With three-time Ironman world champion Mirinda Carfrae (AUS) anticipating the arrival of her first baby, the question is who will be able to challenge two-time defending champion Daniela Ryf (SUI) this year in Kona? Currently, the United States’ Heather Jackson (third last year) and Great Britain’s Leanda Cave (2012 world champion) are the only other female athletes (aside from Ryf) set to make the Kona start list that have stood on the Kona podium. The athlete who could shake things up? Multiple-time Kona podium finisher Rachel Joyce of Great Britain. Though she didn’t start the season with plans to compete on the Big Island, she’s making a last-minute push this weekend at Ironman Canada to get a spot on the Kona start list. Here, triathlon data geek and creator of multisport analysis website TriRating.com, Thorsten Radde, looks at what it will take for Joyce to nab a spot—and what she’ll be capable of if she makes it to the race in October.
Going back as far as 2009, Great Britain’s Rachel Joyce has been a regular member of Kona’s top-10 club when a surprising (to her) sixth-place finish was her breakthrough race as a pro. She finished second in 2013 and 2015 and had another Kona podium (third) in 2014. She is equally strong in all three legs and has handled the Big Island conditions well, ensuring that she’s in the mix all day long.
At the start of 2016, Joyce announced she was pregnant and would be taking the year off. On Sept. 7, 2016 she gave birth to son Archie and slowly started to juggle caring for a newborn child with her partner Brett while also working on her return to professional racing. In her blog she wrote that “during my pregnancy I always said I wouldn’t pressure myself to get back to training by date X. The last thing I wanted to be stressing about in Archie’s early days was training and a comeback. Getting back to race shape will be a huge challenge but it is exactly that challenge which excites me.” She decided to target the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Chattanooga instead of focusing on qualifying for Kona 2017.
She returned to racing in April at Ironman 70.3 Oceanside. A seventh-place finish, 17 minutes back behind winner Holly Lawrence, was an inauspicious start to her season—in the past her strength has always been on the longer distance. A fourth place at Ironman 70.3 St. George five weeks later showed some progress and, though she was still 13 minutes behind Lawrence, it was a comparable performance to her 2015 race at St. George.
Joyce chose Ironman Boulder as the location for her return to full-distance racing: “Though that’s a bit sooner than I thought I’d be racing an iron-distance; I want to put on a good performance for my adopted ‘home’ race. I feel healthy, I feel motivated to race, I’m nervous again.” It turned out to be a fantastic day for her. She was in the lead for most of the bike before Kona podium finisher and pre-race favorite Heather Jackson went to the front, building a gap of three minutes at the start of the run. Even though Jackson has been one of the best runners in Kona for the last two years, Joyce did not concede the win and by the half-marathon mark started to eat into Jackson’s lead. Joyce went to the front at 18 miles and then went on to win the race with a solid gap of seven minutes, posting the fastest run of the day. Even though it’s hard to compare different races, her performance in Boulder was almost back to her old standard of racing, probably at the level of at least a top 10 in Kona.
At the time of her Boulder win on June 11 she hadn’t yet received a slot for 70.3 Worlds in Chattanooga (she was ranked 70th but received a roll-down slot at the end of June), making her rethink her season plan: “The Kona carrot was dangling tantalisingly close to my nose.” With the 2,000 points from Boulder she currently holds 3,140 points, but is still well short of the projected cutoff of 4,300 points for a July Kona slot. (Go here for more on the Kona pro ranking system.) In order to improve her points, she has to race another full distance Ironman.
For awhile she was on the list for the Ironman European Championships in Frankfurt in early July, but she had only planned that as a potential backup race in case something went completely wrong in Boulder. Now she’s decided on racing WPro-only Ironman Canada in Whistler this Sunday, the last race before the first qualifying cutoff. In order to safely qualify for Kona, she needs at least a second place finish, a third place would put her right on the cutoff line with the risk of coming up just short. She’s going to face strong competition from Linsey Corbin, Malindi Elmore, Melanie McQuaid, Danielle Mack and others, but a performance similar to Boulder should allow her to finish on the podium and get the Kona slot she is looking for. (For details on the field, check out TriRating’s seeding for Ironman Canada here.)
What will Joyce be able to do in Kona if she can earn the right to compete? The first big question will be how well she’ll be recovered from the big up-tick in her racing—Boulder and Whistler are two full Ironmans within seven weeks, and between Whistler and Kona there are only eleven weeks. While she has raced two Ironmans close together, this will be the shortest time she has given herself before Kona and it’ll be tough to balance the recovery requirements with the requirements of a good build into Kona. But Joyce has the experience to get things right—we’re betting she’ll be on the Kona start line in the best shape possible for her given the circumstances.
With the depth of the Kona field, it is next to impossible to predict where Joyce will end up, but one thing is certain: With the exception of defending champion and course record holder Ryf, she’ll be one of the names that’s going to be picked most often for a podium finish. There is a group of easily five or more athletes who will battle for the top three. In addition to Joyce, this group includes at least Jackson (third last year), Anja Beranek (fourth), Kaisa Sali (née Lehtonen, fifth) and Sarah Piampiano (sixth).
Joyce will clearly be the most experienced of that group and she won’t be sucked into someone else’s race plan. As evidenced by her second place in 2015 when zipper issues made her drop out of the leading bike group straight after the swim, she is able to deliver a well-executed race even when on her own. But in order to beat Ryf when she is in top form, Joyce would need a “magical day” where everything goes according to plan and then a bit better. If Ryf runs into any issues, anything can happen. Though it will have been a long road to the Kona start line, if she can get there she’ll be the most experienced professional on the start line and will be ready to capitalize on any little mistake Ryf or her other competitors make.