The trouble with picking favorites is that the most important part of preparation for the Ironman World Championship occurs largely during intense training in the final two months before Kona. In that time, mid-season niggles, overtraining and injuries can heal, form can be regained and confidence can rise – or fall.
Favorites are listed in order of preference.
1. Jan Frodeno, 35, Germany
The first man to win Olympic-Kona gold seemed to answer any questions that he might be having a letdown with a resounding no. The chief evidence was his performance at Challenge Roth at which he broke Andreas Raelert’s 2011 world best mark at the Ironman distance by 5 minutes. Frodeno combined a 45:22 swim, 4:09:22 bike split and a 2:40:35 run to finish in 7:35:39. The epic performance wiped away any regret Frodeno might have had for his 2:05 margin of defeat to Jesse Thomas at Ironman Lanzarote - after all Frodeno was simply seeking a Kona-validating Ironman finish. In 2016, Frodeno’s approach to his 2016 season was in contrast to Daniela Ryf’s over-loaded long course schedule. Passing up a chance at a $1 million bonus by missing Ironman 70.3 Worlds - the second race in the Nasser Bin Hamad al Khalifa Triple Crown - Frodeno is focused for a defense of his 2015 Kona crown.
2. Sebastian Kienle, 32, Germany
The 2014 Kona champion had an excellent season that included a dominating 7:52:43 winning time at Ironman Frankfurt and a slightly disappointing finish line sprint 2-seconds loss to Tim Reed at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship. To be picky, Kienle’s 4:12:12 bike split at Frankfurt was 4 minutes slower than Frodeno’s 2015 split. Kienle’s 2:44:12 run was six minutes better than Frodeno but his overall time was three minutes slower due to a 6 minutes deficit on the swim. Kienle proved with his 8th-place finish last year that he can have an off-day at Kona. While he has not solved his usual 2 to 4 minute deficit after the Kona swim, his 2:44:12 run at Frankfurt indicates he is no longer a one-trick überbiker.
3. Andreas Raelert, 40, Germany
The elder Raelert came into Kona last year under the radar with just 6th at Frankfurt and a 2nd at Wiesbaden 70.3. At age 39, Raelert was two years older than Mark Allen’s sayonara to Kona – but the man with the elegant stride came up with his 3rd Kona runner-up finish. This year Raelert just slid into the field with a validation-only 7th place finish at Ironman Copenhagen four weeks ago. Is he over the hill at 40? His Kona record forbids discounting – 3rd in 2009, 2nd in 2010, 3rd in 2011, 2nd in 2012, and 2nd to Frodeno last year.
4. Brent McMahon, 36, Canada
Since he focused on long course after his second Olympic appearance in 2012, the 36-year-old Canadian has become a top Ironman threat. In 2014, he broke 8-hours with a 7:55:48 winning time at Ironman Arizona. In 2015 he posted a 7:56:55 for 3rd place at Ironman Brazil and followed with an 8:00:57 for 2nd place at Ironman Arizona. This year McMahon made a quantum leap at the Ironman South American Championship with his dominating 7:46:10 winning time – the 2nd fastest men’s official Ironman mark, 12 seconds behind Marino Vanhoenacker’s 2011 time at Ironman Austria.
Doubts crept in with McMahon’s sub-par 5th place this year at St. George 70.3 – and his disappointing 9th place in his Kona debut last year where he faded with a 3:05 marathon.
5. Andy Potts, 39, USA
While fellow American Timothy O’Donnell stole some of Potts’ top American at Kona thunder with his 3rd place finish last year, much as Ben Hoffman did with his 2nd-place Kona finish in 2014, Potts has maintained his steady rise at Kona. Potts was 8th in 2008, 9th in 2009, 7th in 2012 and 4th in 2014 and 2015. This year, at age 39, Potts has put together a high quality season with a reduced quantity designed to maximize his Kona chances. Since a 4th at Escape from Alcatraz (excused by a rare navigation error on the swim) Potts has been perfect against quality fields with wins at Ironman Coeur d’Alene, Vineman 70.3 and Ironman Canada.
6. Joe Skipper, 28, Great Britain
A late starter, Skipper has come on fast with a 3rd at Ironman UK in 2013, a 2nd at Ironman UK in 2014, a 2nd at 2015 Ironman Texas in hellish heat with a 4:09:12 bike split and a 3rd at 2015 ITU long distance Worlds. Coming up against Murderer’s Row in his 2015 Kona debut, Skipper showed his weaknesses with a 57:31 swim and a 3:04:09 run but exuded promise with a 4:28:34 bike split. Skipper began 2016 with a decent 2nd at Ironman New Zealand but looked really good with a 7:56:23 for 2nd at Challenge Roth with a scary-fast 2:38:52 marathon.
7. Lionel Sanders, 29, Canada
Sanders has been the king of the 70.3 distance for three years – hard to decide if his bike or his run was the bigger weapon. In and around his long win streaks, Sanders showed Ironman promise with a win at Ironman Florida in 2014 and a sub-8 hour performance at Ironman Arizona in 2015. In that same year, Sanders struggled to emerge as a consistent Ironman threat with a 4th at Ironman Texas, 5th at Ironman Mt. Tremblant and a 14th at the Ironman World Championship. Sanders began this year with a 70.3 winning streak but has struggled once again with a 9th place at Ironman 70.3 Worlds. Here’s hoping Sanders can capitalize on his enormous promise at Kona.
8. Timothy O’Donnell, 35, USA
O’Donnell proved his Kona capability with a 3rd place finish last year highlighted by a 3rd-best 4:26:13 bike split. His road to a Kona podium began in earnest with an 8th in 2012, advanced to a 5th in 2013, fell off due to abdominal issues to a 32nd place finish in 2014, then rose to the podium last year. This year has been below his 2015 pre-Kona form with a 9th at St. George 70.3 and a 25th-place Kona validation slog at Ironman Frankfurt. O’Donnell has had time to set things straight but he has to hope Kona prep brought him back to last year’s form.
9. Jesse Thomas, 36, USA
Six straight wins at Wildflower long course gave Thomas a reputation for consistency. But his win at tough courses - Ironman Wales in 2015 and Ironman Lanzarote in 2016 – gave him Ironman cred. But more than anything, what puts Thomas on the radar for Kona was his defeat of Jan Frodeno in the heat and winds at Lanzarote. Thomas started with a 4 minutes deficit to Frodeno on the swim, stayed in touch with a 3rd-best bike split and swept to a 2 minute victory with a very impressive 2:46:56 marathon in Kona conditions.
10. Andi Bocherer, 32, Germany
Last year Bocherer seemed destined to make a splash at Kona, arriving at the lava fields after a 3rd at Frankfurt ahead of stellar contenders Van Lierde, Raelert, Dreitz and Kienle. Three 70.3 wins at top European events and a 6th at Ironman 70.3 at Zell Am See bode well but on Kona Game Day it wasn't to be. This year, Bocherer looks even better, losing a duel for the win with Kienle at Frankfurt by 57 seconds and finishing in 7:53:40 with a closing 2:45:02 marathon.
11. Tim Reed, 31, Australia
Reed has been a master at the 70.3 distance for several years but added to his Ironman bona fides with a win at Ironman Australia this year. Still, his strength resides in the middle distance. Nothing has been more impressive than his win at the 2016 Ironman 70.3 Worlds where he out sprinted Sebastian Kienle by 2 seconds for the win.
12. Timothy Van Berkel, 32, Australia
Van Berkel showed he belonged at Kona with a 7th place finish in 2014 and looks ready to be a contender again this year with a win at the Ironman Asia-Pacific Championship at Cairns.
13. Eneko Llanos, 38, Spain
Llanos may not look like the man who took a near 2nd place to Macca at Kona in 2008, but the 3-time XTERRA World Champion, 2-time Olympian and 2003 ITU long distance World champion still has game. In 2013 he won Ironman Frankfurt, and last year he was 7th at the Ironman World Championship. This year he was 3rd at Frankfurt with a swift 4:15:22 bike split spoiled by a below-par-for-Llanos 3:00:33 marathon.
14. Ben Hoffman, 35, USA
Kona fans might be excused for wondering if Hoffman’s electrifying 2nd place finish to Sebastian Kienle at Kona in 2014 might be a flash in the pan. Long story short, the 35-year-old Coloradan leapfrogged back to the head of the class with a 2:14 margin of victory at the Ironman African Championship early this year, capped off by a race-best 2:45:50 marathon.
15. Tyler Butterfield, 33, Bermuda
This 2-time Olympian came into his own the past three years with a 7th at Kona in 2013, a win at the 2014 Abu Dhabi International, a 5th at Kona in 2015 and a strong win at Timberman 70.3 last month.
16. Tim Don, 39, Great Britain
The Don’s best long course year was 2014 in which he won two 70.3s, Ironman Mallorca and took 3rd at the Ironman 70.3 Worlds. In 2015, he won three 70.3s, placed 3rd at St. George 70.3 and was 15th at his Kona debut. This year he has won two 70.3s and took 2nd at Ironman Brazil in 8:04:15.
17. James Cunnama, 33, South Africa
Cunnama has had a steady stream of excellent long distance finishes including a sub-8 hour win at Roth in 2012, a win at Ironman Cozumel and a 4th at Kona in 2013, a win at Ironman 70.3 South Africa in 2014, a 2nd at Ironman Mallorca in 2015 and wins at Alpe d’Huez and Embrunman and a 2nd at Ironman France in 2016. Very consistent – but can he rise to the podium at Kona?
18. Cyril Viennot, 35, France
The Frenchman knows how to crack the top 10 at Kona proven by his 5th place in in 2014 and 6th place last year. This year he is in decent form with two Ironman 70.3 wins, a 4th at Challenge Roth and a 2nd at ITU long distance worlds.
19. Frederik Van Lierde, 38, Belgium
Van Lierde’s breakthrough year was 2013 when he won the Abu Dhabi International, Ironman Nice and finished with a victory at Kona. The next year he cooled off slightly with a 2nd at Ironman Frankfurt and a 9th at Kona. In 2015 his peak was a win at Ironman South Africa, and then fell back to a 5th at Frankfurt and an off-form 25th at Kona. This year he took 4th at Ironman Nice and thanks to a lighter than usual schedule should be locked and loaded for Kona.
Several great triathletes I believe have been off form can impact the race and reveal my picks as absurdly wrong: Ivan Raña, 37, Spain; Bart Aernouts, 32, Belgium; Terenzo Bozzone, 31, New Zealand; Boris Stein, 32, Germany; Patrick Lange, 30, Germany; Jordan Rapp, 37, USA; Luke McKenzie, 35, Australia; Michael Weiss, 35, Austria; Ronnie Schildknecht, 37, Switzerland; Pete Jacobs, 34, Australia.