Distance: 1.9K/ 90K/ 21.1K
Where: Laguna Phuket, Thailand
When: December 4 2011
First man: Michael Raelert 03:51:36
First woman: Melissa Rollison 04:17:01
Paradise – smiling faces, white sand, turquoise sea, simmering heat, torrential rain and knee deep puddles – the Ironman 70.3 Asia-Pacific Championships in Phuket didn’t quite follow the planned script.
Introduced to the triathlon calendar in 2010, this race instantly became a must-do for triathletes around the world. A combination of a tough, spectacular course with several hills so steep that a good proportion of the field walk up them and the most welcoming race organisation meant that word quickly spread and this year the race was a complete sellout.
In the week preceding the race, many social events had been organized to keep athletes entertained when they got tired of soaking up the sunshine. Michael Raelert seemed to enjoy the relaxed build up and said “as soon as I landed here I fell in love with the island and have been struggling to focus on the race this week”.
This year, the addition of 30 Kona slots for age groupers was an added incentive and over 1100 athletes from 58 countries nervously waited for the start as dawn broke over Bang Tao beach.
The darkness lifted and most athletes welcomed the sight of unexpected cloud cover and hoped for a cooler day to make the daunting challenge ahead seem just a little more achievable.
The first wave of forty pros charged down the beach at exactly 6.30am followed in quick succession by three waves of age groupers. The 1900m swim consists of an out and back in the sparkling Andaman Sea followed by a run up and over the beach and a short crossing of the lagoon that connects the seven hotels of the stunning Laguna Phuket resort, the host venue.
British athlete Dan Halksworth, racing for Team TBB, led the pro athletes out of the water and onto the bike with a group including the pre race favourites Michael Raelert and Chris Lieto just a few seconds behind.
In the women’s race, Amanda Stevens had her usual strong swim and found herself in a good lead on the rest of the field including current World Champion at the 70.3 distance, Melissa Rollison of Australia.
Early on in the bike Lieto crashed as he went into a corner with too much speed and, whilst he tried to continue, his injuries forced him out of the race soon after.
A hilly bike
The bike course is famous for its hills, the first of which hits the athletes at the 45km mark and the last coming just a few km before transition. The gradient on each of the main hills is 20 per cent or steeper in places, both up and down, and the first hill saw Stevens reduced to a walk together with several fast age groupers.
The sky had become darker and darker during the morning and now the heavens opened and the rain came down so hard that within minutes the roads were flooded. For most the race instantly turned into a battle for survival as the road surfaces, particularly on the descents, became as slippery as black ice.
The head of the race eased into transition with a group of six of the main contenders still together. The final results would be decided on the run and there was only going to be one winner. Michael Raelert hit his flowing stride and immediately opened up a gap on the chasers – all Australians – Richie Cunningham, Paul Matthews, Paul Ambrose and David Dellow.
The long, winding run
A 1hr 11mins half marathon splashing through the puddles on a winding, technical course, saw Raelert crowned the champion in a course record time of 3.51.36. Richie Cunningham and Paul Matthews ran strong to complete the podium.
Melissa Rollison, meanwhile, was similarly dominant in the women’s race. Having hit the front of the bike just before the halfway point, she headed out onto the run with a good lead and continued to run away from the field finishing with a 1.19 half marathon.
That was good enough for a 4.17.01 finish, another course record, and thirteen minutes faster than second place, six times Kona champion, Natascha Badmann with Radka Vodickova running through the field to take third position.
Following close behind and in a sprint finish for 4thand 5thplace were British pros, Emma-Kate Lidbury and Tamsin Lewis.
By now the rain was subsiding and the top amateurs were crossing the line celebrating their Kona slots whilst others were heading wearily onto the run course to complete their own personal longest day.
As in the rest of the world, triathlon is booming in Asia and a significant proportion of those racing were from the region. The crowds of school children lining the bike course waving, cheering and smiling in spite of the conditions and the hundreds of local volunteers on the run course added to the colour of this special event.
If the location, weather and race are not enough to persuade you to add this to your schedule for next year then the most compelling reason is the awards party. Ask anyone that has been and they will tell you that it is not just the best awards party on the triathlon calendar but it is the best party of the year, full stop.
One word sums up the whole experience. Paradise.
00:23:34 02:14:17 01:11:14 03:51:36
00:23:55 02:14:07 01:16:44 03:57:16
00:23:39 02:14:13 01:18:02 03:58:24
00:24:08 02:19:35 01:13:29 03:59:57
00:23:38 02:14:07 01:20:44 04:01:11
00:27:32 02:26:39 01:19:43 04:17:01
00:30:00 02:26:01 01:30:57 04:30:42
00:26:13 02:39:04 01:26:25 04:34:50
00:26:47 02:35:02 01:30:54 04:36:09
00:28:29 02:36:47 01:27:45 04:36:14
Phuket is an island just off the South West coast of Thailand. A popular tourist destination, it has spectacular white sandy beaches and a hot, sunny climate.
How to get there
Thai Airways, a main sponsor of the race, has two flights per day from London to Bangkok with plenty of connecting flights onwards to Phuket. Flight times are approximately 12 hours to Bangkok and 1.5 hours for the hop across to Phuket. The cheapest available flights for the race period were found on ebookers.com and cost from £550. The airline also offered registered athletes an extra 15kg weight allowance which meant that bikes could be taken free of charge.
Where to stay
Laguna Phuket itself is a collection of deluxe hotels and villas ranging from the Laguna Holiday Club Resort up to the superb Banyan Tree with its pool villas and legendary breakfast buffet. Special prices for race week are available through the resort website – www.lagunaphuket.com.
What to do
Thai food is one of the main attractions for any holiday in the region. A combination of spicy, delicious flavours with healthy ingredients makes it a great choice for athletes. Highly recommended is a trip to the local fruit markets – pick up some perfectly ripe bananas, mangos and pineapples as well as some fruits that you will never have heard of or tasted before.
Prices vary dramatically between the resort restaurants and the more adventurous local village restaurants but the taste never fails to delight. Surin Beach, a five mile taxi journey from the resort, has several beachside restaurants with incredible sunset views.
Massage is a Thai speciality and the ever present beach massage tables are a wonderful way to relax and prepare your body for the race at the same time.
Scooter hire is very cheap, about £10 per day from the hotels, and is a great way to get out and explore the island. Any trip to Phuket would not be complete without a boat trip to Phi Phi island or an evening of people watching at the raucous tourist trap of Patong.