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New Champion, New Era.
By Tom Demerly.


Two triathletes zipping up a wetsuit.

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 in Kona.

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”.

Until 2004.

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 he concede.

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.

 

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© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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