Daytona serves up a thriller as triathlon's good days on the horizon

Daytona's world-famous motor racing circuit provided a COVID-19 bubble-friendly atmosphere. Talbot Cox

The Professional Triathlon Organisation Championship served up a thrilling end to a challenging year for professional triathletes as over 100 of some of the world's best were invited to battle it out over a 100 kilometre course at the Daytona International Speedway.

Since COVID-19 demolished the entire race calendar including both editions of the Ironman World Championships, many athletes longed for just one battle before the year was out. For some, it was a to satisfy their depleted bank balances -- since prize money accounts for the largest part of athletes' salaries -- but for most it was to scratch the racing itch they had been desperately waiting for and keeping their finely tuned bodies in shape for, with the hope that one event would eventually get the green light.

Daytona's world-famous motor racing circuit provided a COVID-19 bubble-friendly atmosphere with the 2km swim taking place in the lake at the centre of the circuit, the 80km bike course made up of oval laps, and an 18km run around the rest of the circuit to finish, with a generous $1.15 million (£855,000) prize purse on offer -- the largest the sport has ever seen, with each finishing athlete receiving at least $2,500.

Paula Findlay of Canada won a thrilling battle in the women's race, building up a lead of two minutes and 36 seconds which was large enough that even Ironman world champion Anne Haug, who had come back from 13th including a stint in the sin bin for a drafting penalty, could finish only second despite blowing away the field with her famous dominating run style.

Fellow German Laura Philipp rounded off the podium in third after three hours and 24 minutes of racing.

Early into the women's race, Britain's Lucy Hall impressed as she led by five seconds out of the swim, before being caught by Findlay, 31, on the bike and dropping down the order as the longer distance took its toll on the ITU Olympic distance racer.

Sweden's Lisa Norden, the ITU world champion and Olympic silver medallist, struck a thrilling battle with Findlay for much of the race, before the 36-year-old suffered a heart-breaking calf injury, putting her out of contention for the top $100,000 prize.

"This is so crazy I don't even know what to say I did not expect to win. It was one of those perfect races that never happens but it happened. I just went as hard as I could I think I went too hard but I was feeling good. Oh my gosh I can't believe it," Findlay said.

"I'm excited for next year it's good to have a race like this -- the only race of the year."

The men's race was much closer, but equally plagued by calf injuries as Britain's double Olympic gold medallist Alistair Brownlee lead the way until a few kilometres into the 18km run when he was also forced out of contention.

The top seven men were separated by around 25 seconds coming off the bike, including the United States' Tim O'Donnell, but 24-year-old Gustav Iden of Norway had more left to give with a remarkable victory after coming back from 17th to win in three hours and five minutes.

Meanwhile, race favourite, Canadian Lionel Sanders, struggled home in fourth and complained his performance wasn't a good run for money.

"I swam horribly. You can't swim like this," he said. "I came here to find out where I stand... That's the beauty of triathlon it's the gift that keeps on giving there's always something to improve on.

"If you swim horrible then you have the disadvantage of having to pass a lot of guys so if you swim better you don't have to do that. I didn't run well, but I closed well and so I'm happy with those pieces of the puzzle. I was hoping to have a good battle this year but I'll take the performance today. I came here to compete and I didn't give them a run for their money."

U.S.' Skye Moench summed up the purpose of the event in her post-race interview: "Unfortunately, every second cost a few $100. It's incredible to have that prize purse and help elevate the professionalism of the prize purse and help us triathletes make a living."

Despite the lack of racing, athletes and stakeholders in the sport have worked behind the scenes to try to fix the areas of failure and support its professional athletes in a fair and equal way.

The biggest commitment of them all is equality, and as is the way of the world, it all comes down to money.

Triathlon was born in the 1970s and has largely been gender equal with men and women competing over the same courses, and usually (but not always) receiving equal prize money and equal media coverage. Rocky Harris, chief executive of U.S.A. Triathlon said: "The best triathletes are doing pretty well, but the ones in the middle and the bottom are hurting."

The newly formed PTO, which boasts an athlete board of a number of top triathletes including Tim O'Donnell, Alistair Brownlee, Meredith Kessler and Skye Moench as well as investors, gathered momentum at the end of 2019. It had big plans for the year with its overall aim of building a platform similar to the ATP in tennis and the PGA in golf for athletes to come together and create a more powerful force in driving the sport forward.

In 2020, other than the want, there was the need to race as careers were at stake. When the pandemic devastated businesses and economies in March, the not-for-profit organisation paid out their $2.5m end of year rankings pot early which meant athletes in the top 100 received a hand out depending on their ranking of at least $2,500. Last month they announced female athletes would be given paid maternity leave and their ranking frozen until they decide to race again.

In comparison, the most prestigious event on the calendar -- the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii -- offers only $650,000 (£484,000), and the 70.3 world championships $250,000 (£186,000) with the men's and women's respective winners taking home $120,000, from the big (and expensive) island.

At the beginning the PTO attracted criticism and scepticism with its huge seemingly unattainable goals to take on the corporate stakeholders of the sport only interested in maximising profit, but it's debut year as a fledgling organisation has protected the livelihoods and invested in the future of triathlon which other sports can learn from.

Naturally throwing money at a problem isn't always the solution, as Lionel Sanders is known for saying: "If you're competing for money, you'll be destroyed."

But as the young sport, which was once the ultimate test of endurance born on a paradise island, has morphed into an ugly global commercial empire, this year's growth has put money back into the system and allowed athletes to pay their bills. That means there is hope for the future, and 2021 looks bright.