There is nothing as futile as trying to predict whom Madame Pele will favor with luck on Ironman day. Yet we ignorant, blind, self-styled savants keep submitting our predictions for dismal shame. .
Unlike the women’s contest, which Chrissie Wellington and her epic talent promise to dominate like the second coming of Paula Newby-Fraser, the men’s race promises a plethora of twists and turns which may turn all the rational ideas about the race into the garbage bin of history.
IN IT TO WIN IT
Chris McCormack 3-1
Macca now is no longer the Excitable Boy of Warren Zevon song. No more is he the trickster, the insecure pied piper of braggadocio, the too-crafty player of head games, the desperate surge unto death, the man who sweats too fast and loses too much salt to join the immortal, hallowed few who can win on the Queen K. Rather, Macca fancies himself wrapped in a new identity -- the wise old man of the field, a scholar of the event, a devotee of Kona guru Mark Allen, the gracious complimenter of once bitter rival Normann Stadler, the humble but confident champion.
Truly his fifth such sub-eight hour Ironman this summer in Frankfurt has left all in his wake in Ironman-distance stats. He got Boulder mountain man Cam Widoff to show him all the best and most sacred, secret trails while working as Macca’s primo training partner this summer. And Macca looked gentle and loving and just proud as any poppa guiding his young daughter through the kid’s swim and run early this week. Finally, McCormack looks to be living a balanced life and, well, grown up.
But Macca lies on the cusp of destiny at Kona. Will his 6-2-1 arc the last three years at Kona signal arrival in the Mark Allen-Dave Scott penthouse with four or five more wins on the assembly line? Or will he plateau under the weight of the crown and enter the hard luck downslide that afflicted Tim DeBoom after two wins in 2001-2002?
Craig Alexander 7-2
Macca won the ITU Olympic distance World title in 1997; Crowie won the $250,000 jackpot at the Life Time Fitness short course crown jewel in 2005. Macca took to Ironman with a vengeance, winning eight iron distance titles since he switched to long course in 2002. Crowie continued his mastery of the half Ironman world throughout, culminating with his Ironman 70.3 World title in 2006. Last year, despite a few rookie mistakes in preparation, Alexander almost robbed Macca of his dream date last year, finally succumbing by 3 minutes 30 seconds – almost all of the difference accounted for by the marathon - Macca’s 2:42:02 to Alexander’s 2:45:13. This time out Alexander put in more miles on the bike and run and solved the loose ends of his nutrition. A lot of people figure that Alexander got much closer to precious Kona win his first time out, while McCormack spent four frustrating years until he got traction with a race-best run on the way to his sixth place finish.
One doubter familiar with their histories says that while Alexander was always a superior athlete with unlimited potential, McCormack had his number in the early days. Crowie, by now the consummate pro, thinks those days are over.
BIKERS ON FIRE
Normann Stadler 4-1
Numerologists think all discussion is over. Stadler is terrible in odd years, and wins when the years are even. Indeed, the Norminator stormed out on the bike in 2004 and began the run with a preposterously large 20-minute margin over heavy favorites Peter Reid and Tim DeBoom at T2. In 2006, Stadler threw down a still standing race record 4:18:23 bike split that put 8 minutes on Chris Loieto and 11 minutes on all serious contenders, then held off Macca’s race-best 2:46 run by 1:13 for the win.
Stadler dropped out with a bang in 2005, throwing threw his Kuota into the lava after suffering two flats, and ended 2007 with a virtual whimper with an intravenous line into his arm at Kawaihae to treat a malfunctioning gastric system. This time around, Stadler has only finished one race of note – a win at the German national championship half Ironman. With his huge Dresdner Kleinvort contract, reportedly $1.5 million over three years, the pressure is on to deliver in the only race that really matters.
Torbjorn Sindballe 6-1
The tall Dane with the sun-blocking white leggings and long sleeve shirt and Foreign Legion style hat looked like a mad lepidopterist chasing a rare butterfly on the Queen K last year. What he caught was a real chance at triathlon’s Golden Fleece. This year, after recovering from an early season injury, he says he feels strong. “My swim, bike and run are better than ever,” he says. “I will definitely challenge Normann on the bike. Definitely.” Brave words, but Sindballe set old the bike record in 2005, and set fastest bike split last year.
If he isn’t kidding himself on his improved run speed, Thunder Bear might just upset the Stadler-Alexander-McCormack Express.
Faris Al-Sultan 13-2
Beating Stadler to the punch, the 2005 Ironman Hawaii champion and 2006 third place finisher Faris Al-Sultan pulled out before last year’s start with food poisoning. This year, the muscular Munich trimaster has a win at Ironman Malaysia, and a long stretch of uninjured training. Perhaps Ironman’s most balanced competitor, Al-Sultan figures to swim at the front and tear out with the high octane bike chargers, which ought to include Chris Lieto, a revived Steve Larsen, Iron rookie Andy Potts, Sindballe, and TJ Tollakson. When Stadler comes upon them – cue the theme from “Jaws” - that will separate the men from the boys, the gambles from the conservatives. If Al-Sultan is back on form, his strength could prevail and topple the favorites.
Chris Lieto 8½-1
Last year, Lieto charged to the lead on the bike, let Sindballe counter attack to lead into T1. Lieto, who rides a pro cycling road race every year as part of his Ironman prep, then made a brave but foolish redline move to lead the run until Mile 10. Whereupon his anaerobic adventure gave him the painful privilege
to see five men run by him before he hit the line 6th. This year, Lieto will avoid dramatic gestures and should be part of the squadron trying to hold the line and deny Stadler’s bike attack.
Steve Larsen 9-1
In 2001, former pro mountain bike champion Larsen scared the daylights out of five or six contenders who blew up like cheap handguns on the bike as Larsen’s 4:33:32 outpaced even the mighty Stadler by 12 minutes. Only Tim DeBoom ignored Larsen’s swift bike with confidence, and ran to victory by a 2-milemargin with a race-best 2:45:54 marathon. A year later, Larsen retired to coaching, real estate sales and athlete representation to Bend, Oregon. This year, still feeling frisky at age 38 Larsen is reportedly a better swimmer, runner and biker than he was in 2001, thanks to submitting to the wisdom of super coach Brett Sutton (Chrissie Wellington). If true, Larsen could be the dark horse, the straw that stirs the Kona drink once again. .
Andy Potts 25-1
This odds have nothing to do with the 2007 Ironman 70.3 World Champion’s real potential to win this race one day. It has everything to do with Potts’ training regimen. He has done two 20-mile runs and no 112-mile bike rides while fighting down to the end withj Greg Bennett at the Toyota US Open championship at Dallas just six days before he tees off at Kona. With $40,000 in prize money in hand, Potts should be in the race until Mile 80 of the bike, then struggle to an honorable finish. Sometime soon, he will take this race all the way.
TJ Tollakson 30-1
The man is a bullet on the swim and the bike, but could not hold a few leads in North American Ironmans. Should roll the dice with the serious bike pack, then solider through on the run.
GOOD BIKERS, GOOD RUNNERS
Eneko Llanos 7-1
This Olympian and Xterra world champ does not have a strong enough bike to stay with the studs. But he has a good enough run to hound McCormack’s wins at Wildflower and Frankfurt until the final meters,
Rutger Beke 8-1
After last year’s meltdown that left the Belgian in 895th place, walking in a 4-hour marathon, much of the triathlon world forgot Beke’s 2nd place Kona finish in 2003, 5th in 2004 and 4th in 2005. But Beke, who overcame a false positive test for EPO in 2004, knew he was limited by a foot injury that left him unable to out in the usual miles. Still fighting injuries early in 2008, Beke dropped even further out of mainstream triathlon consciousness. Which gave him the opportunity to train in peace. His revived fitness was revealed at a Belgian Olympic distance event in September, where he soundly whipped Luc Van Lierde, Olympian Axel Zeebroek, and other speedy short course stars. After two years of a disappointing slide, Beke could fight his way back to the podium. Which would be nice – newest baby Beke arrived three and a half weeks ago and wife Sofie is awaiting a happy phone call.
Marino Vanhoenacker 9-1
This Belgian has threatened to leap over Rutger Beke and become his country’s next Luc Van Lierde for a few years now. An 8:06 win at Ironman Austria and a scorching fast win at Antwerp 70.3 have bolstered the case for an Ironman Hawaii breakthrough anticipated after a 6th place finish in 2006 and 5th place last year. But doubts remain. His 2:56 run in 2006 and 2:53 last year were 10 minutes off the race best. This year 37-year-old Van :Lierde came within a minute of Vanhoenacker at Antwerp. Can the quiet Belgian, now a teammate of Stadler with Dresdner Kleinwort, step into the spotlight and put the hammer down at go time?
Luc Van Lierde 19-1
Van Lierde’s1996 rookie race remains the most spectacular Kona debut of all time. His 8:04:08 – including a 3-minute stint in the sin bin for a drafting call – smashed Mark Allen’s records and stands unconquered to this day. A world best Ironman distance 7:50:27 at Roth in 1997, a second at Kona in 1998 and another win in 1999 were the high tide of a career which quickly ebbed with injuries with the arrival of the Millennium. An infected heel ate into his marvelous Achilles and threatened to end his career. Finally, in 2006 he finished 16th. In 2007 he hit the Kona stage after a long intermission with an 8th place finish. Still healthy, the man with the Ferrari engine and dime store wheels has visions of 1999 dancin g in his head.
Michael Lovato 9½ -1
Lovato has 9th place finishes in 2003 and 2007 to prove he can be top American in Hawaii when DeBoom and Cam Widoff ar off their games..
MUST RUN WILD TO WIN
Cameron Brown 12-1
The six-time Ironman New Zealand winner was once the safest bet for a Kona Podium with a 2nd in 2001 and 3rd places in 2002 and 2OO3. Since then the quiet Kiwi’s luck has gone south at Kona, with only an honorable 8th in 2006 to assuage the agony. The skinny on Brown’s plight is a less-then stellar bike which leaves him too tapped out to produce the 2:45 runs he can uncork in New Zealand and Germany. Unspectacular, Brown’s best bet, ironically, seems to be a return to typically brutal winds on the Queen K.
Paul Amey 13-1
The three time world du champ was also a serious contender for Britain’s Olympic team, so he is not a cat nor a manatee in the water. Amey says he was unprepared for his debut at Kona early in the decade. “I’m ready now,” he said Tuesday. Can bike and run like the wind.
Patrick Vernay 14-1
This New Caledonian is a double Ironman Australia winner who crushed Crowie at Port Macquairie in 2007. Then Alexander crushed Vernay last year when it counted.
Stephan Vuckovic 15-1
Original Olympic triathlon silver medalist has taken well to the Iron distance, but he has not yet shown he has equal skill going long.
Steven Bayliss 17-1
Under Coach Brett Sutton’s tutelage, Bayliss has developed into a top Ironman threat, with breakthrough wins at South Africa and UK accompanied by superb runs. Just in time to start chasing fiancée Bella Comerford’s 7 Ironman wins.
ALL TIME GREAT
Thomas Hellriegel 40-1
The man who showed scared Mark Allen and Luc Van Lierde into their greatest performances.
He proved to the world in 1997 that a biker can win Ironman Hawaii. Paved the road for Normann Stadler's greatness.