Predictably, for the first Ironman triathlon to take place in Ireland, the main obstacle proved not to be the gruelling race itself but the weather conditions that greeted more than 2,600 athletes on Claycastle Beach yesterday morning.
Word had filtered through overnight that the water and air temperatures forecast for the 6.30am start could delay proceedings and mean an adjusted swim course distance, but as dawn broke over Youghal a more difficult decision had to be made.
The rough sea conditions and low temperatures meant this Ironman would have to proceed without the racers getting into the water.
Athletes were naturally disappointed not to be facing the full Ironman challenge but understanding of the move by race organisers.
Brothers Mark and Colm Daly from Ennis had yet to change out of their wetsuits but felt the decision was the right one. “It’s a pity the way the conditions have turned out and the swim being cancelled but it is what it is. If it’s not safe it’s not safe, you need the kayaks and the safety team to be able to follow people in water if they are in distress.”
With the Ironman returning to Youghal for the next two years it was a somewhat disappointing start, although Mark made the point that next year could be a different proposition. “This time last year it was 30 degrees so it would have been the opposite effect, we would have been melting. We’d have wanted to stay in the swim and have no bike or run!”
The Ironman challengers still had a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run to contend with.
Encapsulating the mindset of an Ironman athlete, Colm said the worst was yet to come as he “always considered the swim to be the handy part”.
For some the bad conditions posed too much of a safety hazard. Carolyn Shea from Boston, a veteran of 17 Ironmans, warned of treacherous road conditions including the risk of “hydroplaning on the surface of the road” and potholes hidden by puddles of water. Hypothermia was also very much a live issue even without the swim — the cold capable of quickly draining energy on the saddle — and inevitably there were retirements throughout the day.
Carolyn promised to come back next year, hailing the work put in behind the scenes. “The town did such a great job, everything was perfect,” she said. “The people were great, everybody was very hospitable. It’s been a great experience, one of the better ones I’ve had.”
This was the tone around Youghal as athletes and spectators alike praised the effort put in by all involved — not least the army of volunteers both in the town and across East Cork. Many of those visiting the area for the event may have suffered with the weather but still felt the warmth of the local welcome.
One of the attractions of Ironman Youghal for the elite athletes was the chance to qualify for the Ironman World Championship, and even without the full circuit there were still qualification spots up for grabs for the men’s and womens’ winners. Alistair Brownlee, the double Olympic triathlon gold medallist, was hoping to qualify in his first Ironman event.
If the weather was a surprise to these athletes, so too was the steep incline of Windmill Hill in the heart of Youghal. The 21% gradient proved too much for many, with even experienced racers temporarily dismounting to take on the climb as cries of encouragement from the many spectators filled the air.
Irish eyes were smiling as Dundalk man Bryan McCrystal led on the cycle ahead of the likes of the German Markus Thomschke and the aforementioned Brownlee whose specialty in Olympic triathlons was to eat up ground on the final running leg. McCrystal drew massive support as he took a 12-minute head-start into the marathon-length run which took the athletes under the iconic Youghal Clock Tower and through the streets of the old town.
Among the crowd cheering on McCrystal was Oliver Cooney from Carrigtwohill who said he had been “swept up” by the excitement. “It’s a great opportunity to see top-class athletes battling the elements, I’m glad I came down even though I’m drenched!”
By the first lap of the four-lap circuit Brownlee had overtaken Thomschke and whittled McCrystal’s lead down to just under nine minutes. Those on the streets of Youghal responded in kind with McCrystal — formerly a professional footballer who spent time at Leeds United — cheered on under heavy rain and no shortage of umbrellas and ponchos.
It wasn’t to be for McCrystal as the indomitable Brownlee made his running pedigree count in the end, finishing in a time of 7:44:16 with McCrystal closely behind in a time of 7:49:45 and Thomschke in third in 7:58:45.
Anja Ippach similarly took a two-minute lead into the run in the women’s race, fending off the Swiss triathlete Emma Bilham through the cycle. Bilham, however, made up the ground on the opening lap of the four-lap run and powered through to victory in a time of 8:50:18, with Ippach forced to pull out with back pain. Pleuni Hooijman of the Netherlands and US athlete Amanda Wendorff flanked Bilham on the podium in times of 9:19:50 and 9:28:32 respectively.
Irishwoman Michelle Heneghan also gave a strong showing, finishing with a time of 09:50:01 in fourth position. Heneghan and McCrystal were the home favourites but Brownlee and Bilham both spoke positively about the large crowd in attendance after the race and the support of the spectators.
For all that the plaudits will go to those on the podium, every athlete that finished within the allotted time fully earned the “Ironman” moniker in what were difficult, even treacherous, conditions.
And while Ironman may be an individual race a massive team effort was required behind the scenes from volunteers and race organisers alike, as East Cork managed to show the best of itself once again despite the weather.
Roll on next year, provided the sun shines.