By Kent Gray/Triathlon.kiwi
When you’ve wanted something so badly for so long, it’s hard to be patient. Mercifully for Rebecca Clarke, the anticipation of racing the Ironman World Championships and hopefully ticking off long-distance triathlon’s ultimate bucket-lister with some panache is almost over.
At 5.25am Friday NZT time, the 33-year-old Aucklander will take the cannon in Kailua-Kona Bay as the sole Kiwi in a Pro Women’s field that has never been stronger.
After an eye-catching eighth placing at last month’s PTO U.S. Open in Dallas, there is inevitably heightened expectation. But Clarke, with every ounce of her being, has tried to temper the external noise.
She knows what the big race on the Big Island can do to debutants. She’s been to Kona as a spectator and has read ‘Iron War’, Matt Fitzgerald’s tale of the legendary 1989 mano o mano between fierce American rivals Dave Scott and Mark Allen. The pressure valve could easily pop but so far, Clarke is keeping the butterflies in check.
“I’ve been here nearly a week and everyday town seems to get busier and the hype increases,” Clarke told Triathlon.kiwi on Tuesday.
“It’s been great to have time to check out key parts of the course, Energy Lab, Hawi, and settle in. Soaking it up as much as possible while balancing making sure I’m not spending too much time on my feet, in the heat and maximising recovery.
“I’ve been feeling really good in all my sessions so now it’s just about executing the performance on Thursday [Friday NZT]. Nerves are certainly there – I would be worried if they weren’t – but overall just feeling pumped and excited to experience this race.”
For all the excitement, the return journey to Kona, this time as an athlete, hasn’t been without its bumps. “…covid pandemic, working through grief, lockdowns, cancelled races… it feels like a win already to be lining up fit, healthy and ready to go,” as Clarke said in her latest Insta post.
Indeed. Clark qualified by finishing runner-up to Aussie Sarah Crowley at Ironman Australia in May in a time of 9hrs 7mins but the road to the sport’s most recognisable race has been littered with hurdles. After emerging as a genuine talent by winning the 20-24 age-group title at the then ITU grand final in Beijing in 2011, Clarke went on to represent New Zealand at the Olympic distance before stepping away from the sport in 2016 after a string of setbacks.
Thankfully, she is since found her niche in the longer distances. Last year, she finished runner-up to Hannah Berry (nee Wells) at Ironman New Zealand and has since got her Professional Triathletes Organisation (PTO) ranking into the all-important top 40.
“It is really exciting,” Clarke says of finally reaching her long term goal.
“I went there to watch in 2018 even before I’d even raced in Ironman. I was planning to race Ironman NZ the next year, so about six months later. So I couldn’t grasp how an Ironman felt yet but knew I wanted to do one and thought if I do get into Ironman and enjoy it, I’d definitely love to come and race at Kona. It’s the biggest race in the long-distance world, a race that is known outside even if you don’t follow triathlon.
“I’ve followed the history of it, read the books about the ‘Iron War’ and things and how it became a race and I love the buzz, being there last time, the buzz of the Island so, as it gets closer, I have a group of friends who are racing, and everyone is excited about that.
“I think the first thing with Kona is the conditions and it’s the unknown, a little bit like your first Ironman, you’re not quite sure. I’m confident I can do Ironman distance and be competitive but definitely, the heat and humidity adds another effect.”
After 10 days on the Big Island, Clarke is feeling more comfortable in the imposing environment with its oppressive heat and energy-sapping humidity. Now, as she says, it’s all about executing her plan… racing smart, being patient and most of all enjoying the iconic race.
“The first goal is to race well and finish under those conditions and second, I believe, and especially with my race in Ironman Australia that I can compete. I competed with Sarah Crowley right till the end of the run so I feel like if I have a good day, top 10, top 15 is within my grasp.
“You never know until you get to the race but getting a top 10-15 would feel like a great achievement for me.”