|Braden Currie and Ben Hoffman recover after their sprint finish across the sand|
Mother nature complicated the swim portion of today’s Ironman 70.3 Santa Cruz triathlon event, a planned 1.2 mile swim at Cowell Beach, 56 mile bike north along Highway 1 and 21.1 mile run taking in West Cliff Drive and Wilder Ranch State Park. Earlier in the week the red tide, which swept in and created pollution concerns in the Cowell Beach area, had rumors circulating of a cancelled swim, or at the very least a change of location. Then on the day of the event, as the wetsuited athletes began amassing on the beach for the early morning start, they were greeted by a thick fog that sat over the swim area making the buoys used for sighting almost impossible to see. There was a delay while organizers hurriedly adjusted the course, shortening it so the buoys were closer together and adjusting the swim course closer to shore. Strong swimmers were disappointed to learn the swim was now about a third of the distance originally planned.
The drama was managed by experienced race director, Tom Cotton, who has been officiating the race for 15 years. While essentially the same course, the race has grown by over 1000 participants from when it was known as “The Big Kahuna” triathlon. The major change came in 2015 when the Ironman brand, which is associated with the mythical Ironman World Championship in Hawaii and owned by a Chinese investment firm, bought the event. Cotton stayed on as race director. “It’s kinda nice having a crew come in and help me out. Whereas before it was just my wife and I putting on the race for many years with 15 people. Now it’s 30-35 people coming in to organize” said Cotton.
Having an event officially associated with the Ironman brand brings additional marketing resources and is an extra pull for triathletes all over the country and world. It’s not uncommon for athletes, after completing a half Ironman or Ironman event to get tattoos of the “M-dot” Ironman logo on their bodies, such is the enthusiasm for the races.
The event’s new status as an Ironman branded event has also brought a professional prize money purse to what was previously an amateur only event. The rewards are still comparatively modest in comparison with other professional sports however with $25,000 prize pool spread across male and female top place getters. Many of the pros travelling from interstate or overseas stayed with members of the Santa Cruz Triathlon Association, who opened their homes to elites for a few days around time of the event, so the athletes could save on accommodation expenses.
When the pro male wave finally took off about an hour after the planned start, the leaders predictably stayed in close contact given the short time in the water. German Andi Boecherer leapt off the front of the pack on the bike and by the end of the 56 miles had amassed a 4:20 minute advantage. A tight knit group of three composed of Americans Tim O’Donnell, Ben Hoffman and New Zealander Braden Currie set off weaving down Westcliff Drive in pursuit. The trio was able to reel in the German and O’Donnell dropped off the pace leaving a dramatic two man sprint finish down past the Dream Inn and onto the soft sand to the finish line on Cowell Beach. Currie, in a total time of 3:33:57, narrowly bested Hoffman (3:33:58) by one second for the win. O’Donnell came in third at 3:35:31. “I was actually quite excited to have a good running race. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to be here to test my run and to race Ben and to race Tim. I know those guys are such solid athletes.” said the satisfied Kiwi.
The women’s pro race played out differently with the top seven women rolling into the bike-to-run transition within two minutes of each other. All in contention for the win, that group included British 2012 Ironman 70.3 and World Champion Leanda Cave and American Ironman record holder Linsey Corbin. But it was Liz Lyles who was able to hold her slender lead off the bike to build a winning gap to finish in 4:08:24 defeating Linsey Corbin (4:09:39) with Kelsey Withrow (4:11:28) in third for an American clean sweep.
“I loved the course. It’s my first time racing here. A little disappointed about the swim being shortened but at least we got to get in.” said Lyles.
Lyles will now focus on the Hawaii Ironman World Championships in five weeks time as will many of the Pros who competed today and use the Santa Cruz half distance race as a tune up.
The bulk of the field, consisting of some 2000 amateur triathletes, filed their way into the Pacific for the abridged swim soon after the pros set off. While the fog had caused trouble for the swim, it made for comfortable conditions for the land portion of the event. With no prize money on the line, the motivation to compete varies for competitors who part with over $300 for the entry fee, not to mention the associated costs of equipment and getting to the start line.
Top local finisher, Julian Sunn, who lives a few blocks away from the race start in the Beach Hill neighborhood, finished second in his 30-34 year old age group in a time of 4:04:23.
“Triathlon is a great challenge and gives my life purpose by giving me something to really focus on. The camaraderie around the sport has brought me all different friendships and connections. It’s not just about the times and podiums.”
Sunn dedicates on average 15 hours a week to training around his full-time job as a Research Scientist at a local biotech company.
Top local female finisher was Santa Cruzan Molly Supple who finished 12th in the female pro field in a time of 4:27:50 and is an employee at the Morgan Hill based bicycle manufacturer, Specialized Bicycle Components.