The double-Olympic champion took victory in the rain in Ironman Ireland, Cork in his much-anticipated full distance debut, after the swim was cancelled and the contest switched to a duathlon.
The Yorkshireman then confirmed he would accept the one qualifying slot on offer for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii in October.
“That was one of the reasons I came here today,” he said. “I’ve hopefully got a few years left in me, but I’ll be going to Kona very much for a learning experience and can’t wait to see how it goes.”
Brownlee took the tape in 7:44:16, but victory was only assured within the final 10km of the marathon after he ran down Ireland’s Bryan McCrystal, who’d set a blistering pace on the bike to lead the 31-year-old into transition by almost 17mins.
There could be few venues further removed from the heat and humidity of Hawaii than the southern Irish town of Youghal, but the wet and windy conditions didn’t deter the locals from turning out in force for their first taste of Ironman action.
After the swim was cancelled for safety reasons – a combination of low water and ambient temperatures and choppy conditions – a time-trial bike leg format was introduced, with the professional men setting off first at 30sec intervals.
Fourth to go, seven places ahead of Brownlee, would be former professional footballer McCrystal, a renowned cyclist who finished fourth in Ironman UK last year.
And it was McCrystal who set the pace throughout the testing two-lap 112-mile bike ride, comfortably coping with the 1,900m of ascent to open a gap of 12mins on German Markus Thomschke with Brownlee in third.
It proved an attritional race with big name DNFs including multiple Ironman winner Marino Vanhoenacker succumbing early on the bike, USA’s Lindsey Corbin in transition and long-time women’s leader Anja Ippach on the run.
On to the marathon there was no let up in the dismal conditions as the athletes took on the four loops from Youghal to Munster Blackwater, with Brownlee splitting 2:51:31 – the fastest run of the day – to eventually overhaul first Thomscke and then McCrystal.
“It was a tough, long day,” he said. “I’d have preferred a swim to make my day easier. The course just drags on, especially in the second half of the bike.
“I thought I was riding well but I was never catching this guy [McCrystal] and he put some big time into me at the back end of the bike.
“I set off on the run and thought I’m not sure I’m going to do it. I just set into a rhythm and tried to eat up some ground. Until the last 10km I was quite enjoying it, but the last 10km were not fun at all.
“The crowd really gave me a lift, though, not only in town but right out on the course in the middle of nowhere.”
Switzerland’s Emma Bilham won the women’s race in 8:50:18 to also book her Kona place. It was a first full Ironman success for Bilham, who took the Alpe d’Huez long course title last year, with the margin of victory almost 30mins over Holland’s Pleuni Hooijman.
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