Pro Preview: Van Lierde, Carfrae Look To Defend In Kona

A preview of tomorrow's Ironman World Championship pro race.

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A preview of tomorrow’s Ironman World Championship pro race.

The Men’s Race

Top Contenders

Frederik Van Lierde (BEL)
The defending Ironman world champion was the best runner of the best bike riders in 2013—in T2 he was just four minutes behind after boldly moving ahead of the main group, then he methodically worked his way to the front of the race on the run. In order for him to repeat, he has to handle all the race-week distractions that the reigning champion faces—including having a target on his back on race day. But if anyone can handle the pressure, it’s the calm Belgian, aided by his coach, two-time Kona winner Luc Van Lierde. He will likely try to follow a similar script as in 2013, but if the other athletes manage to put more time into him on the bike, Van Lierde will have a tough challenge on his hands for a repeat result.

Sebastian Kienle (GER)
In 2012, it took Kienle one race (grabbing the 70.3 crown from Craig Alexander with a fantastic bike ride) to move from practically unknown to a Kona favorite. Since then, he has delivered Kona podiums in 2012 and 2013, and gained valuable experience as an athlete. His best performance so far was his win at the Ironman European Championship in Frankfurt this year over Van Lierde. He put almost nine minutes into Van Lierde on the bike and then ran a 2:49 marathon—as fast as the Kona champ. If Kienle has a weakness, it’s his swim, though he has improved here as well. If he’s no more than four minutes behind the main contenders after the swim, he should move to the front of the race by the bike turnaround at Hawi. If he’s more than three minutes ahead of the faster runners such as Van Lierde in T2, he’ll be in a good position to win the race.

Tim “T.O.” O’Donnell
O’Donnell was fifth in Kona 2013, so this year his sights have to be on a podium finish. He’s a front-pack swimmer and was one of the few athletes who ran better than winner Van Lierde last year, so his improvements have to be made on the bike. Last year, T.O. was dropped from the main pack after the turnaround at Hawi, and he lost 10 minutes to Van Lierde up to T2. This year, he will know how important it is to stay with the main group and will have prepared accordingly. If he’s close to Van Lierde and less than three minutes behind Kienle in T2, he could be the first U.S. athlete to win Kona since Tim DeBoom in 2002.

Marino Vanhoenacker (BEL)
The last time Vanhoenacker competed in Kona, in 2012, he was in the lead when entering the Energy Lab—then had to leave the race in an ambulance. He injured himself trying to qualify in 2013, and had a slow start to the 2014 season. However, he made sure not to over-race while being focused on Kona. He placed well in a few 70.3s in Europe, and then won Ironman Canada using his trademark strong bike. In order for him to do well in Kona, he has to figure out how to overcome the hot and humid conditions so he’s in a position to prove he’s the best runner of the überbikers.

Ivan Raña (ESP)
Raña has successfully transitioned from short-course racing (2002 world champion) to the Ironman distance. In 2013, his first year of racing long, he struggled a bit to qualify but then had a great race in Kona. This year, he won Ironman Austria in 7:48—the third fastest time ever in the Ironman distance. In order for him to improve on his sixth-place finish from last year, he faces a similar challenge as O’Donnell: Raña fell out of the front group even before Hawi and lost more than 15 minutes to the front group. If he can stay with the main group for longer, his strong run should be able to carry him onto the podium.

How various scenarios might play out and affect the race

Who will swim with Andy Potts?
With the possible exception of Dylan McNeice (NZL), Andy Potts (USA) is still the best Ironman swimmer. He has led the Kona swim in the past, and is expected to drive the race at the front early on again this year—possibly joined by Brandon Marsh (USA). He may drag some good swimmers with him (athletes such as Aussies David Dellow and Pete Jacobs). These athletes will then be able to avoid the chaos of a crowded T1 and join the front group when the better bike riders move to the front. Potts, however, won‘t be able to stay with the main group unless he improved his Ironman bike substantially. If he is 15 minutes back in T2, even his strong run (he ran a 2:53 in 2012) won’t be enough for a top-10.

Who will bike with Starky?
Almost all race predictions have Andrew Starykowicz taking the lead on the bike. There is a lot more speculation surrounding who is able and willing to join him on what may turn out to be a suicide mission. Candidates include athletes who should be in front or close to Starky in T1—Faris Al-Sultan (GER), Nils Frommhold (GER), Luke McKenzie (AUS) and Marino Vanhoenacker—and good bikers who will have to work their way to the front, such as Sebastian Kienle and Maik Twelsiek (GER). If a (legal) group forms, there will be added pressure on the athletes racing in the main group. Starky will probably be leading in T2, but like last year, a better runner will overtake him. He has shown with his 2:58 in Florida that he can run much better than his 3:25 from 2013 shows—but it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to run in the 2:45–2:50 range required to place well in Kona.

How much time will the main group lose to the bike leaders?
Usually by the time the athletes have reached the bike turnaround at Hawi, the front group has gapped the main group. The turnaround gives athletes a chance to assess the situation. As most of the time difference occurs in the last 40 miles of the bike, athletes in the main group will have to make a decision: Will they try to manage the gap and keep it around five minutes, or will they have to take a risk by pursuing the front group? Usually, the winner is either riding with the front group (2011 winner Craig Alexander or 2012 winner Pete Jacobs) or manages to keep the distance less than five minutes, even at the cost of riding alone (2013 winner Frederik Van Lierde). A lot will depend on which athletes are in front and which are willing to take a risk by dragging good runners with them. The second half of the bike is usually where the winning move is made.

How will the “Kona rookies” do?
There are a lot of promising athletes racing in Kona for the first time. Some of them have had great results in other races, such as 2008 Olympic gold medalist Jan Frodeno (GER), who finished his first Ironman in Frankfurt in third place despite three flats and severe cramping on the run. Nils Frommhold is another rookie—he won two of his four iron-distance races (Arizona 2012 and South Africa 2014) and was second in Roth. Lake Placid winner Kyle Buckingham (RSA) will also be racing his first pro Kona—in 2013 he finished 16th overall as an age-grouper (with a 2:56 marathon). With the notable exception of winners Luc Van Lierde and Chrissie Wellington, Kona rookies rarely play a factor in the latter stages of the race. All of them are strong enough to join the front group on the bike—it’s what they can do on the run that will be pivotal.

What about the 2013 breakout performers?
The top 10 from 2013 includes some athletes whom few had on their list: Luke McKenzie (second), South Africa’s James Cunnama (fourth), and Bermuda’s Tyler Butterfield (seventh). These men have not had stellar Ironman races since Kona but all will be returning with bigger expectations and most will play a role in the race.

Is there a chance for the more veteran athletes?
There are a few good athletes who are 35 years or older. This includes athletes who have been Kona contenders for a long time such as three-time winner Craig Alexander (41), Marino Vanhoenacker (38), Faris Al-Sultan (36, winner in 2005) and Spain’s Eneko Llanos (37, second in 2008). Another example is Bevan Docherty (37, Olympic medalist in 2004 and 2008), who will start in Kona for the second time after a DNF in 2013.

Who may surprise in 2014?
The field is so strong that almost all athletes have a chance to finish in the top 10 on a great day. Some who have yet to be mentioned are Belgian Bart Aernouts (fastest Kona runs in 2012 and 2013 and recent winner in France), Spaniard Victor Del Corral (another great runner, winner of Ironman Florida and Arizona 2013 within two weeks), Aussie Paul Matthews (three Ironmans so far, all under 8:05), Aussie David Dellow (DNS in 2013 after being ninth in 2012) and Kiwi Terenzo Bozzone (fantastic 70.3 athlete still waiting for his Ironman breakthrough).

Who’s going to be the top American?
In addition to Andy Potts, Andrew Starykowicz and Tim O’Donnell, there will be Ben Hoffmann (looking to improve his 15th position from 2013), Matthew Russell (the only American to finish the past three Kona races, in 23rd, 20th and 18th) and possibly Jordan Rapp (struggling to improve on his 2012 form when he finished 13th). On a good day, all of them could finish in the top 10, but most speculators are placing their bets on O’Donnell.

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The Women’s Race

Top Contenders

Mirinda “Rinny” Carfrae (AUS)
In order to repeat her 2013 win, Carfrae just has to repeat last year’s strategy. Sounds simple, right? But let’s not forget what a fantastic performance that was. She was on a similar level in Roth this year, but racing there was a deviation from her proven successful season plan of total Kona focus. Will Rinny be able to deliver another great performance in Kona? We saw in 2012 what can happen if her run fizzles due to nutritional snafus or other random race occurrences.

Rachel Joyce (GBR)

Joyce is the epitome of steady improvement. In Kona 2013, she finished on the podium—five minutes behind Carfrae. She was able to shrink that difference to 3.5 minutes in Roth. To stand on the top spot, she will have to bring her game up another notch tomorrow. She’ll hope for a smaller, better working front bike group in order to gain more time on Carfrae. If she starts the run more than 10 minutes ahead, she might just be able to hold on to the lead through the breaktape.

Caroline Steffen (SUI)

In Kona 2013, everything around Steffen seemed in turmoil: TeamTBB was in uproar, her relationship with coach Brett Sutton was winding down, and boyfriend David Dellow caught a stomach bug, leading to a DNS for him. During the race, she also struggled with stomach issues, and her fifth-place finish is a testament to how strong an athlete she is. She took control of things after Kona with a surprising move to new coach Chris McCormack. The changes appeared to be having a positive effect when she won the regional championship in Melbourne. However, she was never really in contention in Roth—it seems as if she lost her winning formula of a scorcher bike while searching for a better run (which has yet to materialize). Will things work better for her in Kona?

Liz Blatchford (GBR)

Blatchford had a great first year of long-distance racing in 2013 after years of successful short-course racing. In Kona, she was able to stay with the lead group on the bike, only to get a four-minute penalty for littering, but then was able to run herself into third place. This year, she defended her Ironman Cairns title and has been able to focus on Kona since May. During the race, she’ll probably try to stay with the front group on the bike—will she be able to do that with the anticipated smaller and faster group? If she’s close to the front in T2, she’ll be in a good position to run for another podium finish.

Meredith Kessler (USA)

After her 2013 seventh-place finish, Kessler focused her 2014 season completely on Kona. She took care of qualifying in March by winning Ironman New Zealand, then continued to win a series of 70.3s in North America. She was one of the athletes pushing the pace on the bike in Kona 2013, then gave it all on the run to place well. In 2014, she will very likely be at the front of the bike with Joyce and Steffen trying to build a lead over Carfrae. In order to contend for the win, she would need a huge PR on the run, but if she runs a similar marathon as in New Zealand (3:08 without being pushed by competition), she is a serious podium contender.

How various scenarios might play out and affect the race

Will there be a separation on the swim?
Last year, almost all of the pre-race favorites were close together into T1. This year, the stronger swimmers in the field, most notably Jodie Swallow (GBR) and Meredith Kessler, could try to put more pressure on the competition from the start and may succeed in splitting the field. Swallow has been the front-runner in most of her Ironman races, but she has struggled to hold onto her good position on the run, usually running around 3:20—not fast enough for a Kona podium.

Will there be a lead group on the bike?

Last year, there was a large main group on the bike, almost to the point of slowing down the main contenders and allowing Carfrae to make up a bit of the time she lost in the swim. This year, the race will probably develop differently—there will likely be a couple of athletes in front of the main group, maybe even working legally together as a lead group. Candidates for this group are Jodie Swallow, Meredith Kessler, Rachel Joyce and Caroline Steffen.

How far back will Carfrae be after the bike?
The front group will have to put in serious work to distance Rinny enough to have a fighting chance on the run. If she enters T2 nine minutes back, her run capability should carry the day. If she’s down more than 12 minutes, things could come down to the last mile of the race.

Any promising “Kona rookies”?
There are at least three Kona rookies who could place very well in the 2014 race: Corinne Abraham (GBR) had to decline her 2013 Kona slot due to an injury that took a long time to heal. She recovered in time to become the surprise winner in Frankfurt. Then there is Julia Gajer (GER), Ironman Arizona winner, Ironman Texas runner-up and four-time sub-nine-hour finisher. In her 2014 races, she’s been struggling to put together a great bike and a great run, but if she manages to do that in Kona, she could finish on the podium. The biggest Kona question mark of all is 2014 Ironman 70.3 world champion Daniela Ryf. She won her Ironman debut in Switzerland, and she says the plan in Kona is to ride as hard as she can on the ride, so how her marathon holds up will likely be the deciding factor.

Who could surprise this year?
Kona is a race that always has at least one surprise finisher near the top. Last year, the women in this category included Great Britain’s Liz Blatchford (third in her first Kona race), Meredith Kessler (seventh after not doing well in Kona before) and Denmark’s Michelle Vesterby (eighth in her first Kona). In addition to the Kona rookies already mentioned, one dark-horse pick is Canadian Heather Wurtele. She based her season around having a great Kona race, and has showed improvements in her run the past two seasons. As a tall athlete (6’2”), she’s probably at a disadvantage in the hot and humid Kona climate, but small gains across all disciplines would allow her to be in the mix at least for a podium spot.

Are there other American athletes who could do well?

Last year, the top U.S. athlete was decided in a sprint finish between Caitlin Snow and Meredith Kessler, both of whom are also on the 2014 start list. While Snow will probably only get a single mention on the live coverage (when she crosses the finish line), Kessler should be close to the front for most of the race. In addition to those two, Mary Beth Ellis (still looking for a great 2014 result) and Linsey Corbin (who won Ironman Austria in 8:42 and seems to be enjoying an injury-free season) are looking for the top U.S. spot.

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