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Ironman South Africa report
Posted by: Editor
Posted on: Monday 14th April 2008


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You might think that the idea to transplanting a hugely successful triathlon operation from the centre of highly ordered Europe into an unsuspecting and, you would think, unprepared, southern African city would be something that is doomed to failure. Just how wrong can you be?

Five years ago, with a little guidance from Mark Allen and a huge amount of knowledge and experience from Triangle, organisers of Ironman Austria, a half-ironman distance was run in Port Elizabeth. Won by local hero, Raynard Tissink, it was an overnight success. Yes, it was possible to transplant an idea and see it grow - helped, in no small part, by the fact that South Africa now has a thriving triathlon community.

With the backing of Spec-Savers, whose headquarters are in the city, the event has grown and, by virtue of the cross-marketing that Triangle can achieve, is now attracting a decent international field. Nearly two hundred overseas competitors came to race, the majority from Europe but with a scattering of athletes from Asia, Australia and the Americas. And before you cast doubts on the quality of the pro field - it may not have been deep but there were serious players in there; you don't write-off men who have won Ironman France twice or who have had multiple podium slots at races like Lanzarote.

The day started with the overnight rain clearing to a dull dawn, brightened hugely by the energy of what has become the event's trademark - a troupe of African drummers and dancers. The noise was so loud that we barely heard the starting gun - although the athletes got the message and streamed out into the Indian Ocean to start their 3.8k swim.

We knew from studying the race form, and talking to the pros at their pre-race conference, that Tissink needed a break on the bike to give him a buffer against the faster runners like Marcel Zamora Perez and Stephen Bayliss. His nemesis of the past two years, Gerrit Schellens, was sidelined with a stress fracture so whatever happened he was going to have to beat a new set of players to regain his 2005 title. The break he got wasn't the one he wanted - he was the first of the pro athletes to puncture at around 80k. His tyre change was straightforward and within half a lap he was back in contention and by the time the leaders rolled into T2 he was just 5:05 down on the race leader, Francois Chabaud.

With both the known fast runners behind him, but not by much, Tissink set off after Chabaud and started eroding his lead in a measured and calculated way. Chabaud cracked and walked, albeit briefly, and although he started running again his lead was soon gone. Now it was all about staying away from the faster runners. By 20k Bayliss was in 3rd but Zamora Perez was heading the other way, his challenge effectively ended as he struggled with stomach problems. At 34k Bayliss struck and the game was up - Tissink now had to fight to keep his second place with the hard charging Austrian 70.3 specialist, Peter Schoissengeier, moving past Chabaud and threatening to take second place away.

Bayliss ran home to claim his first Ironman victory in 8:23:23, setting a new course record in the process, while Tissink hung on for a home-town welcome in second and Schoissengeier showed that he's more than capable of competing at the longer distance with his third place.

The stage was now set for the potential fairy tale ending. Could Bella Comerford, Bayliss's fiancee and no stranger to an Ironman podium herself, get the win in the ladies race and complete what might be a unique double?

The signs weren't good! Bella had punctured on the second loop of the bike and had struggled to fix the problem. 18:55 down at 120k, and watching Lucie Zelenkova and Edith Niederfriniger ride away from her, she had to work harder on the third lap of the bike than she might have liked to get herself back up into contention. With Niederfriniger herself appearing to be struck with problems during the third lap, the deficit at T2 was 16:51 for Comerford and 19:07 for Niederfriniger. Zelenkova was off like a hare but by just 4k Comerford was up into second place and only 15:19 back. By 12k the deficit was reduced to 12:08 and from this point it was all a numbers game. Niederfriniger was not to be left behind, she beat Comerford into third place on this course last year, and by 26k they were running side by side in the hunt for the win. Nobody, other that Zelenkova, was in with a chance.

At 34k they breezed past the girl from the Czech Republic and set off for the finish line. Whether Bella knew about Stephen's win, or not, we don't know - but what we did know is that both girls definitely wanted the win! In the end it came down to a break in the last couple of hundred metres with Comerford being welcomed at the finish line by Bayliss and Niederfriniger having to settle for second place. Zelenkova made it to the finish line, completely spent, for third.

A fairy tale ending to the pro race, and really just the start of the proceedings as the hundreds of age group athletes began to stream through the finish. As we packed up and dragged our wrecked laptop back to the hotel - yes, folks, do not accept memory keys from strangers... - the tail end of the field were strung out along the Port Elizabeth seafront. If this were Lanzarote, a similar seafront setting, there would have been crowds cheering from the bars all the way but here the locals were more bemused than anything else. The last athlete we saw was a girl in the distinctive 'Pirates' top heading for what must have been her final turn, the glow sticks were out and a long and interesting day was done.


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