CLEARWATER — Heading into the run — the third and final leg of last year's Ironman World Championship 70.3 — Joanna Zeiger knew that the steep Memorial Causeway Bridge that spans the Intracoastal Waterway could make or break her race.
"There were four of us that came off the bike together," the defending champion recalled. "I live and train in Colorado, so I am used to running hills. I knew that if I was going to make a move, that would be the place to do it."
Zeiger pulled away from the pack on the bridge some call "Heartbreak Hill" and won in 4 hours, 2 minutes, 49 seconds, a course record and the women's world-best Ironman 70.3 time.
The 39-year-old professional triathlete from Boulder, who also holds a doctorate in genetics from Johns Hopkins University, will defend her title today, despite a rough summer and some serious health issues.
"I had some blood pressure issues," she said. "I had bouts of dizziness, and I didn't know if I was going to be able to compete."
Zeiger said she has overcome her medical issues and feels "stronger than ever" coming into today's race. She is coming off a win in last month's Longhorn 70.3 in Austin, Texas, a race she led start to finish.
She said she is looking forward to racing again in Clearwater, a course known for its fast times.
"The bike is very flat, and I prefer a hillier course," Zeiger said. "But just because it is flat doesn't mean it is easy. You still have to be very strong to keep up the speed."
The 2009 Ironman World Championship 70.3 is the final race in a series of more than 30 global 70.3 events. More than 1,700 athletes will swim 1.2 miles, then bike 56 miles and finish with a 13.1-mile run that takes them up and down the Memorial Causeway Bridge twice.
The swim is being moved from the Pier 60 area across the street to the harbor side. Lingering weather conditions from Tropical Storm Ida caused race officials to make the switch from a Gulf of Mexico swim for safety reasons. In the past, the swim portion has turned out to be an all-out sprint.
"My strategy never changes," Zeiger said of the opening leg. "I just swim as fast as I can."
But Zeiger will have her work cut out for her. Also returning is 2008 runnerup Mary Beth Ellis, a 32-year-old from Delaware known as a solid runner and swimmer. Other top women include three-time Xterra champion Julie Dibens, former Olympic team member Laura Bennett and last year's St. Anthony's Triathlon winner Rebeccah Wassner.
In the men's ranks, defending champion Terenzo Bozzone of New Zealand is back. Bozzone, 24, is viewed as an all-around athlete, having excelled in all three disciplines since high school.
In 2008, the Kiwi won four of the six Ironman 70.3 events he entered, finishing the season in Clearwater with a first-place time of 3:40:10. This year, Bozzone beat Chris McCormack, the former Ironman world champion, in the Ironman 70.3 Philippines. In June, Bozzone beat Australia's Richie Cunningham by a margin of 16 seconds in Maryland's Ironman 70.3 Eagleman.
Cunningham, 36, finished third at the worlds twice and is looking to move up on the podium. So far this year, in addition to his second-place finish at Eagleman, Cunningham was runnerup at Ironman 70.3 events in Rhode Island and Muskoka, Canada. Last month in Texas, Cunningham successfully defended his Ironman 70.3 Longhorn title, winning in 3:48:55.
Another favorite is U.S. triathlon team member Matty "Boom Boom" Reed, 34, who was in front during last year's St. Anthony's Triathlon when a flat tire on the bike spoiled his shot at a third straight victory in the Olympic-distance event. In 2009, the 6-foot-5 Colorado resident won the Miami International, the Chicago Triathlon and the Ironman Oceanside 70.3 in California.