With the Olympics and ITU World Series done and dusted for the season, it’s time for the warriors of non-drafting to step into the unforgiving glare of Hawaii.
If the retirement of Chrissie Wellington was a loss for the sport, then the professional women have still delivered some classic races in Hawaii over the past few years. They include Leanda Cave’s dramatic win in 2012, Mirinda Carfrae’s incredible comeback on the run in 2014 and the emerging brilliance of Daniela Ryf last year.
This time there’ll be no Rachel Joyce, Liz Blatchford or Caroline Steffen, but Carfrae and Ryf are still in attendance and there is a long-awaited debut for Melissa Hauschildt. Plus, bank on the Brits, once again, playing a leading role.
And there will also be a fitting finale for six-time champion Natascha Badmann, who has been handed a wildcard for a Kona swansong two months short of her 50th birthday.
10. Meredith Kessler, 38, USA
Kessler split with long-time coach Matt Dixon after last year’s Kona having failed to find her purple patch on the Big Island. She’ll hope a new direction will mean she finally lives up to the name of her old coaching group on the Big Island.
Her talent isn’t in question, but Kessler’s best performance is a seventh place in 2015, which for a triathlete who has 10 Ironman victories and another eight at the half-distance is a poor return. Kessler has few problems in the swim and has biked 4:55hr on the Queen K, but it’s the run where she struggles.
It was a long 5:44hr walk home last year and her best is 3:16hr – a marathon time that’ll be quick enough for a pay cheque if she arrives in T2 in her customary position close to the front. If she can find another 10mins on the run, then she could be a real podium contender.
9. Carrie Lester, 34, Australia
Lester has had one crack in Hawaii in 2010 – and hasn’t been back since. The 9:53hr total for 23rd wasn’t a disastrous debut but found her off the pace in all three disciplines if prize money was the objective. She’s since served her iron-distance apprenticeships elsewhere, took her first Ironman title in Cairns in 2012 and found a happy home at Challenge Penticton in Canada, which she won in both 2013 and 2014. None of this suggested a top 10 in Kona until Lester stepped up a level in the past 14 months.
She’s since posted three sub 9hr finishes that have included two second-places at Roth and a win at Ironman Chattanooga last September. A win at the notoriously tough Embrunman in August kept her run of form going.
There aren’t too many tight finishes in Kona, but if it does come to a foot race along Ali’i Drive no-one will want to be up against her – Lester went to the Olympic trials for Sydney 2000 and has a 100m personal best of 11.7secs.
8. Liz Lyles, 38, USA
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Mother-of-two Lyles clocked a 2:59hr marathon in her first Ironman race, in Winconsin in 2012, and while she’s never run faster, she’s consistently peppered the 3hr mark in the four years since. One of those, a 3:03hr in Hawaii for seventh place in 2014, is part of the reason she’s tipped for a top 10 here.
The other is that – now coached by Cliff English – she’s won both of her Ironmans this year, in Brazil in May and then Wisconsin in September. The race in Florianopolis also saw Lyles post her third sub 9hr performance and fastest yet in 8:54.
The marathons do come at a cost, though. Every time she completes 26.2miles her big toenails fall off – she then wraps them up for her sister at Christmas. I’m sure the gesture is graciously received, but if not perhaps her sister might subtly buy her a pair of bigger shoes instead.
7. Yvonne van Vlerken, 37, The Netherlands
The former iron-distance world record holder (8:45hr, Roth, 2008), Van Vlerken is still going strong after an astonishing 25 iron-distance races stretching back a decade.
She first raced in Hawaii in 2008, where she finished runner-up to Chrissie Wellington, but it hasn’t been the happiest of hunting grounds since. A fourth (2013) and seventh (2010) accompanies three DNFs.
The non-wetsuit swim doesn’t suit her (she’s yet to break the hour for the 3.8km) but with a proven ability to bike inside 5hrs and run close to 3hrs, and in the absence of long-time rivals Rachel Joyce, Caroline Steffen and Liz Blatchford, Van Vlerken should be confident of a pay cheque.
6. Susie Cheetham, 30, Great Britain
With British long-course triathlon synonymous with luminaries such as Wellington, Joyce and Cave, Susie Cheetham doesn’t receive the recognition her performances merit. If her sixth place at Hawaii was unexpected, then a closer look at her resume shows it should’ve been little surprise.
Dating from a half-Ironman in Lanzarote in 2013, she’s only twice finished outside the top 10 in 19 middle and long-distance events, including a disqualification at Norway 70.3 in July, where she out-biked then-reigning Olympic champion Nicola Spirig.
Last year’s debut in Kona aside, she’s also been on the podium in every full-distance outing; third (2015) and second (2016) in South Africa and third in Barcelona (2014).
A bike crash during 70.3 South Africa at the start of the year and plantar fasciitis were early-season setbacks, but with those resolved she’ll be looking forward to building on 2015 confident that a top five finish is within her grasp.