As Ironman celebrates its 40th year, the best long course triathletes on the planet line up for another shot at world title glory in Hawaii. Switzerland’s Daniela Ryf returns as a three-time defending champion and red-hot favourite, but there is increasing depth in the women's professional field with multiple challengers eyeing a podium spot.
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Such is this strength that some of the biggest names in the sport don’t make our predicted top 10. Those to miss out include triathletes who have consistently been in the prize-money on past visits such as Michelle Vesterby, Sarah Piampiano and Carrie Lester. There’s also no place for Helle Frederiksen, who has the fastest middle distance time on record and makes her first start.
Britain’s Susie Cheetham, who has twice finished sixth in Hawaii, isn’t on the list either, and nor are fellow Brits, Laura Siddall - who has won three iron-distance races in 2018 - and debutant Emma Pallant.
But if these omissions raise a few eyebrows, we’ll go on to explain why the women who do make the top 10, all have the experience, talent or potential to make a big impact on the Big Island this year.
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10. Lisa Huetthaler, Austria
More pariah than popular due to a past doping infraction, trying to bribe the testing laboratory, and, on returning from the ban, allegations of drafting with a male partner during a race.
Controversy seems to follow the Austrian like a wheel-sucking drafter. Even her domestic Ironman in Klagenfurt this year had added spice when Britain’s Susie Cheetham lodged a post-race complaint about moto-pacing on the bike - Huetthaler had the joint-fastest bike split and would hold on for second place.
But while her reputation precedes her, she has proved a masterful exponent of the 70.3 distance with multiple victories throughout Europe. This has yet to translate into Ironman success, but finishing runner-up in her last four outings more than justifies a spot on the start-list.
It’s hard to predict how she’ll go. Now 35 years old, Huetthaler’s strength is on the bike, and the rolling course should be suited to her ability to generate big watts and cope with the crosswinds. Whether she’s as equipped for the humidity on the run here is more questionable, and given it’s her debut in Hawaii, a top 10 result would be a successful return.
9. Sarah True, USA
After a distinguished ITU career that included twice winning on the World Triathlon Series in Stockholm and placing fourth in the London 2012 Olympics, True finally made the switch to non-drafting racing last year and even picked up a couple of wins over the 70.3 distance in Augusta and Austin.
This season witnessed her Ironman debut, where she ran a rapid 2:54:58 marathon in the European Championship in Frankfurt to finish second behind a dominant Daniela Ryf. True was disappointed to finish 10th in the Ironman 70.3 worlds in South Africa at the start of September, but was thwarted by a flat tyre and could take some solace from recovering to run a 1:17:58 half-marathon.
Formerly Sarah Groff before marrying US elite endurance runner Ben True in 2014, she has the all-round ability and pedigree to match up against her rivals, and despite this being her first year on the Big Island, a top 10 finish is the minimum she’ll expect.
8. Liz Blatchford, Australia
It will be one last hurrah for Blatchford, 38, who recently announced she will retire from triathlon after Kona this year, marking an end to 18 impressive years in the sport.
The former British ITU racer turned back to her Aussie roots when she stepped up to Ironman in 2013 and enjoyed instant success, but although she has twice finished third on the Big Island, she’s also been absent in Hawaii for the past two years, due to the birth of daughter Mahli in 2017.
As efficient a racer as there is, Blatchford will swim comfortably with the main pack and sit in on the bike, allowing others to do the pressing, before picking off challengers as they wilt on the run.
She’s already won two Ironman races this year, with the second coming at Mont Tremblant in a three-way battle with Lauren Brandon and Meredith Kessler. That clinched her Kona qualification and although an August race might seem later than ideal, it has been a tried and tested path. She raced there in both 2013 and 2015 and went on to make the podium in Hawaii both times.
7. Kaisa Sali
It’s testament to the quality of the field that the Finnish star could produce the best performance of her Ironman career yet we still predict her to come a career-low seventh.
In eight Ironmans Sali has never finished lower than fifth. That’s happened twice, both times in Hawaii, and, also showing remarkable consistency, her marathon has only fluctuated from 2.59 to 3.08, with similarly level bike splits.
Low profile, Sali will start un-fancied but full of confidence because this year has arguably been her best to date. A morale-boosting 70.3 win in Monterrey was followed by a third place in Roth with a personal best time of 8:46:49 and then a win at Ironman Switzerland in July.
With sights now set on the Big Island, she’s refining the details - saddle, helmet choice, aerobar extensions, position of drinks bottles - that could make a telling difference come race day. Unlikely to falter, if those ahead of her do, she could be a podium contender.
6. Heather Jackson, USA
The American makes a fourth trip to the Big Island having fallen in love with the place and gained rich rewards in return. Aged 34, she seems to have the physique and attitude to embrace its challenges, with finishes of fifth, third and fourth on her previous appearances.
Jackson has long been an impressive 70.3 triathlete and added to her multiple success over the distance by winning at Chattanooga in May. Not the most talented of swimmers, she proves strong on the bike and is consistently below 3:10 on the run, despite not yet having broken 3:05.
With the ability to deliver a measured performance and come through at the business end of races, this year she’s been back on top of the podium at Ironman Lake Placid. It mirrored her victory from 2016, where she went on to finish third in Kona and is a good omen as she prepares to take on the best once more.
5. Sarah Crowley, Australia
After finishing third in Hawaii last year, the Australian has backed it up with an impressive 2018 that bodes well for similar fortune this time around. There was no shame in finishing third behind Daniela Ryf and Sarah True in trying to defend her European title at Frankfurt, although it will have been disappointing to have biked 25mins slower than both Ryf and the time Crowley had achieved a year earlier.
But she righted any wrongs by returning to Germany for Ironman Hamburg in August and won a 6km run, 180km bike, 42.2km run duathlon after the swim was cancelled due to blue-green algae.
A model of consistency on foot, her last five marathons times have been spread by just 85secs around the 3:05:00 mark. More recently she’s taken top honours at Santa Cruz 70.3 as part of her Hawaii build-up, and under coach Cam Watt, a Brett Sutton protege, is learning and improving in the mould of Chrissie Wellington, Ryf and a string of successful predecessors. Will be primed once again for the main event.
4. Mirinda Carfrae, Australia
The Australian is the only woman to have beaten Daniela Ryf over Ironman when the Swiss has completed the course (Ryf dropped out of Ironman Germany in 2016 early on the bike). But that was when Carfrae ran her down with a course record marathon of 2:50:26 in Hawaii to win a third world title in 2014 – and a lot has changed in those four years.
Carfrae’s defence of that crown ended in a DNF after she failed to recover sufficiently from a pre-race bike crash to mount a challenge, but she did return to finish runner-up in 2016, although it was more than 23mins behind her Swiss conqueror.
Having had a year out to be a mother to baby Izzy, this season she’s won 70.3 Santa Rosa and Augusta and validated her Kona spot with second-place at Ironman Cairns behind Kiwi Teresa Adam.
A warm-up race in Poland saw Ryf turn up and again beat her by 23mins - this time over half the distance. So while Carfrae is unlikely to be fazed, has a wealth of experienced, and knows perfectly how to plan the year to peak for Kona, there’s a lot to claw back if she’s to be challenging for to spot once again.
3. Anne Haug, Germany
The most intriguing of a string of debutants that also include USA’s Sarah True, Britain’s Emma Pallant and Denmark’s Helle Frederiksen, and it’s largely because the German’s marathon potential looks of the calibre to rival a free-flowing Mirinda Carfrae in her pomp.
Haug came to prominence at ITU racing, with her highlight being World Triathlon Series Grand Final success in Auckland in 2012. But the 35-year-old was always hampered by a comparatively weaker swim, which contributed to her two Olympic outings, in London (11th) and Rio (36th), ending in disappointment.
Since stepping up to non-drafting racing post the 2016 Games, the swim plays less of pivotal role and Haug has looked impressive in winning in Lanzarote and Dubai in 2017 and California this year over the half-distance.
Haug’s Ironman debut came in Frankfurt in July where she sealed her Kona berth with fourth place and standing just 5ft 4, her physique looks perfect to succeed in the heat and humidity of Hawaii.
As long as she can hack the non-wetsuit nature of the Kona swim, and has built on her bike strength in the past few months, it’s just a case of turning her footspeed from the half-marathon - as shown by a recent 1:15:11 run at the Ironman 70.3 worlds - to the full 26.2miles. Perhaps easier said than done, but with the German men so strong, Haug might feel it’s time the women got involved with the honours too.
2. Lucy Charles, Great Britain
After a breakthrough performance in Hawaii last year to finish runner-up - and in the absence of Mirinda Carfrae through pregnancy - the Brit has cemented her position as the main challenger to the Swiss dominance of Daniela Ryf.
The 25-year-old has moved way beyond just taking plaudits alongside USA’s Lauren Brandon for being the best swimmer on show, and last year’s performance makes her one of only three women in the field - alongside Ryf and Carfrae - to have ducked under 9hrs on the Big Island.
The Essex triathlete won Ironman South Africa in April and backed that up with a personal best 8:43:51 to finish second to Germany’s Daniela Sammler in Challenge Roth by just 9sec. Other notable results include retaining her Challenge Championship crown in Slovakia and finishing second to Ryf in the Ironman 70.3 worlds, where she kept pace on the bike into T2.
Once again, she will lead from the front and try and stay there as long as possible. Last year Ryf caught her in the last 20km of the bike leg. For Charles to have a chance of victory in 2018, she’ll need to retain the lead coming into T2.
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1. Daniela Ryf, Switzerland
No surprises for the No 1 slot. As we’ve counted down the top 10, Ryf has often been mentioned in despatches for one world-beating performance or another. The question is not whether the Swiss is the best female triathlete in the race, but whether a fourth consecutive victory will make her the greatest of all-time.
Everything points in that direction. She has looked almost indomitable in 2018, as she has done virtually every year since stepping up to long course racing in 2014, and starts as a heavy odds-on favourite for the Ironman world title double after taking the 70.3 crown in South Africa at the start of September.
A lot can happen in almost nine hours of racing, so the result is not a formality, but having set a new course record of 8:38:44 in Ironman Germany, an Ironman 70.3 best time of 3:57:47 in Poland and dominated a strong field in the 70.3 worlds in South Africa, given good conditions, her own course record of 8:46:46 could be under threat.