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Russell’s Ironman dream comes true

After being interviewed by Mike Reilly, “The Voice of Ironman,” an emotional Matt Russell is greeted by his wife Gillian Forman Russell and their son Makaio following his victory in Sunday’s Ironman Lake Placid triathlon. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

LAKE PLACID — This was a race that Matt Russell really wanted.

On Sunday, the 36-year-old came full circle, swimming, cycling and running his way to victory in the village where he was first introduced to the sport of triathlon, winning the men’s professional title in the 21st Ironman Lake Placid.

Russell grew up in the town of Lisbon, New York, and took his first venture into the sport as a high schooler by participating in the weekly High Peaks Cyclery mini triathlons held in Lake Placid. Russell entered his first race as a pro in the 2010 Ironman Lake Placid, and on Sunday, he became a champion on the same course, posting a winning time of 8 hours, 27 minutes and 57 seconds.

Russell made his big push about halfway through the Ironman’s second 56-mile bike loop, and led from there, although he did have to shake off some other contenders who in the end were unable to chase him down.

“This is literally a dream come true. I’ve wanted to win this,” Russell said. “I wasn’t sure if it would happen this year. You just never know but things came together. I did a breakaway on the bike with about 25, 30 miles to go. I felt pretty strong on the bike and I thought that was a good chance for me, and it was a smart decision. Sometimes it pays off and sometimes it doesn’t, and today it paid off.”

Matt Russell cruises into the finish line in the Olympic speedskating oval in Lake Placid to win the 21st Ironman Lake Placid triathlon. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

Russell didn’t have the fastest swim time in the pro field, and he wasn’t the fastest runner, but on the 112-mile bike ride, he turned in a record time of 4:27:38 to grab an advantage that would never be relinquished.

Russell completed the swim in 56:42 and wrapped up his long day with a time of 2:58:57 in the Ironman’s 26.2-mile marathon.

“It came together on the bike and I wasn’t sure if I was able to hold onto the run because at one point there were a couple athletes running pretty well,” Russell said. “At some points I was almost running scared but I just said ‘Keep it consistent.’ And I thought if I could keep it consistent and run strong on the hills hopefully I can come first. It definitely it wasn’t easy. With these races you just never know. There are so many good guys.

“Today there were probably five, six, seven other guys who have won Ironmans,” Russell continued. “It was a very good field and all it takes is having the right day, and I guess today was my day.

“Australian Joe Gambles, who now lives in Boulder, Colorado, finished runner-up in 8:33:01 and Marc Duelsen of Germany placed third in 8:37:01.

Australian Joe Gambles tries to run down Matt Russell during the marathon Sunday (Enterprise photo — Morgan Ryan)

In Sunday’s race, there were two professional slots up for grabs for this year’s Ironman World Championships in Hawaii, and since Russell had already earned a trip to Kona less than a month ago with a sixth-place finish at the European World Championships in Frankfurt, Germany, those spots went to Gambles and Duelsen.

In fact, both triathletes chose to compete in Lake Placid for just that reason, and despite not taking home an overall title, for them, it was mission accomplished.

Duelsen attempted to punch his ticket to Kona on home turf in the race in Germany, which was held on June 30, but fell short with a 10th-place performance. That result prompted the 33-year-old to head to Lake Placid for the first time, and he was thrilled with the decision.

“I came for a Kona slot and I got it. I’m happy. That’s why I’m here and it paid off,” Duelsen said. “I’ve never been here, and I’m so happy that I did this. A tough race, a tough course and a lovely city.”

After keeping an eye on Russell’s progress, Duelsen said he had no intentions of going for the win on a course he described as difficult.

“Matt wanted to win the race here, because it he said it was his first pro race here. He deserved it,” Duelsen said. “He was so strong on the bike and on the run also. I thought I didn’t have a chance to win. All I wanted was third place.”

Duelsen hinted that he’d love to come back to compete in future Ironman Lake Placid.

“The scenery was amazing. I don’t think it’s my last time here,” he said. “A really difficult race. The swim was nice and easy, a nice loop, but the bike was so tough, and the run course; the last five miles of the run course is awful.

“Overall, it was a really amazing day,” Duelsen said. “The swim, I saw the whole beach was full of spectators at six in the morning. Also on the run course, they pushed us up the hill and I hope they stay till midnight and cheer for all.”

Sunday’s victory marks another step forward for Russell after he suffered a horrific bike accident during the 2017 Ironman World Championships when he crashed into a van that wound up on the course. He explained that moment really changed his life. One year after that, Russell bounced back to finish sixth in Hawaii among a field of the world’s best long distance triathletes.

“Today was emotional for a lot of reasons,” Russell said. “This is practically a hometown race for me. I started doing the sprint triathlon here when I was 18, I volunteered for this race in high school as well, and then not quite 2 years ago I was in a really severe accident at World Championships, and ever since then I try to appreciate things a little bit more. With that, I’m a little more emotional.”

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