With a million dollars on the line for prize-money starved pro triathletes, Challenge hosting the major tri of the year and the Professional Triathlete Organisation’s reputation at stake, Challenge Daytona had multiple subplots ahead of the weekend.
And the same level of unpredictability could be said for the women’s field. There was the reigning Ironman World Champion Anne Haug, a host of rising Brit long-course forces, resurgent former ITU stars, and the photo-finish protagonists of that 2012 Olympic Games finale, Nicola Spirig and Lisa Norden.
For armchair tri fans, there was also the question of whether the 3hr+ run time of middle-distance tri (well, a 2km swim, 80km bike leg and an 18km run) can be a spectator-friendly sport.
Are you as excited as we are for @ChallengeDIS? Don't forget you can livestream the event from the PTO website. Women's pro race starts 3pm, men's starts 7pm.— 220 Triathlon (@220Triathlon) December 6, 2020
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The women’s PTO 2020 Championship at Challenge Daytona to give it the full title, kicked off at 10am local time (3pm in the UK) at the Daytona Speedway in Eastern Florida, with Haug, Spirig and Norden the major names, as well as a Brit ensemble of Jodie Stimpson, Nikki Bartlett, Lucy Hall, Holly Lawrence, Kat Matthews and Fenella Langridge vying for their share of the $1.15million prize purse.
The 2km two-lap swim in the Speedway’s saw Brit Hall exit in the lead, with a 23sec lead over the USA’s Lauren Brandon and 38secs over Lawrence.
Formidable runner Haug was less than 2mins down as the athletes began the pancake-flat Speedway course, with the 20 x 4km laps a test for both speed and stamina, as well as the mental, nutritional and aerodynamic factors (and the winds on the exposed course).
The 20m draft exclusion zone perhaps helped prevent major packs forming on the bike, as the Canadian multiple ITU World Series race winner Paula Findlay cruised to the front of the race by the halfway stage with Norden 2secs behind.
After her 2010 peak that saw a string of ITU wins, Findlay’s career has been beset by injuries and an iron deficiency, but a move to middle-distance racing saw wins at Ironman 70.3 Indian Wells and Challenge Daytona in 2019.
Findlay and Sweden’s Norden (who’s also moved to middle-distance racing in recent times) would head out onto the 4 x 4.5km run together, but Norden would soon drop back due to a calf injury and her spot in second was soon occupied by Haug.
And yet Findlay, with one of tri’s greatest ever runners behind her, held firm, helped by Haug facing a 2min drafting penalty.
The Canadian would cross the line after 3:24hrs of racing in her first race of the year, with “I didn’t expect that,” being her understated finish line verdict, with a $100,000 cheque soon in her possession.
Following the 31-year-old home was Haug to a $70,000 win, who was largely unaware of where her penalty was picked up.
Third was Germany’s Laura Philipp while the first Brit home was Lawrence in fourth. Langridge also posted a major result by finishing seventh.
Top 5 women, PTO Championship 2020
1. Paula Findlay (CAN) 3:24:55
2. Anne Haug (GER) 3:27:32 (+2:36)
3. Laura Philipp (GER) 3:30:00 (+5:05)
4. Holly Lawrence (UK) 3:31:09 (+6:14)
5. Amelia Watkinson (NZ) 3:31:50 (+6:54)