Triathlon’s perfect storm – Covid-19; the rise of the PTO (Professional Triathletes Organisation); the unorthodox but socially distanced lap race held on a famous car racetrack circuit... From the decimation of the 2020 season came a showdown rarely seen in the sport of triathlon, pitching the Olympic distance athletes against the Ironman specialists. Challenge Daytona – a 2km swim, 80km bike and 18km run. It was to be the short-course high revers versus the long-format diesels.

Ironman events and ITU Olympic distance races have been two separate worlds, with protagonists choosing to focus on their speciality and rarely shall the two meets. With the ‘mid-distance’ Daytona Challenge attracting the fittest, most motivated and on-form multisport athletes in the world, we had a rare chance to see some unanswered questions, well, answered.

SwiftCarbon athlete and Olympic medallist Henri Schoeman (himself an exponent of the briefer, draft-legal events) got a good view of proceeding affairs, right from the front of the field. He ended the day as the fastest ITU proponent. Here is how it went down, in his own words:

“A few factors made me decide to race Challenge Daytona. I've had my I've had my eyes on it the entire year and it always looked really interesting to me – to race on this kind of course I think was always going to be ‘epic’ and there was a lot of talk of it throughout the season. With the pandemic happening there was talk that this race was going to be held still (while other races were getting cancelled). Everyone wanted to race it so it was always going to be a big one with all the athletes. I also wanted to start mixing up a few 70.3 middle distance events after the Olympics, so I think it was a great opportunity for me to get some high-level experience in a middle distance event.

“My preparation didn't change too much – from ITU to Challenge Daytona training. We did start to incorporate a few longer intervals into the training, and we focused a little bit more on strength on the bike because it was a flat and you need power to get through the 80km cycle. Also, with the running, we focused on some longer distances with longer intervals, but nothing too long because I still out. It was just to get a little bit more endurance but not lose too much of the speed, so we were just playing within that farmland. In the build-up I started changing some of the training sessions about a month and a half out so we couldn't push the distance too far and closer to the event we started to add some shorter harder sessions.

“When I arrived at the race the vibe was really awesome and my first my first encounter with the Daytona venue was arriving was driving along the International Speedway – that was amazing with the racecourse on the side. It is just huge… almost looking like a Colosseum. Before the race it was really cool with all the athletes arriving and, you know, mixing with all athletes was really great experience, to meet new people in the sport from the longer distances – a chance to make new friends and hopefully in the future race more against them.

“On race day my race strategy was to be in the front in the swim – in the beginning I wanted to have a look how things would pan out in the first 100 or 200 metres instead of just going out to the front. I was feeling really good so after 200 metres I went to the front to push the pace and split the guys up without overexerting myself.

“On the bike I wanted to rather follow, to slot in at position two or three for as long as I could and stay there as long as I could. I actually found I was really strong on the bike and was able to stay at the front for most of the bike leg – really encouraging and it boosted my confidence. On the run I knew I had very good legs so even if I lost some time on the bike I know I could reel in some guys, but at this distance you never really know what's going to happen. So, it was all about just making sure that I paced myself, raced within my own limits and making sure that I focused on getting in nutrition and hydration that I needed during the race.

“My biggest rivals going into the race were the Brownlee brothers. I always knew Alistair and Johnny were going to be around me. Alistair went to the front on the bike leg and I knew he would do that so I kind of let him go right as we jumped on the bikes. He was my target – just to stay as close to him as possible.

“Drafting in the bike was not allowed (typical of long-distance triathlons) and I had to make a few passes on the course, especially the lapped athletes. That definitely put a sting in the legs – with the 20m following rule, every time you have to make a pass because you're putting in about an extra 70 to 100 Watts for 40 seconds! So, from that perspective it's quite a difficult bike course because a lap is only 4.5km and you pass many lapped athletes– a little different to an out-and-back course.

“I got puncture about 6km to go on the bike. Fortunately, I had some sealant in my back wheel so it did it did close up, but I lost air pressure and that definitely did make a difference, especially when rolling at 45 – 50km/h… you really feel the road sucking you down. Fortunately, it wasn't for too long to go but I did lose a good 15-20 seconds which obviously affected me going into the run. I didn't push any harder – I just maintained my effort, but it was hard because I my legs were starting to really hurt. I was still pretty confident, so I just made sure that I got to the transition and focused on the run.

“Heading out onto the run I started really easy – to use the first kilometre or two to just to stretch the legs and open up a little bit get into a rhythm. Then it started to just flow, and I felt like I was running really easy even though I was catching the front guys really quickly which felt amazing. I was really confident that I was going to be on the podium.

“But with 5 – 10km to go I started feeling cramps in my legs and I was slowly tightening up and there was really nothing that I could do. In the last lap the guys started picking up the pace and I was slowing down because of the cramps. I went second place to seventh. I'm disappointed with that there was nothing I could do, but I'm still learning, understanding the extra distance, and knowing more about myself and my capabilities.

“There are a lot of positives that I can take out of this race I went into it wanting a top ten and I exceeded that. You know, it's bittersweet, when you can almost taste the podium with the best athletes across all formats in triathlon there in the biggest race of the year. But I can’t be upset – in fact I'm actually really happy I executed the race exactly how I wanted to.

As an organisation, the PTO has done some amazing things this year, putting up a lot of prize money – the $1,150,000 purse is amazing and to get all the athletes together safely was great especially with the pandemic really bad in the USA. I love the format I think it's a great distance for me – a little shorter than a 70.3 Ironman. They have bit plans with more races coming which I hope to be a part of. I think there's a big future for PTO.”

Shares Photos: Tommy Zafires @challengedaytona