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Kona 2019: Who will win the men’s race at this year’s Ironman World Championships?
It feels like a recurring theme, but once again this year’s men’s field in the Ironman World Championship is arguably the strongest ever assembled. Despite the change in the qualification system for Kona the big name contenders are all present for what promises to be another fascinating eight-hour war of attrition.
Germany’s Patrick Lange is looking for a third successive title. Jan Frodeno – the 2015 and 2016 winner who missed last year’s race through injury – returns undefeated since Hawaii 2017. Their compatriot, the 2014 champion Sebastian Kienle looks back to his best, and the popular 2017 runner-up, Canadian Lionel Sanders, is also in the mix after clinching a late berth in Mont-Tremblant.
Then there are the Brits led by David McNamee, who finished third here in the past two years, and the much-heralded debut by two-time Olympic champion Alistair Brownlee. While many eyes will be on the Yorkshireman, Norfolk’s Joe Skipper is also back having finished seventh in 2018, and 2008 Olympian Will Clarke has a point to prove after two disappointing appearances on the Big Island to date.
Predicting the top 10 has never been more difficult, but in true 220 style we’ve crunched the form guide and looked at who has the experience, talent and mindset to succeed in triathlon’s hottest arena. This means that, as always, a few big names aren’t included. There’s no place for Sanders, having spent much of the year injured, nor is there for his fellow speedy Canadian, Cody Beals, who is unproven in the humidity of Hawaii. The experienced Terenzo Bozzone, James Cunnama, Tim O’Donnell and Michael Weiss also miss out, as does the fleet-footed Swede Patrik Nilsson, despite winning Ironman Texas in a rapid 7:50:55.
So just who does make our top 10. Scroll through to find out…
10. Boris Stein, 34, Germany
Yes, another German. And this one shot to attention by winning Ironman Sweden in August with a 4:03hrs 180km bike split and a finish time of 7:49:14, both, unsurprisingly, course records. Given Stein was over 5mins faster than any challengers on the bike leg, it could be easy to dismiss the 34-year-old as just a power-biking bully who will be shown up leaving T2. But he has also shown he can deliver a marathon to back up his prowess on two wheels. It was a 2:53:37 in Kalmar, against his Ironman-best of 2:44:20 in France in 2014. Experience also often proves critical in Hawaii and this will be Stein’s fifth visit as a professional. He seems to have a liking for the Big Island having finished in the top 10 in his last three appearances, and he’ll return fresh and in-form having missed out last year due to injury.
9. Andy Potts, 42, USA
Having represented the USA in the 2004 Olympic Games triathlon in Athens, where he was first out of the water and eventually finished 22nd, the eight-time Ironman champion shows no sign of slowing down yet. These days he’ll happily concede the Kona swim king honours to Australian Josh Amberger and instead settle for a measured effort across all three disciplines – and it appears to be working. Qualification was clinched with victory at Ironman Brazil in May – his first full distance win for three years – and he also produced his fastest iron-distance bike time of 4:17:43 on his way to seventh in Challenge Roth. But while these results might still not strike fear into too many opponents, his enduring consistency on the Big Island means that, even aged 42, you write off Potts from the top 10 at your peril. Six times has placed in the money since his Kona debut in 2008, and last year was his fastest time yet.
8. Braden Currie, 33, New Zealand
The Kiwi should claim some credit for Spaniard Javier Gomez’s quick return to short-course racing after he beat him in a titanic tussle in Cairns last year and then again in Hawaii as Currie ran his way to a career-defining fifth. This year, without Gomez in opposition, he could afford to run 5mins slower to defend his title in Cairns – although that still meant a standout 2:44:33 marathon. From there Currie headed to Germany for an aborted crack at Challenge Roth, where he pulled out on the run citing nutrition issues. Having started the year with victory in the middle-distance Challenge Wanaka in February, it’s been a long season, but he’s shown he’s still in decent nick with a 70.3 win on Australia’s Sunshine Coast on the same weekend as the Ironman 70.3 worlds in Nice. Eschewing that second European trip should place him in good stead to try for another payday here.
7. Cameron Wurf, 36, Australia
Expect another step up the top 10 for Australia’s former professional cyclist Cam Wurf as his unique style of triathlon education continues and he becomes ever more of a threat. First off the bike in the past two years in Hawaii and a training partner of Team INEOS’s Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome, Wurf’s ability in the saddle is unquestioned. Having finished an astonishing 19 iron-distance races since his debut in Cairns in 2016, his marathon time has also dropped from 4:03:38 to twice posting 2:50 splits in 2019. Both runs gave him podium finishes, the first a victory at Ironman Australia in May and the second a creditable third place at Challenge Roth in July. Wurf faded to 17th on his Big Island debut and to ninth last year after posting a 4:09:06 bike course record and holding out for 15km on the marathon before a concessionary fist bump as champion-elect Patrick Lange breezed past. Expect him to hold out for a little longer this time around, especially if it’s windy.
6. Alistair Brownlee, 31, Great Britain
Anyone in triathlon who doesn’t know that Alistair Brownlee is lining up in the Ironman World Championship must have been living under a big chunk of volcanic rock. The two-time Olympic champion, and now two-time Ironman 70.3 World Championship runner-up, has never been to the Big Island before and has played down his chances on debut. That’s with some justification. The last male debutant to win here was Luc van Lierde in 1996 and you have to go back over two decades to Canadian Peter Reid to find a male winner who hadn’t first stepped on to the podium. Brownlee has enjoyed a more fruitful 2019 to last year – which he spent the majority of recovering from surgery or injured – and if not at his very best, the 31-year-old still looked strong in finishing second to Norway’s Gustav Iden at the 70.3 worlds in Nice.
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But unlike some rivals, such as Javier Gomez, who was travelling from the World Triathlon Series Grand Final, or Patrick Lange, who appeared to be using it as a tune-up race for Kona, Nice was a key target race for Brownlee. Kona, he admits, will be more of an experiment, and he doesn’t even have a three-discipline Ironman to draw on for experience, with his qualification in Ironman Ireland shortened to a duathlon after the swim was cancelled. Yet while there are many reasons to write off his chances, including coping with the heat and humidity, his talent and ability to dig deep are unsurpassed, and, as his former coach and long-time mentor Malcolm Brown says: “I have been surprised many times by Alistair, and would hope to be so again.”
5. Bart Aernouts, 35, Belgium
The Belgian had been a consistent top 10 performer since making his Kona debut in 2012 until last year, where he stepped up a level, running a 2:45:41 marathon off a 4:12:25 bike split to clinch an unlikely runners-up spot and follow Patrick Lange in becoming only the second triathlete to duck under 8hrs on the Big Island. A former duathlete and now coached by two-time Kona winner Luc van Lierde, Aernouts marathon splits have always been of high calibre, but it’s the bike that has really improved. Last year he posted a 4:00:50 split in Ironman Hamburg, albeit on an exceptionally fast day, with a cancelled swim replaced by an initial 6km run, but he also backed it up with 4:17:57 at Challenge Roth in July. With the swim Aernouts weakest discipline, don’t expect to see him until later in the day, but as he showed in the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Nice with a competitive 2:19:46 bike split and 1:10:36 half-marathon for sixth place, he’s peaking perfectly for the Big Island once more.
4. David McNamee, 31, Great Britain
The Scot has made the top three twice in Hawaii in the past two years and has the third fastest time ever on the Big Island, marking him out as Britain’s finest male Ironman triathlete. Yet it’s still a big jump to the top step of the podium and he knows that leap has to come from an improved bike leg. While it has become top priority, it also hasn’t come to fruition so far in 2019. McNamee split 4:52:13 on a self-confessed ‘bad day’ at Ironman South Africa and 4:31:39 on a traditionally fast course at Roth, although he did puncture on the way. It leaves his best effort as the 4:21:18 he posted in Hawaii last year on a day where the Big Island was at its most benign. In contrast, his run form looks better than ever with 2:41 marathons in both iron-distance races this year, as he ran back through the field. Few are as shrewd as McNamee on the Big Island, and none, bar Lange, have shown they can maximise their ability here as much as the Scot. It’s why you cannot write him off for another perfectly pitched race, and a similar performance – if not finishing position – to the past two years.
There’s a renewed vigour about Kienle in 2019 that suggests five years on from lifting the Kona title, the German could be in the shape to deliver another masterclass. Britain’s David McNamee was quick to pick the 35-year-old out in 220’s Hawaii previews (Issue 369) and he showed with his race-best 4:17:36 bike leg in Ironman Germany, where he pedalled the 180km with a piece of glass picked up in transition stuck in his foot, and a 1:09:31 half-marathon in the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Nice, that he’s in shape to threaten the podium once more. Kienle’s swim remains a concern, he lost over 3min over 1.9km to the leaders in Nice and has to go double the distance, again without a wetsuit, in Hawaii. But there’s more time to make inroads on the bike over the full distance, and he won’t be short of time-trial aces for company with the likes of Cameron Wurf, Bart Aernouts, Joe Skipper and Andrew Starykowicz also likely to be in the chasing groups. We’ve seen in previous years how the Queen K course suits Kienle to a tee, particularly putting the hammer down on the descent from Hawi, and having dropped out of last year’s race, he has extra incentive to perform.
The 2008 Olympic champion and 2015 and 2016 Ironman world champion, undefeated since Hawaii 2017, will be many observers’ pre-race favourite after another stellar year and opting not to defend his Ironman 70.3 world title to keep full focus on Kona. There’s every reason it might pay off. Frodeno looked serene in defeating Sebastian Kienle to win Ironman Germany for a third time in June, and his biggest fear might be injury after a back issue forced him to jog through the marathon in Hawaii in 2017, and a stress fracture of the hip kept him out of the race altogether last year. If on form, Frodeno will be to the fore in the swim and bike, but may have to run faster than the 2:45:34 marathon he produced to win in 2016 to be successful for a third time. Aged 38, that would be no mean feat and make him just a few months younger than the oldest Kona winner, Craig Alexander, in 2011.
The 2017 and 2018 winner has a trump card that no other triathlete looks capable of playing in Hawaii – a 2:40 marathon at will. Lange, largely anonymous for the rest of the year, has produced it on all three occasions he has raced on the Big Island, and it’s not just the speed, but the knowledge that no-one has come close to matching it, giving him a buffer of around 5mins to his main rivals and 10-15mins over the rest of the field. Aged 33, Lange is softly spoken, small in stature, and far from the best swimmer or cyclist in the sport, and he can expect to be attacked more on the bike this year than ever before. But he remains unfazed by 2019 defeats at Ironman Germany (11th place and 52mins behind winner Frodeno) and the Ironman 70.3 World Championship (22nd), knowing he has the two fastest winning times ever in Hawaii and the confidence that he can run down anybody on the Big Island.