Caroline ‘Xena’ Steffen undaunted by double MetaMan – Kona challenge

As the Indonesian island of Bintan rolls out the red carpet for the pros ahead of Saturday's US$154,000 MetaMan, women's pre-race favourite Caroline Steffen sees Southeast Asia's iron-distance race as the perfect preparation for a bid at claiming the world title in Kona just six we

Caroline ‘Xena’ Steffen undaunted by double MetaMan – Kona challenge
Caroline Steffen winning Ironman Melbourne 2012

As the Indonesian island of Bintan rolls out the red carpet for the pros ahead of Saturday’s US$154,000 MetaMan, women’s pre-race favourite Caroline Steffen sees Southeast Asia’s iron-distance race as the perfect preparation for a bid at claiming the world title in Kona just six weeks later.

With a first prize of US$40,000 for both men and women, MetaMan has attracted some of the sport’s biggest names including Steffen, Gina Crawford, Tim Berkel and the Grangers, Belinda and Justin, but others have cited that relatively short window between the MetaMan and the Ironman World Championships as the reason for staying away.

Steffen doesn’t see what that fuss is all about.

Close? It’s still six weeks between (the races). I can’t just put my legs up and do nothing for one and half months, Steffen said in typical Xena-like manner.

“(Besides) I’m on the same plan as Chrissie back in 2007, the Swiss athlete added, referring to four-time world champ Chrissie Wellington who won her first Kona title that year on the back of busy racing schedule.

Coming off a scorching year, highlighted by her win at the prestigious Challenge Roth in July, Steffen is the hot favourite to win MetaMan, but she won’t have it her own way. Her biggest threat will come from defending champion Candice Hammond and her fellow Kiwi Crawford. Don’t rule out a strong showing from the grand dame herself, Belinda Granger.

Steffen says she enjoys racing in heat and humidity and with those conditions guaranteed in Bintan, she sees MetaMan as the as the final step in her quest to win in Kona, where she’s been runner-up twice in 2010 and 2012.

But she also admits the money on offer played a big part in her decision to race in MetaMan.

Sure, the US$40,000 prize pool is a magnet, somehow I also have to pay my mortgage, she said. It’s great to see races like MetaMan giving our sport a better value.”

Who could argue with that? For being some of the toughest sportsmen and women on the planet, iron-distance triathletes are generally paid peanuts for their efforts.

After the success of last year’s inaugural event, the pro prize fund has jumped dramatically from an already impressive US$60,000 to this year’s US$154,000; that’s an increase of 156 percent! It’s not just the winners who will be richly rewarded. This year’s runners-up will receive US$16,000 each, the same amount paid to the 2012 champions. Third place nets the deserving athletes US$8,000, and even the sixth place finishing pros get a grand a piece.

Among the favourites chasing that big purse from the men’s side of the draw are Aussies David Dellow, Tim Berkel and Courtney Ogden. But perhaps the most intriguing contender is short-course star Courtney Atkinson, who will be making his iron-distance debut at MetaMan.

To a certain extent, Atkinson knows and relishes the conditions facing him, having won the Olympic-distance Bintan Triathlon in 2006 and 2007. And he’s warmed up for the challenge by winning the Koh Samui International Triathlon (4km/120km/30km) earlier this year.

“Bintan is a true island triathlon destination a true test of athletics with warm water, so no wetsuits to help, an undulating bike course where you can’t see too far ahead at times, and the heat. There is no hiding,” the Australian said, adding that he thinks he can claim the huge first prize, which is what made him aware of MetaMan in the first place.

Prize money isn’t the only thing that’s jumped this year. Over 450 athletes (including 20 pros) are taking part in the MetaMan, the MetaMan Half, or the new kid on the block, the MetaMan Blitz, which features a bespoke 1.2km/55km/7km course.

That total of 450+ marks a 100 percent increase in participants, and they’ve come from far and wide. A third of the field is European, 22 percent Australian and 7 percent American, and while some are expats based in Southeast Asia, many have made the trip from their home countries. Thanks to race organisers MetaSport, Bintan has already made a name for itself as a destination for multisport athletes due to the success of the Bintan Triathlon Festival (which celebrates its 10th anniversary in May 2014), so staging an iron-distance race on the tropical island was sure to act as a further lure.

It’s that location in the tropics that helps make MetaMan one of the toughest races on the iron-distance circuit and without a doubt the most grueling course in Asia.

After hosting a training camp on Bintan for MetaSport ahead of the first MetaMan, Ironman legend Cam Brown compared the course to Kona in terms of difficulty.

It’s going to be a very, very tough race, I think people will underestimate it. It doesn’t have big hills, they just constantly grind away. And by the time you get to the marathon, the heat is going to be extreme, he said. It’ll probably be a race that’s harder than Hawaii. It’s going to be pretty, pretty tough.

Sitting just north of the equator, and less than hour’s ferry ride away from Singapore, Bintan is always hot. This of course means a no-wetsuit swim but the warm, sheltered waters off the South China Sea provide for a fast first leg. The bike features two laps of a 90km loop that includes a new-for-this-year flat section of highway, but as Brown said, the predominant feature is lots of rolling hills and so fatigued legs are a given as the athletes hit the third and final leg.

The marathon is run on a spectator-friendly 7km circuit and is situated entirely within the grounds of the Nirwana Gardens resort, the stunning race headquarters for the MetaMan. With the beach never far away, and often right in front of them, during their six circuits, the athletes are at least given a picturesque setting and the occasional sea breeze to help alleviate their suffering.

The course and conditions may be tough but nobody signs up for iron-distance races thinking they are going to be easy. At least the finishers at MetaMan will be richly rewarded; the pros with bags of money to take home with them, and the age groupers with the knowledge that they’ve tackled and tamed as tough a triathlon challenge as there is.

And if Steffen pulls off her bid for double glory, it’s a given that more top names will flock to the MetaMan next year chasing the pots of sporting gold.

MetaMan Bintan Facts

Date: August 31 2013
Location: Bintan, Indonesia
Distance: MetaMan Full: 3.8km Swim, 180km Bike, 42.2km Run.
MetaMan Half: 1.9km Swim, 90km Bike, 21.1km Run
Participation: 450
Years Running: 2