Every year sees triumphant breakthroughs and agonizing breakdowns played out on the sport’s most hallowed ground. Who will etch their name in Ironman Hawaii history?
The Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona is anyone’s race, where athletes must answer not only to the world-best competition on the day, but also to unforgiving race conditions and an all-in pressure as suffocating as the midday humidity. Still, there are a handful of athletes we’ll be watching extra closely on October 8 to drive the race-day action. (Be sure check Triathlete.com for full race-week reporting and interviews with these athletes and others.)
Read the men’s preview here
See the complete start list here
Daniela Ryf (SUI) In 2015 Ryf won all of her races, including the Ironman European Championship, Ironman 70.3 World Championship, Ironman World Championship and the million-dollar Triple Crown. After an extended break, she showed that she isn’t actually a machine when she DNFed with hypothermia after a non-wetsuit swim in cold temperatures in Frankfurt. But she quickly rebounded, winning Challenge Roth with the fastest time in five years, an astounding 8:22—only Chrissie Wellington has gone faster. Ryf is one of the strongest female cyclists to dominate the sport in recent years, and she is only getting faster. Compared to Mirinda Carfrae, her run may have previously been considered a weakness, but her first sub-3 marathon in Roth showed that is no longer the case. Ryf does seem to race a lot (she set a new record in Switzerland a week after Roth), although has proven to be incredibly resilient.
Photo: John David Becker Mirinda Carfrae (AUS) The three-time Kona champion was forced to DNF in 2015 when a back injury flared up early into the ride (she was hit by a car a few days before the race). But her unfinished business has only provided extra motivation for Carfrae, and she showed in Austria that she still has some fast races in her legs. Everyone knows her as the sport’s best runner, and her 2:49 marathon was downright impressive, but she also posted the fastest female bike split, only a few minutes shy of the course record. She has clearly worked hard on her bike in order to limit the T2 deficit, and she should be able to close any gap of five to 10 minutes with her fantastic run. Photo: John David Becker Jodie Swallow (GBR) The 2016 Ironman Asia Pacific champion and ITU long course world champion, Swallow’s swim and bike strengths consistently put her in a frontrunner position in T2, and she has finished as high as fourth in Kona (2014). Swallow will have to avoid overdoing it on the bike like in Kona 2015, when she tried her best to ride with Ryf and blew up on the run. Count on this: Swallow will drive the race dynamic on the swim and bike—and maybe even hang on for a podium finish. Photo: John David Becker Heather Jackson (USA) In her third year of competing at the distance, Jackson posted an impressive course-record win at Lake Placid. Last year’s top U.S. finisher in Kona, she has developed a lethal bike-run punch. Last year in Kona she had one of the fastest run splits to move from 14th in T2 up to fifth place at the finish. Jackson will need a faster swim that puts her in a better position on the bike with the strongest cyclists. Photo: John David Becker Sarah Piampiano (USA) Piampiano had a successful 2015 season—in Kona she had a solid bike and great run to move from the back of the field all the way up to seventh place, and then went on to win her first Ironman title in Western Australia. She was building toward her first season highlight at the Ironman North American Championship when a stress reaction prompted her to take a precautionary break. A summer Ironman victory at Vineman allowed her to assess the work on her swim and practice her Ironman pacing. With an improved swim she could use her “land speed” (in 2015 she was the second fastest female on the combined bike and run after Ryf) to realize this year’s dream of a Kona podium finish. Photo: John David Becker Melissa Hauschildt (AUS) Hauschildt is one of the very few athletes who is undefeated in an Ironman. She won Ironman Australia in 2014, the Ironman Asia-Pacific Championship in 2015 and the Ironman European Championship in 2016, but injuries kept her from racing Kona. Watch for her to aggressively attack the field after T1 in her first Kona attempt. Photo: John David Becker Liz Lyles (USA) Lyles was the top U.S. female finisher in 2014. In 2015 most of the athletes she usually rides with had bad days, and she ended up racing on her own for most of the day, losing a lot of time toward the end of the bike and struggling mentally before turning in a strong run. This year she has been working hard to ride stronger, especially in the late miles of the ride. Her dominating win in Brazil showed that she is on the right track toward a great result in Kona. Photo: John David Becker Heather Wurtele (CAN) Wurtele is one of the strongest 70.3 athletes in the world, but so far the Canadian hasn’t found the same success in the full Ironman distance. While she finished in eighth place in her first Kona pro race in 2011, she’s had a number of frustrating disappointments and DNFs since then, including a mechanical issue that ended her 2015 race shortly after T1. But her 70.3 performances hint at her unrealized potential. At some point, she’s bound to have the bit of luck she needs for a great Kona race. Photo: John David Becker Julia Gajer (GER) After a sixth place in Kona in 2014, Gajer continued to improve throughout the 2015 season, but then DNFed in Kona last year. At the Ironman North American Championship, she posted the fastest bike split and a strong marathon, winning by more than five minutes. After a much needed break, expect her to be in great shape for Kona. Leaving aside Ryf and Carfrae, she is one of the best runners in the field, and a solid swim-bike will put her in a great position for a top-five day. Photo: John David Becker Michelle Vesterby (DEN) After Vesterby’s string of rollercoaster Ironman results last summer (DNFs on the run in Frankfurt and at Ironman UK, followed by a sub-9 win at Copenhagen), the smiling Dane surprised many with a fourth place in Kona. While a lot of athletes struggled in the heat, Vesterby seemed immune to the conditions and was solid across all three disciplines. She’ll likely be in T2 with the front group, and a run like last year will put her in the mix for another top-five finish. Photo: John David Becker The Wildcards American Meredith Kessler has yet to have her best day in Kona, and after struggling with a mid-season niggle, she hopes to turn things around this year. American Linsey Corbin, who was sidelined for much of 2015 due to injury, is on the comeback trail and is in pre-injury form for her 10th Kona. Australia’s Annabel Luxford is only improving in the Ironman distance. One Kona rookie to watch is Kaisa Lehtonen from Finland—she went sub-9 hours in Barcelona and won the Ironman African Championship. The 2015 sixth-place finisher, Great Britain’s Susie Cheetham, has the run speed to get her into the top five this year. Photo: Paul Phillips/Competitive Image Head To Head Here’s how the top competitors’ swim, bike and run strengths stack up (on a scale of 0 to 5). The points of reach athlete are based on the actual results in iron-distance races and adjusted for course conditions. Learn more about Radde’s rating system and see his complete Kona preview at Trirating.com.