Ironman World Championship: Pro Men’s Preview

The buzz around the 2012 Ironman World Championship is that many believe this is the most competitive men’s field ever assembled in Kona.

Photo: Nils Nilsen

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The buzz around the 2012 Ironman World Championship is that many believe this is the most competitive men’s field ever assembled in Kona. With veterans like Craig Alexander and Chris McCormack making one of their last (if not their last) appearances at this race and several up-and-comers toeing the line, there are more than a handful of athletes who would not surprise with a victory on Saturday. Poll: Who Will Win The Men’s Kona Title?

The Champs
Three-time Ironman world champion Craig Alexander’s record-breaking performance on the Big Island last year makes him an automatic pre-race favorite, but he’ll face another defending champion of sorts in fellow Australian Chris McCormack. Macca took a year off of Kona racing in 2011 to focus on trying to make the Australian Olympic team (he wasn’t chosen for the team), but he’s back for another shot at the Kona crown. Both Crowie and Macca have admitted that part of their motivation for returning to Kona was originally to take on cycling star Lance Armstrong, who had planned on qualifying for the Ironman World Championship before the U. S. Anti-Doping Agency announced an investigation against him. Though they won’t be chasing Armstrong on the Queen K, they’ve both found renewed motivation and, with the last five world titles between the two, the rest of the field will be working to outpace them.

The Other Favorites
There’s a reason only one male athlete has won the Ironman World Championship on his debut in the last 25 years (Luc Van Lierde in 1996). It takes time to master the conditions and tactics of the sport’s top event. A few athletes have come close, but have not quite put together the perfect race required to take the top prize. Germany’s Andreas Raelert has finished third (2009), second (2010) and third (2011) in the past three years and missed out on the win in 2010 by fading in the final miles.

Another athlete who has come close to winning is last year’s runner-up Pete Jacobs of Australia. He’s had a rough year of dealing with injuries, but he’s healthy now and says a two-hour 37-minute marathon is on his radar. Belgium’s Marino Vanhoenacker had a rough race in 2011, but he has had success in Kona (third in 2010) and as the world record holder for the fastest Ironman, he can never be counted out. Luxembourg’s Dirk Bockel has been climbing the Kona results list (seventh in 2009, eighth in 2010, fourth in 2011), but he faces a unique challenge this year after suffering a hand injury on a training run.

Though they’ve had quieter years, Germany’s Timo Bracht, Spain’s Eneko Llanos and Switzerland’s Ronnie Schildknecht have all had recent success in Kona, and sometimes it’s the athletes who stay under the radar throughout the season that peak correctly for the Kona race.

The Rookies And Sophomores
While pre-race headlines will focus largely on the Macca vs. Crowie showdown, the post-race stories could very well revolve around the emergence of a new Kona star.

A few key names will come to Kona looking for a successful sophomore attempt. Germany’s Andi Boecherer (eighth), Great Britain’s Tom Lowe (11th) and Australia’s Joe Gambles (20th) will all look to improve on their top-20 performances in 2011, while Australia’s Paul Matthews and the United States’ Tim O’Donnell will look for redemption.

Though a successful rookie race in Kona is hard to come by, there are four Kona newbies whose résumés make them worthy of contender status.

Two-time 70.3 world champion Michael Raelert of Germany will join his brother Andreas on the Kona start line. Though the hype around these two racing has fizzled a bit since Michael’s injury kept him from competing last year (K-Swiss had even offered up a $1 million bonus if they could finish first and second), Michael’s talent coupled with the knowledge that he’s no doubt gained from his older brother, make him a viable threat for the podium. Another 70.3 world champion (he earned his title only a month ago) is another German, Sebastian Kienle. Kienle biked through the field in Vegas and never looked back to earn the win. He’ll likely use a similar strategy Saturday and don’t be surprised if he’s the first athlete into T2.

Jordan Rapp is not new to Ironman (he’s a five-time champion), but the Ironman World Championship is uncharted territory for the American. Rapp has said in the past he wouldn’t race in Kona until he was ready, and his 2:46:55 marathon at Ironman Texas back in May shows he can take on the world’s best.

Finally, Australian Greg Bennett may be a Kona rookie but is one of the most decorated athletes on the start list. The 40-year-old qualified by winning last year’s Hy-Vee 5150 U.S. Championship and validating with a finish at Ironman Melbourne. Though he finished an Ironman and got Big Island experience by finishing second at June’s 70.3 Hawaii, the distance and conditions are still new for the former Olympic-distance specialist.

The Veterans
Australia’s Luke McKenzie and Switzerland’s Mike Aigroz both turned in well-rounded performances in 2011 to nab top-10 finishes, and they’ll look to climb to podium status this year.

Another top-10 finisher from a year ago is 2006 Ironman world champion Faris Al-Sultan. The Speedo-donning German has proven he can still compete with the best (he won Ironman Austria in July), and he says his goal is a top-five finish.

Though they have had recent success in Kona racing, a few of the sport’s stars should not be left off of this list. Australia’s Luke Bell, New Zealand’s Cameron Brown, Belgium’s Frederik Van Lierde, Ukraine’s Viktor Zyemtsev, Great Britain’s Paul Amey, Denmark’s Rasmus Henning and the United States’ Andy Potts and Michael Lovato are all experienced long-course athletes who have the talent to finish top-10 or greater.

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See the complete start list below:

Craig Alexander (AUS)
Andreas Raelert (GER)
Pete Jacobs (AUS)
Cameron Brown (NZL)
Marino Vanhoenacker (BEL)
Sebastian Kienle (GER)
Jordan Rapp (USA)
Timo Bracht (GER)
Jozsef Major (HUN)
Maxim Kriat (UKR)
Chris McCormack (AUS)
Marko Albert (EST)
Luke Bell (AUS)
Faris Al-Sultan (GER)
Frederik Van Lierde (BEL)
Daniel Fontana (ITA)
Dirk Bockel (LUX)
Mike Aigroz (SUI)
Mike Schifferle (SUI)
Petr Vabrousek (CZE)
Audrey Lyatskiy (RUS)
Clemente Alonso-McKernan (ESP)
Ronnie Schildknecht (SUI)
Romain Guillaume (FRA)
Trevor Wurtele (CAN)
David Dellow (AUS)
Matthew Russell (USA)
Joe Gambles (AUS)
Viktor Zyemtsev (UKR)
Eneko Llanos (ESP)
Andi Boecherer (GER)
Paul Matthews (AUS)
Sergio Marques (POR)
Jeremy Jurkiewicz (FRA)
Pedro Gomes (PRT)
Paul Amey (GBR)
Alejandro Santamaria (ESP)
Michael Lovato (USA)
Timothy O’Donnell (USA)
Michael Raelert (GER)
Thomas Thomschke (GER)
Luke McKenzie (AUS)
Trevor Desaut (FRA)
Rasmus Henning (DEN)
Bart Aernouts (BEL)
Cyril Viennot (FRA)
Joshua Rix (AUS)
Tom Lowe (GBR)
Bruno Clerbout (BEL)
Andy Potts (USA)
Christian Brader (GER)
Axel Zeebroek (BEL)
Greg Bennett (AUS)

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