Photos by Jay Prasuhn
It’s one of the global classics and stands as one of Asia’s crown jewels: The Challenge Laguna Phuket Triathlon. Heat, hills and… more heat. Sunday saw the second-annual event run under clear skies but thanks to evening rains, humidity was up at 59 percent, creating sweltering conditions. With the mercury topping out at 95 degrees F (35 C), compounded by the humidity, it felt much hotter. “I usually enjoy the heat, but today… today was different,” said women’s defending champ Melissa Hauschildt. And while a strong run in the tropical Thai heat is critical to success, the bike always sets the table.
In the men’s race, ITU convert Ruedi Wild of Switzerland held the tempo of bike pacesetter Luke McKenzie and surged away on the run to claim his career first middle-distance title on the half-Ironman-distance course in 4:02:43. For her title defense in the women’s race, Hauschildt of Australia showed she’s back from a chest and rib injury that sidelined her at the Hawaii Ironman, winning by over 14 minutes in 4:27:40.
The iconic event, a longtime self-owned and previously-owned entity, became a Challenge event last year. In its second year under the Challenge banner, the event is the finale of the Challenge Laguna Phuket Tri-Fest, a week-long program featuring with the half Ironman-distnace race the short-course Laguna Phuket Tri, a kids tri and an open-water swim race.
The race was full of subplot; it was the final true pro race for legendary Aussie veteran Belinda Granger. It had both defending champs back in Rasmus Petraeus and Melissa Hauschildt, who was making her first race return following a DNS at the Hawaii Ironman due to a subluxed rib and torn pectoral muscle following a massage before the 70.3 World Championships in Mont Tremblant, Canada.
Plus, the fields were solid: Wild was joined by Paul Ambrose, Luke Bell and Luke McKenzie of Australia, Sweden’s Frederick Croneborg and Bjorn Andersson, American Kevin Collington, Denmark’s Rasmus Henning and Italy’s Massimo Cigana and Alberto Casadei. The women’s field was also strong; Hauschildt would face last year’s runner-up Radka Vodickova, as well as British rising talent Parys Edwards, who won last weekend’s Phuket Triathlon.
The course itself—particularly the bike—is iconic, The bike features three short but punchy climbs, quickly and somewhat affectionately being referred to as the Tiger’s Claw. They’re steep enough to require care with gear selection, to require tactical skill in seated climbing , and with bits of mossy growth on the pavement under the jungle canopy, elicit a high pucker factor. Many age groupers resort to unclipping, removing their bike shoes and walking the ascent—and the descent.
It was defending champ Petraeus who was out of the saltwater of the Andaman Sea at Bang Tao Beach, then into and out of the Outrigger/Dusit Thani Lagoon to start the bike solo with nearly a minute’s lead.
But his title defense wasn’t meant to be; in the chasing group, Australian Ironman specialist Luke McKenzie set a hard tempo as a handful of select athletes scrambled to match his effort on the technical roads that wended their way through tiny villages.
By the bridge at the 11-mile mark of the bike, McKenzie and Co. had captured Petraeus, and flicked him out the back.
“I knew if I was gonna have a chance to win today, I’d have to go for it on the bike, be aggressive through the technical section.â€ At the bridge, McKenzie again hit the gas. “When I got back on my bike, I just really went for it, trying to thin it out before we got to those big climbs.â€
By the first steep hill at the 26-mile mark, McKenzie had earned a three minute lead, and only had two athletes that were able to match his effort and stay with him: Croneborg and Wild. “Luke was all the time pushing, and I was happy sitting at seven meters,â€ Wild said. “Actually, I couldn’t help a lot, so I was more than anything grateful.â€
Behind, the Tiger’s Claw would take a swipe at a few athletes. While the skies were clear all day, many roads were wetted overnight. On the second descent, Collington’s wheels slipped, pitching him off the road into a thornbush. Australian Luke Bell, following on the same line, saw the same fate, falling onto Collington and potentially breaking a finger. While Collington was able to scramble up and rejoin the race, Bell’s day was over.
Ahead, McKenzie pushed on, with Wild and Croneborg in hot pursuit. “When I heard about the five minute gap as we got close to the run, I thought it couldn’t be a better situation,â€ Wild said. “I knew I could rely on my run, so I tried to save as much energy as possible.â€
A 2:14 bike earned McKenzie the day’s fastest bike. In the run’s opening mile, McKenzie played his final card, pushing ahead to take the lead. But before long, Wild ran up to run side by side with the Australian before striding ahead to take the lead for good.
The diminutive Croneborg was able to capture and pass McKenzie midway through to move into second. The Swede pushed his high cadence, but was unable to close the gap to Wild, who held tempo in the heat to cruise across for the win. Croneborg claimed second, while McKenzie held for third.
The women’s race saw three-time Phuket Triathlon champ Radka Vodickova out of the water first in 26:54.
Hauschildt wasn’t far off pace, though; she captured Vodickova at the eight-mile mark of the bike, rode right past and never looked back. “I kept going hard for about 20k and then backed off a little bit.â€
Vodickova was captured shortly after by Great Britain’s Parys Edwards, winner of the short-course Laguna Phuket Triathlon last weekend, and late in the bike by Granger.
A day-best 2:29 bike split not only got her into T2 with a comfortable 10-plus minute buffer on Edwards. With her massive buffer off the bike, run specialist Hauschildt admittedly didn’t have to open the throttle—but still ran the day’s best half marathon anyway (1:27:06) to take the win. Edwards would claim second, while Vodickova would reclaim position from Granger to take the final podium placing.
For Hauschildt, the race was a shakeout for Challenge Bahrain. And given that she doesn’t have Hawaii Ironman in her legs to recover from, she figures she’s got as good a shot as anyone at snagging the prized title.
“Because I’ve had my break already, I feel pretty fresh,â€ she said.
Check in tomorrow for a gallery from Sunday’s race in Phuket
2014 Challenge Laguna Phuket
Nov 30, 2014, Laguna Phuket, Thailand
1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run
- Ruedi Wild (SUI) 4:02:43
- Frederik Croneborg (SWE) 4:04:02
- Luke McKenzie (AUS) 4:06:00
- Massimo Cigana (ITA) 4:09:57
- Rasmus Petraeus (DEN) 4:10:44
- Kevin Collington (USA) 4:11:58
- Alberto Casadei (ITA) 4:12:15
- Allan Steen Olesen (DEN) 4:17:21
- Mauro Baertsch (SUI) 4:23:48
- Till Schramm (GER) 4:26:44
- Melissa Hauschildt (AUS) 4:27:40
- Parys Edwards (GBR) 4:42:05
- Radka Vodickova (CZE) 4:45:48
- Stef Puszka (AUS) 4:48:54
- Beate Goertz (GER) 4:50:19
- Belinda Granger (AUS) 4:53:10
- Carole Fuchs (FRA) 4:55:13
- Monica Torres (PHI) 4:56:22
- Katkryn Marie Haesner (NZL) 5:01:00
- Katja Rabe (GER) 5:02:07