Marceau, Bucher Golden Again at XTERRA Saipan Championship
SAIPAN, CNMI – Perfect weather, an epic course, and brilliant performances by Swiss triathletes Olivier Marceau and Renata Bucher defined this year’s XTERRA Saipan Championship in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
Winning in paradise has become an annual tradition for the two as Marceau notched his fourth consecutive victory and Bucher won her third-in-a-row. The duo also broke their own course records. Marceau’s time of 2:27:16 was six minutes faster than his 2004 performance and Bucher’s 2:45:08 was four minutes better than the standard she set last year.
“For me it was a very good day,” said Marceau. “It was sunny, the weather was perfect and I felt very good. Saipan is always a good race and this year I was enjoying the whole day.”
As well he should have. He came out of the water on the heels of Great Britain’s Olympic triathlon star Julie Dibens, was first out of the swim-to-bike transition, quickly created in an insurmountable lead on the bike, had the fastest run split by nearly four minutes, and cruised across the finish line 10 minutes ahead of runner-up Sam Gardner from the United Kingdom.
“The last kilometer on the beach when you are running and you know the race is finished it’s so beautiful, the sea is blue, it’s just amazing,” said Marceau about his favorite part of the race. “To win a race is always good, but to win in Saipan is more than good. I think Saipan is a race you have to do in your life at least once. It’s one of the best races I’ve ever done, and I’ve done so many.”
The two-time Olympian (8th in Athens and 7th in Sydney) will now focus his efforts on qualifying to represent Switzerland in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
While Marceau may have dominated the show, Gardner was making a name for himself in his first race along the coral and jungle-covered course. He came out of the water in 23rd place, a full seven minutes back of the leaders, but crushed the bike turning in the fastest split of the day in 1:16:18.
“I had my usual abysmal swim but the water is fantastic, and I get distracted looking at the fish,” smiled Gardner, who reeled in everyone in front of him including third-place finisher Andrew Noble by the end of the bike.
“The bike is hard with a lot of climbing and that suits me well but the run course here is just brutal. It’s a funny technique because to run on these rocks you have to concentrate all the time and the ground is moving underneath you because the rocks are so loose and you’ve got to look at your feet to see where you are placing them but then there are tree branches over your head so you don’t know where to look. You need to have eyes in the back of your head. The caves are great and its just got a bit of everything so it’s fantastic. It’s a great course all around really. The whole atmosphere is good with people cheering you. You never go more than a few hundred meters without someone cheering you on.”
Noble, who flew in to Saipan just the day before from Australia, picked up where he left off last year – his best season in XTERRA with seven top 5 finishes. After posting the fourth best swim he rode in second chasing Marceau until the final miles of the bike when Gardner came around.
“It’s a beautiful place and I thought it was a pretty tough race. It was just survival today for me, and Olivier smashed it. He was strong,” said Noble.
Coming in fourth place for the pro men was Thomas Richard from France. Richard was 10th at XTERRA France last year and racing in just his second XTERRA. His participation was due in large part to the year-round recruiting efforts of Marceau.
“I’m happy to come here to Saipan,” said Richard, who had the third best swim behind Marceau and Dibens. “It’s wonderful here, nice and hot because in France it’s winter and cold. The run is very difficult but very beautiful, and to finish on the beach is fantastic. Really a wonderful course.”
Rounding out the top 5 was repeat competitor Margus Tamm from Estonia, who came in 4th last year. Kyosuke Takei from Japan placed 6th, at 40-years-young Japanese pro and XTERRA Japan organizer Taro Shirato placed 7th, and Sergey Makarenko from Russia placed 8th.
BUCHER THE BEST OF THE BEST
The women’s pro race in Saipan was the best it’s ever been, with a pair of Olympians (Julie Dibens, GBR, and Sibylle Matter, SUI), Jamie Whitmore (the all-time winningest XTERRA athlete) and Bucher – the XTERRA European Tour Champ who won six championship races last year.
At the very beginning, it looked like it was going to be all Dibens. Her swim was remarkably fast, and she came out of the water ahead of Marceau. She’s now been the fastest swimmer – male or female – in three of the four XTERRA races she’s done.
Bucher finished her swim more than seven minutes behind Dibens in 24th position overall. She was also trailing six other female pros including Matter and Whitmore. Once on the bike, however, Bucher began to make up time and caught up to all the girls in front of her except Dibens by the end of the 1,500 foot climb up to Mt. Tapotchau, which is a little more than half-way through the bike.
“I was so nervous because I really wanted to win this race again,” said Bucher. “Three times to be the winner here was my dream and I raced very hard to do it. I knew this race was going to be hard because Julie is such a great swimmer, and Sibylle and everyone could win.”
Dibens had a good bike as evidence of her third-fastest split among the women (Renata posted a 1:23:20, Whitmore a 1:29:35, and Dibens a 1:30:51) and held off Bucher until the last downhill on the bike. The two came into the bike-to-run transition about the same time.
“I know Julie is a good runner and I had to run faster but I was already suffering,” said Bucher. “The first part of the run is all uphill and you feel it in your legs, but on the downhill you can just fly. I took the risk to go fast on the run, because it’s quite slippery.”
Dibens had Bucher in her sights on the hills and the flats through the first half of the run but couldn’t match the speed at which the three-time champ maneuvered through the technical jungle ravine section.
“I think we were running the same on the flats but on the technical run she put too much time on me. Once we got into the ravine down she was just gone. She just danced through there,” said Dibens.
Bucher ended up finishing more than three minutes ahead of Dibens, who placed 2nd in front of Whitmore.
“It was a totally unique experience for me. The bike is so hard on the climbs and then the technical stuff is hard so you never get to rest, and the run is the same - slippery technical ravines and climbing through the caves…it’s incredible,” said Dibens.
Whitmore took nearly five minutes off her best time in Saipan (she has done all six and won the first three) to finish in third.
“It went well today and I had one of my fastest times out here so I’m excited,” said Whitmore. “Finished stronger than ever so that means that I’m ahead of where I was last year.”
Matter, who has finished in the top 3 at the XTERRA World Championship in each of the last two years, was a victim of the strong field.
“I enjoyed it even though it’s not the place I expected,” said Matter. “The run down in the jungle is very steep, and you have to hold on to the rocks and try not to slip. You have to calculate where you can jump or not because you never know if it will be slippery and there also a lot of leaves and you don’t know what you are going to step on. How able you are to concentrate during this last part is very important. This run is what XTERRA is all about, it’s not about running straight.”
Mami Saito from Japan finished in 5th, followed by Yasuko Miyazaki, Yukako Inoue, and Megumi Miyaura.
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