All photos Rocky Arroyo
There are a couple ways to rebound from a subpar race. One is to crawl into a hole and suck a thumb. The other is to reload the revolver. After admittedly marginal races at Ironman 70.3 St. George, Aussies Sam Appleton and Joe Gambles didn’t wait long to make amends on their ninth- and seventh-place finishes in Utah. Moving on to Northern California Wine Country just seven days later, Appleton and Gambles smashed a solid field at Ironman 70.3 Santa Rosa this past Saturday. Appleton claimed the win in 3:46:47, while Gambles took second solo in 3:50:42. The final podium spot showed up nearly four minutes after Gambles and Appleton had enjoyed a celebratory glass of local NorCal vino.
Taking the win in wine country wasn’t gonna be an easy task; with names like Tim O’Donnell, Jordan Rapp, Fraser Cartmell, and Andy Potts on the start list, nothing was guaranteed. Both Appleton and Gambles only knew they wanted to wash the red dirt of St. George from their mouth.
“I really wanted to get some redemption from my misfire at St. George,” Appleton said bluntly. “I just tried to block it from my mind and put 100 percent of my focus on Santa Rosa and not dwell on what could have been at St George. It's the way sport goes; you have good days and bad days. The main focus in the seven days between events was just to make sure I had recovered enough to go deep again and then just lay it out there.”
Gambles’ mission was entirely different than that of Appleton. While his seventh at St. George was not what he wanted, he had a greater goal: using the hard back-to-back weekends of racing to build strength and speed for his big season target, Ironman Cairns. “My build period started in January, and it’s really all been about Ironman Cairns,” Gambles said.
Appleton set the early pace, leading swim Olympian Potts out of the water in 23:30, then tearing away from the American and any other dreamers. The only other man to close the gap from T1 and keep Appleton in sight? Gambles. “At mile 5 he shook TO, and from there, Appo never eased up,” Gambles said. “I rode well I think, but man, Sam just kept getting better.”
“I was motivated to swim fast and push the beginning of the bike to whittle down the group because I knew that was my best chance of winning,” Appleton said. “The course at Santa Rosa really suits my riding style—the kind of ride where you can get out of sight and out of mind. That’s what I did and it motivated me to keep pushing the bike hard.”
Appleton, with Gambles still on his heels, built a three–minute lead. “When you hear that the gap keeps opening up to the guys chasing it really encourages you to keep the hammer down,” Appleton said. At the 25-mile mark, he ratcheted up the pace yet again. Realizing following could be his undoing, Gambles let his countryman go up the road, hoping to keep the gap at T2 manageable.
“He said he actually was riding with higher power in his second hour on the bike,” Gambles said. “Appo was just on a different level, and he kept tightening the screws on me.”
Appleton eventually laced up his race flats with a three-minute buffer. It was all he would need. Gambles gave chase, but couldn’t close on Appleton for the duration of the half marathon. Appleton claimed the win, as Gambles cruised in for second, uncontested.
“It feels great the put a solid result on the board after the disappointment of St George,” Appleton said emphatically.
Gambles was equally thrilled. “All credit to Sam,” Gambles said. “You know, this performance would have gotten him a top five—if not better—in St. George, but that’s racing. I’m just happy to have had a good back-to-back double, and to get a really good result out of it. It’s definitely going to be a good fitness boost for Ironman Cairns.”