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Giving world championship vibes
A race for the record books.
Kona special edition: Oct. 15, 2023
Reminder: This is a special edition from the first women’s Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. We will be back with a shorter regular newsletter on Wednesday.
In 2014, Daniela Ryf went 9:02:57 and got second here. This year, 16 women finished under nine hours. The course record was broken (8:24:31), the run record was broken (2:48:23). Even with those numbers, it’s hard to quantify how fast and how intense and how much the racing was at another level. I’ve been at a lot of world championship finish lines and I have never seen that many of the women in the top 10 so messed up, crawling, laying on the ground, not enough energy to lift up their arms. Laura Philipp didn’t even make it to the post-race press conference
Sure, yes, technology contributed to the times. And, yes, it was a good day weather-wise. Absolutely. But, also, mostly, this is what happens when you invest in the women’s side of the sport and you showcase it and you give the athletes resources and role models and the stage. It grows and it develops and it elevates.
You know what else happened: Every single woman (all 2,054) who entered the water made the swim cut-off.
I don’t think anyone predicted Lucy Charles-Barclay was going to go wire-to-wire for a course record win. Literally, everyone who has talked this week has said some version of: With this deep a field there are more people who can keep up with Lucy, she’s been injured and didn’t look as good in Singapore, it’ll be a big group out of T1.
And then Lucy was like: No.
Reportedly, the last woman to lead wire-to-wire was Lyn Lemaire in 1979, but I’m not really sure that counts since she was, like, the only woman that year. Mark Allen also told me the last athlete, male or female, to lead wire-to-wire was Dave Scott in 1982 (but I’d have to fact check that).
Basically, it’s really hard to do. It took Lucy five tries. And she had to know that if she was going to win it was going to be in this fashion, and so she had to prepare herself mentally for being in front all day. It was going to take a best-ever kind of day—and that’s what she had.
All day, throughout the bike (and even, later, on the run), people in the crowd kept obsessing about one or another athlete moving up or moving back—but in reality Lucy was just maintaining and putting time on everyone. In reality, she was swimming fast, riding fast, and running fast. As athletes behind moved around, she just gapped and gapped everyone. Except for Taylor Knibb on the bike. And then except for Anne Haug and Laura Philipp on the run (and eventually Chelsea Sodaro moving up through the field, too). Even as Lucy got off the bike: Is she gaining, is she losing? Is 10 minutes really enough to hold off Laura? Is 12 really enough to hold off Anne? The answer was yes, but only because Lucy ran a 2:57, herself. (She said she thought she could still run faster, but you know, you take what you get on as perfect a day as you can have.)
The other discussion all week was about vibes. So much so that I have now banned the use of the word “vibes” after tomorrow. Everyone has wanted to know: What are the vibes? How are the vibes? Does it feel like a world championship, are there world champ vibes? I’m half-convinced this has all only happened because we, here, started talking about vibing.
It’s a fair question though. And it’s a fair question only partially because so many people were worried the vibes weren’t going to feel like a real world championship. (They shouldn’t have worried. It was 100% world championship vibes.)
But the main reason it’s a fair question is actually because so much of what people get either wrong or right when creating something where groups who are not historically the dominant or default group (ie. in this case, women) feel included is the vibes. You have to get the vibes right. And that’s easy to mess up: context, history, phrasing, details, language, videos, angles….vibes.
All week, everyone has been telling me the vibes were right. They kept saying how amazing it was to see all these strong fast women all in one place, how much it meant to their daughters, how much it meant to them. How crazy and new and different it felt. They’ve been telling me the energy wasn’t the same as most races, less douche, more supportive. Word is there was significantly less trash to pick up after athletes in the morning and far fewer complaints to the town about athletes behaving badly (primarily, true story, the complaints were about the various men here doing things they shouldn’t be doing). All week, everyone has been saying the vibe was world championship but make it women. It felt, just a little bit, like for one week, we didn’t have to explain or caveat. As if we weren’t overshadowed or made smaller or required to be anything other than everything we are. You could feel it in the press conferences: The women got to bring out their personalities just a little more, people listened to Daniela’s jokes, the women made more jokes, they were able to really talk about what they cared about. They were given the space to do so.
And all of that is true. But you know what actually did me in? It wasn’t seeing a race of all women. (Apparently, my brain processes thousands of female athletes as completely normal.) It was seeing all the husbands and dads and boyfriends during the race taking care of the kids — pushing them in strollers, or carrying them, or chasing them around. It’s not that that never happens on an individual level (of course it does); it’s that it never happens at this scale and scope and degree, that an entire event fundamentally has to be built on the fact that someone else *must* be on childcare duty. Systemically, here and in this moment, the typical default had to change by necessity. And that, for me, was the whole damn vibe.
A few Kona odds & ends:
I had a medium-long(ish) interview with Anne Haug after the press conference about the fact that she developed COVID-related diabetes after contracting COVID in 2021 and it took a long time to figure out how to fuel when she can’t fully process carbs as well anymore without spiking her blood sugar. She relies now on more protein and amino acids. It finally seemed to work out here, and she was pretty happy with that.
Taylor Knibb was walking the stiffest post-race — which probably happens after your first marathon ever — and just wanted to lay down after the finish line. She’s also, obviously, a fan favorite — and, by fan, I mean my mom’s favorite and, plus, I think she’s great for the sport. People keep saying to me that she needs media training, but I’m not sure she does. How can you not find it endearing when she starts talking to the commentators on the motos next to her? (And, yes, she evidently talked to them consistently and about a range of topics.) Maybe this is what we actually want. Maybe we didn’t even know we wanted it.
Taylor dropped both her water bottles out of the rear cages (and the third drop was what got her the 60-second unintentional littering penalty). She also was worried she’d missed the penalty tent because — well, long story, which she told me, but basically the tent wasn’t where it was supposed to be.
Yes, right now, she really wants to do Nice next year, too. We’ll see.
I think a huge huge shoutout has to go to Chelsea for 6th place — precisely because it wasn’t what she came here for. It seemed (and this is just my opinion) that many of the women were farther back than they intended, because they didn’t quite realize how big a gap had developed to Lucy. And it takes a lot, in that kind of circumstance, when you come off the bike 20 minutes back, to keep battling and run a 2:53. It means she’s absolutely able to fight back from setbacks and will win this race again because of that.
Laura Siddall also deserves every kind of shoutout for going sub-9 coming off the crash and concussion this year and racing on a wildcard.
Kat Matthews seemed to have just had a bad rough day. People out on course said she was weaving and out of it, and had to drop about halfway into the bike.
Interestingly, penalties didn’t really play into the dynamics too much — or, maybe, trying to not get one did.
Lucy Bartholomew became the second woman ever to finish UTMB and Kona in the same year. (Top ten at the first, 10:43 at the second.)
And I met a number of women this week racing with MS, racing with cancer, racing with autism. Racing from all kinds of places and lives and circumstances. It was a whole vibe.