2012 Kona Men’s Favorites

Seriously, picking the Kona winners is impossible. Once the race is over, the logic all seems inevitable, but actually anticipating the way the race will play out is probably tougher than hitting Powerball. Honestly, I have a hunch that Craig Alexander will not win, but for the life of me I could not think of any rational scenario why he will not.

At the same time, I can imagine a dozen or more ways that the folks I have made long shots could easily win. And to those whose favorites have been relegated to long shots or left in The Field bin, I could not be happier if I were proven to be dismally wrong and will applaud anyone crowing over my mistakes.

The choices offered in this article begin with the favorites and proceed to the long shots.

Craig Alexander (AUS) age 39

Why he can’t win: He is 39. He got out-biked and beaten by Sebastian Kienle, who is 11 years younger, at Ironman 70.3 Worlds. He didn’t race much in 2012. He must have lost speed and will be beaten by a young up and coming star. Or he might get beaten by fellow 39-year-old wily fox and cunning Macca.

Why he will win: Crowie proved that 38 was just a number at Kona last year by breaking the 15-year-old race record in his third victory. He proved that 39 was just a number by winning Ironman Melbourne in 7:57:44 and running 2:38 (while many loyal Australians swear that their Garmin readings prove that Melbourne run course is not short, I based my outlandish claim on the opinion of a very highly placed competitor. Still, 2:38 or 2:40, Crowie proved once again he has NOT lost a step). He proved he hadn’t lost a step by duplicating his 2011 winning time at 2012 Ironman 70.3 Worlds. Yes, he got beat by Sebastian Kienle at Las Vegas – but just by a minute. Furthermore, Crowie’s 2:38, 2:40 and 2:41 Ironman marathon times are far better than Kienle. Not raced as much? Yes a smart concession to age. Plus he is healthier – no 100 days virus, no busted rib due to coughing. Because he comes prepared better than anyone, has smart strategy and he has the confidence and wisdom of a 3-time champion. No, he won’t get out ridden or outrun by Macca this time.

Andreas Raelert (GER) age 36

The momentum interrupted question applies to Andreas Raelert. Last year the question was: Could Andreas Raelert match Tim DeBoom's 3-2-1 progression at Kona from 1999 to 2001? Raelert took 3rd in 2009, 2nd in 2010 and prior to the 2011 edition of Kona he set a new Ironman distance mark of 7:41 at Challenge Roth. The answer in 2011 was no. Instead of a steady progression to the promised land, Raelert’s three-season Kona numerical pattern was a numerical palindrome, 3-2-3. This year, Raelert suffered from an early season hardening of his thigh muscle and his mid-season results were good but not spectacular – 4th at Ironman Frankfurt, 2nd at Ironman 70.3 Austria, and wins at Challenge Kraichgau [over Sebastian Kienle and Timo Bracht] and at Half Challenge Walchsee [over Timo Bracht and Ronnie Schildknecht]. Crowie says Raelert will be among his toughest challengers. But has Andy Raelert shaken off his thigh injury for long enough to peak for the race of his life at Kona?

Marino Vanhoenacker (BEL) age 36

After years of great promise in the regular season followed by fumbled away chances during bad days at Kona, Vanhoenacker finally had a complete good day at Ironman Hawaii in 2010 when he came 3rd. Marino showed how fast he could be in 2011 when he placed 2nd at Abu Dhabi and broke the world record for the Ironman distance (which lasted a week until Andreas Raelert broke it at Roth) with a 7:45:58 time at Austria. In 2012, Vanhoenacker showed he was no flash in the pan with a win at Ironman Frankfurt. Most important, his 2:48 marathon there broke away from Sebastian Kienle to win by 6 minutes. Vanhoenacker’s chances look even better when 3-time champ Crowie says that Vanhoenacker hasn’t had his best day at Kona yet and looks ready in 2012.

Sebastian Kienle (GER) age 28

Here is perhaps the only serious Kona contender under 30 – and this year he looks more like Luc van Lierde than a flash in the pan. The lead-up to his 2012 season was steady and excellent – 2nd at 2010 Challenge Roth in 7:59:06, 2nd to Andreas Raelert at 2011 Challenge Roth in 7:57:06, plus a win at 2011 Ironman 70.3 Miami. In 2012 he had a warm-up, early season 5th at Abu Dhabi, a 2nd at Ironman 70.3 Texas with a bike split faster than Lance Armstrong. Better yet, he set a world best for the Ironman-distance bike split [4:14:07]. He solidified his bona fides with a 2nd at Ironman Frankfurt, and seems to be rounding into form with a resounding win at Ironman 70.3 Worlds over Crowie and everyone else. If only he had a low 2:40 run, he might be the favorite but his best right now is 2:50.

Dirk Bockel (LUX) age 35

Bockel’s rise in the Ironman Hawaii ranks from 7th in 2009 and 8th in 2010 to 4th in 2011 mark him as a man who hasn’t quite reached his potential at Kona. Bockel’s good 51-minute swim and excellent 4:24 PR bike split at Kona put him in the mix with the men who will decide the race. So far, his 2:57 run in 2009, 2:52 run in 2010 and 2:53 marathon last year has kept this Luxembourg national out of the top 3. But his clutch performances at Abu Dhabi – 2nd behind Eneko Llanos in 2010 and a close 3rd, just 28 seconds behind winner Frederik Van Lierde in 2011 and 2008 Olympic appearance leading the bike, mark him as a cool customer under fire. Recent form is good – a win at 2012 Ironman Regensburg over Michael Raelert and a close 3rd at the 2012 ITU long distance World Championship in Spain behind Macca and Llanos – mean that Bockel has dead aim at a top 3 spot this year.

Chris McCormack (AUS) age 39

The legendary Macca, with his 1997 ITU Olympic distance World championship, his 2007 and 2010 Ironman World Championships, has added the 2012 ITU long distance World Championship to his glittering resume to prove he is not at all over the hill. It seemed that his absence from the 2011 edition of the Ironman World Championship was not a retirement but a strategic retreat from the heavy load of training and racing that Kona requires. His quixotic quest to try to qualify for a spot on the Australian 2012 Olympic men’s triathlon squad may not have panned out, but his renewed short course speed can only help maintain his competitiveness. And, hopefully, will put him in position where his strategic mind games can be relevant again.

Pete Jacobs (AUS) age 31

Jacobs arrived as a contender at Kona in 2009 with an 8th place finish, insisted he belonged in 2010 with a 2:41:05 run that was the third-fastest in Kona history. Last year he finished runner-up to Craig Alexander in a time of 8:09:11, a few second faster than Mark Allen’s 1989 winning Iron War time – which he closed with a 2:42:29 marathon. This year, no longer under the radar, Jacobs won Ironman 70.3 Cairns, then was struck with a pinched nerve in his glute and hip and stumbled through 4th at Ironman 70.3 Syracuse, a 6th at New York City 5150, a distant 2nd at Ironman Lake Placid, followed by a reassuring win at Ironman 70.3 Philippines. The question is: Has Jacobs forward momentum been thrown for a temporary loss?

Jordan Rapp (USA) age 32

Rappstar didn’t want to race Ironman Hawaii until he was ready but after his dominating Ironman wins with great runs in 2012, he agreed to move up his timetable. The 5-time Ironman winner [2009 and 2011 Ironman Canada, 2009 Ironman Arizona, 2012 Ironman Texas and 2012 Ironman New York City] and 2011 ITU Long Distance World Champion has a first rate bike and a 2:48 to 2:50 run ready to mix it up on the Queen K. Cool under fire, a very savvy tech sense, and a strong strategic sense bodes well for his Kona debut.

Rasmus Henning (DEN) age 37

With all his talent and a sizzling fast 7:52 at Challenge Roth, Rasmus the dashing Dane was immediately seen as a contender for the win at Kona debut. After finishing 5th with a broken hand in 2009, Henning seemed destined to duel for the win, but niggling knee and foot problems left him 23rd and 14th in his next two shots. Now, at age 37, the leg injuries have left him declaring retirement after a farewell shot at Kona. This season he posted encouraging results – wins at Abu Dhabi, Half Challenge Fuerteventura, and Ironman 70.3 Calgary -- as well as a disappointing 7th at Ironman Texas. If he had an unfettered by injury 4-month block of training, Henning would have a shot at his Kona dream. But more likely will be a modest, for Rasmus, return to the top 10.

Andy Potts (USA) age 36

Craig Alexander says that Andy Potts has always had the talent to crack the podium (top 3) at Kona but might have raced too much too late in the season to give that theory a full chance. This year Potts has cut back a little on his diet of races and may make his mark on the Queen K. He’s earned his usual number of 70.3 wins at California, St. Croix, and Branson, plus his 5th Escape From Alcatraz title and a 2nd at Life Time Fitness Minneapolis. But his key performances have been a dominating, near-record win at Ironman Lake Placid [besting an off form Pete Jacobs by half an hour] and an encouragingly close but no cigar 5th place at Ironman 70.3 Worlds.

Eneko Llanos (ESP) age 36

Broke into the first tier of long course triathletes with a 2003 ITU long course world championship win at Ibiza, took a solid 2nd place finish to Crowie at Ironman Hawaii in 2008. Add three XTERRA world titles, a 2010 Abu Dhabi win, 2011 wins at Ironman Texas and a 7:59:38 at 2011 Ironman Arizona and you have a topflight, three-tool triathlete. He is not slowing down with a 2nd to Macca at the 2012 ITU long course worlds in Spain.

Michael Raelert (GER) age 32

After his dominating wins at Ironman 70.3 Worlds in 2009 and 2010, not to forget his domination of regular events at the distance, Michael Raelert had the whole tri world anticipating his debut as the next great Ironman competitor. But he suffered a mid-season hip injury in 2011 that caused him to miss a planned Ironman debut and thus fail to qualify for Ironman Hawaii. When recovery took several months, he lost a lot of fitness which he only recently regained. Michael Raelert seems back on track at the 70.3 distance with wins at Switzerland and Mallorca. But given his prodigious gifts, his 2012 Ironman debut at Regensburg was a serviceable but just a little disappointing 2nd to Dirk Bockel. In that race, Raelert and Bockel swam together and halfway through the bike Raelert carved out a lead. But thereafter he started to fade as Bockel out biked the German 4:31 to 4:35. Bockel then outran Raelert 2:51 to 2:54 to win by 7 minutes. That demonstrated that Raelert has not yet regained the endurance he will need at Kona. Bur who knows what strides he has made in the final two months training with his brother Andreas?

Timothy O’Donnell (USA) age 32

Showed he had the capability of being the USA’s next great Ironman with a gold and silver at the ITU long course World Championships in 2009 and 2010, wins at St. Croix, Calgary and Boulder 70.3s in 2009, a 3rd place at the 2010 Ironman 70.3 Worlds, a 2nd place debut Ironman at Texas in 2011. O’Donnell hasn’t let up this year with 70.3 wins at San Juan and Galveston and 2nd place finishes at Ironman Coeur d’Alene and Ironman 70.3 Lake Stevens. Still eager to make up for disappointing 2011 Kona debut. Switch to a gluten-free diet seems to have helped him get past gastrointestinal troubles. Should hit his marks this year on the Queen K. Bright hope – looks like he can run a 2:45 when all the pieces fall into place.

Timo Bracht (GER) age 37

With a career-best 5th at Kona, Timo Bracht at age 37 is still looking to have his best race on the biggest day in the sport. This year he fell a notch from his best at Roth with a 2nd place finish in 8:03:28, 3:29 back of South African James Cunnama. A second place finish at Challenge Walchsee indicates that Bracht is either saving himself for a big splash at Kona, or that his considerable powers may have ebbed a tad.

Frederik Van Lierde (BEL) age 33

Broke into the top ranks with a hard fought win at Abu Dhabi in 2011 and underlined his consistent talent with a win at Ironman Nice. This year dipped to a still-close 5th at Abu Dhabi, took 3rd at Ironman Melbourne with a 2:42:46 run, won Ironman Nice by 21 minutes with a closing 2:53 marathon.

Ronnie Schildknecht (SUI) age 33

This 6-time Ironman Switzerland champ (including 2007-2008-2009 and 2011-2012) has a 2:43:47 Ironman run after winning the 2011 Ironman Florida in 7:59:42 -- the fastest North American Ironman - and a 4th place finish at the 2008 edition of Kona in 8:21:48 that says he is a Kona contender. Best current form indicators are his 2nd place finish at the 2012 Ironman 70.3 South Africa in 4:12:56 – 6:31 behind Marino Vanhoenacker – and his 3rd place finish at Galveston 70.3 – 1:09 behind Tim O’Donnell and 23 seconds behind Sebastian Kienle.

Viktor Zyemtsev (UKR) age 36

The Ukrainian has won 10 Ironman and Iron-distance victories – his two latest coming in 2012 at Rev3 Cedar Point and Ironman Coeur d’Alene. Always dangerous on the Ironman runs as his 2:41 at Austria in 2004, 2:43s at 2009 Ironman Louisville and 2011 Ironman Arizona will attest. Has at least 8 sub-2:50 Ironman runs. His only shortcoming? He feels he has bad luck at Kona and hasn’t raced there much.

Joe Gambles (AUS) age 30

Dominates many 70.3 races – 1st at 2012 Syracuse, 2012 Boulder (with course record 2:00:47 bike split), 2012 Timberman, and scored his best 70.3 run of 1:11:27 chasing Greg Bennett at 2012 Vineman 70.3. The question is how can Joey G solve Ironman? He was 20th at Kona last year, improved to 8th at Ironman Melbourne, but has never put together a complete Ironman to match his talent level - yet. Did win Ironman Wisconsin in 2010, but his 5th-best 4:46:54 bike, 3rd-best 2:54:55 run and 8:38:32 overall time are nowhere near what he CAN do.

Cameron Brown (NZL) age 40

Just when you thought that the 10-time Ironman New Zealand champ who also scored a 2nd and two 3rd place finishes at Kona might be thinking of retiring to some sunny suburb as he hit 40, Brownie unleashed a monster 8:00:12 race punctuated by a 2:41:17 run to take 2nd place to Crowie at Ironman Melbourne. He also topped a stacked field that included talented young pups like Frederik van Lierde, Eneko Llanos, David Dellow, Paul Matthews, Luke Bell, Joe Gambles and Marko Albert.

Faris Al-Sultan (GER) 34

Will this talented German’s 2004-3rd-1st-3rd run at Kona remain his career apogee? While his Kona performances have cooled down to a respectable 10th in 2011, he remains consistently excellent elsewhere, as witnessed by wins at Ironman Arizona (2005), Ironman Malaysia (2008), Ironman Regensburg (2010), Ironman Frankfurt in 8:13:50 (2011) and Ironman Austria in 8:11:31 (2012). This year he also led Abu Dhabi until passed by Rasmus Henning with 3 miles to go and had to settle for 2nd.

Greg Bennett (USA) 40

Two years ago, Bennett vowed he would give up on the Ironman daydream and focus on making the 2012 Olympics. After balking at the travel required acquire Olympic qualifying points, last year he won the $151,500 top prize at Hy-Vee Olympic distance non drafting event in Des Moines. The race doubled as the WTC’s 5150 Championship and thus granted Bennett a Kona qualification. Why not? So Bennett cruised through a 40th place 9:04:01 validation at Ironman Melbourne and proceeded to have yet another excellent short course and middle distance season that included wins at Vineman and Muncie 70.3s, a hard fought 2nd to Crowie at Eagleman 70.3 and to Lance Armstrong at Honu 70.3 topped off with a win at Rev3 Knoxville. A $50,000 3rd place at the 2012 edition of Hy-Vee was just the dish to whet his appetite for a strong showing at Kona – if he can develop an expanded endurance base that will allow him to maintain his speed through the 112 mile bike and 26.2-mile run. One of the best prepared pros in history, Bennett might just wage his stealth campaign all the way to the podium.

Tom Lowe (GBR) age 34

Can Chrissie Wellington’s handsome main squeeze stand on his own merits? A 3rd at Ironman Arizona in 2010, 4th at Ironman Austria and an 11th at Ironman Hawaii in 2011, says yes.