The 2018 IRONMAN World Championships – Kona Contenders (Part 1)

The Germans:

Sebastian Kienle and Patrick Lange

The German males have extended their winning streak to four years, and Sebastian Kienle (winner 2014) and Patrick Lange (winner in 2017) are the favourites for this year.

Note: Notable German, Jan Frodeno (winner in 2015 and 2016) was also a favourite this year, however, he has since pulled out of the event due to injury.

After his fourth place in Kona last year, Sebastian Kienle’s win at Challenge Roth included an overall PR on a legitimate course with a swim PR and his best combined bike-run split, showing that he continues to improve as a triathlete. There aren’t many athletes that can match him on the bike, and they’ll also have to be prepared for a sub-2:45 marathon in order to keep Sebi from reclaiming the Kona title.

Patrick Lange has run sub-2:40s in the last two Kona races, and last year he was able to win the race even after starting the run with an 11-minute deficit. He usually loses around 10 minutes on the bike, but in his summer Ironman in Frankfurt, he was able to work with a strong rider such as Frodo for the full bike leg. He then wasn’t quite able to match Frodo’s run pace, but you can be sure that he’ll be preparing with the goal of setting a new run course record in October. If he finds the right balance, can limit the time lost on the bike without sacrificing too much of his run strength, he’ll be a lot closer to the front of the race at the start of the run. It would be awesome to see the race come down to the last few miles between two or more strong runners!

Other notable Germans:
Andi Dreitz (winner Ironman Italy 2017, second in Challenge Roth 2018), Maurice Clavel (third in Roth 2017 and Ironman South Africa 2018), both racing for the first time in Kona; Boris Stein (Top 10 in Kona for the last three years).

In addition to the Germans, there are a large number of strong European athletes as well. Last year, David McNamee was able to run himself into third place, becoming the first male British athlete on the podium. He has struggled in his 2018 Ironman (running a 3:30 marathon in Austria), but he’s shown in the past that he races well in the Kona heat. He has an outside chance to repeat his podium finish, especially if 2018 Kona becomes another runner’s race.

The Euros:

David McNamee, Javier Gomez

Javier Gomez has had a lot of success across the shorter distances, so everyone will be watching him in his rookie race in Kona, evoking a comparison to Jan Frodeno who finished third in his first Kona race in 2015. Javi’s first Ironman was a sub-8, a second place finish at the Asia/Pacific Championships in Cairns, running a 2:41 marathon. He’s unlikely to change the dynamics of the race, but with a smart execution of the bike leg he’ll be in the mix on the run for a podium finish.

Other notable Europeans:
Patrik Nilsson (SWE, eighth in Kona 2017, second at European Championships 2018), Tim Don (GBR, coming back to Kona after breaking his neck two days before the race in 2017).

The Americans:

Lionel Sanders and the US men

Lionel Sanders is the top candidate to become the first North American winner since fellow Canadian, Peter Reid in 2003. After a great swim (leading the second group that included Sebastian Kienle) and hard bike, he was leading Kona 2017 for most of the marathon, only to be passed by Patrick Lange in the last miles. His 2018 racing has also been nearly flawless – four Ironman 70.3 wins and just one second place (behind Jan Frodeno at Ironman 70.3 Oceanside). He will need another swim in the second pack in order to avoid spending too much energy too early. If he can then work his way to the lead group on the bike, he’ll be in a great position to repeat his podium finish from 2017 – or maybe even take the
2018 win?

It’s much trickier to pick a US male candidate for the 2018 Kona crown – the last US winner in Kona was Tim DeBoom in 2002. The established athletes, Andy Potts (fourth in 2014 and 2015, top US finisher in 2017 as seventh), Ben Hoffman (ninth in 2017, second 2014, fourth 2016) and Tim O’Donnell (19th in 2017, third in 2015) have not yet shown a brilliant 2018 race, while others such as Matt Hanson (winner of North American Championships in 2015, 17 and 18; this year with a 2:35 marathon) have not raced well in Kona yet. A lot of eyes will be on Andrew Starykowicz. As a front pack swimmer he is quite likely to take the lead from Josh Amberger and might even be able to hold off the uber-bikers who are slower swimmers, until T2. But in order to be competitive in Kona, he will need either a huge gap in T2 or a great improvement on the run – his best marathon so far is a 2:58 from Florida 2013.

Other notable Americans:
Brent McMahon (CAN, second Ironman Arizona 2017, winner Ironman Canada 2018), Igor Amorelli (BRA, 14th Kona 2017, second Ironman Brazil).

The Aussies:

Josh Amberger, Cameron Wurf

Two Australians are likely to be among the leaders for most of the day – but will they still be there at the finish line? After a series of five years with Aussie males winning Kona, ending with Pete Jacobs in 2012, there have been only two more
Top 10s.

Josh Amberger is currently the best male Ironman swimmer – last year he was more than a minute clear of the rest of the field. In this summer’s European Championships in Frankfurt he was able to hold on to that lead into T2, but he will also need a much stronger run if he wants to place well in Kona. His Ironman 70.3 racing shows that he clearly has the speed, and a sub-3 run in Kona would see him in Top 10 contention this year.

The best Ironman biker is also an Australian – Cameron Wurf has been setting bike course records left and right, including a 4:12 in Kona last year. While Cam has been working on his swim in order to be closer to the front group at the start of the bike leg, he will also need to run much faster if he wants to reach his goal of a top Kona finish. His marathon PR is just over three hours, but he’ll need to break that if he wants to become more than just the T2 leader. Cam has been racing a lot this year (at least five Ironman finishes), and maybe hasn’t shown all his cards yet.

Other notable Australians:
Tim Van Berkel (15th Kona 2017, seventh in 2014), Luke McKenzie (second Ironman Australia 2018, second Kona 2013).

Rest of the World:

James Cunnama, Braden Currie

There has never been a male Kona winner from outside of North America, Australia or Europe – on the female side there has been Paula Newby-Fraser and Erin Baker. While that’s unlikely to change for 2018, there are a couple of contenders for a podium finish this year.

James Cunnama (ZAF) had a stellar second half of 2017. After qualifying with a fourth place in Frankfurt, he won Ironman Hamburg with one of the fastest runs of the year and finished fifth in Kona. After a serious crash and a few broken ribs he struggled at the start of the 2018 season, but was still able to finish sixth at Challenge Roth and secured his Kona slot with a third place at Ironman Hamburg. James knows what is needed to do well in Kona – not lose too much time on the bike (he was just four minutes behind in T2 in 2017) and then run well off the bike. He’ll be preparing to produce one of the best run-splits in Kona 2018, and a 2:50 run would see him fighting for a podium.

Braden Currie (NZL) was one of the few athletes in Kona 2017 willing to work hard in the first part of the bike leg – unfortunately a flat ended his chances for a good finish. He continued to race well in 2018, winning the Asia/Pacific Championships with a 2:39 marathon in a running duel with Javier Gomez. You can expect Braden to swim well and then quickly close the gap to Josh Amberger – maybe even teaming up with Andrew Starykowicz to ride away from the big swim group before the bike riders work their way to the front. If he can still run well after that, he might be the “surprise candidate” on the 2018 Kona podium.



A class of her own:

Daniela Ryf

Daniela Ryf has been the dominant female Ironman athlete for the last few years, winning Kona from 2015 to 2017. This year, she can become the first athlete to win four in a row since Paula Newby-Fraser (1991 to 1994). Each season her performances before Kona are scrutinised for potential signs that she “used to be better/faster/stronger”. After a long break at the start of the year, her wins at Ironman 70.3 Rapperswil and the European Championships show that she might be racing better than ever before. Her Frankfurt race would have seen her finish seventh in a competitive men’s field! If her preparation for Kona does not run into major problems, only Madame Pele can keep Daniela from winning her fourth Kona title.

The Brits:

Lucy Charles, Susie Cheetham

Similar to the German males, the depth of the British women is amazing – there is always at least one athlete that does really well in Kona.

Last year, Lucy Charles was able to finish second in her first Pro race in Kona. This year she convincingly won the African Championships with the fastest swim and bike legs, and a new personal best on the marathon. This year she also raced Challenge Roth, and even though she set a new fastest time with an 8:43, she was nine seconds behind winner, Daniela Sämmler who ran her down in the final part of the run. The main challenge for Lucy will be to not get distracted by secondary goals such as the swim course record or the T2 lead. If she still has enough left in the tank for a three-hour marathon in the Kona heat, she will be a strong podium contender.

Another athlete looking to break three hours on the run is Susie Cheetham. Susie was sixth last year, and this year finished second behind Lucy in South Africa. Susie has improved her swim and bike; her Kona bike split in 2017 was 11 minutes quicker than in 2015, when she also finished sixth. Another five-minute improvement would allow her to ride with a faster bike group, and if she can run to her potential in Kona, she will be in a great position to step up from her previous Kona results.

Other notable Brits:
Laura Siddall (winner Ironman New Zealand and Ironman Australia 2018), Emma Pallant (Kona rookie, second at Ironman 70.3 World Championships 2017 and third at Ironman Austria 2018).

The Americans:

Heather Jackson

Heather Jackson has raced Kona three times now, finishing fifth (2015), third (2016) and fourth (2017). Obviously, she’ll be eyeing another podium finish this year. Her results in 2018 include wins at Wildflower, Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga and a dominating win at Ironman Lake Placid. Even with tough conditions, she was just nine minutes off her own course record. An improved swim should help to work a bit less in the early parts of the run to put her in a good position or maybe to gap her competition in the second half of the bike. But with the number of strong runners in the Kona field, she probably needs to set a new marathon PR (currently 3:06 from Kona 2017) for another finish in the Top 3.

Other notable Americans:
Jocelyn McCauley (10th in Kona 2017, third Ironman New Zealand 2018), Sarah Piampiano (Seventh in Kona 2015 and 2016, winner Ironman Mar Del Plata 2017, second Ironman Brasil 2018), Linsey Corbin (13th in Kona 2016 and 2017, third African Championships 2018).

The Scandinavians:

Helle Frederiksen, Kaisa Sali

After some great results at the Ironman 70.3 distance, Helle Frederiksen stepped up to Ironman racing at Ironman Arizona 2017, and what a debut it was. She finished second with a sub-9 time, setting a new Danish female record, and was able to qualify without racing another full-distance race, giving her the chance to take an emotional win at the ITU Long Distance Championships 2018, which were held in her home country in Denmark. The challenge for the strong swim-biker will be the marathon in the Kona heat – if she wants to fight for a podium finish, she will need to run significantly faster than her 3:09 in Arizona.

The athlete that was able to beat Helle in Arizona is Kaisa Sali. Kaisa already has two fifth-place finishes in Kona and is always racing with a lot of heart. Even though she is mainly known as a strong runner, she was working very hard at this year’s Challenge Roth to close the gap to the stronger bikers Lucy Charles and Danieal Sämmler. It’s quite likely that she will also put in some surges on the bike and run in Kona. If she manages to have a better Kona swim, she should be in a great position to improve on her previous Kona results.

Other notable Scandinavians:
Maja Stage Nielsen (12th in Kona 2017, third at Ironman Hamburg), Michelle Vesterby (sixth in Kona 2016, second Ironman Lanzarote 2018), Asa Lundstrom (eighth in Kona 2016, still needs to qualify at Ironman Sweden after finishing her medical degree during the winter).

The Aussies:

Sarah Crowley, Mirinda Carfrae

After a great 2017 Ironman racing season that included two wins at regional championships and third place in Kona, Sarah Crowley had a slow start to the year. After struggling with a few injuries, she’s back to racing well – she was third at the European Championships and then won Ironman Hamburg just three weeks later. Sarah is doing well in competitive fields and seems to always have something extra to give when a race is getting tight. You can expect another test of her “racing smarts” in Kona, as it’s very likely that there is going to be less than five minutes between third and sixth place late in the race. And if she manages to improve on her series of 3:04 to 3:06 marathons, she may even be able to set her sights a bit higher than “just” a podium finish.

Another Australian woman looking for the Kona win is Mirinda Carfrae who is back in Kona after her baby break last year. She validated her Kona slot with a sub-9 hour second place at Ironman Cairns and focused on racing Ironman 70.3s over the [European/North American] summer – a typical Kona build for her. Even though a lot of young fast women are now racing in Kona, Rinny wants to show them that she is still competitive and that, she and coach Siri Lindley will have worked hard to challenge Daniela for the win in Kona. Instead of riding on her own, as she often had to do in previous years, she may benefit from being pushed by other women around her, allowing her to minimise the time she loses in the swim and bike. If she can then unleash another of the Kona marathons she is famous for, the last hour of the female race is likely to be a battle you shouldn’t miss.

Other notable Aussies:
Carrie Lester (seventh in Kona 2017, second at Ironman Western Australia 2017 and Ironman France 2018), Liz Blatchford (third in Kona 2013 and 2015, winner Ironman Philippines 2018 after having daughter, Mahli).

Note: Mel Hauschildt (two-time Ironman 70.3 World Champion, winner Ironman Western Australia 2017 and Ironman Texas 2018), also a notable Aussie leading into Kona 2018 has pulled out of the event due to injury. Likewise, Annabel Luxford (ninth in Kona 2017, third at Ironman Switzerland) has pulled out of the event due to battles with respiratory infections and asthma over the last six months. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Thorsten Radde

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