It wasn’t Kona. It wasn’t a 70.3 World Championship. Heck, it sure wasn’t the Olympics. But in a year of Coronavirus cancellations, the PTO Championship Challenge Daytona brought together a world class field, at a unique venue in Florida. What would ultimately result was the biggest championship race of the year—and that’s no hyperbole. And in placing second overall (and taking home a massive $70,000 check for his efforts), Matt Hanson put his name on the map, again. When Kona, and 70.3 Worlds comes around again, his will be a name to be reckoned with.
“It turned out to be a great day—an incredible experience,” Hanson said. “There was so much on the line.”
PTO Championship Challenge Daytona was the ultimate meeting of the world’s best. Take an odd 2k swim/80k bike/18k run distance put up by the Professional Triathlon Organization, the Challenge Daytona Championships was quickly becoming The Race of the Year. Never mind the fact that the event was uniquely held entirely within the confines of Daytona International Speedway, the self-proclaimed World Center of Racing with its 2.5-mile superspeedway track serving as the home of NASCAR’s motorsports Super Bowl, the Daytona 500. Throw in a 1.1 million dollar purse and suddenly, every top pro across every distance made the flight to Florida (safely with COVID regulations) for a piece of the action. Certainly, the PTO and event organizers had high hopes, but in a pandemic year where every other race of consequence had been shelved due to Coronavirus concerns, this race became The One.
In truth, Hanson wasn’t considered for the podium. Heck—considering the slew of past Ironman World Champions, ITU World Champions and Olympic Gold Medalists on the starting line, his name wasn’t even bandied about among the top 10 names. With names like Brownlee, Kienle, Sanders, Gomez among a field 53 men strong, it wasn’t a terrible slight. But, with an untested middle distance on tap, there were more questions than answers.
“No one knew what to expect” Hanson recalls. “I didn’t know if the ITU guys were gonna get away, how the 20-meter draft rule would work.”
While a spate of speedy ITU athletes and other long-course swim specialists exited the waters of Lake Lloyd together and hammered away in a collective non-drafting group, Hanson came out of the water in 37th place—normally not a great place to start, but remembering the caliber of field, he was content. “It was a pretty decent swim,” Hanson says. “Considering there were about 20 ITU guys ahead of me, I was pleased.”
Hanson quickly boarded his Quintana Roo PRsix2, and went to work over pancake flat loops of the 80k bike course. “The pace was on, and thankfully I was feeling good on the bike,” he says. “On lap five Lionel Sanders and Sam Long came by me, and I used them to motivate me, but I was well above threshold for about two laps, and that wasn’t the right move. I decided to trust in the plan, let them go, and was by myself the rest of the ride.”
Still, he was making headway, sailing past world champ Javier Gomez late on the bike. “I feel like a lot of the short course guys over biked,” he says, “while I just did my thing.”
In 22nd place off the bike, he was ready to see how his run legs would deliver. And did they ever. With a run specialist ITU pro out serving as a proverbial rabbit, Hanson began the run on fire.
“Vincent Luis had a drafting penalty and started just in front of me, so I had him to target, which was helpful,” he says. Once he dropped the prodigious French Olympian, he kept picking off runners, unaware of what position he was in. That is, until the final lap.
“Suddenly I heard on the last lap that I was in eight place… and that it was just 25 seconds to second place, and I was like ‘ok!’” he says. The last 5k “I was redlining” With less than a half mile to go, he rolled up on Great Britain’s George Goodwin in second place—and kept going. “I made the decision then, I didn’t want to be in a sprint with this guy.” Arms pumping, sprinted to the finish for one of the biggest results of his career, if not the wildest.
“To run with Vincent Luis, to pass Javier Gomez, and both Brownlees,” Hanson says, “that’s not something many can say.”
Hanson returned home to Boulder, Colo. with a $70,000 runner-up check to deposit and wonderful redemption on a year that’s been generally a write-off for most pros. And with a new confidence, he looks forward to Kona.
“Challenge really raised the bar, and I’m excited to see how Ironman responds,” he says. “Kona remains the one that’s gotten away from me thus far. I’m setting up for that next year.”
And without a doubt, Matt Hanson’s name will come more readily off the lips of the pundits.
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