While Faris Al-Sultan's 30-minute-plus victory at Ironman Malaysia appeared easy, nothing could be further from the truth. "In Kona you can't have a bad second on the run, but here I had some bad kms," he said minutes after finishing the race. "Heat-wise this was very tough. It was hard."
After a tough 2007 season that saw the 2005 Ford Ironman Champion struggle at the Frankfurter Sparkasse Ironman European Championship in his home country before missing Kona completely thanks to a virus, Al-Sultan felt some pressure going into the Malaysian event. “I could only lose,” he said. “Now that I won, of course everyone will say that I was supposed to win as an ex-Hawaii champion. On the other hand, if I hadn’t won, they would have said 'He’s done.' So I’m very happy that I can get some confidence back. I know that if my training is right, I still belong with the best.”
Despite the huge gap between Al-Sultan and his competition at the finish line, the German didn't want the race to be close going into the run. On two other occassions he'd been run down by Petr Vabrousek, and he didn't want to allow that to happen again.
“I wanted to put some distance to my opponents on the bike. I know that Petr is very solid. The last two races I wasn’t in 100 per cent shape – in Frankfurt in ’07 and in South Africa in ’06 – both times he caught me on the run. I didn’t want that to happen again.
“I was really happy that Mathieu (O'Halloran) did the pace in the water, so I didn’t have to do it. It was reasonably fast, but not too fast. On the bike I tried to go one gear lower than I could, just to make sure I didn’t kill myself on the bike.”
Al-Sultan certainly didn't “kill” himself on the ride, increasing his lead during the marathon to claim the Ironman Malaysia title with ease. Now comes a big rest before building up for the race in Frankfurt. Then, of course, there's Hawaii. The last time Al-Sultan won an early season Ironman, he went on to claim the Ford Ironman World Championship title. Is this his year to repeat that feat?
Granger guts it out
In 2003, with a solid lead off the bike, Belinda Granger faltered during the marathon and was passed by Gillian Baker. Determined not to repeat that experience this year, the Australian ran a gutsy marathon in Malaysia this year to hold off Yvonne van Vlerken for the title.
“The last three kilometers I was making all kinds of noises,” Granger said shortly after her win. “If you were near me you’d have thought I was dying. I’m a lot more experienced than I was in 2003. I’d only been doing the sport for three years then, now I’ve been doing it forever. I’m a bit wiser and I have a bit more patience.
“Even though I really pushed myself on the bike, I felt like I was within myself the whole way, which made a big difference for the marathon.”
This isn't the first time Granger has managed to hold off a strong runner during the marathon. Two years ago Granger used the same strategy to beat Lisa Bentley at Ironman Canada – at the suggestion of her coach, Brett Sutton.
“That’s exactly what he told me to do in Canada two years ago,” Granger said. “Get a lead off the bike, but don’t go out too crazy in the marathon and just make them work – so every time they look at their watch they’ve only made up 30 seconds, or they’ve only made up a minute, so it really starts getting demoralizing and they end up blowing up. It happened with Lisa and it happened with Yvonne. It’s a strategy that works. I’m never going to be a three-hour marathon runner, so I have to think of other ways of making sure that other girls don’t catch me.”
After losing to van Vlerken at an Ironman distance event in Germany last year, Granger was thrilled to claim the victory in Malaysia.
“I think it was really important for me to get this win over Yvonne,” said the Australian. “She really did make Jo (Lawn) and I look pretty ordinary in Germany last year. I knew that this race was going to suit me rather than Yvonne.”
Granger will use this win to help her better prepare both physically and mentally for the Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona this year.
“My biggest downfall is that I lack confidence when it comes to running off the bike. In Kona every year the women are really close and I let my mind get the better of me. A win here under such conditions going to Kona ... there’s just no excuse. As my husband Justin said, a win here today means there’s no reason I can’t run a good marathon in Kona.”
You can reach Kevin Mackinnon at email@example.com.