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High Noon.
By Tom Demerly
Gladiators in battle.

The most elemental form of sport is the contest between two men. This is how sport started: two guys squaring off; may the best man win. One winner, one loser and the matter of who is the best man is decided. Few things in life are so clear cut.

This kind of contest harkens back to the days of the Romans and combat between Gladiators. It is the most dramatic of human competitions.

In 2007 the Ford Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii has become that kind of a contest. One man against another, Normann Stadler vs. Chris McCormack.

There are well over a thousand other men racing in Kona, so it is more than a two man race. There are at least six men with a reasonable chance of winning the whole thing. The idea of six men in contention is less straightforward than a one-on-one battle so the media and our minds have boiled it down to two guys: Stadler and Macca.

There is also the matter of the little tiff Stadler and Macca have had going since last year. Both men are rabid competitors. To pierce the haze of relentless suffering required to go around eight hours in Kona you have to be driven. You have to suffer for months in training, and then endure some titanic pain on race day. It’s been said before; the guy who loses is the one who decides second is good enough. The problem with that philosophy this year is there is no second place, only first place loser. We seldom see that in our sport where the ethos is finishing is winning and everyone’s a winner. This year in Kona, there will only be one winner.

The media has hyped it, stoked it, and even instigated it. I’m fine with that. It’s about time we had something straightforward in this sport. Endurance sports have taken it in the chops this year with the mess at the Tour de France and the debacle a couple weeks ago at the Chicago Marathon. Really all we have to show for this year is Haile Gebrselassie’s incredible marathon record in Berlin a few weeks ago. The rest of the endurance sports year has been a jumbled mess. We have a chance for dramatic redemption with the contest between Macca and Stadler. I hope that’s what we get.

You and I remember a similar contest 18 years ago this weekend. It’s become known as the “Ironwar”. Mark Allen vs. Dave Scott in 1989. I dream of something like that again. I doubt we’ll see something so polished and dramatic.

Mark Allen and Dave Scott are both gentlemen. The feel of the contest in 1989 was not one of gladiators kicking sand in each others faces and goring each other with swords but more of a gentlemanly duel with pistols at sunset on the Queen K. They did not sling insults or accusations. When the gun went off at 7:00 A.M. that year in Kona the two men found each other in the swim and began a quiet, polite game of brinkmanship that lasted the next eight hours. The two men were side by side the entire day. Neither one spoke to the other. There was nothing to say. They both knew they would play by the rules, they both knew they were excellent athletes and fine sportsmen. They both wished each other the best day they could have. Those things were a given; unspoken. One insider mentioned the only exchange between the men was a brief quip about the other's son- a joke when his wife was seen on the course. The race unfolded and at mile 23 of the marathon Dave Scott cracked just a tiny bit. That was all it took. Mark Allen won. After it was over the men had polite and congratulatory things to say about each other. It was all very warm and fuzzy.

It ain’t like that with Stadler and Macca. Depending on who you talk to Macca is a young punk cheat and Stadler is a self-important, arrogant braggard. Macca drafted last year on the bike and Stadler flipped someone the bird at the finish line. It flies back and forth. It is anything but gentlemanly and definitely has the feel of a hockey fight. I can even picture an official trying to pull these guys off each other somewhere on the run if they bumped shoulders. The duel between Stadler and Macca is decidedly less cordial than the one between Allen and Scott. Maybe that is a sign of the times.

Whatever it is this weekend we’ll have a heck of a race. People seem to have squared off as either Macca fans or Stadler fans.

Chris McCormack is an Aussie with the attendant national attitude. He is open and honest in his opinions and doesn’t play politics. In recent interviews he has done the math on this year’s Hawaii and is already talking about his strategy for “absorbing the win”. He’s won ten Ironmans around the world but never the big one. Macca wants this one so bad it hurts. It is the one thing missing from his resume: A Hawaii win. Beating Stadler to get it would be the icing on the cake. He doesn’t like Stadler. As far as Macca is concerned Hawaii is just a formality. He’ll be on the beach in Kona on Saturday, dispense with that pesky little German and then, and I quote, “I will continue to race Triathlon events around the world because I love the challenge of this sport and I love so much the competition and the people in the sport. I will just be an Ironman World Champion and that would be pretty sweet.”

So Macca’s ready to party and do his victory lap of the world with his Kona crown. Macca can win this race. He himself has argued that he is “The best triathlete in the world” and he is probably right about that. He has won at every distance, usually in pretty commanding style. The problem is he has never won in Kona. In triathlon, that is a big problem. Macca can ride, swim and run- especially run. He nearly caught a rather nervous looking Stadler in the last miles of the run at Kona last year. It was a nail-biter. A year has gone by for Macca to re-evaluate his tactical decisions, work on his cycling and generally get pissed. He might win…

Stadler is a quiet man. Dignified to Macca’s brash demeanor. He also typifies his national character as a German: Precise, quiet and relentless. Only once did Stadler display anything other than cool detachment when he flatted in Kona and threw a brief temper tantrum, understandable for a man under such pressure. He does have his moments of candor, and in them he has professed a disdain for the racing style and audacity of Macca. Stadler thinks Macca cheated last year on the bike by drafting. Stadler had simply rode off the front and wailed on the bike so hard he built an unassailable lead. He’ll probably do the same thing this year. It could very well work. Again. Stadler is a man who knows what he has to do. He says he is unaffected by the rivalry between himself and Macca. He says that, but I doubt it’s true. Stadler is annoyed with Macca. The Aussie is a like a little buzzing fly that circles Stadler’s head buzzing on about “I’m going to win Hawaii! I’m going to win Hawaii!” You can bet Stadler packed his fly-swatter for the trip to Hawaii. If Stadler simply rides away from Macca on the bike and Macca can’t answer it will be humiliating for Macca and will deify Stadler as the cool master of Kona, the Kaiser of the Queen K. Stadler has been slightly more soft spoken that Macca in the media, but when I was in San Diego two weeks ago where Stadler had been preparing people said Stadler was melting asphalt with his bike speed. Stadler isn’t taking chances. He is going to Kona with a new bike, new racing colors and an old racing style: Pummel the competition into submission and send them back down under.

I have only met one of the men in question. Rode my bike with him. That man, I won’t say whom, is my favorite and I think he will win. The other guy will lose and look foolish.

Whatever happens we are in for a splendid race, a gun fight at high noon in Kona. With about 1800 athletes there will be a lot of great performances, but this year will likely be remembered as the year one man won and the other lost. Saturday we find out the names.

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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