Photos by Michael Rauschendorfer
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The men’s race
Faris Al-Sultan probably missed his true calling. At today’s tenth anniversary of the Frankfurter Sparkasse Ironman European Championship, he managed to fake out the entire men’s field and take the title that will only sit a bit lower on his resume than his Kona win in 2005. All week long Al-Sultan had described his fitness as “mediocre” and said that his wearing number one was a joke, yet he managed to dominate the men’s race. Pre-race women’s favorite, Caroline Steffen, lived up to her billing, but had to work really hard to claim the title here in Frankfurt.
The day began in cool conditions (11 degrees C/51 degrees F) at the Langener Waldsee, the small lake about 12 km from Frankfurt that somehow manages to find room for the 12,000 spectators who line the lake to watch the spectacle of 2,500 or so athletes start the swim.
Bart Colpaert led the way out of the water, but with some company—Al-Sultan might have been fifth, but he was only three seconds behind the Belgian. Horst Reichel beat the rest of the crew onto the bike, but within a few kilometers it became apparent that French super-cyclist Sylvain Sudrie, who was competing in his first Ironman, and Al-Sultan, were the class of the cycling field. The two quickly pulled away from the rest of the men, but that wasn’t enough for Al-Sultan, who gradually started to pull away from the Frenchman, too. By 61 km the German was 28 seconds up on Sudrie, but over four minutes ahead of a group that included George Potrebitsch, Thomas Hellriegel, Luke McKenzie, Bert Jammaer, Uwe Widmann, Jan Raphael, Andres Castillo, Bart Colpaert, Horst Reichel, Stephan Vuckovic and Cameron Brown. In other words, Al-Sultan was hammering a virtual who’s who of Ironman racing, and pulling away with every pedal stroke.
By 108 km, Sudrie was five minutes behind, while the group of men chasing the 2005 Ford Ironman world champion had lost even more time—they were riding about seven minutes back. The 2006 champion here in Frankfurt, Cameron Brown, was off the pace by this point—almost 11 minutes behind – and would cease to be a factor for the win from that point onwards. Brown was in good company—athletes like Patrick Vernay and Paul Amey were even further off the pace. Luke McKenzie would make a gallant try to get clear of the rest of the chasers, but couldn’t ever really separate himself.
By the time the bike was done, Al-Sultan was well ahead of the rest of the field. His 4:26:22 bike split put him 8:53 up on Sudrie, but more than 20 minutes ahead of Ironman champions like Brown and Vernay.
During the marathon Al-Sultan remained remarkably strong—losing some time during the first loop, gaining back some of that time during the second and third loops, then losing time again during the last loop. While Al-Sultan looked tired towards the end of the marathon (he would finish with a 2:57 split), he was never in serious danger of losing. Jan Raphael would run his way to the runner-up position, a wonderful achievement considering he’s had some decent results since his debut win in Florida, but nothing to show that he truly can compete with the world’s best. Michael Gohner had, at one point, run his way into second, but he couldn’t hold on and would have to settle with third.
After the race, Al-Sultan was thrilled to have grabbed the win, and appeared genuinely surprised that he won despite the fact that his training hadn’t gone as well as expected, and that he’s raced the last five weeks in a row.
The women’s race
Unlike Al-Sultan, Caroline Steffen looked like she was in grave danger of losing the race over the final few kilometers. While Lucie Zelenkova, who used to represent the Czech Republic in ITU races and now lives in South Africa, dominated the swim, it didn’t take long for Steffen to take control of the bike and start pulling away from this talented field. By 62 km Steffen already had a lead of 6:30 on Zelenkova, and was over 14 minutes ahead of women we’ve previously thought to be among the best in the sport—Yvonne Van Vlerken and Virginia Beresategui. Dede Griesbauer, who was among the top five out of the water and was riding along in fourth place, crashed at a roundabout and was forced to pull out of the race.
By the time Steffen reached T2, she had a lead of 13:40 on Zelenkova and 15:26 over Samantha Warriner. It seemed as though she had the race locked up—especially since some of the strong runners in the field, including Nicole Leder, Sonja Tajsich and Yvonne Van Vlerken, were all over 20 minutes back.
Seemed is the operative word—within a few kilometers Steffen had stopped on the side of the road to stretch her hamstrings and lower back. The rest of the marathon became a guessing game as Van Vlerken and Tajsich started to make huge inroads in the deficits they hard started the marathon with, and Zelenkova and Warriner slowly picked up time on Steffen. (Leder collapsed in T2 and wasn’t able to continue the run—likely a symptom of the cool conditions that seemed to sap the energy from so many of the athletes competing in the cool, rainy conditions.)
By the last lap the lead was down to just a few minutes, but Steffen was hanging tough. Zelenkova would make a gallant charge for the front, but fell short by a few minutes and suddenly found herself in a sprint to the finish line to hold off Tajsich, who had managed to get past both Warriner and Van Vlerken. An exhausted Steffen wasn’t happy with her 3:27 marathon split, but was thrilled to have held on for the win.
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Top 5 Pro Men
1. Faris Al-Sultan (GER) 8:13:50
2. Jan Raphael (GER) 8:19:31
3. Michael Göhner (GER) 8:20:26
4. George Potrebitsch (GER) 8:22:29
5. Stephan Vuckovic (GER) 8:26:03
Top 5 Pro Women
1. Caroline Steffen (SUI) 9:12:13
2. Lucie Zelenkova (CZE) 9:13:46
3. Sonja Tajsich (GER) 9:14:14
4. Yvonne Van Vlerken (NED) 9:15:37
5. Samantha Warriner (NZL) 9:18:04
Adapted from Ironman.com