The swim and bike legs of the women’s Pro race at IRONMAN Florida 2021 had the feel of an individual time trial, but the run was all action, and when all was said and done, a sub three-hour marathon from Heather Jackson was enough to earn the $15,000 first prize and a coveted start for the IRONMAN World Championship, Kona 2022.
Swimmer-turned-triathlete Rachel Zilinskas (USA) was the first athlete back to the Panama City Beach sand after the first lap of the swim, and given our leader stopped the clock at 29:01 at that point, conditions were were certainly not going to give rise to any records in the water.
The race favourites followed one by one, with Challenge Almere winner Sarissa de Vries (NED) +0:47, Imogen Simmonds (SUI) +1:37, Hannah Wells (NZL) +1:50, Jocelyn McCauley (USA) +3:22, Skye Moench (USA) +4:42 and Heather Jackson (USA) +5:53. The ‘long’ swim (in time), was likely to further benefit the new Pro over the second lap as those gaps were set to further grow. Zilinskas was going to need every advantage given the career successes of the athletes chasing her.
59:38 was the final swim time for Zilinskas, further confirming the slow times in the water, with de Vries not even breaking the hour (1:00:49), despite the second best time. She was just 71 seconds down on the former collegiate swimmer. Simmonds maintained her position over the second lap of the swim to reach T1 just 2:19 back, with Hannah Wells four minutes back.
Bike – honours even
In contrast to the men’s Pro event and its powerful leading group on the bike, the women continued the very solo nature of their race over the two-lap, 180km bike course.
It was no surprise that de Vries was able to quickly catch the early swim leader Zalinskas. She quickly made the pass and would remain at the front of the race until transition came into sight more than four hours later.
By 50 miles into the bike, the Dutch athlete headed another European Simmonds by 3:14 with McCauley at 4:45, Moench at 7:30, Hannah Wells +7:51 and Jackson just under nine minutes in arrears. De Vries was the quickest rider on the course at this point, but there was little more than two minutes difference between all six in terms of their pace over the first couple of hours of riding. Plenty of distance still to cover though, and certainly too early for predictions.
De Vries finished the ride with a 4:39:48 bike split and a lead of 2:16 over Simmonds. McCauley, Jackson and Moench all arrived in close order for 3rd/4th/5th – between 5:30 and 6:30 down. By the time transition was done, even those differences were virtually eliminated and all three started the marathon just seconds apart, just over six minutes back.
Given the quality of all five athletes, all of the podium slots were still fully up for grabs. That was reflected in their bike splits – less than three-and-a-half minutes between the fastest (Jackson, 4:37:49) and slowest (Simmonds, 4:41:09).
Incurring a drafting penalty, Wells would have to spend five minutes in the penalty tent and was unlikely now to challenge the top five.
Run – Jackson roars to victory
It was all-action from the start on the run with Simmonds immediately cutting into the lead of De Vries. At the same time however Moench and Jackson, running side-by-side, were both running faster than the Swiss star. It was all compressing at the front of the race and around the 8km mark Simmonds took the lead from the World Triathlon Long Distance Champion.
At the same time, Moench and Jackson were less than 3:30 behind. And closing.
At the midpoint of the run Simmonds was pretty much on three-hour marathon pace and still leading, but now she had Jackson just two minutes behind and closing, with Moench fighting to try and stay with her fellow US athlete. The podium now looked like it would be between this trio with McCauley just over 10 minutes down on Simmonds in fourth place.
Simmonds was looking good on the run, but Jackson was running even quicker. It took 26km, but Jackson closed the gap to the 2019 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship bronze medallist and move straight past into the lead. While Jackson had finally dropped the tough Moench, Skye was far from blowing up and she too was trying to catch Simmonds. Plenty of racing still left over the final 10 miles of racing.
Just a mile later and the wheels were falling off big time for Simmonds. She was sitting on the side of the road, allowing Moench to move into second place perhaps sooner than expected. The big question though was could Simmonds recover and get herself moving again? If not, fourth-placed McCauley was primed to make it an all Stars and Stripes podium… that was if she could hold off the fast-running German Laura Zimmerman. While the bike was ‘as you were’, the run was all action.
While Imogen continued to struggle, the German continued to motor and soon the top three was Jackson, Moench and Zimmerman. Finally, in the last couple of miles we seemingly had our top three set. Long-time leader de Vries meanwhile was out of the race along the way.
A VERY emotional Jackson crossed the line – with a 2:59:28 marathon – to add another IRONMAN victory to her C.V. and a sub nine-hour clocking. That also secures her start for the IRONMAN World Championship in October 2022. A win-double.
Moench – already qualified for Kona 2022 – also went sub-nine via a 3:03:06 marathon for second place. With two Kona slots available, that meant great news for third-placed Laura Zimmerman, who completed the podium after starting the run back in seventh place.
IRONMAN Florida 2021 Results – PRO Women
Saturday 6 November 2021 – 3.8km / 180km / 42.2km
1. Heather Jackson (USA) – 8:52:572. Skye Moench (USA) – 8:56:363. Laura Zimmerman (GER) – 9:08:014. Jocelyn McCauley (USA) – 9:10:015. Hannah Wells (NZL) – 9:14:026. Imogen Simmonds (SUI) – 9:16:447. Kelly Fillnow (USA) – 9:26:41
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