Just five weeks after her first professional IRONMAN victory at IRONMAN Mallorca, Great Britain’s Ruth Astle made it a late 2021 double, with success at the IRONMAN African Championship.
After a dominant bike ride, for much of the run victory had looked almost certain with the British athlete looking strong and in control in the marathon. That didn’t take into account the motivation of South Africa’s Annah Watkinson however. Starting the run more than 14 minutes down on the Brit, she blitzed through the field and made it a very exciting finish.
Swim: ‘Windy City’ swim lives up to its name
No 3.8km start to the day in Port Elizabeth, as swim conditions at Hobie Beach saw the opening leg cut to 1.9km.
Imogen Simmonds (SUI) and Lauren Brandon (USA) were in a different league in the water – not a surprise – exiting the water together in 23:24 and the best part of three minutes clear of Manon Genet (FRA) and Astle, who also had the South African trio of Magda Nieuwodt, Jade Nicole and Natia van Heerden pretty close too.
The only surprise – perhaps (?) – was that Simmonds was indeed racing at all, just two weeks after she had a very tough run at IRONMAN Florida. That was something we referenced in our preview ahead of the race.
In Panama City Beach she was looking great on the run… until she suddenly wasn’t. Was she recovered and ready to go again? We had eight hours to find out.
Bike: Aero Astle a British bullet
Astle is not the type of athlete to doubt herself, but even so, there’s noting like a big win to give you a huge confidence boost. That came at IRONMAN Mallorca last month, and feeling good in her recovery, she made a later decision to head to South Africa. That was looking like a wise choice once she was on two wheels.
The rough roads, undulating terrain and wind on the Eastern Cape were always likely to work to the advantage of Leeds-based Astle, who is a powerful but also exceptionally aero-optimised cyclist . She is very comfortable holding that position too, whatever the weather.
Inside 60km the leading two had become three, with Astle making light of her swim deficit, and while it took some time to drop Simmonds and Brandon, she continued her charge in the second half of the race. As T2 arrived, Astle stopped the bike split clock at 4:55:50, which gave her a four-and-a-half-minute buffer over Simmonds (5:03:41) and Genet (5:00:58).
With Genet running sub-three hours when finishing second at the World Triathlon Long Distance Championships in Almere, and Simmonds being an IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship silver medallist, there was plenty of racing left.
Run: Ruth holds on to win
Ruth’s run success in Mallorca had come from finding a good rhythm and holding it. Despite limited training ahead of the Alcudia event due to injury, that proved to be a great recipe for success. It also proved that her calf was ready for the demands of an IRONMAN marathon. Five weeks on, perhaps she would be even stronger.
Astle was seemingly following that script here. She started with a 4:18 advantage from T2 and for the first half of the run that changed little. As we’d forecast, it was seemingly coming down to an Astle vs. Genet battle for the win in the early stages at least, as Simmonds started well but then began to lose time inside the first 10 miles at a rate which looked set to put her out of race-winning contention.
Watkinson was the quickest runner on the course, but still 10 minutes behind Astle at the midpoint of the run, she was going to need some significant fade from the leading duo to make a home win realistic. Catching Simmonds however and moving into third place, was looking all but certain.
With 12 miles remaining Ruth had increased her advantage to 5:33 over Genet, and Watkinson had indeed moved into third place, nine minutes down on the Brit. Simmonds was now 12 minutes back in fourth and like Florida, perhaps set for another tough 20km if she was going to reach the finish line.
6km later and Astle’s lead was up to 7:42, but it was Watkinson now chasing in second, with the Genet challenge seemingly over as she had lost a significant chunk of time and was now over 10 minutes down. From a seemingly nailed-on second place, even a podium finish could be under threat for the French athlete. Not long later, she was walking.
Watkinson had run 6:40 quicker than the Brit over the first 28km, but would surely need Astle to fade badly if an unlikely win was to be achieved. Ruth was giving no indication that was going to happen, seemingly locked into her metronomic style.
5km later – with 9km remaining – and Ruth’s 7:42 lead had been cut to 5:23 as the Watkinson express was continuing, the South African seemingly getting stronger as the race progressed. Still time for a home win? Ruth was still moving well…but walking through a few aid stations and there were clear signs of fatigue. This was going to be close!
With 3km to go, Watkinson had closed the Astle lead to just 2:24. Ruth would win if she could maintain her pace… but any last-minute fade would leave her vulnerable. Eight-and-a-half hours of racing, and the victor was still to be determined. Great racing! Could Watkinson, who had not held the lead for a single second of the race, make that pass when it really mattered? She was giving it everything she had to try and become the first home female winner of IRONMAN South Africa.
Despite the best efforts of Watkinson, a 3:11:55 marathon from Astle was a fine way to finish a strong race and more than justify her late notice decision to sign up for the race. Another $15,000 cheque will be very welcome heading into the winter training period.
A 2:59:26 run split – on a run course which was not entirely flat – was evidence of Watkinson’s marathon performance, but she ultimately finished 1:52 down on the British athlete in what proved to be a compelling race to watch.
IRONMAN South Africa 2021 Results
IRONMAN African Championship, Sunday 21 November 2021
1.9km ** / 180km / 42.2km (** Swim cut short due to tidal conditions)
- 1. Ruth Astle (GBR) – 8:38:52
- 2. Annah Watkinson (RSA) – 8:40:44 (Kona qualified)
- 3. Jade Nicole (RSA) – 8:47:31 (Kona qualified)
- 4. Natia van Heerden (RSA) – 8:53:34
- 5. Imogen Simmonds (SUI) – 8:58:33
- 6. Katharina Grohman (GER) – 9:01:33
- 7. Mariella Sawyer (RSA) – 9:08:48
- 8. Magda Nieuwodt (RSA) – 10:03:03