Six team athletes made the long trip to Kona for the 2015 edition of the Ironman World Championships. Charlie Pennington had qualified in Austria, Richard Hobson at Lanzarote, Alison Rowatt at Kraichgau 70.3, Declan Doyle at Ironman UK, Stuart Anderson at Maastricht and Tim Bishop at Wales.
On the flight over to support the team I had a think about expectations and hopes and I felt that with luck on our side three podiums were a real possibility.
I am now on the flight home and, as hoped, three of our team stepped up on stage at the awards to pick up their Umeke (hand carved wooden fruit bowls). Congratulations to Charlie, Ali and Hobbo – amazing performances all round.
I am so proud of the whole team and their respective families and supporters for showing such dedication and sacrifice throughout the year just to make it to the start line on Dig Me Beach.
Swim 00:58:48 Bike 04:57:23 Run 02:58:44 Overall 09:01:44 Div Pos 2nd
To write about Charlie’s race I am going to rewind to 2012 and the year before he joined the Team. Charlie finished second in the 30-34 age group that year at the 70.3 World Championships in Las Vegas by 16 seconds. He was particularly frustrated because his age group was split into two waves and the winner came from the other wave so he had no information on course about how close the ‘race’ was.
This year everything seemed to be aligning perfectly for Charlie. After 16 years service in the Royal Marines came to an end in the summer Charlie postponed his start date for a new job until after Kona to allow himself full focus on the build up to the race. With top ten overall placings at both Ironman Wales and Austria confidence was high and he arrived on the island two weeks before race day in order to fully acclimatise and familiarise himself with the course.
Charlie is a very balanced triathlete – a strong swimmer, cyclist and runner he set himself three goals for the day – sub 3 run, sub 9 finish and age group win. Whilst these were ‘dream’ goals, all three were entirely possible based on his training numbers given the right conditions and a slice of mechanical luck.
The race itself was a near perfect execution of Charlie’s race plan. He swam well, biked conservatively and ran a 2.58 marathon as hoped, the fastest amateur run of the day.
He should be delighted, excited and proud at what he achieved out there, but the truth is he is devastated.
Four and a half minutes down on the age group leader leaving the energy lab with 7 miles to go, Charlie was given the info that if he could keep up the pace then he should move into the lead before the finish. On the way home he passed an athlete, checked his number and, boom, he was leading his age group. Except he wasn’t because the athlete he passed wasn’t Dan Stubleski, age group legend and defending champion.
Running the last mile Charlie saw a tall figure in green ahead and assumed it was a pro athlete and, whilst he didn’t slow down, he didn’t feel the need for a sprint finish either. He crossed the line in 9.01, believing he had won, shook hands with the guy in green and the realisation set in that it was the aforementioned Dan Stubleski and he had been beaten by 6 seconds after over 140 miles of racing.
I stayed in a condo with Charlie and his demeanour in the days after the race reminded me of a famous quote from Doug Sanders who missed a 12 inch putt to win the 1970 Open Championship and subsequently lost the playoff. Thirty years later he was asked if he still thinks about the miss. “It doesn’t hurt much any more. These days I can go a full five minutes without thinking about it.”
Second in the world is an incredible achievement but it is not first and he wanted desperately to be World Champion. Charlie has broad shoulders though, literally as well as figuratively and he will in time come to realise that it was a performance to be very, very proud of. Alongside being super fast, he is one of the nicest, most genuine and humble athletes you could hope to meet. A perfect ambassador for the Team and our sponsors.
Swim 01:11:28 Bike 05:22:11 Run 03:16:22 Overall 09:57:43 Div Pos 2nd
Amateur World Champion at the 70.3 distance in Clearwater, 2010, Ali’s introduction to full distance racing was in 2013. Having qualified at 70.3 Wiesbaden her very first Ironman was in Kona itself. That year, on debut, she finished second with a time of 9.44 in what was considered to be a fast year.
In 2014, having qualified at Ironman France Ali struggled in the crosswinds of Kona and never really featured in the race and flew home disappointed but resolute to try again this year.
An early season injury ruled out any hopes of early qualification but Ali managed to secure a Kona slot at Kraichgau 70.3, meaning she was able to avoid overloading her foot injury with two ironman races in quick succession.
A couple of weeks before the race, Fraser Cartmell, Ali’s long term boyfriend and a Trek sponsored athlete arrived home with a surprise in the car – a custom painted Trek Speed Concept in team colours. To say the bike is a head turner is an understatement and it is a frame that is begging to be ridden fast.
A really solid race capped off with an impressive 3.16 marathon was enough to bring Alison across the line in second place in her age group again, 6 minutes behind the 30-34 age group winner.
In contrast to Charlie, Ali is delighted with the result. After last year she has a better appreciation of how hard it is to race well on the island and how few people tend to have the race they were hoping for.
Another sub 10 finish time and third age grouper overall, I expect to see Alison back next year to try and go one place better in her age group.
Swim 01:02:29 Bike 04:57:40 Run 03:47:52 Overall 09:54:04 Div Pos 4th
Racing as a pro in the nineties Richard achieved spectacular success in the sport but has historically always struggled in Hawaii. For a triathlete, Richard is quite a big guy and suffers in the draining heat on the island.
Having turned 50 this year he returned to Kona with his family and, whilst appearing to be the most relaxed man on the island for most of the week, I know that Richard was genuinely apprehensive about what lay ahead.
Known as a strong swim biker who sometimes struggles on the run, Richard raced with maturity to qualify in Lanzarote, biked conservatively and was able to run a solid 3.30 marathon to win his age group comfortably.
He pretty much repeated the plan to perfection in Kona. Even allowing for a conservative power target he still felt he faded a little on the bike in the strong headwinds on the way home, but this time he managed to keep moving on the run and held his place in the field in spite of some fast moving athletes behind him.
Fourth place in the age group, one minute behind fellow 90s legend Jurgen Zack, and a trip up to the podium at the awards ceremony.
The great thing about Richard and his family is how much the whole family shares in his achievements. Two budding superstars in the shape of Oliver,16, and Oscar,13 – Oliver swimming faster and further than most athletes in the practice swims and Oscar running a sub 5 minute mile to win the kids mile race in the week before the Ironman. The Hobson triathlon dynasty is looking good for a few years yet.
Swim 01:09:21 Bike 04:51:46 Run 03:41:27 Overall 09:52:15 Div Pos 35th
Top British amateur at Kona in both 2009 and 2010, Stuart has endured a frustrating few years of injuries and setbacks which saw him having a first disappointing experience at Kona in 2013.
Stuart got married on the island in 2010 and was keen to make the start line this year in order to celebrate his and Mette’s fifth anniversary in a place close to their hearts. However, more niggles and injuries surfaced and meant the season plans changed to a late and successful qualification attempt at Maastricht.
After a year of focussing on his bike strength, Stuart felt in good shape coming into the race but an unexplained sore hip in race week limited his ability to deliver the run he had hoped for. Another sub 10 finish in Kona is testimony to his perseverance and tenacity when the temptation to walk or pull out must have been strong.
Swim 01:10:57 Bike 04:55:41 Run 06:11:50 Overall 12:26:53 Div Pos 228th
Back in 2010, the year that Team Freespeed was formed, Declan raced the race in Kona that we all knew he was capable of – 9hrs 18mins and top Irish finisher put paid to some demons from previous years and the sight of Declan celebrating so hard at the official after party that he was ‘asked to leave’ Huggos will live long in the memory.
There is a saying on the island that if you remove any lava rock and take it home with you then you will be struck down by Madam Pele’s curse. I can only think that Declan must have taken a couple of suitcases full of lava home with him because since 2010 he has had a succession of very long, slow, painful walks along the Queen K.
He promises me that he didn’t get given a glow stick to carry in the dark but a 12.21 finish is in no way representative of his ability or the work he put in to this race in training.
I have no doubt Dec will be back at some point but having struggled for the past three years with Achilles issues he needs to prioritise his recovery going forward.
Swim 01:14:04 Bike 05:48:50 Run 03:56:51 Overall 11:09:49 Div Pos 145th
Like Dec, Tim had a stellar race in Kona 2010 finishing sub 9.30 and then backed it up by becoming the first Team athlete to go sub 9 at Challenge Copenhagen the following year.
It is fair to say that since those days Tim’s priorities have changed and the health and wellbeing of his family have pushed triathlon into a very distant second place on his agenda and rightly so.
This year we had long discussions at the start of the year about Tim’s position in the team. As one of the ‘original four’ Tim had a place on the team for as long as he wanted to be part of the setup.
However, a combination of a reduced focus on the sport and Tim’s transition to barefoot running (he holds the world record for racing Ironman in Vibram Five Fingers) meant that we mutually agreed that it wasn’t fair to our roster of sponsors to be a fully sponsored Team athlete.
So whilst not technically a Team athlete, he raced in Freespeed colours and we were very proud to see him out there again enjoying racing with no pressure to perform. Whenever we saw him he had a big smile on his face and I know for him the memories of the hours spent with his beautiful 15 month old daughter teaching her to swim in the condo pool are the ones he will treasure.
Ironman distance racing is a wholly individual pursuit. There is no help out there for you especially when things are going badly, you have to get to the finish line on your own.
I sometimes look at our team and wonder if it is a collection of individuals rather than a team in the truest sense of the word and to an extent that is the case. I do know though that they all derive great strength and inspiration from knowing there are others out there wearing the same kit and with the same overall goals – just to do the best they can, to race fair and to race strong. They continue to make me very, very proud.
As a Team, I often stress to the athletes how we need to be credible ambassadors for our sponsors and whilst we absolutely should be grateful for the support they provide it doesn’t mean that we need to blindly name check them on social media at every given opportunity.
However, it would be remiss of me not to thank them all here now for the support they give us along the way. Kona has always been our stated focus and whilst the season hasn’t finished, we are already starting to plan for 2016 and hope to have these companies along for the ride once more.
Skechers Performance are our headline sponsor and we could not be happier with our association with the brand. The Team love the shoes and more importantly they are fast – Scottish professional David McNamee posted the fastest run split of the day on Saturday, 2.49 on a scorching hot day. If you haven’t tried them yet the off season is a perfect time to experiment with new shoes, our athletes tend to run in a mix of Go Run 4’s and Go Mebs.
Virgin Active were the first sponsor to believe in our team concept back in 2011 and the facilities that the guys get to train in are very special.
Clif Bar are another ‘original’. This is our fifth year together and not only do they provide the Team with the best tasting and coolest nutrition products but they put on the after-after party that rocks Kona into the early hours of Sunday morning.
BlueSeventy provide all of our swim products – specifically the Helix wetsuits and PZ4TX swim skins. In a world where every year there seems to be a new swim brand promising the next best thing, we love that Blue Seventy have the experience, the heritage and, most of all, the best products on the market.
Other valued partners include H2Pro hydration, Speedfil and Lezyne. We are proud to have all these brands within the Freespeed family but most of all, we are proud that we count the people behind the brands as friends, every one of them. Thanks so much for your support.
With team athlete Andy Greenleaf finishing fifth overall in Wales and Alain Friedrich on the start line in Cozumel we now turn our attention towards Kona 2016. Applications for the team will open in December, keep an eye on our social media activity for announcements on the recruitment process.
Story by Team Manager, Richard Melik
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