30 years Powerman Zofingen

Powerman Long Distance World Championships in Zofingen

An event with a unique aura to the whole world

by Raphael Galliker

The Powerman Zofingen in itself is already a living legend. The most famous and toughest duathlon in the world, established in 1989, enjoys cult status. The Powerman Zofingen is to duathletes what the Ironman Hawaii is for triathletes. The goal of every duathlete is to compete in the city of Thut (Zofingen) at least once in his life to run 10km (6.21mi), cycle 150km (93.21mi), and run another 30km (18.64mi).

Bruno Imfeld and Urs Linsi brought the Powerman Zofingen to life in 1988. Urs Linsi, the aspiring young bank director from Zürich was sent to provincial Zofingen at that time to whip the local SKA (Swiss Credit Institution, today known as Credit Suisse) branch back into shape. On the 15th of December 1988 at the Raben restaurant Linsi presided over the first meeting of the organising committee “Run&Bike Zofingen”. On the 4th of June 1989 everything was ready: That Sunday morning kicked off the very first race, still known as a biathlon at the time. The race, 2.5km (1.55mi) running – 150km (93.21mi) cycling – 30.5km (18.95mi) running, instantly caught everyone’s attention in the world of sports. The first winners celebrated were Hermine Haas from Biel (Switzerland) and Dr. Andreas Rudolph from Germany. Rudolph served afterwards a long time as the main announcer for the Powerman Zofingen. Natascha Badmann, then living in Winznau, managed to take 6th place in her very first race! Born on the 6th of December 1966 in Basel, mother at 17 (daughter Anastasia), she was working as a secretary and used to have overweight. The turning point in her life came in 1989 when she met Toni Hasler from Oftringen, a former coach of the Swiss triathlon team. Hasler became her partner and trainer.

Two races in one year

Zofingen was able to enjoy two trials of strength in 1990. The “Run&Bike Zofingen” was held early in the year; the cycling leg of the race was extended to 150km (93.21mi). The race was won by the American Kenny Souza and the Austrian Silvia Nussbaum. The short-distance European Championships (50km/30km/5km or 31.07mi/18.64mi/3.11mi) were also held in Zofingen in autumn and were dominated by the Swiss with Natascha Badmann and Olivier Bernhard triumphing.

The Queen of Kona

The cycling race course included the infamous Bodenberg for the first time in 1991. Americans set the tone: men’s first place was taken by Scott Molina, and women’s by “Professional Sportswoman of the Year” Paula Newby-Fraser. The 49 year old American, originally from Zimbabwe, won the Ironman Hawaii eight times; a feat no one else was able to repeat since. The Queen of Kona has won 24 Ironman races (as of 2010) and held the world’s fastest Ironman-distance time for 14 years (8:50:53, achieved in 1994 at the Ironman Europe in Roth). It was not until July 13th 2008 when Newby-Fraser’s record was beaten by the Dutch Yvonne van Vlerken, who lives in Austria, (8:45:48) in Roth and the German Sandra Wallenhorst (8:47:25) at the Ironman Austria in Klagenfurt. Newby-Fraser still holds the fastest overall time for the Ironman Hawaii (8:55:28 in 1992) and since 1993 the fastest cycling time (4:48:30) also on the volcanic island.

PowerWoman, PowerMan

1992 saw a name change in Zofingen: The women’s event became PowerWoman, and the men’s PowerMan. Mark Allen one of the most famous triathletes was competing for the first time. The American only took fourth though. On the podium stood the German Jürgen Zäck (1st), the American Kenny Souza (2nd), and the Swiss cross-country cycling legend Albert Zweifel (3rd). Erin Baker from New Zealand won for the women. In 1993 the price money in Zofingen of 200,000 USD total exceeded even that of the Ironman Hawaii. Reason enough for Allen to step on the gas, win, and fly home 40,000 USD richer. Asked about Zofingen the American would henceforth respond: “The Powerman Zofingen is the greatest race in the whole world!”

King Oli strikes

In 1994 the women would start before the men for the first time with a precisely calculated handicap. Thus there was only one overall winner. The handicap rule was cancelled again in the meantime only to be reintroduced into the program in 2004. Olivier Bernhard’s star would rise permanently in 1994. The 26 year old from eastern Switzerland competed at the Powerman Zofingen for the first time and won. He would go on to climb the top of the podium seven more times in the city of Thut. In the following years Bernhard was often congratulating athletes at the finish line of the Powerman Zofingen and presented medals to the best of them. In 1994 Erin Baker was once more the fastest woman. The New Zealander lost by more than 47 minutes to Bernhard.

The Swiss winning streak

On May 14th 1995 Olivier Bernhard had to quit the race after suffering a flat tire in the snow. The laurels were inherited by Urs Dellsperger, another Swiss. Dellsperger afterwards worked a view years for the company Biketec AG in Huttwil, which he represented at the Powerman Zofingen. Thanks to Bernhard, Dellsperger and Stefan Riesen the men’s race would be won by Swiss up until and including 2004! 1996 and 1997 would even see only Swiss on the podium; a feat also accomplished by the Swiss women twice, 1989 and 2000. Switzerland has become one of the world’s most dominating duathlon nations thanks to further victories by Natascha Badmann in 1996, 1997 and 2000. In 2001 and 2002 Karin Thürig of Lucerne would step into the footsteps of Badmann, who to this day was able to win the Ironman Hawaii six times (1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2005).

Frequent leadership changes

In 1997 the founders Urs Linsi and Bruno Imfeld would enter a cooperation agreement with the ITU (International Triathlon Union) which held for three years and brought the biggest attendance to the event in Zofingen since its inception. The founder duo would pass the scepter in 1998 to Rainer Huber, who later became a member of the cantonal government. The duo Linsi/Imfeld took back the helm in 1999 once more after a one year hiatus only to release it again after the event to everyone’s surprise. This time it would be to a local, Hans-Peter Fretz, the head of finance up to this point at the Powerman Zofingen. Barely noticed was the fact that financially 1999 was the best year in the history of the Powerman. In 2010 Linsi was making headlines once again after becoming chairman of the loss-making Grasshopper Club Zürich (football/soccer) and he was attempting to rehabilitate the club on and off the pitch.

Olympia as a damper

In 2000 the triathlon became an Olympic sport. It was not viewed as a negative development for the Powerman Zofingen initially but more and more endurance athletes would start focusing on the more lucrative sport of triathlon, which resulted in a continuous loss of participants. The event in Zofingen was moved to September in 2002. Additionally, the first run was extended from 5km to 10km (6.21mi) and the second run would henceforth lead to the turning point on the Heitere place twice. Olivier Bernhard (6:25:37) and Karin Thürig (7:04:08) ensured Swiss successes.

The multi talented Karin Thürig

Karin Thürig, born on the 4th of July 1972 in Rothenburg, used to play volleyball for the BTV Lucerne (an NLB team) then trained to become an aerobic and fitness instructor and did not become a duathlete until she was 25. Because duathlon did not become an Olympic sport she decided to focus on cycling. She won 3rd place at the time trial World Championship in 2002. In 2004 she won Olympic bronze at the individual time trial in Athens, a feat she was able to repeat 2008 in Beijing. Meanwhile, the woman from Lucerne was crowned time trial world champion, 2004 in Verona and 2005 in Madrid. Furthermore she won bronze in 2004 at the track cycling World Championship in Los Angeles in the 3,000 metre individual pursuit. After focusing on cycling for two years Thürig decided to retire from the sport in September of 2009 while at the same time making a comeback in the triathlon.

The call for Stefan Ruf

Stefan Ruf was able to just barely rescue the event in 2003. The local banking expert, who was president of the Tri Club Zofingen for ten years, was able to resolve the staffing shortages and with a show of strength breathe new life into the Powerman Zofingen. In just three months a new board was put together and the necessary financing secured. The athletes thanked Ruf by delivering a thrilling race. The Belgian multi duathlon World Champion Benny Vansteelant lost in the final moments of the race to the Swiss Stefan Riesen, which ended his 5 year unbeaten streak. For the women Fiona Docherty of New Zealand beat Erika Csomor of Hungary. There was a silver lining for Csomor though: this would be her last defeat in Zofingen. The Hungarian won six back-to-back titles since!

The gladiator duel

The president of the organising committee Stefan Ruf was able to present a gladiator duel in 2004. Olivier Bernhard, who had won in Zofingen seven times, would face seven-time ITU World Champion Benny Vansteelant. The Belgian, who had collided with a dog during practice on the day before leaving for Zofingen, had to quit the race after two out of three laps on the bike. In the end Bernhard was celebrated as the winner in the city of Thut for the eighth time which has earned him the nickname “King of Zofingen”.

The tragic hero

The year 2005 was marked by the Belgian invasion. Several dozen Belgians followed their idol Benny Vansteelant to Zofingen, trying to emulate the duathlon-king in the race. Belgium provided the third largest contingent after Switzerland and Germany and for the men also the superior winner, Benny Vansteelant. One year later the Belgian was able to repeat his triumph; even though the bike course was extended by 8km (4.97mi). Because the Bodenberg was closed the bike course led through the Ruedertal and thus became even more challenging. In 2007 the Belgians Koen Maris and Benny Vansteelant delivered a gripping duel at the top of the race. The latter had to quit 10km (6.21mi) before the finish line because of stomach problems. Maris won setting a new record (6:21:00). Only two weeks later the world of duathlon lost its figurehead. On the 8th of September 2007 Benny Vansteelant was hit by a car and badly injured while practicing on his bike in Hooglede, Belgium. Six days later the nine-time World Champion and five-time European Champion would succumb to his injuries in a hospital in Roeselare.

Off to new shores

The 20th Powerman anniversary brought a renaissance and many novelties. The name “Run&Bike” was back. The organising committee henceforth also focused on broadening the event’s appeal by dedicating Saturday to topics like health, new talent and charity, while Sunday became the big Powerman race day. In addition, Udo Siebert of Germany founded the Jubilee Club, where only athletes who have finished the Powerman Zofingen (long distance) ten times or more are admitted. The reward is a golden pin! 33 men and three woman (Maja Jacober from Zürich, Erica Csomor from Hungary and Cathy Buffet from France) have joined the Jubilee Club until 2017. On top of the leader board is Willi Erismann from the canton of Aargau (Switzerland), who has finished the Powerman Zofingen 20 times! But back to the Powerman race year of 2008: For the men, Andy Sutz from Schaffhausen won for the first time with more than 5 minutes ahead of the two Frenchmen Pascal Schuler and Dominique Duchene. The outstanding fourth place was taken by Stefan Lüscher of Zofingen, already 16 minutes behind Sutz. The winning time was 6 hours 29 minutes 44 seconds which was 8 minutes and 44 seconds slower than the record set by the Belgian Koen Maris in 2007.

Powerman Zofingen on top

The duathlon event in Zofingen is proving very popular, evidenced alone by the fact that in 2009 more than 350 pros from 25 different countries would start at the long distance race. The total number of participants at the 21st Powerman Zofingen would even exceed 1,000, which corresponds to the biggest attendance in the past eight years. The English “220 Magazine” listed the Powerman Zofingen among the top five triathlon events in the world. Seen this way, the Powerman Zofingen had consolidated its dominant position as the best known duathlon on our planet.

The Belgian rocket

Joerie Vansteelant was as fast as a rocket. He crossed the finish line 9 minutes and 25 seconds before any other athlete in previous events. For the 10km (6.21mi) run, 150km (93.21mi) bike race and another 30km (18.64mi) run he required only 6 hours 11 minutes and 35 seconds. Maybe the Belgian was more motivated because the Swiss sports television would broadcast the first-class event live for the first time. His toughest opponent, the 28 year old Andy Sutz from Schaffhausen, lost in the end by exactly 16 minutes to the high-flyer Vansteelant. This winning margin happens to be the largest ever achieved at the Powerman Zofingen. Furthermore, this was the first time a favourite would be able to win in his first appearance. “Joeri Vansteelant was in a league of his own. This is an incredible achievement”, said Sutz in the finishing area. He had won the Powerman Zofingen a year earlier as a rookie, just like Vansteelant did this year.

Csomor, Queen of Zofingen

Erika Csomor ran like a clockwork. The Queen of Zofingen had already competed in three other long distance events since July 2009 before her appearance in the city of Thut. Mid July she started at the Ironman Roth in Germany, participated in the Triathlon Alpe d’Huez (2.2km/1.37mi swimming; 115km/71.46mi cycling with climbs totalling 3,000m/9,843ft and for the dessert a 22km/13.67mi run) in the French Alps, and finished at the Embrunman, an Ironman with a total elevation gain of 4,000m/13,123ft on the bike course. Remarkably, the Hungarian was celebrated the clear winner in each of those races. The 35 year old from Budapest won in Zofingen 2009 for the sixth consecutive time, this time six minutes ahead of Jessica Petersson from Great Britain. “I will be back next year”, promised Csomor, who left for a training camp in South Korea after her fantastic performance in Zofingen.

Vansteelants new track record

After a total pause of nine years and twelve years in Zofingen, ITU und IPA organized again shared World Championships. Joerie Vansteelant increased his track record from 2009 of 6:07.15,3 by 4 minutes and 20 seconds. Humbert and Sutz were left behind. The female winner was Melanie Burke from New Zealand, followed by the Swede Eva Nyström und Csomor, who was defeated for the first time in seven years. There were more than 1'300 participants at the 23rd Powerman Zofingen edition.

The belgian dominance

The 2012 Zofingen ITU Powerman Long Distance Duathlon World Championships became a Belgian tournament because of Joerie Vansteelant and Rob Woestenborghs. In the end, Vansteelant won with an advance of almost five minutes and missed his own track record by just 43 seconds. Only at the last change from the bike on the running track the title defender could get away from the other athletes following. «I noticed that Rob Woestenborghs was running out of petrol and therefore I went faster already at the beginning of the last running section», said Vansteelant. Ranked third was the Dane Søren Bystrup. The female winner was Nyström. «This World Championship title was surprising even me because at the beginning of the race I was far away from a place on the podium.» With 7:05.48 she missed the track record from the Swiss Karin Thürig from 2002 just by 100 seconds. Second place went to the Briton Lucy Gossage, third place to the Dutch May Kerstens who was born in Switzerland. It was the fastest race ever as well as in the male as in the female field. There were no Swiss athletes on the podium for the first time since 2005. The responsibles of the International Triathlon Union (ITU) were very satisfied with the Powerman Zofingen 2012: «The event was perfect, not at least because of the chances which were made in comparison to last year. Also we recognised that the teamwork in between the ITU and the Local Organising committee couldn’t have been better», said Brian Hinton from the ITU MultiSport Committee who in Zofingen was the responsible of the ITU.

25th anniversary

On the anniversary weekend there were 1480 participants (PowerKids, CHARITY, Short- and Longdistance, relays included). The number of participants was increasing every year since 2006. The responsibles of the ITU went into rhapsodies about the 25th Powerman Zofingen. «The event this year was even better than the years before when it already had a top level», said Brian Hinton from the ITU MultiSport Committee. Because of an injury the title holder Joerie Vansteelant could not compete. So the sun was shining for his compatriot Rob Woestenborghs. Second place went to André Moser from the Swiss capital Bern. «This was the race of my life, I’m absolutely happy.» In third place finished the German Michael Wetzel. The women’s title defender Eva Nyström was attacking already after 20 kilometres on the bike and came away. «But only about five kilometres before the finish line I was sure to be able to defend my title when they told me that I was leading more than ten minutes in front of the others.» More than eleven minutes behind the 35 year old Swede the German Julia Viellehner finished second. Third place went to Ruth Brennan Morrey from the USA.

The era of Emma Pooley

Emma Pooley who since 2005 is living in Hausen am Albis in the canton of Zurich, put her mark on the 2014 ITU Powerman Long Distance Duathlon World Championships. The 31 year old British lady won the 26th Powerman Zofingen at her premiere with a fantastic new record time of 6:47.27 and so she was 16 minutes faster than the previous record holder Karin Thürig in 2002. «I knew how hard and energy-sapping the race would be, especially because of the hills which I actually like very much», said Pooley who in the previous year was encouraging her patriots as a spectator. At the Olympic Games 2008 in Peking she got in the individual time trial the silver medal, just behind Kristin Armstrong from the USA. In 2010 in Geelong, Australia, Pooley won in the individual time trial as the first lady from Great Britain the World Championship title. Second place in Zofingen 2014 captured Nyström with a delay of more than 32 minutes. Third place on her first start in Zofingen went to the Swiss Laura Hrebec, just 90 seconds behind Nyström. The Frenchman Gaël Le Bellec won at his premiere in Zofingen the men’s race. «It’s a great honour for me to have beaten a view duathlon legends.» Le Bellec was talking above all of Woestenborghs who only finished in 14th place and also of Vansteelant finishing 85th. 4 minutes behind Le Bellec his compatriot Yannick Cadalen made the French double win come true. Third place went, once again, to the Dane Søren Bystrup.

Pooley/Le Bellec once again

At the 2015 ITU Powerman Long Distance Duathlon World Championships Emma Pooley and Gaël Le Bellec could defend their titles. Behind the British lady the German Julia Viellehner celebrated the second place and also her 30th birthday. With third place the Dane Susanne Svendsen managed to jump for the first time on the podium. In the men’s race Seppe Odeyn from Belgium succeeded in the same way as Svendsen but becoming second. Third place went to Bystrup … to whom else. The six times winner of the Ironman Hawaii, Natascha Badmann, together with her coach and life partner Toni Hasler, was doing the job as a honorary starter at the Powerman CHARITY. «Many good memories came back to my mind, especially my victories here at the Powerman Zofingen in the years 1996, 1997 and 2000.»

38 different nations

At the 2016 ITU Powerman Long Distance Duathlon World Championships Emma Pooley created a novum: The British power lady was winning the World Championship title for the third time in a row. «I’m looking with pleasure forward to my walking holidays in the Pyrenees but already tonight I celebrate this victory with a glace of red wine and a piece of Swiss cheese.» The Swiss Nina Brenn (second place) and the Dane Susanne Svendsen (third place), at her last appearance in Zofingen, completed the podium. In fact Gaël Le Bellec also could have been able to creat a new record by winning three times in a row but the Frenchman was not able to start in Zofingen because of an Achilles tendon inflammation. After the era Vansteelant/Woestenborgh it was the Belgian Seppe Odeyn who managed to step on top of the podium again. «For me it was the perfect race and wonderful day.» Second became the German Felix Köhler, third once again Søren Bystrup. The Local Organising committee was receiving praise from the highest authorities. «These were the best World Chamionships ever», said John Raadschelders, the President of the IPA (International Powerman Association). Very pleased too was Stefan Ruf. «With the 38 participating nations we established a new record.»

Russian victory

At the 2017 ITU Powerman Long Distance Duathlon World Championships Emma Pooley once again climbed on top of the podium and created an absolutely new record. «I’m very proud that I managed to win four times in a row and dispite the pressure to succeed I was able to concentrate on the race.» At the beginning of the second bike section the British power lady pushed the accelator pedal and finished with a lead of 27 minutes in front of the Dutch Miriam Van Reijen, followed by the German Katrin Esefeld. Best Swiss lady became Nina Zoller (Chur) in fourth place. The Russian Maxim Kuzmin, in the previous year finishing fifth, surprised almost everyone except for Stefan Ruf, by winning the title this time. «This first Russian victory here, created on a slightly modified running section at the end, reflects the breadth which we have here at the Powerman Zofingen.» Kuzmin was winning about 90 seconds in front of the Belgian title holder Seppe Odeyn. Third place went to the Dane Søren Bystrup, once again!

Text and translation: Raphael Galliker