The 13th edition of the Ironman 70.3 World Championship has risen in prestige - if not so much in prize money - as one of triathlon’s key events.
This year the race will take place Saturday for women and Sunday for men in Nelson Mandela Bay in South Africa. This year's African venue will mark the fourth continent to host the 70.3 Worlds after North America, Europe and Australia. One measure of its relative importance is prize money. The 40th anniversary Ironman World Championship will offer a $650,000 total purse with $120,000 going to the men’s and women’s winners. The 70.3 Worlds is offering a $250,000 total pro purse with $45,000 going to the individual winners. While the ITU Olympic distance World Triathlon Series Grand Final offers prize money down to a much deeper level, their winners take home $30,000. The real payoffs go to the season-long $855,000 bonus pool which offers $83,500 for first, $57,300 for second and $39,200 for third.
For the first five years, the Ironman 70.3 Worlds suffered in prestige for a few reasons. One, it was held on pool table flat roads in Clearwater, Florida which devolved into draft fests which devalued skills on the bike. Since then the courses at Las Vegas in 2011 through 2013, Zell Am See Austria in 2015, and Chattanooga last year provided challenging hills which restored the importance of the bike leg and demanded an all-around mastery of all three of the sport's legs. Two, it is now held six weeks before Kona and more top contenders can use the 70.3 race as a preparation for the Ironman Championship. And three, the 70.3 distance has attracted the best of the Olympic distance men’s champions for whom the jump in distance has proven to be a natural bridge to the sport’s most prestigious Ironman realm.
The top contenders for this year’s 70.3 Worlds prove the latter point as 2008 Olympic champion Jan Frodeno, 2012 and 2016 Olympic champion Alistair Brownlee, and five-time ITU Olympic distance World Champion and 2012 Olympic silver medalist Javier Gomez are among the men’s contenders. While the women’s field does not offer Olympic gold medalists, Daniela Ryf’s dominance in the realm of Ironman and 70.3 competition mark her as a candidate to be the greatest female triathlete of all time.
And so there is an intriguing set of competitors to watch in South Africa this weekend.
At age 35, Javier Gomez of Spain has won Ironman 70.3 World Championships in 2014 and 2017 and took third in 2015. A favorite this year, if Gomez were to win he would have the most Ironman 70.3 World titles and a total of nine triathlon majors. Also, as he largely abandoned the WTS circuit this year, this year will be his much anticipated Kona debut and this race will be a closely watched gauge of performance. Gomez already has shown he can handle the distance as he broke the 8-hour barrier in his Ironman debut at the Asia-Pacific Championships in June. However, his 7:56:36 performance was 1:37 behind Cairns winner Braden Currie of New Zealand, so Gomez has something to prove this October.
Jan Frodeno, at age 37, won the Ironman 70.3 Worlds in 2015 and was second in 2014. The only man to win Kona (2015, 2016) and Olympic gold (2008) has a chance at becoming the greatest triathlete of all time and will be the greatest threat to Gomez as he comes to Nelson Mandela Bay in prime form with a dominating win at Ironman Frankfurt capped by a 2:39:06 marathon just a month after a painful bike crash in training.
Alistair Brownlee The 2012 and 2016 Olympic gold medalist has been trying to crack the 70.3 hierarchy on his way to a Kona challenge. Injuries have slowed his progress this year and last. While he was 10th at the Commonwealth Games and 4th at the European Champs in 2018, he says he was training through Glasgow and was focusing hard for 70.3 Worlds. Brownlee proved his 70.3 mettle with a win at St. George 70.3 in 2017. When Alistair comes to a target race, it is impossible to write him off.
There are several men who might spoil the Gomez-Frodeno-Brownlee party. Braden Currie won Ironman New Zealand in 2017 and he topped Gomez at the Ironman Asia-Pacific Ironman Championship this year. Currie defies the usual blueprint to Ironman success which begins with Olympic distance stardom. He started with adventure racing before triathlon. Ben Kanute of the U.S. finished second at Chattanooga and won the Island House Triathlon last year. Mauricio Mendez of Mexico and Rodolphe Von Berg of the U.S. have broken into the winners circle at recent 70.3s.
While the six week break between the 70.3 Worlds and Kona makes it easier to race both events, several top contenders are skipping this weekend’s race to devote laser focus to Kona. Not in the 70.3 Worlds lineup: Kona record holder Patrick Lange, 2014 Kona winner and two-time Ironman 70.3 World Champion Sebastian Kienle, Lionel Sanders, Andrew Starykowicz, Andy Potts, Tim O’Donnell, and golden oldies Craig Alexander and Cameron Brown.
More top pro women - but not all - are taking advantage of the opportunity to race the Ironman 70.3 Worlds and Kona double.
Daniela Ryf will be taking another step toward immortality and is the prohibitive favorite at Nelson Mandela Bay. Ryf has won three straight Kona titles (2015, 2016, 2017) and three Ironman 70.3 World Championships (2014, 2015, 2017). Another 70.3 Worlds win will put Ryf two wins ahead of every other woman. Avoiding the mishaps and illnesses that cost her a 4th at this championship in 2016, Ryf has been even more dominant this year. Ryf set an Ironman 70.3 record time (2:05 slower than Helle Frederiksen’s time for the same distance at Challenge Bahrain) at Gydnia 70.3 with an Ironman-brand world-best 3:57:55 mark that was 22:51 better than runner-up Mirinda Carfrae. Ryf also set an 8:38:44 women's race record at Ironman Frankfurt that was 26:35 faster than runner-up Sarah True.
Barring Ryf suffering last minute illness, injury or a mechanical failure, the rest of a strong women’s field is racing for second.
Young Lucy Charles’ career trajectory continues to rise. After her runner-up finish at Kona last year, in 2018 she won Ironman South Africa and Challenge the Championship, and took 2nd at Challenge Roth.
Former ITU Olympic distance star Anne Haug of Germany quickly made her mark at long distance in 2017 with a win at Ironman 70.3 Lanzarote. In 2018, she scored a win Oceanside 70.3, a 1st at Bahrain 70.3, a 4th at Ironman Frankfurt, and a 2nd at Challenge The Championship. Many of her performances were capped by dazzling half marathon runs in the 1:14 through 1:18 range.
Sarah True, the 4th place finisher at the 2012 Olympics, has stepped up to contend in the long distance realm with a 4th at the Ironman 70.3 Worlds last year and this year scored a 2nd at Ironman Frankfurt, and 3rd places at Oceanside 70.3 and St. George 70.3.
This year Emma Pallant took 3rd at Ironman Austria, 1st at Staffordshire 70.3, and 1st at Barcelona 70.3.
Notables who are passing on the South African 70.3 Worlds include Melissa Hauschildt, Mirinda Carfrae, Sarah Crowley, Kaisa Sali, Holly Lawrence, Susie Cheetham, Heather Jackson, Annabel Luxford, Lucy Gossage, Laura Siddall, Jocelyne McCauley, and Rachel McBride.