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
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.
5. Jodie Swallow, 35, Great Britain
Swallow is arguably the closest thing non-drafting racing has to a Brownlee, if not in dominance, then certainly in the all or nothing attitude. And just like the Yorkshire brothers, when the wheels come off, they do in spectacular style – along with the doors, the roof, the engine, and any other automobile component you can think off.
One thing Swallow does not do is race with the handbrake on. The perennial frontrunner has failed to finish twice in Kona in the past three years, collapsing with hyponatremia at 20km on the run in 2013. But sandwiched between was a fourth place finish that proves she can perform in the heat and, after a crash in South Africa at the start of the season, she took her third Ironman title at Cairns and followed up with a 70.3 success in Sweden.
Swallow looked over-trained and over-raced last year heading into Hawaii, but this year has shown strong recent form with a gun-to-tape victory to win the ITU Long Distance world title in Oklahoma on 24 September. If she can recover quickly from that 6:37hr effort, expect her to be with the leaders into T1 and hammering the bike thereafter.
An Olympian in 2004, the 35-year-old has been doing this sport a long time, but – as six-time winner Mark Allen knows – it can take a long time to master Hawaii and you sense she’ll be both wiser and more formidable this year.
4. Heather Jackson, 32, USA
Jackson impressed on debut in Hawaii last year as she ran herself into the top five with a 3:07hr marathon – her finish time of 9:21hr two minutes faster than her maiden Ironman victory at Coeur d’Arlene less than four month earlier.
Clearly a fast learner, Jackson has kicked on from there, winning with a new course record at Lake Placid in July, where she was 35mins ahead of runner-up Annah Watkinson and, with no men’s professional field, was headed by just one male age-grouper.
The 32-year-old races almost exclusively in North America and has also enjoyed 70.3 success at Chattanooga and Coeur d’Alene this season.
Jackson likes to make an impression. She’s a former ice hockey player from Bend, Oregon, with a love of tattoos, a bleached shock of cropped hair and a black and white Cannondale Slice with punk motifs. She bounces on to the run in chunky cushioned Hoka shoes and toasts accomplishment with a few post-race beers.
3. Melissa Hauschildt, 33, Australia
Hauschildt’s career nearly came to calamity when a massage before her much-anticipated Kona debut in 2014 went badly awry and resulted in a torn pectoral and dislocated rib. Last year a coughing fit ended with a fractured rib behind her lung that refused to heal. It looked like a sad end to an endurance career for the Australian, who won steeplechase Commonwealth silver in 2006, had been ripping up the middle-distance world and was tipped as a potential Ironman world champion.
Hauschildt has come out fighting, however. A powerful cyclist to accompany her running pedigree, she’s a two-time Ironman 70.3 world champion (2011, 2013) and twice beat strong fields to win the Abu Dhabi Long Course Triathlon (2013, 2014).
Her Ironman debut was a low-key win at Ironman Australia in 2014 in a relatively pedestrian time of 9:28hrs, before a follow-up success in Melbourne at the start of 2015 in 8:52hr signalled her as a real threat.
After an enforced absence she announced her return with victory at the Ironman European Championship in Frankfurt in July and was then second to Britain’s Holly Lawrence in the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Mooloolaba where she ran a 1:18hr half-marathon.
Hauschildt will be hampered by the non-wetsuit swim, but should then progress quickly through the field. There’s even the intriguing prospect of her race plan mirroring three-time winner Mirinda Carfrae. If the two diminutive (in stature only) Aussies can spur one another to even greater heights, then be prepared for fireworks on the run.
2. Mirinda Carfrae, 35, Australia
For the women’s race to really catch alight, Mirinda Carfrae needs to step off the bike within 15mins of the first woman – probably Ryf – and find her run legs fast. No other triathlete would even come into consideration with this sort of deficit, but it’s the mark of the Australian, the three-time champion, the course record holder and – at 2:50:26 – also the women’s marathon record holder, that her performance is probably the most anticipated.
Kona 2015 was a disaster for Carfrae. She was hit by a car in the build-up, DNF’d on the Queen K and saw Ryf take her crown and be heralded as the new Chrissie Wellington.
Carfrae, who’s ever reminded that her maiden 2010 victory was when Wellington pulled out sick on race morning, wants her title back. She ran a 2:49hr marathon, her fastest to date, in winning Austria in June and won 70.3 Timberman in August. But they’re footnotes. Carfrae focuses on Kona like no other triathlete and, while it may not be enough for her to regain her title, she will battle until the very last stride.
1. Daniela Ryf, 28, Switzerland
Whereas last year’s pre-race predictions were split on whether Daniela Ryf could dethrone Mirinda Carfrae to become the new Kona queen, this time the Swiss is an overwhelming favourite. And rightly so, because the defending champion underlined her dominance by posting the third fastest iron-distance time ever at Challenge Roth in July.
That 8:22hr finish may have been set in ideal conditions on the world’s fastest course but Ryf backed it up just a week later with another sub-9hr showing at Ironman Switzerland.
Ryf was beaten for the first time in 12 half-iron distance events at the 70.3 World Championship on a flat Mooloolaba course on Australia’s Sunshine Coast. Ironically, she posted her fastest time (4:16hr) over the distance in finishing fourth as Great Britain’s Holly Lawrence held on for a surprise win. The longer the better though for Ryf, yet is there a weakness?
Her run stands up against anyone but Carfrae and a 2:57hr run split in Roth, albeit on the athlete and coach Brett Sutton’s insistence that she was just out to enjoy herself, doesn’t suggest she can dip under 3hrs in Kona this year.
A marathon of 3:07hrs (2014) or 3:06hrs (2015) seems more likely, but the expected gap on the bike would mean Carfrae is still likely to need close to her 2:50hr course record to run Ryf down.
Just as he did with her compatriot Nicola Spirig for the Olympics, Sutton will have the Angry Bird in full flight and, if conditions are right, Carfrae’s 2013 course record (8:52hrs) could be in jeopardy.
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