Home > Feature

Who will win Kona?

Challenge Triathlon: RothShowdown on the Queen K – Ironman World Championship Preview

by Kevin MacKinnon

When Commander John Collins and his wife Judy came up with the idea to string together the Waikiki Rough Water Swim, the Around Oahu Bike Race and the Honolulu Marathon to create an event that, “if anyone could finish that person would be an ‘Iron Man,’” they had no idea how big the event would become. The Ironman World Championship has long since moved from Oahu to the Big Island of Hawaii, but ever since the first race, which saw 14 men start and 12 finish, it has remained the most recognizable event in triathlon racing.

Challenge Triathlon: RothWhich is why, come October, the world’s best long distance triathletes will once again line up off the pier in Kailua-Kona to compete for the world title. Even if you haven’t performed anywhere else all year long, a win, or even a top finish in Kona can make your year. Just ask Mirinda Carfrae – heading into October last year she’d had, for her, a “poor” year with only a win at Ironman 70.3 Muskoka to show for her efforts. One 2:50 marathon and a course record later and Carfrea was suddenly considered amongst the best performers of the year.

So, who’s going to win in Kona this year? On the women’s side you’d be crazy to bet against Carfrae, but there are more than a few women who are ready to challenge the Australian for the title. The field is so tight that even if she’s slightly off she’ll find herself further down the podium. The men’s race promises to be one of the more interesting events we’ve seen in a long time thanks to the infusion of some shortcourse talent that could stir things up along the Queen Kaahumanu highway.

Carfrae’s Race to Lose?

Coming off the fourth-fastest full-distance race in history when she won Challenge Roth in July, Carfrae seems to have things in order as she prepares to defend her title this year. The field in Roth was filled with her most serious competition. Last year’s runner-up in Kona, Rachel Joyce, had to settle with another runnerup finish to Carfrae. The woman many picked as the favourite in Kona last year, Caroline Steffen, was third.

But there might be more to be read into those results. After years of working with Brett Sutton, Steffen was forced to find a new coach last December when Sutton decided he needed a change. Steffen is now working with Chris McCormack, a two-time Kona champ who is the master of mind-games and mental preparation. For years Steffen has blasted everyone in sight all year long, then come up short in Kona. Two years ago she was so strong in Melbourne that she could have taken some of the men’s prize money, but was outrun in Kona by Leanda Cave. Before that she’d finished second and third in Kona during the “no one can touch Chrissie Wellington” era of racing. This year Steffen won again in Melbourne, but not in the same dominating fashion we’ve seen in year’s past. She hasn’t raced nearly as much and will likely arrive on the Big Island more rested than ever. Is this the year she can blast away on the bike and arrive back in Kailua-Kona with a huge lead?

Steffen isn’t the only one who needs to come off the bike with a huge lead to have any hopes of winning. Carfrae’s 2:50:38 marathon last year looked effortless. Caitlin Snow was the next fastest with a 2:58, but that was only enough to get the American to sixth place. The rest of the women ran in the low three-hour range (other than Steffen, who struggled on the run with a 3:11). Suffice it to say that a 10-minute lead probably won’t be enough if Carfrae is in the same kind of form she was in last year. And here’s the really scary part for the rest of the women: Carfrae probably won last year’s race on the bike.

Yes, I know, that last statement doesn’t make a lot of sense after I rave about Carfrae’s stellar marathon run last year, but hear me out. Carfrae is a solid swimmer, but still trailed most of the women’s contenders by about four minutes starting the bike. Through the opening half of the ride she lost more time to the lead women, but then started to gain that time back over the last half of the ride. The women who we expected to open huge gaps on Carfrae starting the marathon – Meredith Kessler, Michelle Vesterby, Yvonne Van Vlerken and Steffen – only rode three or four minutes faster. In other words, they didn’t have nearly the 10-minute cushion they needed. What’s even more frightening is that Carfrae produced the fastest women’s marathon in Kona history after pushing as hard as she did on the bike.

95049 (427x640)So, can she be beaten? Absolutely. But to relegate Carfrae to a spot further down the podium, the winner will have to come off the bike well ahead, then put together a sub-three-hour marathon to seal the deal. Joyce is certainly capable of that, as is another athlete from Great Britain, last year’s third place finisher, former short-course star Liz Blatchford. 2012 champ, Leanda Cave (yet another Brit), is now over the hamstring issues that plagued her last year and is extremely motivated to prove that her win wasn’t a fluke. Kessler’s running has been impressive in all her races over the last two years – except in Kona. If she can put it together when it counts she’ll also be one to watch. Van Vlerken was fourth last year and has finished as high as second in Kona. Linsey Corbin has two Ironman titles to her credit this year, including a record-setting day in Austria. Mary Beth Ellis seems to be recovering well from her broken collarbone (which she broke just a month before Kona last year) and might arrive on the Big Island more rested than in years past, which could put her in the mix.

We also don’t want to forget Canada’s Heather Wurtele. Wurtele’s running has been nothing short of outstanding this year. For years that seemed to be the one aspect of her racing that seemed to limit her from being a true Kona contender. That’s definitely not the case anymore as she’s run her way to numerous 70.3 titles this year. Another great race in Coeur d’Alene proved that she’s got what it takes over the full distance, too. Another Canadian who could very well be in the mix for a top-10 finish is Angela Naeth, who will be making her first appearance in Kona this year under the careful tutelage of a man who knows exactly how to win in Hawaii, Mark Allen.

History Repeats?

How’s this for an interesting stat: since 1996 the men’s winner in Kona has either finished in the top three the year before, or been a former champion. Which would limit our potential winners this year to Frederik Van Lierde, Luke McKenzie, Sebastian Kienle or Pete Jacobs. While that list is likely a relatively safe bet, there are definitely some men who would like to add an asterisk to that stat in 2014.

95043 (640x427)The man everyone is dying to see race in Kona this year is 2008 Olympic champ Jan Frodeno. The German (who grew up in South Africa) did his first 70.3 race last August, finishing second at the European championship. He looked to be in contention for the win at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship last year, but pulled out because of an Achilles tendon injury. Once he got that straightened out, Frodeno proceeded to school the world’s best distance athletes from January through May. He won the Asia-Pacific 70.3 championship in Auckland, New Zealand, then outran stellar fields in Oceanside (Ironman 70.3 California) and Utah (the U.S. Pro Championship). His race in Utah was so dominant that it prompted Kienle to post a message on his website:

“Dear Jan, I think you have a bit of an issue with pacing. You don’t seem to understand that an Ironman 70.3 is more than twice as long as an Olympic-distance race, but you go at the same pace for both.”

Kienle got his revenge at the Ironman European Championship in Frankfurt in July, winning his first full-distance title to go along with his two 70.3 world titles, while Frodeno had to “settle” with third. That third place finish came after the Olympic champ spent about 10 minutes dealing with flat tires – he had three – and came off the bike more than 17-minutes behind Kienle. Frodeno ran the most bizarre 2:43 marathon ever seen in an Ironman to run his way to the podium – he went through the half-marathon on 2:32 pace, despite numerous stretching stops to deal with cramps in his legs. When he was running Frodeno was flying along at an incredible pace. If he has better luck with his bike in Kona and can figure out the nutrition end of things, he will be formidable on the run.

95045 (640x427)Peter Reid, Canada’s own three-time Kona champ, never defended his title in Hawaii. He used to say it’s the hardest thing to do in triathlon because of all the pressure and expectations that come after you’ve won. Van Lierde has lived through that pressure over the last year, but seems to have things dialed in as he prepares for this year’s race. Kienle was simply too good in Frankfurt, but Van Lierde was very happy with his own performance and felt good about his form at that point of the season. McKenzie has struggled a bit this year with some health issues (and has been busy being a new dad), but seems to have figured out how to get to Kona in great shape, so you certainly wouldn’t want to count him out either. Last year’s fourth place finisher, James Cunnama, hasn’t been in great form through the first half of this year, but, like McKenzie, has lots of time to get things together before October.

Pete Jacobs, the 2012 champ, can certainly relate to Reid’s feeling about the challenges of defending in Kona. He never seemed to get on track last year and was never really in the mix last year. Like Reid, though, he knows exactly what it takes to win the race and will certainly be motivated to win himself another title. Marino Vanhoenacker’s dominant performance at Ironman Canada in July bodes well for the Belgian. Vanhoenacker led the race through 18 miles of the marathon in 2012 – if he can figure out the nutrition issues that stopped him in his tracks and can come off the bike close to super-cyclist Andrew Starykowicz (who will likely blow through the bike course at as close to record time as he can but, to date, hasn’t run nearly well enough to win in Kona), might also have a chance for the win. Victor Del Corral will probably have the day’s fastest run, but unless he can come off the bike closer to the leaders, he’ll have a tough time contending for even a top-five finish.

And then you have a list of former short-course specialists who seem to be figuring out the Ironman racing scene and bring to the Kona equation an incredible balance of swim, bike and run prowess. Bevan Docherty was the Frodeno of last year’s race, but he ended up dropping out. Docherty’s impressive win in Texas in May seems to indicate that he’s figuring out the nutrition component of the sport, which seemed to be what held him back last year. A bevy of former itu stars will join Frodeno and Docherty as potential contenders and arrive with some podium experience: Tim O’Donnell was fifth, Ivan Rana was sixth and Tyler Butterfield was seventh last year.

Canadian hopes for the podium are slim. Elliot Holtham is the lone Canadian in the field. While Holtham’s win in Australia was a great performance, he’ll find himself up against a whole new level of competition on the Big Island in October. Which is what it’s all about. There’s a reason you can make or break your year based on how you perform in Kona in October. The world’s best all arrive in the shape of their lives. It makes for a pressure cooker of a day for them, and lots of excitement for all of us.