“Catch me if you can”. And they couldn’t. Front pack swim, blistering solo bike and strong half marathon marks Alistair Brownlee out – for those who had any doubts – as a serious contender for IRONMAN 70.3 World Champion later this year. Lionel Sanders closed the gap significantly over the closing miles of the run, but came up 33 seconds short. The race…
The 1.9km swim saw a lead group of four clear. Reaching dry land first in 23:16 was Ben Kanute (USA), with Brits Alistair Brownlee and Stuart Hayes, plus Aussie Sam Appleton right on his shoulder. Tim Don led out the next group 39 seconds back and he had the likes of Sylvain Sudrie (FRA), Brent McMahon (CAN), Joe Gambles (AUS), Kevin Collington (USA), Mark Buckingham (GBR) and Matt Chrabot (USA) with him. Key gaps to look out for were to Sebastian Kienle (2:05) and Lionel Sanders (3:07), the renowned uber-bikers, who were the top two 12 months ago, where Sanders took the win. They would have expected to be in almost exactly those positions at this stage, so all to play for on the bike and run.
Taking the bike out hard, Brownlee wasted no time in dispatching his trio of swim colleagues and was alone, clear and described as “destroying the field here early in St. George. Destroying”, by IronmanLive commentator, Matt Lieto. By 11 miles he 47 seconds up on Kanute and making time on practically the entire field… except for Lionel Sanders, who had regained a few seconds and 14 places, to sit 12th and 2:48 down against the two-time Olympic Champion. Crucially perhaps, he had the company of Sebastian Kienle. That pairing would surely be willing to unleash some watts and seek to reel in Mr Brownlee. Soon they were scything through the field and hunting down the lead, dropping everyone else in the process.
By 40 miles, Brownlee was still in the lead solo – and STILL a full two minutes and forty seconds clear of Sebastian Kienle and Lionel Sanders. Sanders has already crushed the field at his three 70.3 races in 2017 (Pucon, Buenos Aires and Oceanside), while Kienle also won his season-opening race in Cannes by a huge margin. Kienle is a two-time IRONMAN 70.3 World Champion (and Silver medalist for the last two years), while Sanders is the fastest improving athlete out there. And this was Alistair’s first (serious) middle distance start…
An impressed Matt Lieto added:
"Hard to explain just how amazing of a performance on the bike this has been from Alistair Brownlee here today. This is a shot across the bow to anyone that doubted his ability over the long course distance and should send a shiver down the spines of anyone in non drafting racing all the way up to the Ironman distance, including the World Championships in Kona. This dude is not messing around. There was a “hope” amongst long course racers that Alistair would not be “strong” enough on hard bike courses or in tough conditions because he’s used to draft legal racing. Well, it’s clear now there is a reason there are only a handful of Olympic Gold medal holders in triathlon… you have to be REALLY REALLY talented and strong as #%$. Oh, and Alistair has 2 of those things right?"
Tim Don (winner here two years ago) was still riding well, only a minute back on the Kienle / Sanders duo at 40 miles, with Sam Appleton, Anthony Costes (FRA) and Ben Kanute in a loose grouping. Stuart Hayes was now over seven minutes back. Meanwhile, after Challenge Gran Canaria and the European Duathlon Championships the past two weeks, Mark Buckingham was out of the race: "Had to pull out. Battling against my body a bit too much this week. Will get out on course to see Al smash it and hopefully Tim & Stu."
Would there be any material changes over the closing 16 miles to T2? NO! Alistair would reach T2 with a lead of close on three minutes over Sanders and Kienle, a bike split of 2:01:39, giving up just 15 seconds to Sanders over 56 miles. Tim Don was fourth starting the run, 4:35 behind Brownlee but barely a minute and a half behind the 2nd and 3rd. An opportunity for the one-time 28:56 10km runner? Time would tell on that one.
In any normal circumstance, giving Alistair Brownlee a three minute lead starting the run is basically like saying “start engraving the trophy now”. Would this be the same? The only questions could surely be a) had he given too much on the bike, and b) was he ready for a half marathon against a stacked field on a tough course. Basically, his opposition would be hoping for one or both of those to come true… perhaps more in hope, than belief? 13.1 miles to find out.
5km in and… no weakness shown. Out of the race himself, Mark Buckingham was now providing better coverage on his iPhone than IronmanLive – even the timing splits weren’t updating online. Frustrating!
The hoped for charge of Tim Don didn’t appear to be happening in the early stages either, with Ben Kanute closing in on the former ITU World Champion at triathlon, duathlon and aquathlon.
By halfway into the run, Sanders had closed a little time on Brownlee, the lead seemingly cut to closer to two minutes. Brownlee fading? Sanders pushing too hard? Gap closing but not fast enough? We’d soon find out. Kienle was seemingly safe in third at this stage, the battle for the win now between Alistair and Lionel.
While Sanders was digging deep, with 5km to go – and that was downhill – Alistair still had the best part of a two minute lead and a confident on-course Mark Buckingham was pretty confident…
Though two minutes later, he did highlight that Lionel was really working hard to chase him down!
The last couple of miles got very close. With two miles to go the gap was seemingly little more than a minute, and at the finish Lionel crossed the line just 33 seconds in arrears. Physical or tactical? I guess we won’t know (yet), but Alistair certainly looked in pretty good shape on the finish straight, there were no collapses and he spoke well in his interview barely 60 seconds after finishing.
(Sanders ran 1:12:19, Alistair ran 1:14:49 – the fastest splits of the day).
Another learning curve, a class athlete and a great race.
IRONMAN 70.3 St. George, North American Championships
Saturday 6th May 2017
ELITE MEN – 1.9km / 90km / 21.1km
1st – Alistair Brownlee (GBR) – 3:41:58
2nd – Lionel Sanders (CAN) – 3:42:31
3rd – Sebastian Kienle (GER) – 3:46:20
4th – Tim Don (GBR) – 3:48:26
5th – Ben Kanute (USA) – 3:50:29
6th – Brent McMahon (CAN) – 3:51:20
7th – Joe Gambles (AUS) – 3:52:55
8th – Jackson Laundry (CAN) – 3:56:27
9th – Sam Appleton (AUS) – 3:56:43
10th – Anthony Costes (FRA) – 3:57:49
DNF – Mark Buckingham (GBR)
TBC – Stuart Hayes (GBR)
This race report is brought to you by our friends over at Tri247.com