2003 Ralph’s Half Ironman
By Michael Lovato
April 5, 2003 (San Diego, CA) – Ironman Champion. After finishing an Ironman race in first place, one earns the right to have this descriptive term permanently attached to his or her name. In all discussions triathlon-related, from pre-race hype to play-by-play action, this term quantifies the caliber of competition and the quality of the field. On April 5th, eight men and women possessing this very moniker joined several of the world’s long-distance elite in competing at Ralph’s Half Ironman California. For the second year in a row, the city of Oceanside and Camp Pendleton Marine base played host to one of the nation’s most competitive triathlons. In attendance were Heather Fuhr, Chuckie V, Chris Legh, Jamie Cleveland, Tim Deboom, Spencer Smith, Chris Lieto, Heather Gollnick and approximately thirty more professionals, each hoping to earn a share of the $25,000 prize purse.
In addition to the stacked pro field, over 1600 age-group athletes made the trek to southern California to vie for the 20 slots to qualify for Ironman Hawaii. As is typical at most of the country’s more popular events, numerous Colorado Triathletes made their way to this early season race in hopes of starting the year off on a positive note.
Arriving in the San Diego area in early April, I was shocked to find that the weather of this “sunny Southern California paradise” was quite chilly compared to that of our warming Colorado spring. In fact, anywhere near the water, it was downright cold. Adding to the chilly sea breeze a less than comfortable water temperature of 59 degrees, we had the makings of a brisk morning start. Many of my Colorado counterparts were caught warming up with a substantial amount of clothing. Boulder resident, Paul Fritzsche commented that, “after doing a lot of late morning/ early afternoon ITU races over the past couple years, it almost seems strange to have to get up early again and be out and about before the day heats up.” Amanda Gillam, preparing her transition while clad in fuzzy tights and a windbreaker, made sure to include arm warmers next to the standard T1 items. “I enjoy racing in bad conditions, I kind of hope it is cold when we come out of the water,” she noted as she began her warm-up. However, closer to start time, most of the participants began to realize that it was warming up considerably in comparison to the last couple mornings.
Due to the sizable field, the race directors decided it would be impossible to allow a pre-race swim warm-up. Changing venues from the twice-run Ironman California, the entire swim course would be confined to the calm waters of Oceanside Harbor. Lining up according to wave start, the multitude of age-group racers enjoyed a front row seat to watch the pro men and women enter and exit the chilly waters. Meanwhile four-time Hawaii Ironman finisher, Tim Hola awaited his turn to dip into the salty seawater, as his wife, Nikki readied her transition. The studly tri-duo was anxious for the race to get underway, and was likewise anxious for Tim to earn their trip back to the Big Island of Hawaii, thus affording them the opportunity to celebrate their one-year anniversary.
Holding a race the day before clocks switch for daylight savings is a smart idea. Not only do the race organizers avoid the possibility of athletes mistakenly arriving too early, but sunrise comes at a remarkably prompt 5:40 AM. This allows for a timely 6:40 start, without concerns of darkness hindering racers’ ability to spot swim buoys.
In just over 24 minutes, 2002 defending champion, Torbjorn Sindballe was the first to exit the water. Hot on his heels was defending Ironman World Champion, Tim Deboom, notching his first of three second-fastest splits on the day. Rounding out the remainder of the top six swimmers were ex-short-course stud, Paul Fritzsche, Jamie Cleveland, Chris Lieto, and eventual DNF, Spencer Smith. Roughly a minute back was a pack of five or six, including sometimes-Colorado-resident, Chuckie V (in his first race in 18 months) and myself.
After a lengthy transition, the lead group of five was off to tackle the scenic one-loop bike course, which toured the largest undeveloped stretch of California coastline south of Santa Barbara: Camp Pendleton Marine Base. Approximately fifteen miles into the 56-mile tour, Tim Deboom asserted his dominance over the man in pink, Spencer Smith. Unable to hold onto the snappy pace Deboom was maintaining over the gentle rollers, Smith pulled up and soon called it quits. Near the midway point, Deboom surrendered the lead to Chris Lieto, yet maintained contact with the new leader until entering transition 2.
Intent on dropping his cycling partner, Deboom set out with a torrid run pace, en route to notching his third second-fastest split on the day (the bike leg being his second). While the rest of the top five runners chased in vain, Deboom blitzed the mostly flat run course in a time of 1:13.56 to grab the overall win. With a view from the back, it appeared to me that Deboom had unintentionally set his clocks forwards a day early, for how else could he have amassed such a lead so soon? Also from my perspective, my race position seemed to be locked in: second place Rutger Beke of Belgium and third place Torbjorn Sindballe of Denmark were steadily becoming out of reach, and behind me the chasers looked to have too great a deficit to make good. However, while the three frontrunners held firm, a brutal late-game bonk had my race falling back as quickly as Tim seemed to be springing forwards. Through spots and stars, I began to see fellow Boulder resident, Paul Fritzsche gaining rapid ground. After a failed attempt to hold him off, Fritzsche overtook me with little more than a mile to go. Just after crossing the finish line ten seconds in arrears of my sometimes-training partner, I asked him about the latter half of his run. His thoughts were as follows: “after seeing that I was closer to Michael at the second turn around than I had been the first time, I decided to dig down deep and try to catch him on the way back.”
In state pride competition, Colorado emerged victorious over its rival triathlon state, California by landing three of the top five spots. California, although it heavily outnumbered us (with 12 men), only squeezed four total into the second half of the top ten (one of those being Chuckie V, more officially a Colorado resident, but listed as CA).
While a somewhat predictable men’s race was taking place, a more dramatic and far more exciting women’s race was unfolding. Living up to expectations, Lyons Colorado speedster, Nicole Deboom completed the 1.2-mile swim having swum the entire distance with Andrea Fisher and Deirdre Tennant. With a speedy transition Nicole pedaled off in first place, quickly putting a comfortable forty-five seconds between herself and her pursuers. Admitting that her early season bike fitness was not quite to her expectations, Deboom still managed to hold her lead through the forty-mile mark. Entering the “no passing/ no speeding” zone (a winding descent with a dangerous hairpin turn), Andrea sped gradually away from Nicole, managing to put just over a minute on her going into T2. Of her 56-mile jaunt, Nicole commented that it “showed me that I really need to improve my fitness to ride how I know I can ride. Basically, this race jump-started my fitness.”
Although eventual fifth place finisher, Lauren Jensen and former pro cyclist, Andrea Ratkovic tried to heat things up on the bike, it was not until the run that the true dramatics began… Leaving T2 with a 90-second lead over Deboom, Andrea Fisher looked strong through the first 6.5-mile loop. She seemed to be holding off the majority of the field, minus a hard-charging Jensen. Heading into lap two, Jensen had snagged the lead from a faltering Fisher, while positions behind them were anything but stable. Among the stalkers who looked to pose a challenge late in the half marathon was a formidable group of runners: Heather Fuhr (5 minutes down), Amanda Gillam (8 minutes down), Andrea Ratkovic (10 minutes down), and Dolly Ginter (14 minutes down).
Racing for the ever-changing lead, Fuhr ripped off a blistering 1:25.32 run en route to capturing the title in an overall time of 4:39.29. Along the way she became one of four women to pass a badly fading Lauren Jensen. Next to do so was Andrea Fisher, followed closely by Nicole Deboom. Finishing in fourth, by means of the fastest run of the day (1:24.53), was a totally spent Andrea Ratkovic. At some point occupying each of the top five spots during the run, Lauren Jensen held on for fifth. As for the valiant efforts of some of the other fleet footed competitors, Dolly Ginter used her third-fastest run of the day to finish in seventh, while Amanda Gillam of Boulder held together the remnants of a quick-paced run start to finish tenth in her debut pro race.
Upon completion of the pro races, hundreds and hundreds of speedy age groupers continued to battle each other and the challenging Oceanside course in quest of Hawaii slots, personal bests or just personal gratification and accomplishment. Among them were seasoned vets, Tim Hola of Denver, AJ Johnson and Nathan Kirkland both of Boulder. With only one Hawaii slot up for grabs, their 25-29 division was one of the most competitive around. In spite of solid performances for all three, earning a trip to the Big Island would have to wait. A Swiss man by the name of Marc Bamert snagged the sole spot, thus sending the Colorado trio back to the drawing boards. Coming just short of winning the coveted spot, Hola remarked that “I wanted to qualify, but more importantly, I just wanted to have a solid race considering it was only April 5.” He and his Boulder counterparts did just that: despite missing IM qualification, their top-five finishes were still impressive feats: Hola ended in second place, while Johnson ended a day of closely matched competition by out kicking Kirkland to snag fourth place by one second!
On another side of the age-group coin, Hola’s wife, Nikki, was very pleased to be out there testing herself against the same challenging course that pushed her husband. Although she was quite pleased with her own performance, her fondest memories of the day were sharing it with her family (her parents were spectators). Her deepest thoughts on the day were that “Tim inspires me every day with his passion for triathlon and for, most importantly, life. He takes everything in life with a smile, even if it’s tough.” With such encouragement and inspiration, it’s no wonder she enjoyed what others merely thought of as several hours of pain.
When all was said and done, at least two Ironman Champions showed that they have what it takes to back up all the pre-race talk; that the term really does indicate a little something about the caliber of race; and that another descriptive term can be used as well. The term: Half Ironman Champion.