Analysis of the Men’s Race: Risky Business

This year’s race saw the men’s field take a lot of risks—for some it paid off.

This year’s race saw the men’s field take a lot of risks—for some it paid off. (Read the race recap here.)

As a group of 32 men emerged from Kailua Bay on Saturday morning with less than 45 seconds separating them, the 2017 edition of Hawaii Ironman Championships looked like it was going to be a snooze. Maybe go see a movie during the bike, do some yardwork for an hour or two, come back, and watch the the favorite, Jan Frodeno, pull away easily on the run. There had been pre-race talk about how Australian super-swimmer Josh Amberger would pull a small group of like-minded fishies and create a small front pack, but as Amberger glided away from the entire field in the first 200 meters of the swim and led into T1 with a 1:18 lead, that storyline faded away.

Amberger spent a good bit of time at the front of the race, but was never able to create a gap or make any friends willing (or able) to break away. From there, a winding snake of 30 pro men formed by mile 20.

Meanwhile, three men from a distant swim pack, Canadian Lionel Sanders, Australian Cameron Wurf, and German Sebastian Kienle had sliced their way through the huge group that stretched almost half a mile, and by mile 60 at the top of the climb to Hawi, they had made their presence known. Kienle was no surprise, the 2014 Ironman world champion was known to ride hard to the front; Sanders was also a hard-nosed customer, known to grind out the bike and suffer on the run for fun. However, it was Wurf who would be the major catalyst on the bike. A former World Tour pro cyclist, Wurf had won Ironman Wales earlier this year and instigated an all-out assault on the group.

In less than 17 miles, the group of 30 had been shredded to 13 athletes, and there were now two camps: the Risk Group and the Safe Group. The Risk Group would include three men who would go on to smash the 11-year-old bike record. Wurf would lead into T2 with a split of 4:12:54, over five minutes faster than Stadler’s 2006 mark. Sanders and Kienle would break the old mark by 3-4 minutes as well.

Wurf would quickly fade on the run, eventually finishing in 17th place. Sanders moved to the front of the race, and even though he looked slightly ragged (that’s just the way he runs), he was running steady. Kienle also looked pretty good—better than Sanders actually—but fatigue from the suicidal bike probably took some spring out of Kienle’s step. Almost immediately out onto the run, last year’s world champ, Jan Frodeno, ran into some trouble and nearly dropped out, but eventually finished in the back.

With a bike record underneath each of their legs, it seemed like only a matter of time before the pack engulfed them, but Sanders and Kienle’s lead remained even. The duo didn’t have a ton of space after T2, but most of the other men in the Risk Group seemed underwater after the hot bike pace. Back in the Safe Group, there were a few men who hit the run with legs fresh enough to convert their smart decisions into a strong overall finish.

After the dust finally cleared, the Safe Group took some scalps as Germany’s Patrick Lange ended up winning and breaking the overall course record on the back of another sub-2:40 marathon. David McNamee followed Lange as long as he could and buoyed a 2:45 run split into a third-place finish for his efforts. Andy Potts also converted a very safe ride (4:31 split) with an excellent 2:50 marathon to run his way from 17th place into seventh.

The Risk Group also had mixed success: Sanders hung tough with a still-strong 2:51 marathon for a breakthrough second place; Kienle suffered on the marathon, but endured with a 2:57 run and a fourth place finish. Kienle summed it up best in the post-race press conference: “It really hurts to talk about fourth place,” he said. “To give yourself a chance, you have to take some chances. I wanted to empty the tank, and I did.”