Marius Acker was not 100 per cent after a two-month injury stifled his preparations. But like the veteran champ he is, the South African came through adversity to prevail in the annual Duathlon.
However, the gap is ominously closing as compatriot Johan Heath, who is eight years younger, gets faster and fitter.
The Genesis Trust 2013 Cayman Islands Duathlon last week from Grand Harbour had another massive turnout despite the 7am start and blazing sun.
Acker and Pam Abbott both successfully defended their 2012 titles being respective male and female winners of 57 minutes and 1:04:02.
Organised by the Cayman Islands Triathlon Association and sponsored by Genesis Trust, the Duathlon consisted of a two-mile run then a 12 mile cycle before another two-mile run.
Multiple champ Acker, 41, admitted it was his toughest Duathlon so far. “I knew my biggest strength, which is the run leg, was not going to be giving me the same advantages I had in previous years,” he said.
“Three minutes into the bike race I was caught by Greg Meaker who is a great runner and he is a better cyclist than me. I knew then it was going to be a challenging race because Meaker is a faster runner than Johan Heath.
“I determined to keep him in sight and by doing so, it was great motivation to keep on fighting.
“At the halfway point in Savannah, I saw Heath closing in very fast and my mind started to play games with me, telling me it’s over, he has got you.
“Experience taught me to keep fighting and that this race is not over till the run is finished. Heath passed me earlier than last year, which confirmed that my first run gave me less of a lead than previous years.
“I anticipated that he would be passing me earlier and was very relieved that when he passed I could still see him and stick with him for a while.”
When the second run started Acker was not sure if he would be able to catch Heath as his running has improved.
“I had to abandon a run after a cycling session on the Tuesday leading up to the race due to discomfort in my foot that was fractured and this was a little worrying going into this race. I caught up with Johan just before a mile into the second run and realised that a successful defence was a reality.”
When Acker saw the race clock dismounting the bike, he realised his course record was not going to be challenged and due to the lack of good pre-race conditioning he decided it would just be a flat out race.
“Once I caught up with Johan on the run, I was able to relax and enjoy the last part.” Not too much though because Acker only won by 28 seconds this time, compared to 64 seconds last year.
“All the athletes will tell you the Duathlon is a race of pain,” added Acker. “My lungs were screaming from the gun on the run and then when I got onto the bike my lungs were sounding like a whistle, screaming for more oxygen.
“I was never able to relax during the first run or during the bike leg. During the second run I had stomach cramps for a while, which went away eventually.
“Duathlon is much, much harder than triathlon and because of the shorter distances it is a much higher intensity. It is my least favourite multi-sport event on island.
“I did pray for strength and endurance and good pacing in the week leading up to the race, which is key to ensure a good event.
“If you go out too hard on the bike or too fast on the first run, you will hit the wall and hit it hard and jeopardise your race.”
With 103 entrants in all categories, it was a strong showing.
The team winners were Michele Smith and Chadwick Webster, who won in 49 minutes, 35 seconds, six seconds ahead of favourites Steve Abbott and Dave Walker.
Pedro Lopez Ramos and Jason Saunders were third and the dynamic duo of Risa Goldberg and Neil Ainscow were fourth, but they had the distinction of being the first mixed team.
Second individual female was Justine Plenkiewicz in 1 hour, 5 minutes, three minutes ahead of Arwen Lawson.
“The turnout was huge and I would say it rivals the triathlon at year end and the organisation was superb,” Acker said. “The organisers are improving every year and this race is definitely growing. Great to see a bigger number of locals to support and compete in this race. The race was very well supported by the cycling community, too.”
Heath recently became a father for the first time and his preparations too may have been hampered by sleep deprivation and scary nappies.
The South African contingent is always strong and this time they could boast the first six individual finishers.
After Acker and Heath, Marius Deysel was third, then Meaker, JP Hanekom and Johann Prinsloo was sixth. Dale Avery, resident tennis pro is another South African who competed.
Avery designed the event T-shirt and was the only one not to place in the top finishers.
“Like the Aussies, we are a sporting nation with many iconic endurance events like the Comrades and Two Oceans ultra marathons,” Acker said.
“The Cape Epic is the world’s best mountain bike stage race and another iconic bike race, the Argus Cycle Tour, draws over 30,000 participants each year and you will see why duathlon is a perfect fit for us.
“We grow up in a culture of sport and are taught from a young age to push the limits to what is possible.
“The outdoor lifestyle in South Africa also cultivates a love for being active all the time.
“On island, we challenge each other to improve and there is a bit of banter going on as to who will be whipped by who in the next race.”
Acker’s next event is most likely the Stroke in Stride in August, where he hopes to retain his title which he was unable to challenge for last year. He is also starting to train for the Chicago Marathon in October.