It’s the annual pilgrimage to Hawaii for the world’s best long-course triathletes – and a big Aloha once again to the Ironman World Championship. This year’s men’s race is set to be hotter than the lava fields surrounding the Queen Kaʻahumanu highway.
It features a new world record holder and the man he displaced, who’s still valiantly trying to break his Kona duck aged 40. Then there’s the strongest British challenge in history and enough Germans to field a football team. 220 Triathlon columnist Tim Heming once again counts down his top 10 picks for the prize money…
10. Tim Don, 38, Great Britain
No-one in the field is more steeped in triathlon than the three-time Olympian and 2006 ITU world champion Don. Having been Boulder-based for the past few years he’s taken to long-course racing with the same impressive consistency that he used to race standard distance.
Don understands his challenge that, aged 38, his chances of cracking Kona are limited and he’s raced sparingly at the full distance to give himself the best chance. A debut win in Mallorca in late 2014 meant a Kona debut was his only Ironman in 2015, and while 15th place was a disappointment it provided plenty to learn from for this year.
A second at Ironman Brazil to Brent McMahon has been coupled with 70.3 wins in Palmas and Monterrey, and he heads to Hawaii hoping his run legs can deliver the sort of sub 2:45hr marathon that’ll be necessary if he’s to challenge at the sharp end of the race.
9. Cyril Viennot, 34, France
The European contingent number 35 of the 58 listed professional men (including 11 Germans) in Kona: so what makes Viennot stand out? Simply, his enduring consistency at Ironman races across the world.
In 16 starts at the full distance he’s been out of the top 10 just three times, all in Hawaii, and still commendable performances: 15th (2011), 18th (2012) and 12th (2013). Having served his apprenticeship in the lava fields, he’s since finished fifth (2014) and sixth (2015) and warmed up for the world championship by finishing runner-up to countryman Sylvain Sudrie in the ITU Long Distance World Championship on 24 September.
His only Ironman win came in Bolton in 2014 and he narrowly missed a first sub-8hr performance in Roth this summer where he showed decent run form with a 2:45hr marathon. Don’t expect much fanfare for the Frenchman, but a polished performance that lands a pay cheque for the long flight home.
8. Joe Skipper, 28, Great Britain
The first British triathlete to break the 8hr mark for the iron-distance, if Skipper smashes through the run course in the same way he smashes through his go-to nutrition of peanut butter, this could be another triumph for the no-frills East Anglia boy.
Skipper nearly quit life as a cash-strapped professional last year before being reinvigorated by finishing runner-up in Texas and qualifying for Hawaii. Having placed 13th on debut last year, he’ll be eyeing a pay cheque this time and while the temperate climes of Roth are a far cry from the lava fields of the Big Island, a 2:38 marathon off the bike – the fastest in the world this year – is still a performance to earn respect.
Skipper also says the confidence of performing in the humidity of Texas last year has put him in good stead and he’s refreshingly vocal to 220 about his ambition to finish in the top five.
7. David McNamee, 28, Great Britain
The British male contingent in Hawaii this year is arguably the strongest yet and there’s the potential that Tim Don, Will Clarke, Joe Skipper or Harry Wiltshire could be so close along Ali’i Drive, you could throw a blanket over them. But the pick of the lot could be Scotsman David McNamee.
Being a British triathlete born in 1988 isn’t conducive to short-course success unless your surname is Brownlee, so realising there was little chance of Olympic selection, the Commonwealth Games sixth-placed finisher turned his attention to non-drafting at the start of last year.
An accomplished debut season saw McNamee win Ironman UK in Bolton ahead of training partner Fraser Cartmell and Britain’s Joe Skipper. He also posted the fastest run split in Hawaii in 2015, finishing eleventh despite picking up a drafting penalty on the bike.
Renowned for his solid pacing, as the field wilts in the latter stages of the run expect McNamee (who’s had the backing of pro tri team BMC-Etixx in 2016) to power through the Energy Lab and light up Ali’i Drive.
6. Timothy O’Donnell, 36, USA
Once last long run here in Boulder before heading to Kona. In honor of @mirindacarfrae and @sirilindley I too am posting a slow mo run video 🙂 @newtonrunning @garminfitness @clifbarcompany @yurbuds @smithoptics @ecfitboulder
It’s understandable that O’Donnell’s achievements have been overshadowed by those of his wife, Mirinda Carfrae, whose three Kona titles, course record and phenomenal running ability, make her one of the greatest Hawaii performers of all time.
But last year was the time to shine for the former US navy officer who finished fourth and first American – holding off Andy Potts by 2:35mins – as Carfrae’s race ended on the Queen K.
O’Donnell hasn’t set the triathlon world alight in 2016. An early season 70.3 win in Puerto Rico was the highlight as he jogged to a 9:12 finish at Ironman Frankfurt to validate his Kona slot.
He has pedigree on the Big Island, though, finishing eighth in 2012 and fifth in 2013, and aligned to the single-minded focus of his spouse, there’s little question of O’Donnell’s preparation being spot on.
5. Andy Potts, 39, USA
Triathlon brand TYR retailed a new wetsuit with an eye-watering $1,200 price-tag in 2012. It was called the Freak Of Nature, which in swimming terms could equally be applied to its top-sponsored triathlete, Potts. If the American wants to be first out of the water in Kona – and a sizable bonus from TYR should focus the mind – he will be.
Jan Frodeno or Harry Wiltshire may decide to up the ante as they approach the pier, but Potts, who finished fourth in the US trials for the individual medley at the 1996 Olympics, can switch on the afterburners at will.
From there he typically disappears into a paceline, losing touch with the lead, before reappearing to run through the field on the marathon. The tactics have proved successful with two fourths in the past two years on the Big Island to add to an outstanding and oft-overlooked Ironman record.
Away from Hawaii, Potts has seven Ironman victories and has never been beaten over the full distance.
4. Andreas Raelert, 40, Germany
If we can question whether Raelert is the finest triathlete never to have won Kona, he’s beyond doubt the most prolific ‘nearly man’ on the Big Island.
Now 40, and having seen Jan Frodeno demolish the iron-distance record he set in Roth in 2011, the 2000 and 2004 Olympian isn’t yet ready to surrender all to the younger generation of triathletes moving to non-drafting.
Surprisingly for an athlete of such calibre, Raelert’s last Ironman win was over three years ago in Austria and the German would surpass Craig Alexander in 2011 as the oldest winner should he finally break the tape first.
Given the opposition, it’d be a monumental achievement. Last year’s runners-up spot was an unexpected triumph on the back of two barren years in 2013 (DNF) and 2014 (36th), before which he finished third (2009), second (2010), third (2011) and second (2012).
If his chances of picking up the largest ‘umeke have finally gone, then he’ll forever be remembered for the second ‘Iron War’ with Chris McCormack in 2010. A race finish reminiscent of the Dave Scott versus Mark Allen duel in 1989, where the Australian ultimately out-ran – and some might argue out-psyched – the genial Raelert.
3. Brent McMahon, 36, Canada
Got a good effort out of today with a less than ideal buildup but it will serve me well heading into Kona. The boys were faaaaaast today! Congrats to the podium @timboreed85 @sebastiankienle @ruediwild First class
Only Sebastian Kienle, Chris McCormack and Marino Vanhoenacker have chalked up more sub-8hr finishes than McMahon. And the Canadian would have joined them on four apiece had he finished 58secs faster at Ironman Arizona last year.
What’s more remarkable is the 36-year-old has thrice dipped under the hallowed mark in less than two years of racing long-course triathlon. Everything about McMahon screams raw speed. He stopped the clock at 7:55 to win on debut in Arizona in 2014, followed up with a 7:56 in Brazil last year and then went 10mins faster still on his return to Florianopolis in May.
A two-time Olympian who, at 5ft 9in and just 10 stone, is built to cope with the oppressive heat and humidity, McMahon was ninth here on his debut and everything points to him going far better in 2016.
2. Sebastian Kienle, 32, Germany
The 2014 Ironman world champion and two-time world 70.3 winner, Kienle will need to be at his brilliant best on the bike to have a sniff of regaining his title. The German’s first job is to limit his losses in the swim. From there he’ll be praying for gale-force conditions on the Queen K to make the bike leg as hard as possible and splinter the paceline that he’ll hope to reel in before the turn at Havi.
With the emergence of fleet-footed former ITU stars Jan Frodeno and Brent McMahon, Kienle understandably put more emphasis on his run last year, knowing he would have to run faster than the 2:54 that won him the Kona title in 2014.
Whether his bike leg suffered as a consequence is a moot point, but if so, then it certainly looked to be rectified in victory at the Ironman European Championship in Frankfurt, where he posted an impressive 7:52hr finish.
Kienle’s form continued to the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Mooloolaba, where he narrowly lost out to Australian Tim Reed in a sprint finish. The slower the day, the better his chances, but even if there isn’t a breath of wind, expect Kienle to have some part to play.
1. Jan Frodeno, 35, Germany
The Ironman world champion, the iron-distance record holder, the only triathlete to have won both Olympic and Kona titles and in the prime of his long course career. It’s difficult to see how anyone can topple Jan Frodeno.
However, results on the Big Island don’t always run to form and the 6ft 4in German, who was raised in South Africa, has been defeated in 2016, even if there were strong mitigating factors.
That loss to USA’s Jesse Thomas at Ironman Lanzarote in May came off the back of an early season calf tear, was Frodeno’s ‘box-checking’ exercise for Kona and the powder was being kept dry for an assault on Challenge Roth two months later.
It was there he demolished Andreas Raelert’s world record of 7:41hr with a spellbinding solo effort (7:35) to mark him as a bona fide triathlon great. He fears no-one in the field and, come 8 October in the waters off Dig Me beach, this is unquestionably Frodeno’s race to lose.
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