Images courtesy @becclarke_tri
By Kent Gray/TRI NZ
The tragic death of fellow Kiwi long-distance triathlete Emily McNaughtan has provided Rebecca Clarke with an extra spur ahead of Sunday’s $1 million PTO U.S. Open in Dallas, Texas.
McNaughtan passed away in Wellington Hospital on Sunday, a week after a mountain bike accident that has left the Kiwi triathlon community stunned and sent sadness reverberating around the swim, bike, run globe.
Clarke raced against the promising Wellingtonian several times, including last year’s IRONMAN New Zealand in Taupo where McNaughtan sensationally made the podium behind Hannah Berry (nee Wells) and Clarke in what was just her second Pro start.
Speaking to Tri NZ from Dallas, a visibly emotional Clarke vowed to ‘Race for Emily’ in the women’s race which takes the gun at 4.35am on Sunday (NZT). Lancashire-born Kiwi Kyle Smith (Taupo) will carry New Zealand hopes in the men’s race from 7.35am on Monday (NZT) with both races live on Sky Sport channel 59.
“I knew Emily quite well so I’ll also be racing with her in mind…a beautiful person,” said Clarke.
The world of long-distance triathlon can be an inward-looking pursuit but Clarke agreed McNaughtan’s death had put everything into sharp perspective.
“There’s racing and then there’s things like that in life and, yeah, it makes you appreciate that you are able to be healthy and do these things because life can be short like that.
“It will be nice to do a race and think of her and have a good race for her.”
The invite to race Dallas is timely for Clarke who is counting down to her maiden appearance at the IRONMAN World Championships in Kona, Hawaii on October 6 (the men’s race follows on October 8).
While her main focus is on legendary Kona, Clarke is also keen to perform well in the 100km Dallas race to crack the top-50 of the Professional Triathletes Organisation (PTO) rankings with all its associated financial rewards and promise of guaranteed PTO starts in 2023.
The 33-year-old Aucklander admits the step up in field quality over the next month is equal parts “exciting and scary” but feels ready after a training block in humid Woodlands, Texas. The field in Dallas includes Kat Matthews, fellow Brit Lucy Charles-Barclay and Aussie Ashleigh Gentle, the world No’s four, five and six respectively.
“This race was a late addition to the schedule so I kind of feel it’s a bonus race and obviously each race you go into you want to do well,” said Clarke.
“I haven’t had the biggest taper because I’m conscious there’s only so many days left now between now and Kona so I didn’t want to completely sacrifice training for this race. But I’m stilling feeling that I can perform well off the short taper and the shorter race. I feel confident.”
Dallas is a 2km swim, 80km bike and 18km run. That’s a step up from Clarke’s two most recent races in August where she saw an improvement in her running to finish 5th at IM 70.3 Zell am See and 7th at the World Triathlon Long Distance Championship in Samorin, Slovakai, the latter a day after competing in the Collins Cup, triathlon’s answer to golf’s Ryder Cup.
“I feel the ironman training has been helping me with the strength in my last two half ironman distances,” Clarke said.
“I was running really well for my level [compared to] where I’ve been in the past. I’ve improved my run so that gives me confidence and I know with my strong swim, I’m usually at the front and in this race [Dallas], if you lose much time at the start you have to claw that back but I’m aiming to be right at the front in the swim.”
Victory on Sunday promises a $100,000 payday with a sliding scale that will earn even the 20th-place finisher $5000. As Clarke says, triathlon is “not the easiest sport to make money in” so the minor placings in Dallas are not to be sneezed at, especially not with all the expenses of Kona looming.
“…when there is a points and quite a big financial difference, I’m not going to be outsprinted in the last 200 metres.”
There are also critical ranking points to think about. Clarke is currently 51st in the PTO rankings but knows sneaking into the top 40 by year’s end will guarantee more big money starts in 2023.
It means wringing every last ounce of effort out her body.
“In other races, you might be ‘okay, I’m fifth or sixth and I’m not going to catch fourth’ but I think everyone in this race is going to be pretty close together, there’s not going to be much separating so that 30 seconds could mean a couple of extra places.
“You don’t normally sprint to the line for 16th, 17th place but when there is a points and quite a big financial difference, I’m not going to be outsprinted in the last 200 metres.”
Clark will return to Woodlands to round out her prep in similar conditions to Kona before flying to the famed Hawaiian Island nine days before the world championships.