As dawn broke at the 2010 Ford Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, news travelled around the crowds and competitors that Chrissie Wellington had withdrawn from the race. Our first reaction was disbelief, followed by sadness for the super-strong three-time Ironman World Champion. Surely things must be bad for Chrissie to pull out of what everyone had predicted would be her fourth win in a row?
Without Chrissie, the women's race was wide open as the pros set off at 6.30am. Half an hour later the age groupers would start but for now it was the elite men and women who got things underway on the out-and-back swim course in Kailua Bay. The pier and prom were thick with people cheering their triathlon heroes and the heat was building nicely.
As 46 minutes 41 seconds - the Kona swim course record - came and went, the crowds started to cheer as the first lone swimmer hoved into view. Posting the fastest swim split of the day, Andy Potts was way ahead as he exited the water in 48:48. It was great to see Great Britain's Rachel Joyce first lady out of the water, in an impressive 52:25, followed by Ironman rookie Brit Julie Dibens in 53:50.
By now the age groupers were well underway in the bay as the pros set out on the bike course, which started with a sneaky hill up Palani Road. These guys might ride super-light aerodynamic carbon bikes, but most of them were loaded with litres of water and nutrition, forcing people out of the saddle as they powered uphill.
It wasn't long before the USA's Chris Lieto stormed into the lead, and in the women's race Julie Dibens opted for the same approach as she overhauled Joyce to take the lead. She stayed out in front for the rest of the bike, looking smooth and comfortable the entire time. Nice PR for Trek as both race leaders made the most of their Speed Concept bikes.
Well-known for his less-than-blistering marathon speed, Lieto needed to be out in front at the end of the bike to stand any chance of winning. And out in front he was, by around five minutes as he started the run. But for both Lieto and Dibens - and everyone watching them - it soon became obvious that a fast bike split can play havoc with your run speed.
Australia's Mirinda Carfrae started the run in second place but inched ever closer to Dibens, and Switzerland's Caroline Steffan looked strong in third. At last year's race, Carfrae set the Kona record in the women's marathon with a time of 2:56:51 and it looked like she might go even faster today.
Up front in the men's race Lieto started to fade as Australia's Chris 'Macca' McCormack hit cruising speed. After winning the Ironman World Championships in 2007, no one had been talking about Macca as a threat at this year's race but his smooth running eased him into the lead. Germany's Andreas Raelert looked good too as he pushed into second place.
But where was Craig Alexander? The Aussie won here in 2008 and 2009 and was running well but he'd left himself too much to do to catch McCormack and Raelert. With around four miles to go, Raelert caught McCormack. The two ran side by side, matching each other stride for stride, for a couple of miles. The crowd at the finish line watching them duking it on the big screen went crazy: this head-to-head race captured the spirit of Ironman perfectly.
Some people might have written McCormack off when Raelert caught him, but the big Aussie never gave up and at a feed station Raelert dropped 10 metres behind as he grabbed some fluids. This was all the encouragement McCormack needed to push on and delight the crowds to finish 90 seconds ahead of the German in 8:10:37.
Carfrae might have been out in the lead in the women's race, but she still kept checking her watch. She said afterwards that she wanted to run faster than she had last year. And she did. Carfrae cruised to the finish to win in 8:58:36, the fourth fastest women's time ever at Kona. Her marathon split of 2:53:32 smashed her own marathon record too. Faced with such awesome running, Caroline Steffan looked thrilled to come second in 9:06:00. Julie Dibens held on to finish third in her first Ironman with a brilliant 9:10:04 - an epic effort that ended with her collapsing into her husband's arms.
Ahead of the women, this year's Ironman UK winner Fraser Cartmell was the first Brit to finish. His 30th place in 8:47:45 pipped Nick Saunders, the second Brit, who posted a fantastic time of 8:49:59. Despite Wellington's absence, it was a great day for the British female pros. As well as Julie Dibens making into onto the podium in third, Rachel Joyce finished fifth in 9:18:48 and Leanda Cave finished 10th in 9:27:42. Brits Stephen Bayliss, Scott Neyedli and Catriona Morrison did not finish.
A great day for British long-distance triathlon then, but an even greater day for the Aussies. For once they deserve the glory though: two superb performances that will ensure the 2010 Ironman World Championships go down in triathlon history as a brilliant day of gutsy, inspiring, never-give-up contest.