Among its many unique fascinations, the Ironman World Championships on Hawaii’s Big Island proves a paradox.
With the odd exception, such as Chrissie Wellington’s explosive debut in 2007, it is rare that a surprise champion is crowned, yet picking a winner from the 50 or so men and 35 women that take the start-line can be notoriously difficult.
It could be argued that after 140.6 miles of swim, bike and running in some of the most oppressive conditions triathlon can serve, it’s inevitable that the cream rises to the top. After all, as the world’s best have discovered since the 1978 inception of this race, chinks in the armour heading out on race morning result in severed limbs by the day’s end.
This year’s race promises to be another captivating spectacle. The men’s competition is wide open and a solid case could be made for almost half the field to be running first down Ali’i Drive. In contrast, the women’s race has a heavy – if light-footed – favourite, with a smaller, yet equally competitive class of triathlete in pursuit.
So to kick things off, I count down the top 10 men vying for the title, and reveal who I think is this year's favourite.
My picks for the women’s title, top Brits to watch and other contenders will follow shortly. Aloha to all involved and Mahalo for reading...
10. Victor Del Corral, 34, Spain
The first of three Spaniards picked for a top 10 finish and in Del Corral’s case there is just one reason – his ability to run. He has clocked below 2:44 in each of his last three iron distance marathons, Florida (2:37) and Arizona (2:43) last Autumn, and France (2:42) in July, winning two and finishing runner-up to Bart Aernouts in Nice. Like Aernouts, he is a comparatively weak swimmer, but he also lacks the strength on the bike of the Belgian which means he has even more ground to make up on foot.
One positive is Del Corral’s affinity with Lanzarote – another hot volcanic island where he trains, and he was runner-up to Britain’s Will Clarke in the 70.3 race on September 20, showing he’s in good condition. Those following the coverage will be unlikely to hear about him all day, but don’t be surprised to see him pop up to sneak the last prize money spot.
9. Marino Vanhoenacker, 38, Belgium
The Belgian blew his race and nearly his career sky-high with a classic Kona meltdown when leading on the run in 2012. It was not the first time he’d DNF’d in Hawaii and chasing qualifying points in the big races last year led to second in Melbourne, a struggling 19th in Frankfurt and the revelation of stress fractures in his pubic bone that told him it was time to stand down.
An aborted comeback in Cozumel in December was followed by a sixth-place return to Melbourne before he finally clinched his Hawaii spot by winning Ironman Canada at Whistler in late July. The chequered record would suggest the ageing body will not cope with the rigours of another Kona test, but Vanhoenacker should not be ruled out.
Although Andreas Raelert has gone faster at Challenge Roth, Vanhoenacker has the quickest official Ironman time with 7:45:58 from Austria in 2011 and while his strength lies in remarkable biking prowess, he did run a 2:46 marathon in coming third to Chris McCormack in 2010.
If Vanhoenacker is to triumph it will be gung-ho in the mould of his coach Normann Stadler, who twice blazed to success from the front – and also had his own Kona meltdown with “too much glue” on the tubs.
8. Eneko Llanos, 37, Spain
Having won the two most competitive regional championships, Asia-Pacific and European, last year, the Spaniard looked primed to go one better than his second place to Craig Alexander in Hawaii in 2008.
Both Melbourne and Frankfurt saw Llanos beat packed pro fields, yet in Hawaii he could only finish a painful eleventh, the first non-prize money slot, after his marathon time ticked over three hours for the first time in nine races.
It was a rare aberration. Boulder-based under the guidance of Dave Scott, Llanos is a thoroughbred performer, a 2000 and 2004 Olympian, who has four times been in the top 10 in Kona and three times posted sub-eight hour Ironman races including Melbourne last year (with a shortened swim).
He secured qualification early, with a third last December in Cozumel and after a disappointing sixth in Abu Dhabi, was back on the podium in Challenge Roth in July. Not over raced, so expect another consistent effort this time around, but with more inspired guys in front.
Click here to continue reading our predictions for this year's Kona