Ironman World Champ predictions: who will be king of Kona?

The best long-distance triathletes in the world are descending once again on Hawaii for the Ironman World Championships, but who will be high-fiving along Ali’i Drive and supping from the largest umeke bowl on Saturday 14 October? 220 columnist Tim Heming counts down his top 10 men’s predictions.

Will Frodeno be victorious in 2017 on the Big Island?

10. Tim Don, 39, Great Britain

As a three-time Olympian, 2006 ITU world champion, former 220 Triathlon columnist and multiple winner at middle and long-course racing, Don’s appetite for competition is unrelenting. Now 39, it seems he is moving faster than ever – achieving automatic qualification for this year’s race by setting a new Ironman-branded record of 7hr 40min in winning the Ironman South American Championship in Brazil.


The Londoner who’s now based in Boulder, Colorado, biked a remarkable 4:06hr – 20mins faster than his closest rival – on the Florianopolis course, but the bike leg in Hawaii still presents his most significant challenge. The largely out-and-back bike route along the Queen K highway is suited to strong bikers that can generate enormous power or punch through strong winds. As his two appearances to date – a 15th in 2015 and a DNF last year – would suggest, it doesn’t favour Don. However, he’s in shape for his best performance yet, as an impressive third place in a stellar field in September’s Ironman 70.3 World Championship showed.

9. David McNamee, 29, Great Britain

McNamee has finished the best-placed Brit in Kona in each of the past two seasons and would be the safest tip to do so again. The Scot has continued to improve every season since stepping away from draft-legal ITU racing as a lottery-funded triathlete in 2014. Comfortably good enough to be in the front pack in the swim, it’ll be damage limitation on the bike before his strength kicks in as he builds through a patient marathon to pick off places on the run.

In 2015 it resulted in the fastest marathon and 11th place and last year he was two spots further back in 13th. A third-place in Ironman South Africa this season has been complemented by a trio of middle-distance victories at Ironman 70.3 Dublin, 70.3 Mallorca and Challenge Salou in Spain, and if everything goes to plan, then a top 10 finish isn’t beyond his grasp.

8.    Tyler Butterfield, 34, Bermuda

For a small island in the North Atlantic, Bermuda punches well above its weight in triathlon, thanks largely to the exploits of reigning ITU world champion Flora Duffy. Now it’s Butterfield’s turn and, while the two-time Olympian shouldn’t struggle too much with acclimatising to the oppressive heat, he’s proved hit or miss on the Big Island, with three finishes in five starts. A seventh-place in 2013 was followed by a DNF in 2014, an improvement to fifth in 2015 and another aborted attempt last year.

After a win at 70.3 Raleigh, Butterfield picked up the bulk of his qualifying points with a solid third-place in the Ironman North American Championship in Texas in April – where he just held off fast-finishing Brit Will Clarke on the run. Butterfield then failed to finish Ironman Boulder due to mechanical issues, but perhaps a better indicator of his form is the recent Ironman 70.3 World Championship where he finished a strong seventh in a stacked field to suggest he’s peaking at just the right time.

7.    Frederik Van Lierde, 38, Belgium

If Van Lierde is a steady if unspectacular racer, then his build-up to this year’s Ironman World Championship has been anything but. Having won Ironman Cozumel in November, he was set for a tilt at Ironman South Africa in Spring before being mugged and knocked unconscious on a training run in Port Elizabeth. He still made it to the start and recovered enough to finish seventh. In Ironman France he cracked his head on a cooling shower on the run course and was left covered in blood and needing medical attention before fighting back to win.

The bash on the bonce aside, the victory in France could provide to be a good omen for Van Lierde as it was the same path he took before winning the Kona title in 2013. If he’s to improve on last year’s 10th place, he’ll also need to avoid another hazard of racing – the draft marshals. The Belgian picked up a stop-go penalty last year that saw him lose the leaders on the bike, and he simply doesn’t possess the speed to make it back on the run.

6.    Tim O’Donnell, 37, USA

Whether O’Donnell turns up to Kona with fresh motivation or a sleep-deprived shell will depend on what effect becoming a new dad has – the American welcomed daughter Isabella Grace to the world on 22 August.  It does mean – that for this year at least – he’ll be the primary focus of the family’s attention when it comes to racing in Hawaii as his other half, the three-time Kona champion Mirinda Carfrae, settles into motherhood.

Carfrae is part of an enviable support cast that also includes six-time Hawaii winner, Mark Allen, as coach. O’Donnell has kept racing closer to home in Boulder this year, winning his home town Ironman comfortably in 8:13hr, alongside a number of podium finishes in 70.3 events. If those results don’t look world-beating then it’s his history of four top 10 finishes in Kona – including third in 2015 – that mark him out as a contender.


5. Patrik Nilsson, 26, Sweden

The youngest man on the professional start-list could conceivably be the most fleet-footed by the time afternoon falls on the Big Island. While history suggests most athletes struggle on debut, the 26-year-old Swedish rookie will be looking no further than training partner Patrick Lange for a blueprint on how to tackle the race. Last year was Lange’s first start and he delivered a fearless breakthrough performance to finish third.

As they conclude their training in Texas, the two will be planning to spur one another to even greater heights, and this season’s results suggest Nilsson could be a serious podium contender. He ran 2:40hr to finish third behind Sebastian Kienle in 7:50hrs at Ironman Frankfurt, just a minute slower than his time in winning Ironman Copenhagen last year. With previous Ironman successes at Malaysia (2014), Sweden (2015), and Barcelona last autumn, the BMC-Etixx Pro Triathlon Team ace has little issue seizing the nettle when it comes to winning and could be charging, ala Lange last year, by the time the race reaches the business end.

4.    Patrick Lange, 31, Germany

The German seemed to fly into contention from nowhere last year to claim third place and break Mark Allen’s 27-year-old run course record with a 2:39:45 marathon. What was equally impressive was his jump in position from 23rd arriving in T2 – and it was on debut. Whether the drafting penalty Lange picked up on the bike hindered him, or gave him the breather he needed for such an explosive run is a moot point, but what’s certain is that all eyes will be watching for how far back he is at the start of the run this time around.

His novice status is mitigated by training under 2005 winner Faris Al-Sultan, and alongside last year’s Kona seventh-place finisher Boris Stein and the speedy Swede Patrik Nilsson. He also missed the first three months of the season with a foot injury, but returned to place sixth at Ironman Frankfurt with a 2hr 49min marathon. A recent win at 70.3 Reugen  in 3:43hr suggests the early season layoff could be leading him to peak at exactly the right time for Hawaii.

3.    Ben Hoffman, 34, USA

It’s been 15 years since an American won in Hawaii and, while Chris Lieto led until the final miles in 2009, and both Tim O’Donnell and Andy Potts have shown consistency over the past decade, Hoffman can claim to have come as close as any of them. If it was a shock when the US triathlete finished runner-up to Sebastian Kienle in 2014, Hoffman proved it was no one-off with fourth place last year and then clinched an automatic qualification slot for 2017 by clocking a course record 7:58hr in Port Elizabeth to win the Ironman African Championship.

A lifestyle change for 2017 saw Hoffman marry in May and then set off in an Airstream camper van to find some inspirational new training spots in California, Bend, Montana and Wyoming. He returns to Hawaii for an eighth time with renewed vigour and the confidence of knowing he can compete for another podium spot.

2.    Sebastian Kienle, 33, Germany

Unlike his great rival and countryman Jan Frodeno, Kienle has been racking up the races – and the podiums – in 2017. The 2014 Kona champion topped the Ironman qualifying system (KPR) with 14,985 points, including a victory at Ironman Frankfurt where he became the first man to win the Ironman European Championship for a third time – in a blisteringly fast 7:41hr. There were wins at 70.3 Kraichgau in Germany, a third at 70.3 St. George in Utah where Britain’s Alistair Brownlee dominated, and a runner-up spot in the inaugural Challenge Half Championship event in Samorin, Slovakia, where took revenge, of sorts, on the Yorkshireman who DNF’d on the run.

The German is renowned for his biking prowess and it shows no sign of waning after he posted the fastest bike split at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Chattanooga. His relative weak swim costs him over the middle distance, but at Kona, Kienle seems to enjoy forging his way to the front of the race where he hopes for windy conditions to split the field apart and enable him to open up a buffer into T2. Despite his familiarity with Hawaii, Kienle is still only 33 years old and will be hoping he’s still improving. If so, he might once again be back on the top spot.

1.    Jan Frodeno, 36, Germany

Let’s be straight, while a close encounter brings drama, it’s more likely that Frodeno rewrites the record books than is beaten on the Big Island this year. The 2008 Olympic champion has raced sparingly in 2017 but cruised to victory by 15min over Spanish veteran Eneko Llanos at a relatively low-key Ironman Austria to validate his slot. A further win at 70.3 Barcelona leaves him fresh to try and become the first man since Mark Allen to win three times in a row, and few would back against him. Frodeno took over eight minutes off his 2015 mark in winning last year and if he does the same again he’ll become the first man to dip below eight hours in Hawaii and cement his reputation as one of the finest triathletes to have ever graced the island.