Photos by Jay Prasuhn
If there’s a sporting hotbed this weekend, it’s northern Spain. The Tour de France has been passing nearby in Basque Country the last few days, and the Running of the Bulls is taking place during the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona. Everywhere you look, proud Basques are flying their flag high.
And nowhere more so is the pride high than in Vitora-Gastiez, where Sunday played host to the booming Vitora-Gastiez Triathlon. With local resident and top Ironman star Eneko Llanos on hand to cheer on nearly 2,300 athletes competing in a concurrent full and half-distance event, athletes took on a course that reminds of Wildflower in look… but with a uniquely Basque touch. For while fans scream “go go go!â€ stateside, you hear cries of “animo!â€ in Vitoria as they pass through rolling wheat fields and past small villages with rustic churches standing as the tall landmark.
With a thick blanket of fog covering the Landa Reservoir (and obscuring view to any of the course buoys) the day started with a 30-minute delay. Once underway, the 2,000-plus athletes were in full flight, with the full-distance athletes dashing into the water just a few minutes after the half-distance collective.
Switzerland’s Celine Schaerer headed to northern Spain using the race as a bellwether for her upcoming home race at Ironman Switzerland in two weeks.
But she would have nothing handed to her. Schaerer was out of the water first in 23:56, putting the target on her back. It was 46-year-old Spaniard Aintzane Argaiz who reeled Schaerer in at the 30k mark of the bike and traded blows with the Swiss woman throughout the race.
“I wanted to keep up with her on the bike,â€ Schaerer said, “but I knew it was hot and going to be a hard run.â€
Her patience paid off; midway through the half marathon, she captured Aragaiz and re-assumed the lead. Aragaiz didn’t concede, staying within a minute of Schaerer until the Swiss woman added a few seconds of buffer late in the race. Schaerer scooped up the win in 4:28, with Argaiz taking second over a minute behind. Australia’s Sarah Lester took third.
The men’s race saw Galician favorite Pablo Dapena open up a lead of nearly a minute on the bike. Behind, men chased in drips and drabs spread over the rolling country course.
Dapena would enter T2 with nearly a minute and a half buffer, but it was the inspired effort from Miguel Angel Fidalgo, who overhauled the pint-sized Dapena, taking the lead and the win in 3:57. Dapena claimed second two minutes later.
The women’s race saw favorite Yvette Grice of Great Britain out of the water first in 56:04, but hot on her heels was Ruth Brito. The Spanish Brito—the wife of Ironman champion Eneko Llanos—began burning up the pavement, passing Grice to take the race lead just nine miles into the bike leg.
As Grice faded on the bike, Brito extended her advantage to a four-minute buffer by T2, at this point over Julia Mai, with defending race champ Brooke Brown of Canada in third, over eight minutes off the lead pace.
But as with any Ironman-distance event, time change everything; Brito’s stomach went sour late in the bike, and she was brought to heel, eventually fading to a fourth-place finish.
While Germany’s Julia Mai assumed the lead early in the marathon, it would be short-lived. And ironically, it was a competitor’s bad luck that was her downfall.
Defending champ Brooke Brown of Canada had the unfortunate luck of having jaw surgery in January that forced her into a liquid diet that saw weight—and strength—slide off. Recently joining QT2 Systems to take advice from coaches, and still building her strength, the plan was to be reserved and build into the day.
“That’s not how I typically race; I like to get to the front as soon as possible,â€ Brown said. “It was a little nerve-wracking, but I believe in what they preach… and it was certainly working out.â€
Indeed that unfortunately luck may have been a blessing; being forced to build into the day, she didn’t’ overcook the bike in the 85 degree heat, and simply began reeling in athletes on the run. First Grice. Then Brito. Then finally, midway through the marathon, Mai.
She would extend her lead through the back half of the run to successfully defend her title. Addressing the crown in fluent Spanish after the race, she expressed the importance of a Canadian being an adopted Basque Country athlete as well as the emotion of overcoming her maxillofacial maladies.
“I was crying all the way from Parque Florida to the finish,â€ Brown said. “It was the third year in a row to win the race, and knew Ruth was going hard. But to have the crowds out there, regardless my position calling me “campeona,â€ It’s incredible how much they’ve embraced me.â€
Brown crossed for the win in 9:38:43. Mai maintained a close tether on Brown for second in 9:43:41, and Grice passed Brito in the final mile to capture the final podium placing.
The men’s race saw a four-man lead contingent form midway through the bike, with 2014 race champ Alejandro Santamaria joined by Spanish countrymates Ivan Alvaraz Gomez, Xabier Corrales and Jose Luis Cano.
The heat took care of the sorting once athletes hit the run. Defending race champ Diego Paredes found his way back to his hotel, changed into street clothes and came out to cheer on his competitors.
Off the bike in third place, Alvarez was in his element—the run—and began carving into the seven-minute deficit. By the finish and with a huge 20-minute buffer on second place he soaked up the finish in the town square, finishing in 8:34.
“Super feliz (happy),â€ Alvarez said. “I’ve done 18 Ironmans and I haven’t seen this ambience in any other races.â€
Santamaria claimed second in 8:54, while Cano claimed the final podium place nearly three minutes later.
July 10, 2016, Vitoria-Gastiez, Spain
1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run
- Miguel Angel Fidalgo (ESP) 3:57:56
- Pablo Dapena (ESP) 3:59:40
- Aimar Lizarra (ESP) 4:06:39
- Stanislav Krylov (RUS) 4:07:58
- Raul Tejada (GUA) 4:10:23
- Celine Schaerer (SWI) 4:28:23
- Aintzane Argaiz (ESP) 4:29:43
- Sarah Lester (AUS) 4:37:112
- Leonor Font (ESP) 4:41:54
- Kathrin Walther (GER) 4:43:57
2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run
- Ivan Alvarez (ESP) 8:34:19
- Alejandro Santamaria Perez (ESP) 8:54:48
- Jose Cano (ESP) 8:58:02
- Francisco Serrano (ESP) 9:09:02
- Miguel Angel Sanchez Moreau (ESP) 9:12:02
- Brooke Brown (CAN) 9:38:43
- Julia Mai (GER) 9:43:41
- Yvette Grice (GBR) 9:59:34
- Ruth Brito (ESP) 9:59:40
- Arrate Mintegui Gonzalez (ESP) 10:52:58