It’s almost time for Hawaii’s Big Dance, the Ironman race that defines careers and make legends of its champions, which starts with the firing of a cannon and shot unknown Chrissie Wellington to multisport immortality back in 2007.
It’s the battleground of the most famous triathlon of them all, the Iron War, and year-on-year it provides feats of superhuman endeavour and industrial scale meltdowns in equal measure.
From its roots as the birthplace of Ironman, there is nothing like Hawaii’s Big Island, and next month the 2015 edition is set to be bigger and better than ever. 220 columnist Tim Heming casts his eyes over the Kona contenders and makes his picks for Ali’i Drive glory. First up, the women…
10. Meredith Kessler (USA)
Past results: Seventh in 2013; 26th in 2010; DNS in 2011 and 2012; DNF in 2014
Solid, dependable and successful – just not on the Big Island. Kessler’s transformation from an age-group triathlete with insatiable training needs to top-end professional is a testament to her perseverance, but she’ll have to keep working at it a little longer if she’s to crack the tough nut of Hawaii.
No doubt wily San Francisco-based coach Matt Dixon will have a plan to keep shaving the necessary seconds from the overall time that will give his star pupil and strong swim-biker a chance, but it’s doubtful whether the American has the run speed over a marathon to compete for the win.
Fortunes will at least look to be improved from last year where Kessler dropped out on the run, although her 5:11 bike split – while still the seventh quickest in the women’s field – was a good 15mins slower than she would have wanted.
This year Kessler has been back on the winning trail including six victories and wins in her favourite Antipodean hunting ground at Ironman New Zealand and in the Asia-Pacific 70.3 championship in Auckland – her only blemish being a DNF in last month’s Ironman 70.3 World Championship where she dropped out on the run.
It’s a similar build-up to the 2014 season, with an Ironman win early season to top up the qualifying points followed by a series of middle distance races. Her camp will just hope for a happier ending this time around.
9. Leanda Cave (GBR)
Past results: Champion in 2012; third in 2011; eighth in 2007; 10th in 2010; 12th in 2013; 18th in 2014; 20th in 2009; DNS in 2008
This promises to be Cave’s most competitive outing since taking the title in 2012. Since then the globetrotting star who was born in the UK, brought up Australia and now resides in Miami Beach, Florida has had to deal with press commitments, injuries and a debacle of a Commonwealth Games selection process that meant briefly flirting with a return to short course draft-legal races.
There was even a skin cancer scare to throw to into the mix. After a forgettable 12th in 2013 and 18th last year, Cave looks back in business, racing for a new Middle Eastern tri team, Alameda o.n, on a new bike, the quirky looking Ventum, and back with coach Cliff English.
Second in a fiercely contested North American Ironman Championship in Texas behind Canada’s Angela Naeth shows she is back in racing shape too. A rangy triathlete, Cave has proved she can cope with hot conditions despite the fair skin, and with a glut of experience, she’ll not be fazed by opposition tactics.
The biggest question marks are whether she has both the footspeed and desire for one more world title. Cave is already an ITU long distance champion, won the Ironman 70.3 title in the same year as her Kona win and even took the ITU world short course crown in Cancún, Mexico way back in 2002.
Expect better than the last two years, but at 37, there are a lot of miles on the clock for Cave to be much more than a top-10 contender.
8. Heather Wurtele (CAN)
Past results: eighth in 2011; 14th in 2012; 15th in 2014; DNF in 2013
One half of Canada’s first couple of triathlon, Wurtele is no longer a mere top-10 contender. The swim remains a weakness, which will not be helped by the absence of wetsuits from the warm Pacific waters, and it has to be disheartening running into T1 alongside Mirinda Carfrae as Wurtele did last year.
That said, as long as she’s not exiting T2 with Carfrae, Wurtele can at least match her best result to date on the Big Island. Her bike leg is strong and although the run did not hold up last year as she dropped to 15th, she consistently ducks under 3:10 for Ironman marathons.
This year performances have taken a step up. Wurtele was runner-up – albeit a distant second – behind Daniela Ryf in the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Austria which matched the one-two of the stacked field in the $300,000 Challenge Dubai in February.
She also won the 70.3 North American title in St George, Utah. The final piece of the puzzle could be the dedicated support crew – because on the men’s side, husband Trevor hasn’t made the cut.
We continue our countdown for women’s glory at Kona 2015…
7. Caroline Steffen (SUI)
Past results: Second in 2010 and 2012; fifth in 2011, 2013 and 2014
One of a remarkable ten 37-year-olds on the professional women’s start-line, the twice Kona runner-up is a model of consistency in Hawaii. In 2013 Steffen battled stomach issues to finish fifth, a position she also held in 2011 and repeated again last year.
But if Steffen still has any chance of scenting victory on the Queen K again (she was just 64secs behind Leanda Cave in 2012) then she needs to rediscover the cycling prowess that saw her spend two years on the Swiss national cycling team before triathlon, and also led her to set an Ironman bike course record in Melbourne in 2012 of 4:35:29.
The Swiss does not shirk big race challenges and two third places at the 2015 regional championships in Melbourne and Frankfurt represent a steady return, but while it’s a harsh comparison to draw, in 2012 she won both. Steffen’s successes this year have also not been without incident.
She won Ironman 70.3 Philippines by more than five minutes — and for the fourth time — but collided with a spectator on the bike and was left with bruising and abrasions. Thankfully, on the predominantly spectator-free Queen K she should only have the opposition to deal with, although they will be handful enough.
6. Jodie Swallow (GBR)
Past results: Fourth in 2014; DNF in 2013
A thoroughbred racer, Swallow – by her own admission – overcooked it this year and was left walking through the run leg of Boulder 70.3 in June with plenty of time for soul-searching.
The Bahrain Endurance 13 athlete rested up to recover before returning for the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Austria, only to crash thanks to a blowout on her time trial bike leading up to the race, which ultimately led to a DNF.
The 2004 Olympian from Essex, who now resides in South Africa and Boulder, Colorado, will hope the enforced break works to her benefit. But while compromised preparation isn’t always the curse it first appears, any chink in the armoury can become a gaping hole when exposed to the fierce conditions of Hawaii.
Swallow, 34, has the capability to be competitive at all non-drafting distances and is one of the most experienced and prolific racers on the circuit, and last year’s fourth place after a disastrous 2013 where she collapsed with hyponatraemia 20km into the run will be an additional fillip.
As always, she will be driving from the front in the swim and pushing the pace on the bike, but to stay in contention thereafter she needs favourable conditions, a fuelling strategy that works, her body to be 100 per cent rejuvenated and those capable of unleashing sub-three hour runs to have an off day. That’s a lot of ducks to line up.
5. Julia Gajer (GER)
Past results: Sixth in 2014
When Chrissie Wellington set the world iron-distance record of 8:18:13 in Roth in 2011, you could be forgiven for not remembering who came second – especially as it was 38mins later.
Yet that performance gave Julia Gajer (then Wagner) the belief she could make a professional career out of the triathlon and it has been steady improvement since as she returned to Roth for two more podiums and to take five minutes off her personal best.
German women may not deliver the same long-course dominance as their male counterparts but the 33-year-old is a willing flagbearer as she returns to Hawaii after an impressive sixth place on debut last year. Where Gajer looks a threat is on the marathon.
Last year she posted a 3:04:39 split in running down Heather Wurtele and Mary Beth Ellis and it was quick enough to hold off the fleet-footed Liz Lyles and Gina Crawford. Since then Gajer has taken more notable scalps, such as Caroline Steffen at Ironman Frankfurt in July. Under the tutelage of new coach Wolfram – who also works with the Raelert brothers – Gajer is eyeing a top-five finish.
4. Liz Blatchford (AUS)
Past results: Third in 2013, tenth in 2014
Blatchford is a clever racer. With the ITU swim background to put her in position, a (legal) limpet-like knack of sticking to the opposition on the bike leg, and a formidable run, any opportunities that open up will be seized with aplomb.
After stepping up in distance due to British Olympic rejection for 2012, Blatchford repledged allegiance to the Aussie cause and finished third on her Hawaii debut in 2013. Last year it didn’t go so well, and a solid if unspectacular 9:23:34 meant she scraped into the top 10 just ahead of Britain’s Corinne Abraham, a fellow member of the Uplace-BMC Pro Triathlon team.
The background support afforded to the 10-strong squad means preparation should not be a problem for the 35-year-old who at just 56kg is already equipped to cope with the energy-sapping heat and humidity. Blatchford is also in decent form.
She returned to the scene of her debut full distance victory to win a third successive Ironman Cairns title in June and lost out by 50secs in Mont Tremblant to the points-scrambling Mary Beth Ellis last month.
While the wisdom of that final outing less than two months before Kona might be questioned, it is the same race plan as Blatchford employed in 2013 and that was the year she came fourth in Canada and went one better in Hawaii. If she were to go one better than her Mont Tremblant result again, there will be the biggest of umeke bowls adorning the Blatchford mantelpiece.
We conclude our countdown for women’s glory at Kona 2015 and predict who we think will be gracing the podium…
3. Rachel Joyce (GBR)
Past results: Second in 2013; third in 2014; fourth in 2011; fifth in 2010; sixth in 2009; 11th in 2012
If one other female triathlete can rival Mirinda Carfrae for dedication in the pursuit of winning in Hawaii it is the London lawyer-turned-multisporter, Joyce. From a steady run of improvement since finishing sixth on her Big Island debut in 2009, Joyce was the natural British heir to Chrissie Wellington’s throne.
The reason it’s never quite happened is down to a number of factors. A virus in 2012, won by Leanda Cave but anyone’s for the taking, robbed her of one golden chance even if she soldiered on to finish, and two years ago, with Mirinda Carfrae thundering through the field on the run, she succumbed by five minutes.
Last year the picture was similar with a 14min gap off the bike expunged as the Australian once again took the honours, and it was that final defeat, with debutant Daniela Ryf splitting the two long-term foes, that sealed the end of Joyce’s coaching relationship with six-time champion Dave Scott. Joyce ‘only’ posted a 3:06:27 marathon in relatively mild Kona conditions and they mutually severed ties. Whether a fresh start under Julie Dibens will pay dividends remains to be seen.
While vocal on the ’50 Women to Kona’ drive for equal start numbers, she has been quiet on the racing front, the most notable result this year was a third place in the North American Championship race in Texas which proved enough to consolidate her Kona slot.
Joyce is still a consistent favourite and the best British hope, but at 37 and with Ryf stronger and with a year’s more experience and Carfrae not looking any less impenetrable, it’s likely her best shot has gone.
2. Mirinda Carfrae (AUS)
Past results: Champion in 2010, 2013 and 2014; second in 2009 and 2011; third in 2012
There are few finer sights in triathlon than to see Carfrae in full flow on the marathon in Kona, her 5’3” frame devouring the tarmac and making the elite competitors she’s zipping past – male and female – look like they are wading through treacle.
You can almost write off any results Carfrae posts for the rest of the year because nobody gears up their season for such a sole purpose, will be better prepared or knows what it takes to win more than the Australian.
Everything is about Hawaii for the 34-year-old and in husband, professional triathlete American Tim O’Donnell, she has a partner who will not only emphasise but immerse himself in the same process. Yet after wins in 2010, 2013 and last year, Carfrae is not being tipped by us for a fourth crown that would equal Chrissie Wellington and leave only Paul Newby-Fraser and Natascha Badmann above her in the number of Kona titles won.
Quite simply, the Swiss miss we will come to next is so dominant in the first two disciplines, there is likely to be a time gap leaving T2 that even Carfrae will not breach – although it may have to be even more than the 14mins it was last year when a course record run of 2:50:26 meant Carfrae successfully defended her title.
One thing is certain, whatever the gap out of the water and however much it is extended on the bike, keep the cameras rolling on the charging Aussie. There will be no hitting the panic button, but to prove this prediction wrong she may need something extra special, likely to be a sub 2:50 run and even breaking her own overall course record of 8:52:14.
1. Daniela Ryf (SUI)
Past results: Second in 2014
Ryf burst on to the long distance scene last year with a remarkable run of results that almost culminated with the world title on her Hawaii debut at the age of 27. Parallels were drawn with Chrissie Wellington’s bow on the Big Island in 2007, although this time Ryf would fade on the run to be hunted down by Mirinda Carfrae and lose out by two agonising minutes.
No shame in that, but the comparisons with Britain’s Iron Lady are not really apt. Despite the common thread of coach Brett Sutton, unlike Wellington, Ryf comes from a solid ITU background and placed seventh in the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
However, after a 40th-placed finish four years later in London, the Swiss sought solace in the Sutton camp and such is Australian coach’s unique influence, the Angry Bird’s migration to long course has been nothing short of majestic.
If last year’s Ironman wins in Switzerland and Sweden, and half distance world and European titles were not impressive enough, 2015 has been even better. Since a crushing triumph in Challenge Dubai in February, Ryf has steamrollered the opposition in every race, including a 10min margin of victory in fierce heat in Frankfurt in the Ironman European Championship and an even bigger cushion in making the Ironman 70.3 World Championship look a mere formality last month.
That latest outing in Zell am See, Austria, demonstrated how Ryf is the complete package as she posted the fastest swim, bike and run of any of the major contenders. This time in Hawaii, she will be aiming to put so much time into Carfrae on the swim and bike that not even the great Aussie can claw it back.
It’s hard to see her failing, even at such a young age. The only hesitation – and it’s a minor muse – is that after her wins in Dubai and Zell am See, Ryf is in line to receive $1,000,000 for winning Prince Nasser Al Khalifa Triple Crown, with the finale in Bahrain in November maybe splitting her focus.
On current form that looks a cakewalk, and yes, it is almost two months on, but if Ryf is again pressured in the final stages of the Kona marathon, maybe the risk to that once-in-a-lifetime payday might just hold her back mentally. After all, the promise of a $1,000,000 cheque for Christmas would make anyone think twice, even one of Sutton’s triathletes.
Who do you think will win Kona? Let us know in the comments below!