And one by one the elite athletes crossed the line, halted their metronomic leg turnover, bent double and ejected the free radicals that wallowed in their gel-kissed sailva. Okay, dramatic licence but this was one brutal race.
So brutal that in regaining her crown from last year’s inaugural race, Britain’s Julie Dibens was one of the protagonists who needed assistance to the packed medical tent. It typifies the 36-year-old’s approach to racing that even with a 5-minute pus lead over runner-up Caroline Steffen (SWI) down the finish chute, her pace remained fearless, unrelenting and of such consistency that Julie conjured up that rare scenario in long-distance triathlon: a gun-to-tape finish.
7:14:23 earlier the gun (actually, a horn, pressed by no less than Ian Thorpe, who currently resides in the UAE) signalled Dibens’ charge into the Emirates Palace lagoon – a body of water that nestled at a welcoming 22°C. Water temp ensured no wetsuits, with the majority layering a swimskin over their one- or two-piece trisuit.
The 3km swim saw the athletes exit the water after 1.5km of the rectangular course (anti-clockwise), sprint back to the start and leap back in. It gave ample time for commentator Don Ryder – a regular at long-course events around the globe – to rouse the crowd into a frenzy. Well, as much of a frenzy as you can muster at 7.30 in the morning.
Julie was followed in by last year’s runner-up, Leanda Cave, and that’s how it remained 1,500m later when the two Brits swept through transition and swiftly mounted their Pinnarello and Trek (Cave and Dibens, respectively). Early days with a 200km and 20km to follow but the 1989 Iron War came to mind. But Dibens’ power, pace, persistence and pride (alliteration is compulsory at the end of a long, hot day!) would ensure no such thing.
Julie blasted the competition away on the bike, a 5:13 helping her to a sizeable lead that she never looked like relinquishing on the 20km run. She finished in 7:14:23, beating Hawaii runner-up Steffen by over 5mins. Cave was suffering on the run, and fell from third in T2 to sixth come the finish line. But another Brit, Catriona Morrison, stormed it on the run to take third. "The wheels fell off for the last 40km of the bike," Morrison told us, "but I managed to reel myself and others in on the run." Her Dad, here to support Cat and "catch a nice red tan", gave his daughter a mammoth hug. A great moment – in addition to the $15,000 cheque that greets Cat’s third place. (Just $35,000 less than Juie receives. Good work.)
The Brits continued to roll in with Rachel Joyce also exhibiting a run renaissance after a "tough bike" to take fourth. Cave obviously grabbed sixth. And Emma-Kate Lidbury battled superbly to round out the top 10.
For the men, pre-race talk centred on two Aussies – Craig Alexander and Chris McCormack. The Duel in the Desert, however, never materialised as Alexander, "not fully race fit", would finish down in sixth (6:46:46). As for Macca, from the moment he exited after that first 1.5km, it was clear this was not going to be his day.
Signs weren’t great at the pre-race press conference when Macca, now switching from long-course to Olympic-distance in an effort to qualify for London 2012, announced that his schedule for 2011 wasn’t ideal but he had "to honour commitments". The explicit commitment that will potentially ruin his 2012 plans is Challenge Cairns in June, but racing a 200km bike when your new goal is speed over a fifth of that distance can hardly be seen as ideal prep.
Come 80km into the bike, down on the surprise leader Andrew Starykowicz (USA), Macca called it a day. Reports cite cleat issues but, at this stage, this can’t be confirmed.
Starykowicz, meanwhile, was flying and came into T2 after a 4:48 split. Reports state he registered a 4:21 for the 180km Ironman distance, which is a truly astounding effort. It certainly raised a few eyebrows but the American has no run form to speak of and it seemed unlikely he’d threaten that winner’s purse. And so it proved as he would eventually come through in 10th.
Belgium’s Frederic van Lierde, however, had bike and run legs. Fifth here last year he remained off many people’s radar but with victory at Ironman 70.3 South Africa at the end of January and a good block of training behind him, in hindsight he should have been projected much further up the pre-race pecking order. In it during the swim, on the 200km bike he flew, registering a 4:54 split for 200km.
It meant on exit of T2 he was in attacking distance of the American and at about the halfway mark he took charge. With a healthy lead over Belgium’s Dirk Bockel the victory looked assured. But that would be to underestimate the debilitating physical demands of running in 35°C heat when you’re truly exposed. Here there were no cooling shadows. Here lay pavements that reflected the heat and a defenceless backdrop that you’d expect from desert land. Slight relief came in the guise of a breeze off the coast but this was hot.
Come the finish, all eyes expected 31-year-old van Lierde to take the biggest winner’s cheque of his career. And he did… But only just. Fellow countryman Marino Vanhoenacker summoned fifth gear in the last 10km and came within 17secs of the winner at the line. It could have been closer but for "an incident involving someone leaving a bus" obstructing the Belgian about 4km from the line.
"I’m not happy with second," a visibly disappointed, nay angry, Vanhoenacker told us. In fact, we’ve never witnessed such anger at winning just $20,000! Wayne Rooney might express amusement at such a sum but in the world of triathlon, we’re sure this’ll ease the disappointment once the lactate’s cleared.
Third went to Bockel, who was helped to the medical tent. South Africa’s Raynard Tissink came fourth.
As for the Brits, Stephen Bayliss came down in 13th. "I just haven’t got the bike legs to keep up with these guys," said Stephen. "And it would have been good to hit top-10 to make some money. The swim and run went well, though." Note: anyone who’s followed my ramblings in the build-up to this race will be pleased to know that Stephen’s new QR arrived at 2.30am this morning.
Overall, this will be remembered for leaving many of the world’s finest athletes in tatters come the finish line. That and the Dhabi Double for Dibens.
Results and splits at www.abudhabitriathlon.com.
There’ll be more in May’s issue of 220 Triathlon (issue 259, out 5 April) where hopefully my headache would have worn off from competing (completing) the sprint race earlier in the day. This Englishman does not walk well in the heat, let alone swim, bike and run. Ed