New Champion, New Era.
By Tom Demerly.
The tan man rotated his
pedals with haunting Teutonic precision. It was quiet, his
cadence turned with the rhythm of an automated machine.
As he rode he displaced a minimal volume of hot, humid air,
piercing a small hole through the wind with his projectile
posture. His upper body barely moved as his legs spun beneath.
Minutes bloomed into hours against the shimmering heat waves.
He traced an invisible path over the black road, build into
the razor sharp black landscape that vaulted out of the
massive blue expanse of the Pacific. The earth’s crust
here was shaken violently the week before by the God Pele.
Now it was shaken by the force of this man as he defied
wind, heat and the doubts of others. It was as though the
earth here had tried to shake off a layer of old dampness
like a dog coming out of the water.
Behind this man were competitors,
the nay-sayers, doubters, people who envied him and the
looming memory of random bad luck and brutal circumstance
from the year before. Every second gone by put distance
between the man and those things. After 8:11:56 it was over.
The world had a new Champion: Normann Stadler.
Normann Stadler won the
2006 Ford Ironman World Championship. But more than winning,
he gave us back a brand of racing that has been conspicuously
absent from Hawaii and endurance sports for a long time.
He gave us a precious gift, something missing from our sport
for a long while. He has given us a righteous and deserving
champion, and a noble inspiration. Stadler has given us
back pure triathlon.
Flash back to what is considered
the greatest Hawaii Ironman of all time: 1989, the duel
between Mark Allen and Dave Scott. Allen tried seven times
to win Ironman before ‘89. In 1989 something significant
happened when Scott and Allen raced literally side-by-side
for the entire first eight hours of the race. For eight
hours the two were within speaking distance of one another,
but never said a word to each other. Allen finally prevailed,
gradually building a lead over Dave Scott late in the run.
It was the end of the Dave Scott era, the beginning of the
Mark Allen era. Mark Allen went on to be a great champion
of Hawaii; A worthy champion who trained to race hard in
the swim, bike and run. It was also the beginning of an
odd new brand of racing in Kona. Competitors were becoming
more evenly matched. The race was no longer destined to
come down to a blow out. Things were becoming more equal
Before 1989 Ironman was
a basic drag race. The cannon sounded; you went your best
pace all the way to the finish. It was hard, it was long,
it was hot, and it was windy. But it was simple and straightforward.
The man in front was winning, the rest were going as fast
as they could to try to catch him. That was it. The closest
duel to this one was Tinley and Scott.
When Mark Allen stopped
racing Ironman the race searched for guidance, it needed
a patron. The heir apparents came from Europe: The Germans
like Hellriegel, Leder, Zack. The Belgian, Van Lerde. Americans
challenged and won, but it was concern over the Europeans
that dominated the race. And the racing changed. It had
become “The Tactical Age” at Ironman: The age
of watching each other.
With the arrival of “The
Tactical Age” we saw the emergence of an odd brand
of shadow-boxing during the bike and to a lesser degree
in the swim. It was a rolling card game. The leaders bluffed
just within the drafting rules of the day and relied on
holding their run cards close to their chest while staying
in the shelter of the lead group. No, they weren’t
drafting, but yes, they were in a group. Did they benefit?
Absolutely. While drafting rules changed several times at
least one wind tunnel test produced data that showed a benefit
for a trailing rider as much as 30 feet behind a leading
rider at racing speeds. The bigger the group, the larger
the “benefit bubble” becomes. Aerodynamic benefit
aside, the mental burden of having to constantly assess
the pace is reduced for trailing riders when a lead rider
in a group makes the pace. As riders within a draft legal
group change positions in the group, they share in the mental
and motivational burden of determining the appropriate pace.
They also know where each other is in the race. It is an
easier way to race for those in the group, and that energy
saving can be re-allocated later on the run.
Those principles were the
basis of tactics for the Ironman in the late 1990’s
and early 2000’s. Some athletes, usually European
cycling specialists like Jurgen Zack and Thomas Hellriegel,
still hurled themselves off the front of the card players’
group. These attacks on the bike were tantamount to slapping
their cards face up on the Ironman table betting their hand
would win the day. It never failed that someone would flip
over an ace a few hours later during the run. The race had
gone to the gamblers, the card players, the bluffers. With
the exception of a splendid win in 1997 by Thomas Hellriegel
and an anomalistic win in 1996 by Belgian Luc Van Lierde
it had come down to a somewhat predictable script of waiting
in the group on the bike and then running hard in the back
half of the marathon. This era was dominated by a brooding
Peter Reid, a patriotic and friendly Tim DeBoom and a group
of also-rans who spent a lot of time looking at each other
but not much time racing as hard as they could. Ironman
had entered the “Tactical Age”.
In 2004 the conditions
at Hawaii were difficult. It was hot, windy. The group typically
formed after the swim, building from behind as those with
lesser aquatic skills rode hard to catch the lead group-
then waited. Except for one man. Normann Stadler. Stadler
attacked early in the bike and rode away from the field,
certain to fade to the card-players in the back half of
the marathon. But something odd happened. When Stadler flipped
his cards over on the table they were all aces, when the
bluffers flipped theirs they each had a joker or two. Stadler
stayed clear all the way to the finish. The bluffers let
him run a little too long. Stadler won in 8:33:29. As times
go in Hawaii it wasn’t ultra-fast, as a matter of
fact, it was the slowest winning time since Dave Scott way
back in 1987- seventeen years earlier. This was a testimony
to Stadler’s courage, the conditions and the tentative
tactics of the card players in the lead bike group who waited
too long to chase. Some critics said Stadler won just because
riders in the lead group waited too long to respond. Stadler
won in 2004, but he wasn’t vindicated.
In 2005 Stadler planned
a similar assault. His training prior to Hawaii was frightening
in volume and intensity. It was said that no one could withstand
his regimen and arrive in Hawaii fresh enough to race well.
We’ll never know. In the odd filtration process that
is earning your place in Hawaii Stadler suffered a bizarre
bout of bad luck: Flat tires, bee stings. The video of Stadler
trying to change a flat tire is incredibly similar to footage
of Mark Allen doing exactly the same thing a couple decades
earlier. It is almost as though true champions in Hawaii
have to pass through this valve of misfortune to earn a
good race. In ’05 Stadler passed through. It was an
interesting year: Stadler flatted in the midst of his attack
on the bike. Would it have worked?
Then there was ’06.
Stadler’s swim split
in 2005 was 55:01. In 2004 it was 54:27. This year it was
54:05. To you and I that isn’t much of a difference-
about a minute faster than his ’05 swim split. But
at this level that one minute makes a difference in how
the race sets up in the early miles of the bike. More significantly,
Stadler’s swim split form ’06 may not be comparable
to his previous swim times at Kona since at least one media
outlet, Dan Empfield’s Slowtwitch.com, reported a
significant ocean current working against swimmers during
the swim. The 2006 swim was oddly slow for everyone. The
fact that Stadler posted his fastest swim speaks volumes
about his improved swimming. It is possible Stadler’s
54:04 in 2006 may have been roughly equivalent to a swim
split a couple minutes faster in previous year’s conditions-
it’s tough to compare one year to the next in the
water at Kona. I wonder if the earth quake the week before
somehow influenced ocean currents….
Stadler had a plan and
the plan for his ’06 race and it was simple: Win Hawaii.
He swam hard, biked harder and then ran as hard as he could.
I rode with Normann Stadler
during a training ride before an obscure little race on
an obscure little island in Southeast Asia several years
ago. He was quiet, rhythmic and gentle on his bike as he
displaced huge volumes of air pushing into a punishing Thai
headwind in ninety degree heat. It was one of the most memorable
rides of my life. In the hour or so I stayed glued to Stadler’s
wheel I saw how it was done: Precision, technique, power,
determination, calmness. There was something quietly menacing
about his riding style. What do they write about the danger
of a quietly determined man? After that ride I came away
with a profound understanding of what a person had to do
on the bike to win Ironman. It was unimaginable before then.
Stadler’s bike split
in 2006 was 4:18:23. That is a new bike course record in
Kona. Do the math: It works out to an average speed of exactly
26 M.P.H. Considering the newer bike course in Kona that
means Stadler spent a lot of time in the lava fields riding
at 28 M.P.H. by himself. Think about the realities of doing
a 26 M.P.H. average for 112 miles. The best age groups guys
around here are hard pressed to do it for 15 miles in a
sprint triathlon. Stadler did it for over four hours in
the heat and wind of Hawaii. Then he ran a 2:55:03 marathon
for a pace of 6:40 per mile.
The bottom line on Stadler’s
victory is that it’s an epic. When the cannon sounded
on the pier Stadler went from the wire to win the race.
I doubt there was any portion of the race where he wasn’t
feathering his internal throttle against red line. During
the run the enormity of his struggle became evident. It
hurt. He was in pain. Despite a series of glances over his
shoulder he still looked determined to win. At no time did
Normann Stadler gave us
a gift when he crossed the line in Kona. He gave us something
that has been lost in other endurance sports like the Tour
de France and the Olympics. He gave us the clarity of knowing
that sometimes the fittest, fastest, best prepared athlete
does win. That racing is fair. That our sport rewards hard
work, daring and initiative. I want to thank Normann Stadler
for that, and for the most thrilling day of genuine endurance
racing I have seen in two decades.