Monday, October 4, 2010

Chris Lieto's Secret Weapon?

The countdown to the biggest dance of the year--if you're a triathlete and not a Dancing With the Stars fan, that is--is on in full force. That's right, the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, the race that many triathletes dream of racing and only a few are so lucky to attend, takes place on Saturday, October 9, and the competitors have been spilling onto the Big Island. By this time next week people will be boarding--or being rolled onto, depending on the state of their legs after 140.6 miles--planes for the mainland, packing their bikes and bags, and readying for much-needed time off.

But before that happens, the 2010 Ironman World Champion has to be decided. Will Craig Alexander earn the three-peat? Will a previous winner like Faris Al-Sultan, Normann Stadler or Chris McCormack take the crown? Or will it be a new name like 2009 runner-up Chris Lieto, who possibly represents the U.S.'s best chance at a win? And when I read that two elite runners were packing their bags for the Big Island to cheer on Lieto, it got me wondering about his race-day potential and what he'd be bringing to the table. When you pore over race results for work, follow one-too-many athletes and have watched the 2009 Ironman show down an unhealthy amount of times, you start to assemble a list of what-ifs. Or at least I did.

Lieto is a monster on the bike. If you've watched the World Championship in the last few years, you've probably noticed that Lieto moves to the front of the pack on the bike--he came into T2 first last year and was the one to beat heading into the run. Alexander, a strong runner, did just that--he ran Lieto down, slowly chipping away at his lead and eventually striding by. Alexander can hold his own on the bike, but you most like won't find him leading like Lieto. But the tables are turned on the run where you could almost view the marathon as Lieto's weakness. Yikes, I'm not trying to sound as if I know everything about this triathlete and I can't even say how accurate this assessment is, but I'm starting to think that Lieto could pose an even greater challenge to Alexander this year--or maybe win it all.

Why? Because I'm guessing that he might have some secret weapons in his training arsenal: Ryan Hall and Josh Cox, the two runners heading to Kona to cheer him on. Hall's out of running Chicago, but he'll be in Kona before heading to the Windy City to support his Hall Steps Foundation runners. And after Hall leaves, Cox arrives to watch the Big Dance. The Hawaii trips don't exactly provide the evidence I was looking for, but these considerations did:
  • It's known that Lieto has been working on his run more. Craig Alexander says he noticed it when he raced Lieto in two 70.3 races last year in preparation for Kona. Crowie beat Lieto in both races, but not by much, and admitted that Lieto not only looked stronger on the run but he also was faster.
  • That statement alone makes me think that the threesome of Lieto, Cox and Hall has been working together up in Mammoth. Hall and Cox live and train in Mammoth Lakes along with other elite runners like Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor. Lieto's a born and bred Californian, and it's been reported that he trains in Mammoth. Sure, he could be there for higher-altitude cycling, but it almost makes too much sense for him to run, too.
  • Why wouldn't he employ the help of two elite runners for tips on faster running and some fast legs to follow on a training run? Especially when one of those runners is a K-Swiss teammate? That's my theory anyway.
  • Bobby McGee, a running coach (maybe professor is a better word since he knows so much about the sport, getting faster and biomechanics), said that a triathlete can lose a race because of the run and can win a race with a good run. Not his exact words--he said it better than my rough summary--but those words stuck in my head. Work too hard on the bike and your legs develop muscles that can actually inhibit your running. Sounds a little like Lieto has super-developed cycling legs, a cycling triathlete, that often fail him on the run--only because a runner triathlete can outrun him when it counts.
  • If Hall and Cox are heading to Kona to cheer for Lieto, wouldn't it make sense for them to provide him with some of their running expertise and go for a few taper runs? Or perhaps Lieto has been the guest runner on training days with Josh, Ryan and maybe even Meb. Or sharing the training and running advice from Josh and Ryan's coach Terence Mahon. Just hypothesizing.
The Kona travels just got me thinking that maybe 2010 would be the year Lieto became the groom and not the groomsman or usher. He came so close last year with a second-place finish. In a competition so tight, you know that one simple mistake or a slight falter could cost someone else the World Champion title. What do you think? Who's going to take it all at the Ironman World Championship this year? I can't wait to find out. 

Photo grabbed from thomas pix at flickr.

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