona, so he knows how to win at the Daytona International Speedway.

And, yes, it’s crazy that I’m only now getting to Gustav Iden, the defending Ironman 70.3 world champion, who was invited to the race as a PTO wildcard because, like so many others in this field, as good as he is over middle-distance racing, his focus has been on the Olympics. Add 2016 Rio bronze medalist Henri Schoeman to that list, too – he did his first half-distance race earlier this year, taking third at Ironman 70.3 South Africa.

There’s a lot of talk about Chris Leiferman, fresh off a win at Ironman Florida, along with his fellow podium finishers from Panama City Beach – Ironman record holder Matt Hanson and Sam Long.

Canada has a heady crew of athletes who could be in the mix on Sunday along with Sanders, too. Cody Beals is coming off an interesting summer of shorter local events in Ontario and a fifth-place finish at Ironman Florida, so he should bring an interesting mix of speed and strength to the table. Jackson Laundry has put together an incredible recovery from his scary crash in Nice last year, taking this year’s Canadian Pro Championship. Taylor Reid rounds out the Canadians in the field – he was fourth here a few years ago.

You can check out the full start lists here.