By Bill Plock
Daytona Beach–It’s easy to want to compare the Professional Triathlon Organisation’s Championship (PTO) at Challenge Daytona with IRONMAN’s Kona. You really can’t though. If this were boxing, it’s like watching light and middle weight boxers fight versus heavy weights. One is full of action, flurries, speed and rapid fire punches, the other, a war of strength and stamina and seeing who can withstand the most for the longest. There is room in this world for both. There will be fans of both. But for the pros’ yesterday may have been a game changer.
Kona is Kona. It’s a magical kind of place with known foes like heat, the Energy Lab, the winds on the Queen K and the hill on Palani. Daytona, like the backdrop for this race, was about speed and more speed. Like the NASCAR race that put Daytona on the map, these triathletes jockeyed for position all day long. They averaged up to 30 miles per hour on the bike! The road is flat, the only foe is the athlete in front, and the voices in their heads telling them when to make a move or not.
For the pros, with their race contained entirely inside the 2.5 mile oval that is one of the most famous racing venues in the world, it was all right in front of them. Lap after lap. 20 times on the bike, four times on the run, and even twice on the swim. Yes, there is a large lake inside the track along with an RV park, smaller tracks and plenty of open space. The whole thing was a made-for-television event. The race was about speed and making moves.
In the men’s race, Coloradans Matt Hanson, Rudy Von Berg and Sam Long finished 2nd, 5th and 9th respectively. Both Hanson and Long came from fairly far back after the swim to chase down the leaders and contend for the podium. Hanson had the fastest run of the day with a blistering 5:20/mile pace over the 18k run. While Long made up his deficit mostly on the bike with a fastest bike of the day riding the 80k course in 1:38:24 averaging 30.2 mph! He showed moments of speed on the run trying to catch up and at one point he held second place! Von Berg with a fast swim and bike, ran in contention all day. He and Long battled on the run for a couple of laps creating a buzz in the crowd watching on the jumbo tron—sort of a modern day “Iron War.” Von Berg pushed ahead of Long but slipped back on the last lap finishing just off the podium behind Britain’s George Goodwin, a middle distance specialist and long course veteran Lionel Sanders—who turned in the second fastest bike split and came from far back himself.
With early leader and favored Alistair Brownlee of Britain pulling out on the run due to injury, Gustov Iden of Norway moved into the lead about half way through the run and never relinquished it. Hanson’s run was one for the ages tracking down the fastest triathletes on the planet finishing 51 seconds back and in second place. With each lap he moved up the leader board and excitement built in the crowd, but Iden’s lead was just too much. Two and half minutes separated the top ten men creating a buzz at the finish line.
This race may change the sport of triathlon. With its contained venue, the distance and format offers triathletes specializing in all distances a chance to contend. It could be the answer to showcasing a sport to a wider audience and increasing exposure for the pros’ to make it a more viable career choice.
The exceptional performances and feel good stories at Kona also have their place and capture the hearts of people everywhere. The age group, midnight finish line in Kona (or any IRONMAN) is an amazing spectacle. But the race in Daytona was a far more exciting race to watch. Winning Kona for the pros is a big deal. And the winner gets $120,000 compared to $100,000 yesterday. But at Challenge Daytona the prize purse was much deeper and finishing in the top ten made for a nice paycheck. (click here for a breakdown https://challenge-daytona.com/race-information/prize-money/) The overall purse was almost twice as much as Kona. Every pro who finished was guaranteed at least $2,500.
But this race may resemble days gone by when entities like the NBA and NFL finally had to pay attention to other leagues gaining a foothold in their sport. Both the NBA and NFL adopted more open, crowd appealing initiatives found in the newer ABA and AFL. They brought fresh ideas to basketball and football and in particular shifted the attention to the stars not the sport—sort of like what the PTO is doing. From the three point line, the dunk contest, and run and gun mentality of the ABA to the throw happy style of the AFL (with its football designed to throw easier) and putting names on the jersey’s all made their way into the sports we know today. Back in the day Julius Irving (Dr. J) got a thousand bucks and a stereo for winning the dunk contest with his famous free throw dunk.
Every sport has defining moments that change it forever. Will Challenge Daytona be one of those moments? How will IRONMANj respond, or will it? Does it need to? Maybe, maybe not but with bigger purses and exciting venues like the Daytona Motor Speedway, hopefully a rising tide will elevate triathlon for all.
We shall see….