The absence of Chrissie Wellington this year makes the hearts of the contending women beat faster and increases the scent of victory among the contenders.
Caroline Steffen (SUI) age 34
Even if Chrissie Wellington weren't taking the year off, you just might say that this will be Caroline Steffen's year to rise to the top of the podium at Kona. Given Wellington's domination of the Ironman world, them's brave, some might say foolish, words. But the women her Team TBB teammates call Xena (as in Warrior Princess) has backed up that audacious assertion with her 2012 performances.
After a distant 2nd place finish to Mirinda Carfrae at the Chrissie Wellington-less Ironman Hawaii in 2010, Steffen had a tough row at Kona last year. Coming in with a lack of training lost to a leg injury, she led the field halfway through the run until lack of fitness dropped her to 5th. This year, Steffen has avoided all serious injuries and her results have been brilliant. At Ironman Melbourne, she stunned the field with a record-shattering 4:35:29 bike split that was 9:28 faster than Rachel Joyce, 32 minutes faster than Mirinda Carfrae and 26 minutes faster than Rebekah Keat. Her 3:01:22 run was 2nd best to Mirinda Carfrae's 2:58 marathon, but still enough to get her to the finish in 8:34:51, just 55 seconds slower than Wellington's official Ironman world best time set in 2011 at South Africa.
The rest of her year wasn't shabby -- she won Ironman Frankfurt in 8:52:33 by 13 minutes over Germany's Anja Beranek - just 1:09 slower than Wellington's 2008 race record. She won the ITU long distance Worlds by 5 minutes, and also won Ironman 70.3 the Philippines. Her close losses were a 3rd at Abu Dhabi and a 2nd at the legendarily tough Gerardmer.
While she was never challenged on the run, her 3:06:52 at Frankfurt, her 3:01:22 at Melbourne and her 3 hour-plus runs at Kona mark her as vulnerable - only if she does not unleash another otherworldly monster bike split.
Mirinda Carfrae (AUS) age 31
After her brave challenge to Chrissie Wellington at Kona last year - falling short by just 2:49 in a superb time of 8:57:57 after a record-breaking 2:52:09 run that pushed Wellington up to and slightly over the brink, Mirinda Carfrae started 2012 as the odds-on favorite to win in a year that Wellington was taking off. After all, she was coming off a 2nd-1st-2nd streak for her first three attempts at Kona and she has the fastest run in the game.
Heaven knows Mirinda Carfrae has the potential to peak brilliantly and laugh at her not-so-special-for-her 2012 season leading up to Kona. But on paper she has slipped. She took 3rd at Ironman Melbourne, 30 minutes back of Steffen. She was 3rd at the Ironman 70.3 shortened to duathlon at New Orleans, 3rd at Ironman 70.3 Muncie, 9th at am excursion to Olympic distance at St., Anthony's (in contrast to her brilliant 2nd place at Hy-Vee in 2011). She did win Lake Stevens 70.3 and Rev3 Quassy by 17 seconds over Heather Wurtele thanks to a race-best 1:21:29 run - which is 4 minutes off her best. With very few recent races under her belt, she may be rested up and peaking for Kona. Or she may be nursing an injury or illness and hoping for the best. Either way, she might just be hoping she can find her brilliant form in time to put to rest any doubts that her move to leave coach Siri Lindley was a mistake.
Last minute prognosticator's remorse: As Julie Dibens reminded me, no other races before Kona count - and no one races Kona in the heat and humidity better than Rinny Carfrae. Still, as that that powerfully sane last minute tip came from an outside source, I will treat it like a pre-test peek at the final and stick with my own flawed guess and leave Rinny number 2.
Leanda Cave (GBR) age 34
Last year Leanda Cave proved she was no longer a short-courser pretending to be an Ironman. Her 3rd place finish at Kona did that much. But her 8:49:00 win at Ironman Arizona, closing with a sub-3 hour marathon, gave her an equal and perhaps even more important boost to her self-confidence. Her 2011 season was consistent from start to finish, with wins at Wildflower and Miami 70.3 and a 2nd place at the ITU long distance World Championship adding meat to her bravura end of season finish.
This year Cave had a slow start due to illness and injury, but a 4th win at Escape From Alcatraz and a rocking victory at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship on the tough course at Las Vegas showed the world she had rounded into shape at just the right time for another Kona breakthrough.
Rachel Joyce (GBR) age 34
This Great Brit showed she belonged in the top tier of endurance triathlon in 2011. A 4th at Abu Dhabi, a 2nd at Ironman South Africa, a win at Ironman Lanzarote, a 4th at Kona and a win at the ITU long distance World Championship in Las Vegas proved that point.
But Joyce showed even more game in 2012. She started modestly with a 5th at Abu Dhabi, then stepped it up with a 2nd at Ironman Melbourne including a 2nd-fastest 4:44 bike split, a win at Ironman 70.3 Kansas, a win at Challenge Roth in a blistering fast 8:45:04 time, followed by a dominating win at Ironman 70.3 Muskoka..
Perhaps the best sign that Joyce is confident and on top of her game is her light late season light schedule. That portends a fully loaded Rachel Joyce is confident and ready to bet all in on a breakthrough Kona performance.
Mary Beth Ellis (USA) age 35
Mary Beth Ellis exploded into the elite Ironman ranks last year with three big Ironman wins including a best-ever first Ironman time of 8:45:30 at Austria and a record smashing race record at Ironman Canada. The only fly in the ointment for her Kona debut was over-racing. She simply had nothing left in the tank for her 4th Ironman in 4 months.
This year Ellis has spaced her Ironman tests better, winning Ironman Texas in 8:54:58 with a smashing fast 4:45 bike split making her cruising 3:11 marathon irrelevant. Another win at Ironman U.S. in New York City proved she excels in the heat. A 2nd place finish to Angela Naeth at St Croix 70.3 plus an early season win at Singapore 70.3 proves she was in tune through the whole year. Coming into Kona with sufficient rest and focus will show the world she belongs in a prominent role on triathlon's biggest stage.
Kelly Williamson (USA) age 35
Mirinda Carfrae watch out. Kelly Williamson is the fastest women's runner in the sport. Triathlon aside, who in triathlon can match Williamson's 1:14:42 half marathon at the beginning of 2012? That speed has overcome a lot of deficits thanks to an improving but still sub-optimal bike. For evidence, Williamson's 2012 season includes a 2nd at Ironman 70.3 Worlds, a 2nd at Panama 70.3, wins at San Juan and Galveston 70.3s, a 5th at Olympic distance St. Anthony's with a race-fastest 34:27 run, 1st at Muncie 70.3, 6th at Hy-Vee.
Last year she proved she could excel at the Ironman with a 2nd at Texas and a creditable 13th at Kona. Williamson, who does not fade in the heat, can show much more much this year on Kona.
Rebekah Keat (AUS) age 34
If not fighting injury for half the year, Rebekah Keat could make an impact at Kona much better than her 5th place but DQ'd finish a few years ago. The clue to her immense capacity is her 8:39 finish behind Chrissie Wellington at Challenge Roth in 2009 - still the 4th-fastest Ironman-distance women's finish of all time. This year Keat has been fighting back from illness and injury. She started with a 6th at Ironman Melbourne, fell to 7th at Wildflower, took 5th at Muncie 70.3, 6th at Vineman 70.3 before showing strong signs of revival with a 2nd place at the Ironman U.S. Championship in New York City.
Has Keat recovered enough to race at her best level in Kona? She's had two months to whip herself into shape and it will be pleasure to see Keat back at her best. Keat deserves good karma - she was the competitor who gave an otherwise stranded Chrissie Wellington her CO2 cartridge back in 2008.
Linsey Corbin (USA) age 31
Corbin ended 2011 on an up note with her sub-9 hours second place finish at Ironman Arizona last November. 2012 has gone well with a 2nd at San Juan 70.3, 1st at Ironman 70.3 Hawaii, 1st at Ironman Austria on in 9:09:58 that included a 4:54:09 bike split, and a 3rd at Timberman 70.3. Anxious to make up for a aggravating mechanical DNF at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Las Vegas, a course made for Corbin's strong biking skills. Still has the talent and belief to top her 5th place finish at Kona in 2008.
Gina Crawford (NZL) age 32
This New Zealand mother has 10 Iron-distance wins, many of which are in the Challenge series. As usual, she has been busy this year, winning Ironman-distance Challenge Wanaka and Iron-distance Challenge Henley (which she finished with a sub-3 hour marathon). She also took 2nd at Ironman France, 4th at Challenge Roth and 5th at Ironman Melbourne. All of that on top of several Ironman 70.3s makes this prognosticator wonder if she will ever apply sufficient taper and peaking to really give herself, and Kona, their due.
Meredith Kessler (USA) age 34
This San Francisco based star has blossomed under the coaching of Matt Dixon. In 2011 she won Rev3 Portland, was 2nd at Ironman Wisconsin, took 3rds at Ironman Arizona, the ITU long distance Worlds and Ironman Canada and was 4th at Vineman 70.3.
This year, Kessler won Ironman New Zealand, Ironman St. George and Ironman Coeur d'Alene and Vineman 70.3 and took 2nd at Rev3 Portland. She has cut back on her schedule leading to Kona and with her consistent excellence this year might just make a serious dent in Kona's top 10.
Caitlin Snow (USA) age 30
If Caitlin Snow could only bike! Last year she biked 5:20, then unleashed her beastly run on the Queen K and her 3rd-best 2:53:50 marathon brought her up from the depths to a 9th place finish. Back in 2010, her lesser 2:56:04 run lifted her from the mid pack to 8th place at Kona. This year she has had a consistent record, taking 4th at Galveston 70.3, 5th at Ironman 70.3 New Orleans, 2nd at Timberman 70.3 and an impressive 2nd to Mary Beth Ellis at the Ironman U.S. Championship in New York City in an impressive 9:01:32 time.
Natascha Badmann (SUI) age 45
If Ironman were age graded, the original Swiss Miss would be Queen of the World in 2012 after winning Ironman South Africa in at the age of 45 years and 138 days - thus becoming the oldest overall Ironman champion ever. Proving she is no flash in the pan in 2012, Badmann also placed 3rd at Heilbronn, 3rd at Ironman 70.3 Austria,and 7th at Ironman 70.3 Panama.
Almost forgot! Badmann also won Ironman Hawaii in 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2005 and was second in 1996 and 2003. A great champion who came back after devastating, career- and life-threatening injuries suffered in a bike crash at Ironman Hawaii in 2007. A Kona immortal - treasure every opportunity to watch her in action at the race she loves the most.