Seated at the table facing a collection of media, the row of athletes looked as expected before a big race: serious. Apart from Marino Vanhoenaker (who casually munched on some muesli and sipped an espresso down at the end of the table), the looks on the faces of heavy hitters Luke McKenzie, Craig Alexander, Caroline Steffen, Rebekah Keat and Mary Beth Ellis wore an expression of professional stoicism. So one could be forgiven for mistaking Friday’s press conference as being held in October, in Kona.
But it’s March 21 at Café Racer in St. Kilda. And it could be just one event that draws this depth: the Ironman Asia Pacific Championships at Ironman Melbourne, being held this Sunday.
The field is as one would expect for an Ironman championship event: deep and experienced. No one will fluke into a title here. And that experience starts with none other than three-time Hawaii Ironman World Champion Craig Alexander. Crowie announced he was done with chasing another Hawaii Ironman world title, but with his appearance here, he’s illustrating he’s certainly not done with big-game Ironman racing. And by virtue of a solid victory at Ironman 70.3 Geelong recently, he once again remains a centerpiece to win the event. Because as an Australian racing in his homeland, this is—for all intents and purposes—his Kona now. And he certainly wants to make amends for a runner-up finish to Eneko Llanos last year.
“To be honest, when I said I didn’t think I would be back, I meant it,” Alexander told the assembled press at Friday’s press conference. “I still feel that way. I know what it takes to prepare for Kona, and I don’t think I can commit that time and energy anymore. But I know I still wanted to race at a high level.
So for the rest of my career, when I say I’m taking it an event at a time, I mean that. I plan things with (wife) Neri and obviously it helps that we’ve been in Australia all this time. I train through the summer, get on a plane for 50 minutes and do a world-class race. If it wasn’t a champioship and wasn’t in Melbourne, I wouldn’t be here.”
Happily for Alexander, the torch has passed, when longtime friend Luke McKenzie finished second in Kona last year, and with that result comes some of the media attention—something McKenzie is taking in stride. “It’s been new for me to have a lot of commitments since Hawaii,” he said. “ It’s been good, that the rewards of a good effort have started to come my way. But I don’t put any pressure on myself. With the points system, I really just need to validate, but I came here to race, and race at the highest level outside Kona.”
And it’s a high level. With premium points on offer as the Asia Pacific Championships, it’s drawn deep, with names like David Dellow (AUS), Paul Amey (GBR, 2013 Ironman Texas Champion) Dirk Bockel (LUX, 2013 Challenge Roth Champion), Jimmy Johnson (DEN), Mathias Hecht (GER), Paul Matthews (AUS) Paul Ambrose (AUS) as well as Michael Weiss, making his second Ironman start since serving his two-year doping suspension.
You even have a handful of recent short-course converts, including Australian former ITU World Champ Peter Robertson, fellow Aussie Courtney Atkinson and the UK’s Harry Wiltshire.
The women’s field is as thick with talent: Certainly, Steffen and American Mary Beth Ellis, a pair of annual Kona favorites, come in on form and thusly earn a set of crosshairs by their competitors. And there’s a lot of ‘em; Sweden’s Asa Lundstrom (last year’s Ironman Tahoe champ) will be lurking. Keat, the runner-up to Ellis at last year’s North American Ironman Championships in Mont Tremblant, has the firepower to surprise. So too may Canadian Angela Naeth, who will be making her second Ironman appearance. And you can never, ever count out the irrepressible six-time Hawaii Ironman champ Natascha Badmann of Switzerland, who at age 47 constantly reminds us that age is nothing but a number.
Last year’s race saw a shortened swim on Frankston Waterfront due to gale force winds that chopped up the waters. And while the days leading up to the race have had conditions ranging from still winds in the 80s to steady gusts with cool temps in the 60s, but Sunday is expected to be start a bit chilly at 50 degrees F, warming up to the mid 60s by late afternoon under partly cloudy skies.
Athletes will exit Port Phillip Bay and head north for two out-and-back along the completely shut down Eastlink Toll Road. Following the 112-mile bike, athletes will embark on a point-to-point run from Frankseton north along the shoreline to the finish in St. Kilda.
Check in at Lavamagazine.com after the race for a detailed post-race report, as well as a gallery of images highlighting the day at Ironman Melbourne.