Some say the most crucial part of the Ironman is arriving at the start line healthy and mentally prepared to race. There are many ways to approach peak readiness and not always does early season health and good form translate into a great day at Kona. For example, defending men's champion Pete Jacobs has suffered through early season poor performances due to injuries and illnesses the past three years only to rally in the final months to have a superior performance in October. On the women's side, Leanda Cave last year was off form as late as the Hy-Vee race in September. Then she turned things around like lightning and won world titles at Las Vegas and Kona - arguably her finest hours. Certainly Chrissie Wellington's miraculous recovery from painful injuries suffered in a bike crash two weeks before her final Kona victory in 2011 remains a case in point. While Wellington surrendered several minutes in the swim, her bike split was sub 5 hours and her run was a second-best-ever 2:52.
Four of the top women Kona contenders this year have fought through various challenges since last year's race and recent reports in the past month haven't told the whole story. Here is the final word on Leanda Cave, Mary Beth Ellis, Rachel Joyce and Mirinda Carfrae the day before the cannon goes off at Kailua Bay.
Last year Joyce had a great early season but faded to 11th on race day.
"After what was a very disappointing race at Kona (11th) I am aware there is no one on the start line at Kona who hasn’t had to deal with some kind of illness or injury," said Joyce. "I raced quite a few Ironmans coming into Kona last year and had a tough day. But I take a lot of confidence from my race this year at Ironman Texas," where she posted a race-record 8:49:15 win in vicious heat at Ironman Texas but suffered a discouraging injury on the run. "I was very pleased with Texas, but I rolled my ankle about Mile 21," said Joyce. "It was sore at the time I crossed the line and I remembered wanting to put some ice on it. So I took a week or two off afterwards then I started running again. I found I could run for three days then I had to take time off and I kept repeating that pattern. Finally I got a scan and I doctors found slightly torn ligaments and a torn tendon in my foot."
Joyce regretted not getting it diagnosed earlier, but things turned better in time. "It was bad luck I slipped on a cup of ice and just turned my ankle. It was just one of those things. I wish I had taken the time to get it properly diagnosed straight after the race. Instead I spent two months trying to soldier on. My coach Dave Scott and I were frustrated because when I ran, I was running very well. At Texas I was on pace for a sub 3 hour marathon."
When Joyce discovered the cause, rest and recovery were the prescription. "I took some time off running, got the rehab," she said. "It just meant when I got back to training there was zero pain. There was no compensation going on. and I could have the consistency you need in a run-up to a race like Kona."
So can she recover from the lost time? "Now I look at my paces in the long runs and they are as good as they ever were," says Joyce. "On the bike they are much better than they ever were. It was frustrating to have had the injury. I love racing so I'd have liked to been racing over the summer. But in terms of preparation for Kona I think it's gone as well as I could have wished for."
Does she think she can win?
In February, the reigning Ironman 70.3 and Ironman World Champion developed a severe hamstring pain but kept training. 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 before she took a break to heal, rehab and recover. Finally, she recovered well enough to finish second to Melissa Hauschildt at Boulder 70.3 but had a competitive setback with a 13th place finish defending her Ironman 70.3 crown at Las Vegas. Things looked bleak, but Cave has worked short term miracles before and yesterday she declared that she was as fit as ever thanks to 4 weeks of pre-Kona training.
"Honestly I've seen a lot of people who have raced all year so strong and come here and totally crumble," said Cave at the Kona press conference. "So I feel my strength is in the fact that I can get here on race day and know I have raced really well in these conditions. And also I have done all the training. I've had an injury and still trained through it."
Cave admits that the struggle had been tough. "My biggest issue this year is to be able to get through a race without wanting to stop and stretch," she says. "But I can't do that in a race. This is the first time since March I have been pain free. Yeah, I probably haven't got the same bike miles under my legs. But this is an Ironman on a really tough course under really tough conditions and it really lends itself to my strengths. I am as fit and as in shape as I have in previous years. Actually I am fitter than I have been in some previous years. So I am just as confident as I was last year."
Cave, who has come through against long odds before, looks on the bright side of her struggles. "Just in general I've been running around like a chicken trying to get on top of that injury that has been nagging me since March," she said. "I did come to this race last year with questions. This year was like last year in that I had an early season injury and I just tried to make the most of my late season training. And I have been feeling better than ever this last four weeks."
Mary Beth Ellis
At 7:01 AM on September 9, Mary Beth Ellis and her brilliant coach Brett Sutton strongly believed that she could win the Ironman World Championship in Kona. After all, she had won all 8 of her Ironman races outside of Kona and led for a time before fading to 5th last year. And this year, Ellis won Ironman Nice, had a 21-minute margin of victory at Alpe d'Huez, and stayed out front all day against a stellar field at Ironman Mt. Tremblant. Things changed drastically when she crashed over her bars and hit the tarmac hard during a training ride.
"I think the athlete I was at 7:01 and the athlete I was at 7:02 were two different athletes," said Ellis. "The one at 7:01 coming here was definitely aiming to win. The athlete I am now is better in some ways. I think I am mentally tougher than normal. And also just grateful to be here after my accident. So I've been able to swim last week."
The crash took a big toll. "In the surgery they put a plate in my collarbone," she said. "They also scoped my AC joint and found I tore my AC ligament. They thought they were going to have to use a cadaver ligament but fortunately mine were OK so they fixed that up. Within four days I was able to get on my bike trainer with a sling on. So I probably only lost a week on the bike. Then within a week to 10 days I was able to run outside. Things were fine - pain free - on the bike. On the trainer I was fine. I was able to get into the pool about two weeks later. One arm swimming and kicking. Then about the last 10 days I've been able to swim with both arms."
With the injury, Ellis has changed her expectations to a more modest dimension. "Before if you asked me what would I think about a top 10 ir a top 5 finish, I would have been very disappointed," she said. "Now I have to think that will be my gold medal."
The details of her adaptation tell the story. "Obviously my swimming is compromised," she explains. "It is a different stroke than I normally would have. And two weeks out of the water I lost swim fitness. I think everyone knows you really don’t want two weeks out of the water as a swimmer. Still, I am confident I will get to the finish line. That is what this race is about. Everybody is battling to get to the finish line. For all of us pros it is a battle all year long just to get to the start line."
Carfrae puts it bluntly that she is not suffering from physical woes. "Training is on track," she says. "Everything is coming on well. I haven't had an injury to deal with. That's my talent. I don’t get injured." Her rivals, she says, "they have other talents. But I don't get sick and can train all year. So yeah I am fit and healthy and ready to go."
That is certainly backed up by her consistent excellence at Kona where she finished 2nd in her debut in 2009, 1st in 2010, 2nd in 2011 and took a hard earned 3rd last year. In 2012, she learned a tough lesson about nutrition. "Last year I came up on Leanda about halfway through the run," said Carfrae. "I imagined. I was going to run at Leanda at the end. But actually I don’t think she even knew I was there. But she ended up holding pace and I ended up completely blowing. And Mary Beth had exploded before me, so we were both limping home that last 12 miles."
What did she learn from that? "I need to have a Plan B out on the course," said Carfrae at the Kona pro press conference. "I lost one of my nutrition bottles on the first mile of the bike. I kind of knew how many calories I'd lost but I didn’t know for sure. So I now know what I will lose in a bottle and how to replace those fluids on the course. And also last year it was a lot windier than it has been the three previous years. When it is so windy, your sweat dries off really quickly on the bike. Because it was windy I just didn't think I was sweating. And didn't drink enough water. I think that was my big mistake."
Carfrae chose to keep the positives with her.
"I still finished third in that race," she said. "I try to take the positives in that. That last 12 miles I was hanging on but still managed to stay on the podium."
This year Carfrae struggled through to find her form early and had a gradual 8th-6th-4th-5th-2nd-1st climb up the 70.3 ladder and declares she feels as well as she did in 2010 when she won Kona and in 2011 when she pushed Chrissie Wellington to the brink.
No matter their struggles, all of these women are grateful that, unlike Camilla Pedersen who was beset by a coma following as bike crash and Corinne Abraham who withdrew due to physical woes, they are well enough to be on the start line of the greatest race in their sport.