The 30th anniversary of anything is something to be proud of, be it a wedding or an endurance event, and the celebrations for three decades of Ironman New Zealand was certainly no exception. The weather cooperated for the most part, with somewhat cold conditions during the first part of the bike, as well as a strong headwind heading back into town. Like every year, the entire town of Taupo came out for the event, cheering on the more than 1,600 athletes from 57 countries who participated.
Both of today’s champions, American Meredith Kessler and Estonian Marko Albert, held their leads from start to finish, however each race played out quite differently. In the end, Albert would enjoy his very first Ironman win, while Kessler would take her third consecutive title in Taupo, breaking Joanna Lawn’s 2008 course record of 9:16:00 by more than eight minutes along the way.
Albert led out of the water in 46:10, with 2013 champion Bevan Docherty, fellow New Zealander Terenzo Bozzone and Brit Daniel Halksworth not far behind. Within a minute of them came a large group of chasers, including Brit Philip Graves, Hungary’s Balazc Czoke, France’s Romain Guillame, and Aussie Tim Berkel, followed a minute later by 10-time Ironman New Zealand champion Cameron Brown.
Docherty led out of T1, but Albert quickly established his position at the front, however a string of pro men were never far behind him for the entire 112-miles. Bozzone made his move to second-place ahead of Docherty by the 20-kilometer mark, while Daniel Halksworth climbed up to the top-5 along with Guillame. Czoke began to fall off of the pace of the lead group shortly before the turnaround, and would eventually pull out entirely on the way back into town for the first lap.
Once Albert and his train of chasers entered the second lap, the Estonian, who finished second here behind Docherty last year, began to make his move. By the 140-kilometer mark he had build a two-and-a-half minute lead on Docherty, and it would grow to more than four-and-a-half minutes by the time he headed into T2.
The chase pack of men heading out of T2 was astonishing, with Bozzone, Docherty, Brown, Halksworth, Guillame, and Graves all heading out within seconds of each other. By the middle of the first lap of three, the trio of Kiwis (Bozzone, Docherty and Brown) were running shoulder-to-shoulder, eliciting cheers from the New Zealand crowd. Brown insists it was a silent grouping. “I can’t say that we said a word to each other, no one wants to give away that energy or give the other person an inch.” Despite the silence, Bozzone was honored to be able to run alongside Brown at Ironman New Zealand. “Whenever we’ve raced against each other in the past I’ve been either a minute in front or behind him coming off off the bike, so it was really amazing to head out of T2 with him and get to run together.”
The trio would only stick together through the beginning of the second lap, but Docherty would eventually drop out of the race. With their wolf pack disintegrated, Brown pushed ahead while Bozzone fell back to third. Despite a very impressive surge to fourth by Berkel, it was no match against Bozzone, who would post an speedy 2:54:55 marathon time in his first Ironman in two years. Albert’s lead off the bike was too much for Brown to run down, although the 41 year old put in a more than solid effort, posting the fastest marathon of the day—a 2:47:45 on his way to a second-place finish.
But the day really belonged to Albert, who would cross the line in 8:17:33 for his first career Ironman title. “I was the white rabbit out there today,” said Albert. “I was the white rabbit being chased down by lions. And I knew that the entire time. I know Cameron’s ability, I didn’t want to take any chances, so I sprinted the last two kilometers just to be sure.”
The women’s race didn’t have nearly as much movement, in fact, the top three women basically had individual time-trial conditions for the entire eight-plus-hour day. Much like last year, Kessler led out of the swim with the pro men in 46:47 and in eighth-place overall. But New Zealand’s Anna Cleaver was only 10 seconds behind her, with Crawford coming out in third almost four-minutes back of the leader.
Once out onto the bike Kessler simply dominated, building a 3 minute lead within the first 30K. Cleaver would hold second position until shortly after the turnaround during the first lap when Crawford made her move. Further back 2013 Challenge Wanaka champion Candice Hammond was slowly picking off women after exiting the water in 12th place.
Kessler would enter T2 with a more than six-minute lead on Crawford, and Cleaver would drop out after finishing the bike, leaving another 12 minute gap between Crawford and the next female, Hammond, who had biked her way up to third in the final 30 kilometers.
Kessler, who said before the race that she had been very focused on improving her Ironman marathon, was methodical out on the course. Checking her splits every few minutes, she held her lead easily, and would pull out a 3:08 marathon in the process. “It’s that constant balance of finding the right pace that I’m still looking for,” said Kessler. “But I’ll take a 3:08. I haven’t gone that fast in a while. However, a 3:08 will get you nowhere in Kona and so improving on that time is my new goal between now and when I do my next Ironman in Kona.”
Hammond managed to dig into Crawford slightly during the first lap, but by the 21K mark the New Zealander says she knew it just wasn’t going to happen. “I realized she was holding steady and I was not. So I just tried to focus on the best time I had in me at that point.”
Crawford struggled with some hamstring issues during the last 17K, and she said after the race that having things so separated the entire day wasn’t as motivating as a closer race would’ve been. “I swam by myself, I rode by myself and I ran by myself, and that is really tough to do. I personally enjoy the excitement of having people around you the whole time, it keeps your mind occupied.”
There was no shortage of people around to watch Kessler cross the line in 9:08:45—netting a three-peat and a course record at the same time. “Coming back here and getting the opportunity to get that three-peat and on the 30th anniversary has just been so special. Hopefully I can also put that in my back pocket and remember it because I won’t do another Ironman until Kona. So I’m going to let this all marinate for a while and build my fitness up until then.”
To see a photo gallery of the event click here.