CLEARWATER BEACH — As Michael Raelert approached the finish line Saturday at the Ironman World Championship 70.3, he glanced over his left shoulder, half expecting to see his closest competitor, Filip Ospaly, straining to catch up.
For a good portion of the triathlon's final leg, a 13.1-mile run back and forth over the Memorial Causeway Bridge, Raelert and Ospaly played a cat-and-mouse game, trading turns in the lead before Raelert made his final move at the 7-mile mark to pull away.
With just a few hundred yards of asphalt between him and the finish line, a cramping Raelert checked his rear view a final time.
He was all alone.
Raelert slowed to a walk and grabbed his head in disbelief. He fell to his knees as he broke the tape and lay on the pavement for several seconds, milking every moment of his second consecutive Ironman World Championship 70.3.
"I'm so happy right now that I got the title," said Raelert of Germany. "And I'm absolutely exhausted."
Raelert covered the 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike and 13.1-mile run through the streets of Clearwater and Clearwater Beach in 3 hours, 41 minutes, 19 seconds to become the first competitor to win back-to-back 70.3 World Championships, though he did not eclipse his course record time of a year ago (3:34:04).
Ospaly, from the Czech Republic, was second in 3:42:56.
"Until the last 500 meters, I wasn't sure," Raelert said. "I was asking people, 'Where's Filip?' …If he would have caught me in the last mile, I would have said, 'Shut up, Filip. It's all yours.' I was stretched beyond the limit. I couldn't go any faster."
Raelert, 30, got sidetracked during the swim portion and was 15th out of the water. He still trailed Ospaly and Australia's Joe Gambles after the bike but quickly made up ground in the run, his strength. He caught up to Ospaly, and they ran side-by-side to track down Gambles.
Then, Raelert made his move.
"At mile 6 or 7, I could open a little gap," Raelert said. "And I know this could be my chance, so I took the risk and gave everything I had. … Maybe I broke his mind."
Raelert earned $18,500 for his victory, his second in the race's five-year history. "I'm absolutely satisfied," he said, beaming.
Timothy O'Donnell of Boulder, Colo., was third in 3:44:18.
In the women's race, Jodie Swallow of Essex, England, led wire to wire to capture her first Ironman World Championship 70.3.
The win was redemption for Swallow, who raced the 70.3 here for the first time last year but dropped out during the run, succumbing to fatigue and sickness.
"I think the difference just was mental really," Swallow said.
Swallow, who won in 4:06:28, took control of the race from the outset. She completed the swim nearly a minute ahead of the field and continued distancing herself from her competitors through the bike and the run.
"I was just worried I was going to blow up or I was going to do something wrong," she said. "I just kept saying to myself, 'Do yourself proud; do yourself proud,' and kept that in my head."
Like Raelert, Swallow, 29, earned $18,500 for the victory. She outpaced fellow British triathlete Leanda Cave, who was second in 4:12:34.
Canada's Magali Tisseyre (4:13:04) placed third. Colorado Springs' Amanda Stevens (4:13:32) was the top American finisher (fourth), and defending champ Julie Dibens was 10th.