The men's Kona race is shaping up to be one of the most exciting in recent years.
Defending two-time Ironman world championship Patrick Lange is back on the start list, but once again it’s hard to know his form after a less-than-stellar season. So who is the favorite? There will be the usual strong contenders, as well as a few athletes who could have the Big Island breakthrough they’ve been looking for. Here’s a look at the names you’ll want to know heading into next Saturday’s Ironman World Championship. (Read the women’s preview here.)
It feels like we’ve been here before with the German champion. A totally lackluster season with a disappointing finish at 70.3 Worlds—where he finished so far back you had to click on the second page of results—and another bummer earlier in the year at Ironman European Championships due to a puncture—where a much-anticipated battle with (healthy) countryman Jan Frodeno ended in an outside-of-the-top-10 finish. But we’ve discounted the Kona course record holder before, only to have him step up huge on the big day. Lange has been sticking with what he knows by spending time in the Kona-like hot and humid conditions of The Woodlands, Texas, with his training group. Regardless of a light results list in 2019, it would be a terrible error to discount the fleet-footed German if the conditions look good on the bike. But big winds? Cracks could form in his yet-untested bike fitness.
After essentially two years of late-season injuries that prevented the two-time IM world champ from defending his 2016 title, 2019 could be Jan Frodeno’s best shot at redemption. His fitness and ability have already been tested this year at a blistering hot Ironman European Championships in Frankfurt, where he won with a crazy 2:43 marathon. From there, Frodeno did the smart thing and skipped high-level races like 70.3 Worlds in an effort to avoid repeating the last two years’ situation. Assuming he’s healthy, look for Frodeno’s balanced attack to be effective in almost all conditions. Here’s hoping we see the German showdown we’ve all been waiting for.
In a sharp contrast to last year’s winner Patrick Lange, Kienle has shown flashes of greatness all season. The 2014 Kona winner has looked good so far in 2019—a second to Jan Frodeno at Ironman European Championships and a fifth place after a terrible swim at 70.3 Worlds (buoyed by the second-fastest run of the day that moved him up 24 places from 35th). With that said, the man who has been a mainstay in the top five at Kona over the last seven years was conspicuously absent from last year’s results with a heel injury. Kienle may have momentum on his side in 2019, but his most recent showing in Nice proves his swim could leave him playing catch up out of T1—not a kind position to be in if last year’s conditions repeat themselves.
Though not a familiar name to North American tri fans before last year’s Hawaii Ironman, one of only two men to break eight hours in Kona won’t be flying under the radar in 2019. The Belgian bike/run specialist has shown consistent results this year with a fourth place at Roth, a sixth place at 70.3 Worlds, and a well-fought win against David McNamee in May, but similar to Kienle and last year’s winner, difficult conditions on the bike could mean time lost in the swim is a big deal. Look for Aernouts to shine if another big bike pack can work together out of the water.
The young Scot may be Mr. Third Place in Kona, but David McNamee has actually shown more flashes of brilliance in 2019 than in previous regular seasons. A blistering 2:41 at Challenge Roth shows McNamee is someone to be feared on a tough run—like Kona—and a relatively light racing calendar, when compared to his competitors, means he’ll be hungry to race in Hawaii. Derailed only by a flat in Roth that put him into fifth, McNamee’s killer well-rounded swim/bike/run combo is a stark contrast to other Kona contenders’ more one-sided approach. You don’t end up on the Kona podium two years in a row by accident, and expect to see McNamee taking more risks in Hawaii this year buoyed by even more experience at the front.
The former pro cyclist proved last year he was no one-trick pony by backing up his course-record bike ride with a top-10 finish. This year, Wurf has truly turned a corner with a massive podium finish at Challenge Roth only a few weeks after fracturing his nose and ribs. Once fully healed, Wurf showed off a rapidly improving swim leg with a win at Ironman Italy in late September—a bold strategy given how close IM Italy is to Kona. Wurf’s ability to be more in the mix during the swim will make his ride much more of a weapon than a necessity, and expect him to do more than just “hang on” during the run—assuming he’s rested and ready to rock after his Italy outing. If he can link up with other superbikers quickly, Wurf now has the tools to actually change the course of this race and finish the job.
After a horrible on-course accident in 2017 left him fighting for his life, Matt Russell’s continual recovery and constant improvement has made him someone to watch on the big island. Though he might not necessarily be on everyone’s radar as a podium contender, Russell has had a strong 2019 season with a win at Ironman Lake Placid over a legitimate field. Despite the fact that Russell has traditionally kept a domestic race schedule, he’s changed it up this year with a strong sixth-place finish at a steamy European Championships followed by a top-10 finish at Roth only a week later. Though it’s no doubt that a more international schedule will prepare him better for Kona, his swim is still a dangerous limiter in a field of so many well-rounded triathletes. Expect to see him move up on the run—particularly if conditions are tough.
New Zealand, 33
It would be a mistake to discount the well-rounded Kiwi, who has taken a different approach than his competitors by sticking close to home this season, and minimizing travel to maximize training blocks. Currie’s win at IM Cairns earlier in 2019 showed his bike strength is on point, and his strategy of training over racing means he’ll show up to the Kona starting line super hungry. Expect Currie to improve on last year’s fifth-place finish regardless of race tactics and conditions given his resilience and offroad strength and experience.
In the Mix
Despite a second-place finish in 2017, Sanders has struggled a little bit as of late. A super disappointing Kona finish last year saw the Canadian trying to rediscover the magic in 2019 to mixed results. While Sanders is definitely capable of a big finish this year, he’ll need a real reversal of fortune to make it happen.
Though his short-course pedigree is no joke, Brownlee is slightly untested at the iron distance. Add in Brownlee’s sometimes-issues with the heat and the fact that Kona favors an efficient runner over a powerful one, and it’s tough to imagine Brownlee in the top five unless things go exactly perfect—which in Kona they rarely do.
Skipper finished in seventh place last year, surprising anyone who wasn’t paying attention to the young Brit. This year, Skipper didn’t have the same confidence-building season he did in 2018, but that doesn’t mean he’s not in killer shape. If the conditions are similar to last year, don’t count out Skipper for another top 10.
The 42-year-old American has been at this for a very long time, and in Kona that means a lot. With a reasonably good season behind him (win at IM Brazil, top 10 at Roth), Potts’ experience and meticulous attention to detail means he’ll put himself in the mix early. If he can hang on during the run, he could improve upon last year’s eighth-place finish.
It’s been five years since Hoffman had his breakthrough runner-up finish at the 2014 Ironman World Championship. Since then, he’s finished 27th, fourth, ninth, and then had to withdraw from the 2018 race due to injury. The new dad is fully capable of repeating his podium performance, but he’ll need to put together a steady effort like he did in 2014.
O’Donnell is a steady performer in Kona and even finished fourth last year. With those stats he should be one of our main contenders, but he’s been very honest about a foot injury that he’s been battling for much of the year. Because of that, he’s raced much less than we’re used to seeing. We’ve witnessed athletes thrive in Kona after a season of struggles, and that’s what O’Donnell will be hoping for on Saturday.
See the complete start list here, and be sure to check back during race week for more analysis and updates!