Tough new debutants cause thrilling upsets
It was a great weekend for first time Ironman 70.3 South African winners Bradley Weiss and Annah Watkinson as they upset the odds to triumph at the annual Buffalo City event at the Orient Beach in East London on Sunday.
Stellenbosch’s Weiss and Cape Town’s Watkinson came into the race as top prospects, but neither were considered favourites, with defending champ Matt Trautman and last year’s runner-up Emma Pallant from the UK thought to have the inside track.
However, Weiss and Watkinson put in superb performances respectively to push their more favoured opposition into the runner-up positions as they claimed their first titles in the city.
In the men’s race it was a top bike leg from Weiss that gave him a big enough lead to hold off Trautman on the run leg.
After the swim leg was reduced to 1.1km by organisers in the morning due to rough seas, it was an international top four that emerged first, with the UK’s Elliot Smales leading Germany’s Johann Ackermann, the Netherlands Evert Scheltinga and France’s Kevin Maurel.
Weiss was the first South African out in fifth, followed closely by Trautman and James Cunnama, and with the top 10 all close together a quick transition meant that Scheltinga was first on to the bike course, with Weiss and Trautman right on his heels.
Maurel then attacked and moved into the lead and was looking strong at the halfway point. However, disaster struck shortly after as he suffered a mechanical failure and had to fix his bike, which allowed practically the whole men’s pro field to pass him.
Weiss thus took a lead he would never relinquish as he finished the bike leg first, just under two minutes ahead of first time Ironman 70.3 pro Ryan Schmitz, who had fought superbly up the leader board along with Germany’s Johannes Molden in third after they had exited the water in ninth and 10th positions respectively.
Trautman had an uncharacteristically average bike leg, but was still in fourth, followed by Cunnama, and with both strong runners they were eyeing the athletes ahead of them as they set off.
Despite good run legs, which saw both cut over a minute off their deficit to Weiss, it was not enough as he held on to win in a time of three hours 53minutes and 50 seconds, a minute and two seconds ahead of Trautman, while Cunnama rounded out the podium in third, a further minute-and-a-half back.
“This morning they shortened the swim, which wasn’t to my favour as I am a strong swimmer, but they made the call for safety reasons, so coming out the water I was in the lead pack but didn’t exactly have the lead I was hoping to have over some of the others,” said Weiss.
“So starting the bike I decided to commit early and go pretty hard out there, and the strategy worked out as I felt really in control and strong on the bike.
“Coming off the bike I had a two minute lead and I was a bit worried it might not be enough, with the likes of Matt and James who run really well over this distance, but I held it together and knew if I ran solidly someone would have to really run out of their skin to beat me, and they didn’t.
“So coming across the line in first I couldn’t be happier and I am really stoked to have qualified for worlds later this year.”
The first East Londoner home was top local triathlete Bradley Birkholtz, who continued to impress with another superb showing, finishing 14th overall, sixth among the age group men and third in his age category, in a top time of 4:15:07.
“I am very happy, tough conditions out there today, but happy with the way things went,” said Birkholtz.
“I was hoping for a longer swim but they shortened it, which didn’t really work to my advantage. The bike was then tough, easy on the way out and difficult on the way back, but you just had to stay patient, and then the run was a similar situation.”
The women’s race was not as exciting as Watkinson led from start to finish.
She was, however, kept in check by Pallant, who chased hard, but after Watkinson extended her out the water from 24 seconds to just over a minute on the bike, she then pushed hard on the run leg to eventually triumph in a time of 4:21:14, just under two minutes ahead of Pallant.
“I am shocked and elated,” said Watkinson.
“My goal going into this race was to see if I could execute what I had done in training on race day, almost be tactical as I am racing Ironman 70.3 Dubai this coming Friday.
“But I think when you are in a situation where there is a possibility of winning you have to make it a probability. So you need to kinda think on the fly and maybe push the limits more than what you were planning, which is what I did and I am thrilled to have won.”
The third pro woman home was Jade Roberts. However, she finished as the fourth woman overall after age grouper Mariella Sawyer finished in a better time.
Close to 2,000 athletes battled it out over the daunting course, on an overcast morning that saw excitement with rough seas and a headwind on the bike...