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The Hell of the West

Nina Derron fastest overall female time at 2016 Hell of the West triathlon.

I was recently interviewed by Bob Babbitt and one of the topics we discussed was how present athletes, such as a Daniela Ryf, benefit from the experience of champion athletes a generation before them. It’s phenomenon you’ll find across sports if you interview long-term coaches.

Without doubt Daniela has benefited from my training of Caroline Steffen, who had benefited from my experience with Chrissie Wellington, who in turn had benefitted from the original powerhouse… Bianca van Woesik.

I was reminded of Bianca a couple of weeks ago as Coach Susie pulled off a great coaching feat by having her charge, Nina Derron of Switzerland take out fastest female time at the Hell of the West triathlon in Goondiwindi.

With the cancellation of Ironman 70.3 Mandurah this week, which has followed the cancellations of the pro race for Ironman Melbourne, Ironman 70.3 Cairns and Ironman 70.3 Port Macquarie – I was reminded again of Bianca and this great Australian race, which has kept rolling for more than 25 years.

This race is special to me for a couple reasons. One being that you’ll see Sutton-trained athletes 15 times on the Champions board going back a quarter of a century. So in a sense it is own history board of the our Trisutto team.

The other being that while Ironman and Challenge races have dropped like flies from the Australian race calendar – I can celebrate that races like Hell of the West are still with us. Races that combine camaraderie and great hospitality from a community who welcomes you not just to their town, but their way of life.

For our international readers, Goondiwindi is about 350km west of Brisbane with an average temperature during summer of over 40 degrees (105f). It’s two claim to fames are the toughest triathlon in Queensland and Gunsynd, a great grey horse with a Seabiscuit story to it. Bought for $1300 by a local syndicate it went from obscurity to win 29 major races culminating in winning the biggest race in Australia – the Cox Plate!

The triathlon itself is held in a creek. It starts before sun-up in a futile effort to beat the heat. At 45km it’s so hot it has been known to melt tyres on the way back to transition. It’s tough!

An out and back course that is gun barrel straight, which is why when discussing Kona and how that course suits the new generation power riders I am often reminded of Bianca – who is the fastest female on a bike I have ever seen.

I remember her at Goondiwindi hammering 53/12 gearing reaching the half way mark, unclipping to walk her bike around the witches hat before remounting and saying ‘I think I can catch them’.

She was talking about the men.

She got off the bike 3rd and walked it in to win by over an hour. It had me thinking at the time, if only the World Championships were held in Goodiwindi!

However, the bigger story is how this early race embodies what triathlon was and should be about. We need races built on the same values if we’re going to preserve the sport.

My first visit to Goondiwindi came after the race organiser got in contact late asking if we could send a couple of pros. ‘We are new and the pros we’ve contacted say it’s too far.’ I said we can bring some but need a hotel as the race start was very early in the morning. He got back to me explaining all the hotels were booked out, but if we could rough it for a night would sort something out.

I brought 8 bright-eyed wannabe pro athletes 350km only to be greeted at the local pub full of hard nosed drinkers. He then took me us out the back and showed us a tent, purpose built for us with sleeping bags and pillows.

I still remember saying, ‘thanks mate, but nobody’s going to get any sleep out here with the noise in the pub.’

He understood and came back 5 minutes later and said ‘bring your team in here’.

‘Listen up! I need your help. You know that triathlon that’s on tomorrow? Well it was strugglin’ a bit and these guys just drove 350km to help us out. They got nowhere to stay so I put ’em in the back. They’ll be up at 4am tomorrow so tonight no fights out the back and everyone leaves at 10pm. We want to make a big thing of it for the town so tomorrow we get out there and cheer ’em on.’

I thought it was a joke, but true to his word all the men trooped out at 10pm and we had a roughest looking supporters on the course next day. They were proud of their little town and respectful we made the drive for their event.

Sport meeting Australian country values of a community based event.

1990 winners: Collette Gunn and Ben Bright. Now High Performance Manager for GB Triathlon.

I remember the race itself also being example for common sense officiating. In it’s second year Ben Bright, who was then all of 16 amazed everyone by tearing the field apart to win the Open’s. In the run he was sent the wrong way and after winning by 7 min a protest was lodged to disqualify him. Even though he had run further!

The marshal came and admitted his mistake ‘it was my fault, wasn’t expecting anyone so early.’ The stricter officials had said that’s too bad, he’s disqualified – only to be over-ruled by local organisers who said ‘the kid drove over 5-hours to be here. We’re going to present the trophy and the check to the real winner’. And so they did.

Fair go, common sense triathlon. If we want our races in Australia to last longer than their current lifespan of three years they would do well to embrace some of the values here.

I wish the Hell of the West another 25 years of continued success.

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