Take notice, triathlon world - Marino Vanhoenacker is back.
The Belgian triathlete conquered the Subaru Ironman Canada course in Whistler on Sunday, July 27 in a blazing time of eight hours, 16 minutes, 10 seconds, leading wire-to-wire to claim the pro men's title.
Meanwhile, Hawaii's Bree Wee captured the pro women's victory after making up some ground over the run course, earning the second full-distance Ironman win of her career in a time of 9:46:58.
Vanhoenacker, making his first-ever visit to Canada, came into the race with a tremendous track record, including six consecutive wins at Ironman Austria between 2006 and 2011, a bronze medal at the 2010 world championships, and the full-distance world record, which he set at 7:45:58 three years ago.
But following a difficult year recovering from injury, the 38-year-old felt that he had to overcome some doubts to re-establish himself as one of the world's top Ironman athletes.
Consider that taken care of.
"(The win is) really meaningful, because everybody was convinced I was done," said Vanhoenacker. "Everybody knew how hard I had trained the last four or five years, and everybody was waiting for me to blow up.
"Most importantly, it's big confidence that I'm almost back on track."
Vanhoenacker suffered a stress fracture to his pubic bone last year, and while it was the first major injury of his career, it ended up being a major setback. After further complications with fluid build-up around the injury, it took several months for him to get his running stride and mechanics back.
"Even the doctors were saying, 'OK, this could be a career-ending story now,'" he said. "For a long time, I doubted for myself if I could ever come back to the same level. I mean, I'm 38. You don't get much faster (after that.)"
Vanhoenacker put in a dominant performance on Sunday - he was first out of Alta Lake following the 3.8-km swim (50:56), added to his advantage with the fastest 180-km bike leg (4:31:34), then wrapped up the 42.2-km run in 2:51:17.
His winning time of 8:16:10 was more than 23 minutes faster than what Trevor Wurtele clocked on the Whistler course in 2013, when the resort hosted Ironman Canada for the first time.
Penticton's Jeff Symonds (8:25:22), the men's runner-up on Sunday, finished the run in an outstanding time of 2:40:34, but even after making up a good chunk of the deficit, still wound up 9:12 behind.
"Marino's the real deal. There aren't too many guys who can beat him on a course like this," said Symonds. "Unless he cracked, we were all fighting for second."
Symonds, 28, was thrilled with second place, his best-ever result in a full-distance Ironman.
"It's pretty cool, especially with (third-place finisher Paul Ambrose) and Marino, two world-class guys, it's cool to be right in there," he said.
Ambrose spent most of his day among the top three, but said he wasn't expecting the course to be as challenging as it was.
"This is one of the hardest Ironmans I've ever done," said the Australian triathlete. "Even the flat sections are false flats. It was brutal; just punishment."
Wurtele finished just off the podium in fourth place, while Andrew Drobeck was the fifth-place pro male finisher.
Wee erupted when she crossed the finish line for the women's win, and was mobbed by eight-year-old son, Kainoa, and her mother. Though she was elated over the victory, she appeared equally exhausted, and also named the Whistler course as host one of the world's toughest Ironman events.
"It was much harder than I thought," she said. "The course was harder, the competition was harder. I was really humbled on the bike."
Wee came to the second transition in third place, trailing Karen Thibodeau and Mackenzie Madison after the cycling leg. But she charged her way to the front on the run, taking the lead around the end of the first loop, and wound up nearly five minutes ahead at the end.
Thibodeau (9:51:35) took second place and Madison (9:52:46) finished third. Both collapsed shortly after reaching the finish line, and were unable to speak with reporters before being taken away for medical treatment.
Wee said Sunday's win is extra-special because it will take her back to the Ironman World Championships at Kona in her home state later this year.
"The last (win) didn't get me into Kona, but this one did," she said.
Jackie Arendt and Anna Cleaver rounded out the women's top five.
Hundreds of triathletes will continue to pour across the finish line until midnight PT on Sunday. Whistler's Michael Edwards, however, was one of the first locals to arrive at the line, finishing 60th overall at 10:26:41. He said the support from fellow Whistlerites and volunteers along the course provided a tremendous boost throughout the day.
"It's a magical day out there," he said. "It's amazing how quick you can find (friends along the course) out there."
See Pique on July 31 for a complete recap of Sunday's race.
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