Pro racing again ... Ironman 70.3 Dubai and Challenge Miami

Although both Australian and Kiwi athletes have been able to enjoy a fairly normal summer of racing over recent months… for those of us here in the Northern Hemisphere, as we slowly creep out of winter, it’s starting to feel like racing is edging that bit closer to a sense of normality.

And with not one, but two major races it really does feel like racing is kicking off with a bang tomorrow, which is kind of unique given its a Friday. Ironman 70.3 Dubai will get the day started and for all but the earliest of birds it’ll be done and dusted by breakfast time.

Usually in years gone past, it would be the sort of event that might attract a reasonably large field of Pros, but given the current climate and Dubai being a destination that is mostly accessible for folks based in Europe just now… this year it has amassed a strong start list including 60+ men and 15 women, which given the lowest tier prize purse of just $15K that is on offer, it proves that athletes are just glad to get back on a start line. Or maybe just that Ironman have athletes over a barrel, but that’s a discussion for another day…!

As with all races in the Middle East, the key word for describing the course is ‘flat’… a protected ocean swim followed by a pan flat out and bike course, finished with a run along the sea prom could produce eye-wateringly fast finish times should the wind stay away. However, a sting in the tail tomorrow is the forecasted high of 35C, which could well cause some trouble out on a shadeless run course for those not adapted to the heat, which would be most of them!

So who’s going to win? Well, the Women’s race is set to be a two horse affair, or rather a Swiss double act. Ordinarily I’d back the defending Champion from last year (yes, this race did manage to happen in 2020) Imogen Simmonds, but she is going to have a tough job against her fellow countrywomen Daniela Ryf, who herself won on this course in 2017. She might have won a few other big races since then too, of course! But with neither having raced since Kona 2019 and the ‘form book’ being thrown out the window, it could be closer than you’d think.

The men’s field includes some big hitters, and although you never quite know who’s racing till the gun goes (and that’s another bugbear I have about Ironman that can be debated in the future…) there are a few that have  landed in the Emirate and are names we’d expect to see at the pointy end of the race. Those include the likes of Joe Skipper who has been living and training in Dubai for much of this winter, so he won’t have any worries about the desert heat and wind, but also a pair of German’s in Andi Bocherer and Maurice Clavel, a duo of Swiss who are handy over this distance; Jan Van Berkel and Ruedi Wild plus the Belgian Pieter Heemeryck.

Given their swim/bike strengths, I’d wouldn’t be surprised to see the podium filled by the Germans and the Belgian, although I couldn’t pick a winner. I think they will create a gap in the water along with one or two other strong swimmers and then do some damage once on two wheels to gap the field. As strong a rider and runner as Skipper is, I feel his strengths lie in Ironman and he’ll likely run out of promenade to get in amongst the podium positions.

I’m sure it’ll be good racing, for those awake to see it!

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However … with all the respect to the athletes racing in Dubai, it’s tomorrow afternoon and  that most triathlon fans will be looking forward to. Challenge Miami has created plenty of hype, and justifiably so after the huge success story that was the Challenge Daytona event back in December.

That same concept of racing entirely within the boundaries of the speedway circuit is happening again in Miami, albeit with a few tweaks and changes to the format, the most obvious being the shorter distances this time around.

The swim, as in Daytona will be within the grounds of the infield and will be 2 laps, totalling 1 mile, and again just as before we’ll see the athletes ride a lot of laps around and around the motor circuit… 17.5 laps to be precise, giving a distance of 39 miles. However, encouragingly, this race has a bit more to it than just riding an oval in an anti clockwise direction and turning left a lot of times! The course veers off the racetrack and makes use of some regular roads within the infield area, and so adding some technical aspects to the ride which by all accounts and according to reports from some athletes, is more tricky (and fun) than it appears at first glance. Add in some potentially windy conditions and there might even be some unexpected handling mishaps (crashes!) on course for those who don’t pay attention.The run takes athletes back onto the full speedway oval for a 7 lap,10.5 mile run to finish. The time from gun to tape is going to take far less than 3 hours for the men and likely not much over it for the women, you’d imagine.

Miami doesn’t have the million dollar prize purse that Daytona could offer, but you wouldn’t really know it from a glance at the start lists … the $50K up for grabs that’ll pay ten deep has still drawn quite the star studded crowd. Nearly 50 men and over 30 women are entered and amongst those names there are some superstars of the long course scene.

In any sport it’s the rivalries that create the stories, and it’s been a while since long course triathlon has had regular duals between the biggest names; like those that were commonplace in the 80s, 90s and 00s between Paula Newbie-Fraser and Erin Baker, Mark Allen and Dave Scott, Chris McCormack and Norman Stadler (or Faris Al Sultan or Craig Alexander come to think of it).

And that’s where Miami lights an ignition switch, because for the first time outside of Kona since Oceanside 70.3 way back in 2018, we’ve got both Lionel Sanders and Jan Frodeno lined up together. Clearly, they don’t have anything like the same calibre of racing history as the previous examples, not least because Jan has been so utterly dominant whenever he’s raced… but that doesn’t stop the buildup and hype, mostly from Lionel to be fair. For what it’s worth I reckon there’s a good amount of respect from both camps for the other, and for that reason alone I’m looking forward to seeing it unfold.

Add in wild cards such as Andrew Starykowicz who’ll do everything to try and lap the field on the bike to keep himself in the hunt (and if anyone could, he’s the athlete) and form athletes like Daytona silver medallist Matt Hanson who’ll claw back vast chunks of time on the final run leg, and it’ll certainly be a lively affair from start to finish.

Personally, I think although a shorter swim, it’ll be fast due to the likes of the American trio Rudy von Berg, Ben Kanute and Eric Lagerstrom and that’ll suit Frodeno and not Sanders. Plus faster riders coming through such as Danish powerhouse Magnus Ditlev and Starykowicz will also help Jan and not Lionel; he’ll have to do it all alone, as always.

I think Jan will win and Lionel will take second, but without any actual head to head duelling between the pair… but I hope I’m wrong. I’ll not be surprised to see Mat Hanson ‘do a Daytona’ and snag a podium in the closing mile either, but again there are plenty other athletes who could prevent him that I’ve not yet mentioned; Tim o’Donnell, Tyler Butterfield or even Pablo Dapena to name a handful.

The women’s race might not have the depth of the men’s, but it still has some exciting and intriguing rivalries all the same. A standout name on any race sheet is Lucy Charles-Barclay, and unlike most of the other pre race favourites, she didn’t race through 2020 at all. And this is actually the shortest distance of race that she’ll have raced over, which might prove crucial in how much damage she’s able to cause with her swim and bike strength. Although she might not dominate the field in the water either, with the likes of Paula Findlay as well as Fenella Langridge who led much of the Daytona swim in December more than likely able to cope with her speed over only a 1.6K distance.

The rivalries continue when you add into the mix Anne Haug and Sarah Crowley who stood either side of Lucy on the podium back in Kona ’19, although if I’m honest I don’t imagine Crowley to be the same sort of threat over this shorter distance.

Anne Haug however … she’s an altogether different kettle of fish and although the deficit after the swim and bike to the leaders could well be sizeable, it could easily be edge-of-your-seat stuff watching her use all of that 10.5 mile run course to chase down those in front.

Not forgetting the likes of Jodie Stimpson, Heather Jackson, Meredith Kessler and Langridge… it’s going to make for a dynamic and exciting race.

Who’s my pick? I’m going to go for Paula Findlay to double up after Daytona, with Anne Haug and Lucy Charles-Barclay filling the remaining two podium spots, but in which order… I’m stuck on the fence! 

The good news – as triathlon fans – is that we can watch the racing unfold via a livestream on the Challenge Miami Facebook page, starting from 5.30pm here in the UK, with the women’s race starting at 6pm and the men at 8.15pm.