Caroline Steffen in finishing chute (photo courtesy of www.sweatmedia.com)

Caroline Steffen, the one they call Xena, lived up to her warrior name and had the race of her life taking out the title at the inaugural Ironman Asia/Pacific Championships, Melbourne – March 25th, 2012. Crossing the line in a personal best time of 8:34:51, and landing the world’s second fastest Ironman branded race ever, it was easy to see why the smile remained a permanent fixture on her face for the rest of the evening.

Thousands of onlookers gathered in the early hours of the morning for the swim start at Frankston pier. They were about to witness the very first Ironman branded race to be held in a capital city, and while it was eerie peering out to the sea of darkness, the atmosphere was soaked in excitement, nerves and anticipation. The professional start list could easily have been confused with the race list from Hawaii because of it’s depth of professional athletes. Mirinda Carfrae was the favourite going in, with other recognised athletes including, Rebekah Keat, Rachel Joyce, and Caroline Steffen plus many more, all ready to do battle for the podium.

Out of the water first was Rachel Joyce from the UK, who like Steffen, was backing up from her race in Abu Dhabi where they finished 5th and 3rd respectively. Joyce clocked up the 3.8km swim in 52:34, with New Zealander’s Gina Crawford 37sec back, and the likes of Carfrae, Keat, Steffen, Belinda Granger, Jo Lawn and Michelle Vestebry a further 20secs back in the chase group.

It wasn’t long until Joyce was caught by the storming Caroline Steffen who had pulled away from the rest of the chase pack. With light winds and a super slick surface, it looked like the 180kms Eastlink course was the race to be laying down some fast times. By the far turn around near the 45km mark, both Steffen and Joyce had stuck with each other and put five minutes into talented athletes, Vesterby, Lawn and Keat. Further down the road were the chasers including 2010 World Champion, Mirinda Carfrae almost ten minutes down on the leaders.

Steffen and Joyce continued to pull away from the others and rode up to some of the elite men on course. Eventually though, the band snapped, and despite the limited use of gears due to a slight bike malfunction, Steffen laid down the power, grinding the big chain ring, and left Joyce. Riding past some of Melbourne’s more interesting pieces of art along the Eastlink highway, athletes gathered some ridiculous speed, particularly heading into the tunnel which boasted a gradient of approx 13%, and producing up to and beyond 90kph speeds on two thin wheels.

Hammering out a super impressive 4:35:29 bike split, Steffen averaged just over 39kph, and had a lot of the elite men looking over their shoulder for the charging Swiss (but she lives in Mooloolaba, so we’ll claim her). Steffen had a clear lead entering T2, and made her way out onto the unique point-to-point marathon course to St Kilda.

In previous interviews, Steffen has exclaimed that she is chasing that sub three hour marathon, and with near perfect conditions in Melbourne, and a slight tail wind for the most part of the marathon, this race could possibly see her break that barrier. Working on her run in training and laying some injuries from last season to rest, the odds were good. However, after that phenomenal bike split, there was uncertainty as to whether she could keep up her pace.

Joyce came into T2 with around a nine minute deficit to Steffen, and had a huge challenge ahead of her if she was going to run her down. Joyce, who last year won at Ironman Lanzarote, and three weeks ago broke the run course record at Abu Dhabi, was on a mission, and was not out of the race yet. However, Steffen stood her ground and not only held Joyce off, but managed to put more time into her.

Rachel Joyce (photo courtesy of www.sweatmedia.com)

The battle for third was anything but a sure thing for anyone. Carfrae was riding with Belinda Granger, notorious for her strong bike leg, but who seemed to be suffering and was unable to produce much power.

Vesterby, Lawn, Keat and Lester were the next to come into transition. Lawn, much like her fellow Kiwi, Cam Brown, was a lot fresher going into this race than she originally planned. A consequence of Ironman New Zealand being changed to a 70.3 as a result of a weather bomb in Taupo. As it turned out, an absolute blessing in disguise for their Ironman Melbourne appearance.

Carfrae was back even further and had a daunting marathon ahead of her if she was going to podium. She holds the fastest marathon time in Hawaii (2:52:09), and can never be counted out of a race when she consistently produces sub 3hr runs. However, to catch Steffen who had over 30mins lead, or even Joyce with over 20mins lead would prove to be impossible for the flying Australian.

The first 20kms of the run course was practically pancake flat, which allowed for some reasonably quick times in the first part of the marathon. Not once did Steffen look like she was going to falter – even when a toilet stop was necessary. Joyce too was staying strong in her marathon. The closer action was further back in the race as athletes were vying for the third position on the podium. Lawn had edged ahead of Keat by the 20km marker, and Carfrae had moved into 5th position. The first and second positions were wrapped up by Steffen and Joyce if nothing drastic happened – which let’s face it, can happen 60 meters from the finish line  (see interview with Julie Moss).

Steffen (photo courtesy of www.sweatmedia.com)

Through the rest of the scenic undulating course, Steffen was a powerhouse. She came down the finishing chute, soaking up the incredible atmosphere that St Kilda had to offer. Embracing her boyfriend, David Dellow (who had a fantastic race, finishing 5th), and kissing the Michellie Jones trophy, it hadn’t quite sunk in that Steffen had just produced the second fastest Ironman branded race time ever – 8:34:51, less than a minute behind 3 x World Champion, Chrissie Wellington’s race in South Africa, 2011. Plus, she was so close to breaking that 3hr marathon barrier with a 3:01:22 run. But with that smoking bike leg, it doesn’t really matter. “I love Australia and I’m so happy to be here. It feels like a home race for me,” said the champion.

Joyce continued her sleek running style, and lapped up the attention from the crowd. High fiving her way to over a 20min PB, scoring 2nd place and recording a time of 8:46:09 – she too was one happy triathlete.

In the meantime, Carfrae was producing 4:10min/kms, and managed to catch Lawn. With the fastest run split of the day (2:58:29), and third place honours, the 2010 World Champion was content with her podium finish.

A special mention to the stunning display from all age groupers as well. Kristy Hallett from local triathlon club, MTC, executed the fastest age group race on the day. Chasing down Michelle Boyes who rode a sub-5hr, proved to take the most part of the marathon. But nailing a 3:19:33 run catapulted her into first age group position and an 11th overall in a time of 9:42:05. Plus a ticket to Kona (see here for the list of athletes going to Kona from Ironman Melbourne).

The men’s race was an epic battle between Craig Alexander and Cam Brown. Clayton Fettel, as expected, led the swim/bike until a pack of approximately seven athletes reeled him in. 3 x World Champion, Craig Alexander had a slow swim, but recorded the fastest bike split of the day – once again proving that his previous title of the non-biker is a thing of the past. Five of the elite men ran together for the first part of the marathon. Covering 10kms in 36mins! Cam Brown and Alexander broke away and ran side by side for most of the marathon – the two oldest pros in the race – go figure! However, Alexander dug deep and pulled away from Brown to break the magical 8hr barrier for the first time – 7:57:44. Brown (8:00:12) and Frederik Van Lierde (8:01:26).

All in all, a very successful day for the world of Ironman. Crowds were huge, the fields were deep, and the race was indicative of some very fast times. Expect more big names to pop up on the start list for the 2013 Ironman Asia/Pacific Championships in the home of sport, Melbourne.

 

Women

  1. Caroline Steffen          (Sui)          8:34:51
  2. Rachel Joyce              (GBR)       8:46:09
  3. Mirinda Carfrae           (Aust)        9:04:00
  4. Joanna Lawn              (NZ)           9:06:53
  5. Gina Crawford            (NZ)           9:11:16

 

Men

  1. Craig Alexander          (Aust)        7:57:44
  2. Cameron Brown         (NZ)           8:00:12
  3. Frederik Van Lierde    (Bel)          8:01:26
  4. Eneko Llano                (Esp)         8:02:23
  5. David Dellow               (Aust)        8:04:19

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