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At Ironman Worlds, Kristian Blummenfelt eyes an all-time sports feat

Kristian Blummenfelt

TOPSHOT - Norway’s Kristian Blummenfelt celebrates finishing first to win gold in the men’s individual triathlon competition during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Odaiba Marine Park in Tokyo on July 26, 2021. (Photo by Loic VENANCE / AFP) (Photo by LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images)

AFP via Getty Images

Norwegian Kristian Blummenfelt bids for one of the most ambitious doubles in the 140.6-mile Ironman World Championships on Saturday.

Blummenfelt, 28, will try to become the first triathlete to win an Olympic gold medal and an Ironman world title in the same year span. The first Ironman World Championships to be held outside of Hawaii -- in St. George, Utah, to be exact -- stream live on Peacock starting at 8 a.m. ET.

The Kentucky Derby on Saturday evening (on NBC) will showcase the most exciting two minutes in sports. Earlier in the afternoon, the most grueling eight hours in sports will finish.

The Olympic triathlon distance is 32 miles, taking an hour and 45 minutes. The Ironman is a separate beast. Fractionally, the difference is comparable to a 10,000m track race versus a marathon.

German Jan Frodeno is the lone triathlete to win Olympic gold (2008) and an Ironman title (2015, 2016, 2019) over the course of a career. He followed the traditional trajectory of a longer transition up to the Ironman distance, debuting almost a year after his last elite Olympic-distance race and taking another year after that to win the famed Kona world title.

Blummenfelt, after winning Olympic gold on July 26, made his Ironman debut on Nov. 21. And in that first 140.6-miler, he clocked the fastest time in history over the Ironman distance: 7 hours, 21 minutes, 12 seconds, despite having diarrhea for three days leading into the race and taking two bathroom breaks during the marathon run.

It was 6 minutes, 41 seconds swifter than Frodeno’s record from last July.

There is debate whether Blummenfelt’s time should be considered a world record. There was a strong swim current benefitting the Cozumel competitors. Blummenfelt, who said the swim is the weakest part of his race, completed his 2.4 miles in the water six minutes faster than Frodeno did in his previous record.

The Ironman brand doesn’t use the term “world record” anyway due to the variance of courses around the world, plus the seasonal changes in conditions within each course.

Blummenfelt stresses that championships are more important than times, but when pressed, he considered that Cozumel effort as the fastest Ironman in history.

“It’s not like the swim was down a river. It was in the ocean. and the fact that the condition was great, there’s nothing I can do about it,” he said this week. “And as long as it’s an Ironman-branded race, and it’s approved before the race to be an Ironman race, it’s nothing I can do.”

Blummenfelt dropped to 10th place in a half Ironman in Dubai in March.

But his chances of winning in St. George -- on a hilly course unlikely to produce record times -- are boosted by the absences of Frodeno (Achilles) and another German, two-time Ironman world champion Patrick Lange (shoulder). Then on Friday, fellow Norwegian Gustav Iden, the half Ironman world champion, reportedly withdrew due to illness. As did Brit Alistair Brownlee, the 2012 and 2016 Olympic gold medalist.

“Kristian is actually the favorite,” Iden, whose 70.3 world title came at St. George last September (where Blummenfelt was 26th, hopes punctured by a flat tire), reportedly said Thursday. “I’m giving out the percentages to everyone, and I think I gave Kristian a 30 percent chance of winning.”

Asked what makes all of this possible -- Olympic gold medal, followed four months later with an Ironman distance record and now, potentially, an Ironman world title -- Blummenfelt points first to genetics: a larger lung capacity than the average human, and a bigger heart. His highest recorded VO2 max -- a way to measure aerobic fitness -- was “just about 90,” putting him among the top endurance athletes in history (including several fellow Norwegians, cross-country skiers or cyclists).

Blummenfelt also noted the well-publicized advances in scientific testing and data collection -- including feces -- that helped Norway, the world’s best winter sports nation, become a force in men’s triathlon over the last several years.

“That makes it easy to turn around the energy system to be fine-tuned for longer distances,” he said.

Blummenfelt first felt the itch of ambition as a young swimmer in fjord-surrounded Bergen.

“Bergen is a city of rain,” he said. “We have not good ski conditions, and it’s on the West Coast, so it’s not much winter sports in the city.”

He trained in the same pool as Alexander Dale Oen, who was nine years older and in 2008 won Norway’s first Olympic swimming medal.

“The fact that one day, I could see him on TV at the Olympic Games, and then two weeks later, he’s joining us for training camp, the connection made it easier to believe that I can get there, too,” Blummenfelt said of Dale Oen, who died suddenly while at an Arizona training camp in April 2012.

It was also in 2008 that a swim coach suggested Blummenfelt try a sprint triathlon. He soon became, at 15, the oldest member of the start-up national team.

Norway had no Olympic triathletes. His initial plan was to make his Olympic debut in several years in 2016, then win it in 2020. He even guaranteed gold in Tokyo back in 2018, when he had yet to win a top-level World Series race.

Then, in a sponsor video published in July 2020, Blummenfelt set out his ultimate challenge: win the Olympics, the World Series season title, Kona and one other Ironman all in one year. He checked off the first two last summer.

For Blummenfelt, the one-time change of venue from Kona to St. George doesn’t minimize the prestige of the world championships, which are taking place for the first time since 2019.

“Of course, Kona is something very historical, unique and something great we have in triathlon,” he said. “But I think when we are finally now back again, with a world championship, we have to embrace the race.”

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