Much like the vacuum left in the men’s field by the absence of Marino Vanhoenacker, the women will miss the challenge presented by two strong contenders who will not start due to injuries. Late blooming Corinne Abraham had an enormously impressive win at Ironman Melbourne which included a 4:42:09 bike split and a 2:56:50 run. Abraham later posted a less impressive 6th place at Challenge Kraichgau before injuries forced her withdrawal from the big dance. The other big loss to the women's race will be Camilla Pedersen, who won a big victory at Ironman Frankfurt but suffered a head injury in a bike crash which left her in a coma for several weeks. Injuries and exhaustion have also turned much of the usual favorites into question marks and advanced the cause of rising dreamers. The upshot is this year is one without dominant players and should be a wild shootout.
For your consideration, please find the women’s elite field favorites listed in order of preference from top to bottom.
Caroline Steffen, 35, SUI
Last year Steffen cam to Kona with a near-perfect, dominant race résumé including a blistering fast 8:34:51 win at Melbourne with an even more impressive 4:35:29 bike split, a near-record. win at Ironman Frankfurt in 8:52:33, and a dominant win at the ITU Long Distance World Championship. On the big day in Kona, Steffen tried to shrug off a highly questionable 4-minute penalty on the bike (drafting a back marker male pro? Really?) and led until Mile 23 of the run. But Leanda Cave, who suffered an equally dubious 4-minute bike penalty, had more in the tank at the end and left Steffen 1:04 short of victory. This year, Steffen started off with less dominance – a 2nd at Auckland 70.3 to Annabel Luxford, 2nd at Abu Dhabi to Melissa Hauschildt, 3rd at Melbourne to Corinne Abraham and Yvonne Van Vlerken before getting her act together, winning Challenge Roth in a sizzling fast 8:40:35 and topping Van Vlerken by 5:47.
None of which would erase the doubts that Steffen could break through her 2nd-place-at-Kona ceiling if Cave were not fighting her way back from early season injuries and exhaustion, Mary Beth Ellis had not suffered a shoulder injury in a recent training crash, that Ironman Melbourne dominator Corinne Abraham had not withdrawn due to injury, and that Rachel Joyce had not fallen ill just before Challenge Roth. Steffen’s remaining rivals for the Kona crown include Mirinda Carfrae, who has had a not spectacular for her year, and Yvonne Van Vlerken, who finished 2nd to Steffen at Roth. Given Steffen’s lighter Ironman race load this year and her gradual peaking into form, this should be the year for the woman known to her team TBB squad as Xena Warrior Princess to ascend to the Kona throne.
Mary Beth Ellis, 36, USA
Why oh why did Mary Beth crash on September 9 and throw her shoulder into emergency recovery mode? Ellis, who has a perfect 8-for-8 record in Ironman races not in Kona, had a virtually perfect 2013 with a blazing fast 4:14:03 win at Florida 70.3, a course record dominance at Ironman Nice, a 21-minute margin of victory at Alpe d’Huez, and an always-in-control win at Ironman Mt. Tremblant over a talented, desperate-for-Kona-qualifying-points field. Word is that the oh-so-tough woman coach Brett Sutton terms the Honey Badger is recovering well without complaint and has the killer competitive will to prevail in a duel to the finish if she has not been waylaid by one of those 4-minute penalties.
Although Ellis cannot be in her best shape after the shoulder injury, this quixotic odds maker thinks her stubborn toughness will reward her with the second spot on the podium.
Mirinda Carfrae, 32, AUS
No matter what she does throughout the early season, Rinny Carfrae is always ready at Kona. In her Kona debut in 2009, she was runner-up to Chrissie Wellington where the majority of her 19 minute deficit was on the bike. In 2010, with Wellington a last-second DNS, Carfrae blew away Steffen on the run with a then-record 2:53:32 run that was 12 minutes faster than the Swiss star while overcoming a 4-minute deficit at T2. In 2011, some say that Carfrae’s relentless pursuit of Chrissie Wellington with a record 2:52:09 run took so much out of Wellington’s 4th Hawaii victory that it prompted her 2012 hiatus and subsequent retirement. Last year, Carfrae was not in great form for much of the year but found enough in her inexhaustible determination to scratch out a podium finish.
So this year, Carfrae has had a gradual 8th-6th-4th-5th-2nd-1st climb up the 70.3 ladder and seems to be in optimal form after a return to coach Siri Lindley. Better, Carfrae has had a limited racing calendar and should have the energy to fight it out for a better finish. Probably the best bet in the field for a podium finish. But can she ride fast enough to still have a chance with her powerful run?
Jodie Swallow, 32, GBR
Swallow, the 2009 ITU Long Distance World Champion and 2010 Ironman 70.3 world titlist has been rounding into form nicely. At Ironman South Africa early this year, she had a big lead after the swim and bike and held on until Mile 21 of the run when problems hit and slow swimming Jessie Donavan ran by. Swallow did show enough firepower to win Ironman 70.3 South Africa in course record time. As the year went on, she got even better -- finished 2nd at Ironman Frankfurt in 8:58:43, 2:42 behind Camilla Pedersen, then won Ironman Sweden in 8:54:01, 23 minutes ahead of runner-up Eva Nystrom. It seems that Swallow is hungry to add another world title to her excellent resume.
Rachel Joyce, 35, GBR
Joyce seemed to be on the path of Kona inevitability with a 6th place in 2009, 5th in 2010 and 4th in 2011. But in 2012, after a strong 8:46 2nd-place at Ironman Melbourne and a swift 8:45:04 win at Challenge Roth, Joyce had an off-day 11th at Kona and suffered a tonsillectomy to end her year on a down note. This year, Joyce started with a forgettable 7th at Oceanside 70.3, then found her stride with a swift, race-record 8:49:15 win at Ironman Texas – 36 minutes ahead of the runner-up. In keeping with her up-and-down rhythm this year, she fell ill just before Challenge Roth and did not start.
If well, a true candidate for the win. But whether or not she has recovered her fitness after her withdrawal at Roth is an open question.
Yvonne Van Vlerken, 34, NED
Multiple duathlon champion Van Vlerken startled the triathlon world in 2007 with an 8:51:55 finish in her Iron-distance debut at Roth, then setting an Iron-distance world best mark of 8:45:48 the next year at Roth – breaking Paula Newby-Fraser’s 14 –year-old record. It was no surprise then that she finished 2nd, 14:57 behind Chrissie Wellington, in her Kona debut in 2008.
Since then Van Vlerken has 2 wins at Ironman Cozumel (2009, 2010), an 8:51:35 course record win at Ironman Florida in 2012, and in 2013 two strong Ironman-distance finishes – 2nd at Melbourne and 2nd at Challenge Roth in her 4th sub-9 hours performance. Now training with positive thinking master Siri Lindley, Van Vlerken has more confidence than ever and a real shot at the podium.
Leanda Cave, 35, GBR
Why indeed is Leanda Cave ranked so low here? Not because she has irrevocably lost her amazing talents, focus and capability she proved in 2012, when she endured and bounced back from early season back problems to earn two of her greatest victories at Las Vegas and Kona. In 2013 she dug a deeper hole by not taking time off to heal a developing injury. In February she developed a severe hamstring pain but kept training. As she wrote in her blog, the pain became a hamstring tear, which led to a left glute strain, followed by pain in the left quad and then her left knee. After finally taking time off to heal and get expert rehab, she came slowly back with a 2nd place to Melissa Hauschildt at Boulder 70.3. Wary of re0-injury, she pulled out of Hy-Vee, then soldiered through a 13th place defense of her Ironman 70.3 World title in Las Vegas.
As difficult a task as it seems, the amazing woman her coach Siri Lindley calls Super Bird can work wonders with the month she’s had to prepare for Kona after her humbling in Las Vegas.
Gina Crawford, 32, NZL
This 11-time Ironman-distance champion had a typically busy 2013 -- 5th at Ironman Melbourne, 2nd to Meredith Kessler at Ironman New Zealand, 2nd to Liz Blatchford at Ironman Cairns and 2nd to Caroline Steffen at MetaMan Bintan. Sharpening up late in the season, she ran a 1:22 while winning the Sunshine Coast 70.3. As excellent as she has been all around the world, Crawford has only had 2 top-10 days at Kona -- an 8th in 2008 and a 7th in 2012.
Crawford faded badly in the last 12K of the run and still clocked a 3:06:16 marathon. If she can apportion her energy more efficiently, she can podium.
Rebekah Keat, 35, AUS
Keat, who held a 3rd-fastest ever Ironman-distance time of 8:39 while finishing second to Chrissie Wellington at Roth in 2009, has won Ironman Louisville in 2010, Ironman Cairns in 2011 and had 2nd place finishes at Ironman New York City and Ironman Western Australia in 2012. But this year she has been fighting tendinitis and calf woes. Nonetheless, Keat got her act together to post a clutch 2nd place at Ironman Mt. Tremblant to qualify for Kona. The woman who has a reservoir of good karma from her sportsmanlike gift of a CO2 canister to rescue Chrissie Wellington’s eventual victory at Kona in 2008 has the game but has yet to collect on her promise on the Queen K.
Sonja Tajsich, 37, GER
This German long course star closed fast with a race-best 2:59 marathon to finish 4th last year at Kona. Tajsich proved she could win at the Ironman game with a victory in 2006 at Malaysia and reinforced that promise with Ironman wins at Regensburg and South Africa in 2010. Since then Tajsich has been reliably close but not quite the cigar with 2nd place finishes at Cozumel in 2011, Roth in 2012 and this year has a not so spectacular 4th at Ironman 70.3 St. Polten.
Natascha Badmann, 46, SUI
Last year at age 45, Badmann showed that her 6 victories and 2 second place finishes at Kona were not that far behind when she won Ironman South Africa and finished 6th at Kona with the fastest pro bike split of 5:06:07 on a day with tough side winds. This year she seems not to have slipped at all with a 4th place at Ironman Melbourne, 14 minutes behind runner-up Yvonne Van Vlerken. Not shabby for 46, and even better when you factor in that she suffered severe, career-threatening injuries in a bike crash at Kona in 2007 which took the better part of 3 years to heal. To this day she sets off X-ray machines in airports with all the metal used to hold her broken bones together.
Linsey Corbin, 32, USA
Like many top Kona contenders, Linsey Corbin has been fighting an uphill battle – in her case a leg injury and overall exhaustion. Hopefully just in time, Corbin took some time off and got excellent physical therapy. Signs are good – a win at Ironman 70.3 Mt. Tremblant, and a 5th at Vineman 70.3 leave her optimistic about equaling or bettering her 5th place Kona finish in 2008. If healthy, Corbin’s chances look good after her win at Ironman Arizona last November.
Caitlin Snow, 31, USA
The past 3 years, this Brockton, Massachusetts competitor has been a solid bet to make the top 10 at Kona and has been a contender for the fastest women’s run split each time. In 2010, she finished 8th and ran a 2nd-best 2:56:04 marathon. In 2011, Snow finished 9th and ran a 3rd-best 2:53:50 – just behind the epic 2:52:41 of winner Chrissie Wellington and the race-record 2:52:09 of runner-up Mirinda Carfrae. This year Snow won Steelhead 70.3, was 2nd at Ironman Coeur d’Alene and 3rd at Ironman 70.3 Texas.
Heather Wurtele, 34, CAN
This stylishly tall Canadian long course star broke through in 2011 with Ironman wins at St. George and Lake Placid and a solid 8th at Ironman Hawaii. Last year, she won Timberman 70.3 and finished 6th at Ironman 70.3 worlds. This year Wurtele went on a tear with wins at Ironman Coeur d’Alene, Rev3 Quassy, San Juan 70.3 and Calgary 70.3 -- plus a 2nd place at Oceanside 70.3 and a 4th at Abu Dhabi.
Liz Blatchford, 33, GBR
After absorbing with grace the disappointment of being left off Great Britain’s Olympic team in favor of a killer swim specialist, Blatchford has taken well to long course triathlon. Last year she won 70.3s in Boulder and Cozumel, took 2nd at Mandurah 70.3 and kept up her short course speed with a 3rd at Noosa and 4th at Mooloolaba. This year she won Ironman Cairns in 9:19:51 with a 3:23 margin over Gina Crawford, won Busselton 70.3, took 2nd at Samui long course, and scored a clutch 4th place at Ironman Mt. Tremblant to qualify for Kona. Blatchford is still on the rise and will learn lessons how to apply her speed in the hills, wind and humidity and heat of Kona.
Meredith Kessler, 35, USA
Somehow 45 Ironman distance finishes since 2000 has not slowed the amazing Meredith Kessler, who still keeps getting faster. As a rookie pro in 2010, she won Ironman Canada and took second at Ironman St. George and Ironman Coeur d’Alene. In 2011 she won Rev3 Portland, took 2nd at Ironman Wisconsin, and was 3rd at ITU Long distance Worlds and at Ironman Arizona. In 2012, she won three Ironman races -- at New Zealand, St. George and Coeur d’Alene -- plus a 2nd at Arizona and a win at Eagleman 70.3. This year, after a crash and serious head injury at Eagleman, Kessler fashioned an amazing comeback, winning 70.3s at Vineman, Lake Stevens and placing 7th in a speed test at Hy-Vee.
Jessie Donavan, 37, USA
If you doubt Jessie Donavan has the determination to finish what she started, just remember this hard working mother of three once hiked the entire Appalachian Trail. Or you could take her performance at the 2013 edition of Ironman South America where she started the day with a 1:07:11 swim that put her 18 minutes down to two-time World champion Jodie Swallow of Great Britain. After am impressive 4:50:27 bike split, Donavan was 4 more minutes down to Swallow’s spectacular 4:46:05. With a 22 minutes deficit, many competitors would relax and settle for second place. But Donavan put her head down and kept grinding to a race-best 3:09:11 run. Of course that would not have been enough if Swallow had not been fading fast, but Donavan’s pluck pushed her into the lead at Mile 21.
Donavan broke into the Ironman win column twice in 2012 with wins at Lake Placid and Mt. Tremblant. She also placed 3rd at Ironman Brazil this year and is excited to take on Kona for the first time as a pro.
Amanda Stevens, 36, USA
The Doc (licensed physician) has taken well to long course, scoring 2nd at Florida 70.3 and at Texas 70.3 in 2010 and 2nd at Philippines 70.3 in 2011. In 2012, she won Buffalo Springs Lake 70.3, took 2nd at Kansas 70.3 and finished 2nd at the tough course at Ironman UK. At Kona last year, she was first out of the water and set the Ironman women’s swim mark of 45:04 at Ironman Frankfurt. This season she led much of the way before finishing 3rd at Boulder 70.3.