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.
We continue our look at the top ten men likely to win be in with a chance of winning Kona this year…
7. Bart Aernouts, 30, Belgium
There are few guarantees with Kona, but one is that Aernouts will finish the run in a higher position than he starts it. One of the world’s finest duathletes, the Belgian just needs to improve his swimming enough to have a puncher’s chance.
After running the fastest marathon in Kona in 2012, last year he again set a race-best (2:44) to finish eighth, but had dropped over six minutes in the water and a further 14 minutes on the bike to eventual champion Frederick van Lierde and left T2 in 23rd.
There are signs the swimming is improving as he swept to victory in the 70.3 European Championships, and the omen of winning in Nice – as Van Lierde did last year – has to be a good one. But the warm waters of the Pacific mean there’ll be no neoprene assistance and if he swims over 57 minutes like last year there will be just too many good athletes ahead to run down.
6. Bevan Docherty, 37, New Zealand
Few could blame the Kiwi if he’d had a belly-full of long course triathlon and headed into retirement. With two Olympic medals and an outstanding short course career, it has not been swim, bike and run, but gastrointestinal issues that have caused the upset when trying to step up in distance after 2012.
It started well, with a crushing home win in Ironman New Zealand in 2013 when he saw off 10-time champion Cameron Brown, but then followed DNFs at Hawaii, Panama and then Taupo, which put Docherty’s qualification for this year in jeopardy.
A ninth place at Ironman 70.3 St George in July showed he was at least back on the right track, and a fortnight later he took victory at Ironman Texas with a 2:49 marathon. With a sense of this race being boom or bust, Docherty, who never lacks belief in his own ability, must now literally prove he has the stomach for the fight.
5. Jan Frodeno, 33, Germany
The 6ft 4” German is preparing to debunk the myth that male triathletes simply do not win on debut in Hawaii. If the stomach and sinew play ball there will no more dangerous athlete on the start-line and it’s a real possibility that Frodeno could be first to win both Olympic gold and the Ironman world championships.
Despite being just 33 and having a couple of years to build through 70.3 racing, Frodeno has wasted no time in shooting straight for the Big Island – stating that after fulfilling his Olympic ambitions in Beijing it’s the only race left to excite him.
With speed in abundance across all three disciplines, Frodeno posted a race-best 2:43 marathon to come third on debut at Ironman Frankfurt despite pulling up with cramps on multiple occasions, and was also the only athlete able to live with Javier Gomez’s electric pace in the 70.3 World Championships in September.
So Kona poses few fears, which could be his only handicap, because the Big Island has a well-worn habit of biting the real big hitters in the butt.
4. Tim O’Donnell, 34, USA
Few contenders should be treading water off Dig Me beach feeling fresher than O’Donnell. The American former naval officer finished fifth last year and the points gained allowed him to play the tactical game by easing round Ironman Florida just weeks later with then-fiancee Mirinda Carfrae to punch the Kona ticket.
He’s raced a handful of 70.3 and shorter events since, winning in St Croix, but probably the sharpest he’s had to move was to keep pace with his new bride for their first dance in December. Not only has O’Donnell acquired the keys to wedded bliss but also pillow talk from his two-time world champion spouse focused on how to unlock victory in Hawaii.
No American has won this race since Tim DeBoom in 2002, and O’Donnell’s only weakness might be the bike leg if, or more likely, when, the pace really hots up. Even if it does, he’s still an outside chance and certainly USA’s number one threat.
We reveal the top three men we think are most likely to win Kona this year…
3. Freddie van Lierde, 35, Belgium
A benchmark for excellence: triathletes finishing ahead of the metronomic Belgian know they have had a great race. If any weakness can be levelled at Van Lierde it’s that he lacks top-end speed, but even that assertion can be challenged with a glance at his resume showing a 2:42 marathon in Ironman France or a 4:25 bike split in Kona last year.
Van Lierde’s performances also suggest that unlike Sebastian Kienle, Andrew Starykowicz or Luke McKenzie, he has the adroitness and confidence to race within himself and reduce the chances of an implosion.
But Van Lierde is the reigning champion and with this comes more media commitments, more pressure, and, like Pete Jacobs found last year, more athletes looking for his scalp come race day. The results have also been a notch down on 2013. Defending his title at the Abu Dhabi long course race, he finished fourth to Tyler Butterfield, and competing at Frankfurt he was second, 25 seconds over the hour mark as Kienle took the honours.
That switch to race in Germany, abandoning his yearly ritual of a winning trip to Nice also left him with a week’s less recovery. These are subtle differences, but when trying to find chinks in the armour of a champion, they might just make the difference.
2. Sebastian Kienle, 30, Germany
With due credit to Andrew Starykowicz, Kienle is the sport’s most fabled biker of recent times because he’s shown to have the run legs to back it up. Unlike Starykowicz though, Kienle is not a natural swimmer, and giving up three minutes to the lead pack means he hits the highways in a full octane pursuit, before providing the spectacle of blowing past the extended pace line to the front.
Last year that resulted in a 4:22:33 bike split – 4:10mins down on Normann Stadler’s course record – but Van Lierde was still in close attendance and Kienle eventually finished third. Revenge in Ironman Germany ahead of the Belgian and countryman Jan Frodeno meant Kienle topped the qualifying points list by a considerable margin, but he was unable to win a third consecutive World 70.3 crown after Javier Gomez and Frodeno led the charge in Mont-Tremblant.
Kienle suffered punctures on the Queen K on his 2012 debut yet showed his mettle to still pick up fourth and now into his thirties with the knowledge that the longer the race the better his chances, expect further improvement and a polished podium performance.
1. Ivan Raña, 35, Spain
So here it is, the number one pick and while a standout performer, the diminutive Spaniard will still not command much of the pre-race chatter of favourites. Having only raced Ironman for a couple of years, Raña will still be in a rush to claim a Kona crown knowing that it’s likely to be just three short years before compatriot Javier Gomez seriously steps up in distance after the Rio Olympics.
The stage will not phase Raña who seems to have been in elite level triathlon forever. A short course world champion as far back as 2002, it is a distance he briefly returned to earlier this season, so speed is not an issue. The peculiarities of this race should not derail him either. On debut in Hawaii last year he ran 2:47, the day’s second fastest marathon split to finish sixth.
It was the bike that cost him. A 4:40 split meant he gave up 15 minutes to race winner Van Lierde and with it the race. His only Ironman appearance this year was in Austria, where he posted 7:48:43 the fastest time of the year and the third fastest iron distance ever. Klagenfurt is not Kona, but he is a genuine contender.
Who do you think will win the men’s race this year? Let us know in the comments below!