Here we go again. It’s the 37th edition of Ironman Hawaii – now serving as the Ironman World Championship. This year we have a favored Spaniard in the best shape of his life who has been knocking on the door for a decade. We have a 3-time champion who is out to prove that 40 is the new 30. A muscular German Kona champion believes he is better than he was eight years ago. There is a powerful-looking defending champion who fancies himself a “fragile athlete.” The man who has inherited the title "überbiker” believes the secret to a Kona win is in the run. There are a number of Americans who want to follow in the footsteps of retired two-time champion Tim DeBoom. And just to mix up expectations, the field will be missing the frustrated talents of Marino Vanhoenacker, out with injury.
The contenders are listed in order, those with the best chances of victory at the top.
Eneko Llanos, 36, ESP
Eneko Llanos had by far the best first half of the 2013 long course season with a 2nd place at Abu Dhabi International followed by wins at the high-points-paying, prestigious Ironman Melbourne and an even more dominant performance at Ironman Frankfurt. But as proven by recent disappointing Kona results for Marino Vanhoenacker, the first half season most often does not dictate what will happen in mid-October. The good news for Llanos is that his new coach Dave Scott has been packing in rest days throughout the year and his early season points have given the Spaniard the freedom to avoid late season races and to fine tune exclusive Kona preparations. The final argument against Llanos is that he has had several DNFs and off-form results at Kona since his 2nd place finish in 2008. But Llanos has a history of fine performances in the heat and wind, as witnessed by his previous win at Ironman Lanzarote. He has a great all around swim and bike and the ability to run in the low 2:40s which should erase all doubts this year.
Pete Jacobs, 32, AUS
The defending Kona champion, with his lean muscular frame, great swim, bike and run, seems to be kidding when he described himself as a “fragile athlete.” But the record of his early season injuries the past three years -- when he finished 9th with a 3rd-fastest-ever Kona marathon of 2:41:05, 2nd overall in 2011 with a 2:42:29 marathon, and last year’s Kona victory and good enough 2:48 marathon – bears out the veracity of his claim. In 2012, Jacobs e suffered a stress fracture in his foot, and back pain from a pinched nerve in his right hip and glute that left him hobbling through a validating race at Lake Placid 30 minutes behind winner Andy Potts. This year has been little different as Jacobs spent six weeks unable to run in March and April due to a series of physical ailments after finishing 4th at Escape From Alcatraz in freezing cold water. His comeback, as usual, was gradual and slow, beginning with an 8th place at Honu 70.3, ramping up slightly with a 4th place at Ironman 70.3 Cairns but encountering a setback at Ironman Frankfurt where he had to walk the last 10 kilometers of the run he needed to finish to validate his qualification for Kona.
Then, as usual, Pete Jacobs came around just in time for another run at the Kona crown. At the inaugural Sunshine Coast 70.3, he dominated the field with a 3:39:59 time that included a 2:01:09 bike split and a 1:13:09 run. All done the day after stomach cramps left him with a tight hip and back and wondering if he should even race that day.
Andreas Raelert, 37, GER
Bet the house on Raelert to make the Kona podium as he has finished 3rd-2nd-3rd and 2nd the past four years. Raelert’s best chance seemed to be 2010 when he was racing elbow to elbow with Chris McCormack until the wily Macca ran away on the Palani downhill. Last year, Raelert gave away four minutes to Jacobs with a 55:17 swim and went 1:19 further back with a 4:36:34 bike split before recovering 42 seconds with a 2:47:24 run. This season, Jacobs looks vulnerable once again with early season physical woes and Raelert suffered, too, with dental surgery forcing a survival slog to 21st place at Challenge Kraichgau. Raelert seems to have recovered his form with a 7:59:51 win at Ironman Austria – but far from his world-best Ironman-distance 7:41:33 at Challenge Roth in 2011. Can Raelert, a laudably amiable sportsman and two-time Olympic triathlete, find the killer instinct to finally win one at Kona?
Sebastian Kienle, 29, GER
Triathlon’s latest überbiker with all around excellent game also fought off early-season injuries – a twisted ankle and a ruptured ligament plus a bacterial infection that rendered him lethargic and weak and staggering through an 18th place at Ironman 70.3 St. George, a 10th place at Ironman Frankfurt and a discouraging 6th at Wiesbaden 70.3. But, like Pete Jacobs, Kienle recovered rapidly enough to earn a dominating second straight Ironman 70.3 World Championship title. So can Kienle improve on his 4th place at Kona last year? Sure, if he does not suffer a flat tire this time around, gets a halfway decent swim and he had enough time to rebuild his running base and break the 2:50 barrier on the Kona marathon .
Frederik Van Lierde, 34, BEL
This 34-year-old Belgian seems on track for another Kona podium to go with his breakthrough 3rd place finish last year, 5:32 behind Jacobs and 29 seconds behind Andreas Raelert. Last year F. Van Lierde won his second Nice Ironman and this year he beat Llanos at Abu Dhabi by 4 minutes and won his 3rd Nice Ironman with a Kona-ready 2:42 closing marathon. With no need to grub for last minute points, Frederik can tailor his Kona preparations to perfection and should run hard at improving his finish on Ali’i Drive.
Craig Alexander, 40, AUS
Crowie still has the firepower to contend for the Kona win at age 40. But there are a few hints of decline which may – or more likely will not – indicate he is not a candidate for the podium. Take last year’s 12th place finish at Kona. After three Ironman World Championship titles and taking the Kona course record away from Luc Van Lierde after a 15-year reign, Alexander did not let slip the fact that he had injured himself in a weight lifting mishap in the gym two weeks before Kona last year. His 3rd place finish at Ironman Melbourne this spring seemed to back up the contention that Alexander’s 2012 Kona finish was an injury-related anomaly. Alexander did cut down on his remaining races this year, but his smooth victories in Ironman 70.3s at Honu, Kansas and Lake Stevens indicated all was well. Then came the final Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Las Vegas. On a rainy day made worse by a bike penalty, Crowie dug himself into a 20th place hole – far away from his 2011 win and 2012 podium. Alexander’s stellar record at Kona -- 2nd-1st-1st-4th-1st -- and that irksome 12th – argue for another Kona day in the mix all the way to the end.
Dirk Bockel, 36, LUX
Dirk Bockel’s improvement curve from 7th in 2009 to 4th in 2011 at the Ironman World Championship was interrupted by a 10th place last year – not at all shabby since he was competing with a hand broken two weeks before the race. Bockel’s 51-minute swim and 4:24 bike splits put him in contention, and his so-far race-best 2:52 marathons put him just outside the Kona podium. This year, however, Bockel upped his game with a sizzling fast 7:52:01 win at Challenge Roth - 12 minutes faster than runner-up James Cunnama – which puts Bockel among the select group of men capable of a Kona win.
Bevan Docherty, 36, NZL
The 2004 ITU World Champion and Olympic silver medalist, and 2008 Olympic bronze medalist has made an excellent evolution into long course mastery with his 3rd place at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship last year and his race-record win at Ironman New Zealand this March. Since then he has wins at Boise 70.3 and Vineman 70.3 plus three solid 2nd place finishes at half-Ironman distance races at Panama 70.3, Auckland 70.3 and Rev3 Quassy. His ITU background should give him the speed he needs to flirt with a 2:40 marathon he would need to win.
Timo Bracht, 38, GER
Bracht has a solid record of top-10 finishes at Kona including 8th in 2004, 6th in 2009, 5th in 2011 and 6th last year. This season Bracht finished a disappointing 3rd at Challenge Roth and earned a win at Ironman Los Cabos in 8:26:48. This 8-time Ironman champion can still bring it on the run.
Andy Potts, 37, USA
Potts is a very talented triathlete for all distances. Since he started to pursue long distances, he had rarely given himself enough time to focus on Kona preparation and to have an ideal taper. Last year, he came close with a 7th place finish and this year seems ready to rise further. His 2013 season includes wins at Oceanside and Eagleman 70.3s, another win at Ironman Lake Placid, and a 4th place at Ironman 70.3 Worlds at Las Vegas -- just 3:34 behind Sebastian Kienle. Will this be the year that 2007 Ironman 70.3 World Champion and the 2004 Olympian advances to the Kona podium?
Faris Al-Sultan, 35, GER
Faris Al-Sultan seemed to have secured a permanent place at the top of the Ironman world when he scored 3rd in 2004, won in 2005 and finished 3rd at Kona in 2006. While his Kona stock dropped back to a 10th place in 2011, he has been winning other Ironman race around the globe, including Ironman Arizona in 2005, Ironman Malaysia in 2008, Ironman Regensburg in 2010, Ironman Frankfurt in 2011 (Not to forget an excellent 2nd place finish at Abu Dhabi) and Ironman Austria in 2012. Last year, Al-Sultan returned to possible Kona winner threat with a 5th place finish 10 minutes behind winner Pete Jacobs. This year a win at hot and tough Ironman Lanzarote says the muscular German may once again vie for the win at Kona.
Ronnie Schildknecht, 34, SUI
Schildknecht was as accurate and predictable as a Swiss watch when he teed it up for seven straight wins at Ironman Switzerland. But since 2008 when he finished 4th, Schildknecht has been off the radar at Kona. This year, in addition to his annual victory party at Zurich, Schildknecht won Ironman South Africa in 8:11:24 and seems ready to make his mark at Kona once again.
James Cunnama, 30, RSA
After breaking through in 2010 with an Ironman win at Florida, an Ironman 70.3 victory at Austin and a triumph at Alpe d’Huez, Cunnama has been on the verge of greatness. A 7:59:59 to win Challenge Roth in 2012 was followed this year with wins at Challenge Walchsee and Cozumel 70.3, 2nds at Ironman Texas, Ironman 70.3 Eagleman and Challenge Roth. All this makes Cunnama a solid bet to make the top 10, a not-so-risky wager for a top 5 and a long-term futures bet for the podium at Kona.
Timothy O’Donnell, 33, USA
This Naval Academy graduate broke through big time in 2009 with wins at ITU Long Distance Worlds, St. Croix 70.3 and the Boulder 5430 half. He continued to appear on 70.3 and ITU long course podiums throughout 2010, then in 2011 made an impressive Ironman debut with a 2nd place to Eneko Llanos at Ironman Texas in a fine, hot weather time of 8:09:50. Last year he won two big 70.3s and finally made top 10 at Kona with a strong 8th place just 1:43 back of fellow U.S. star Andy Potts. O’Donnell showed he is still on the rise with a first Ironman win at Brazil just a few ticks of the clock away from a sub-8 hour time. Recent form is hard to tell as he took 8th at Ironman 70.3 Worlds in the rain at Las Vegas.
Luke Bell, 34, AUS
The Australian has a record number of Ironman 70.3 victories but could not break through with an Ironman win until this season when he topped the podium at Ironman Australia and then won against a tough, late season field at the high-stakes Ironman Mt. Tremblant. Such a strong performance so late in the season may work against Bell at Kona, but he’s shown that his 5th place finish at Kona a decade ago may well not be his best career performance at the Ironman World Championship.
Luke McKenzie, 32, AUS
This 6-time Ironman winner kept on winning form with a victory at Ironman Cairns in 8:17:43 this year. McKenzie proved he can be the straw that stirs the drink on the Kona bike with a 6th-best-ever 4:24:16 split in 2011 on his way to a 9th place finish -- and showed similar early bike speed last year. If he put his best Ironman splits together – a 42:29 swim, a 4:21:52 bike split and a 2:51:38 run -- McKenzie could contend for the podium.
Bart Aernouts, 29, BEL
Aernouts showed he could contend with a 2nd at Wiesbaden 70.3 in 2012. But this year the Belgian really arrived with wins at 70.3s in St. Polten and South Africa, runners-up at Ironman Nice and Mallorca 70.3, and a 4th at Abu Dhabi.
Ivan Raña, 34, ESP
The 34-year-old Raña only seems to have been around the top level of triathlon forever. At 21, he took 5th at the first Olympic triathlon in Sydney, won the ITU Olympic distance World Championship at Cancun in 2002, and took silver at the 2003 and 2004 ITU Olympic distance Worlds. After an off-form 23rd at the 2004 Olympics, he stormed back in 2008 to take 5th. After 115 ITU races, he shifted over to long course and looked like a promising rookie in 2012 with wins at Ironman 70.3 Lanzarote and at Ironman Cozumel and took 2nd at Ironman 70.3 Lake Stevens – and showed impressive speed with an 8th place finish at the 2012 ITU WTS Grand Final in Auckland. Recent performances have been few and far between and include a 9th at Ironman 70.3 St. George.
Ben Hoffman, 30, USA
Hoffman broke through in 2011 with three Ironman 70.3 wins and a 2nd at Ironman Lake Placid. Last year he won Ironman Wisconsin and Ironman 70.3s in St. George and Kansas, plus a 2nd at Branson 70.3, a 3rd at Boulder 70.3 and a 4th at Ironman 70.3 Muncie. This year Hoffman has been fighting his way back to form as early races went south – 10th at Pucon 70.3, 17th at Oceanside 70.3 and 12th at Ironman 70,3 St. George. Fans of Hoffman at Kona can take hope from his more recent wins at Ironman Coeur d’Alene and Branson 70.3.
Brandon Marsh, 38, USA
Brandon Marsh has been doing triathlons for 25 years and is in his 10th season as a professional with up and down results. But when he signed on with coach Paulo Sousa two years ago, things started to look up with a 5th at Ironman Texas and a 6th at Ironman Cozumel. In March of this year at Oceanside 70.3, his swim was first pack as usual, but his 2:15 bike split was within seconds of winner Andy Potts and his 1:13:00 run was fast as he took 3rd.
Through the middle of 2013, Marsh was off the radar but he was getting stronger in training and this September he scored big time. At the prestigious Ironman North American Championship at Mt. Tremblant. Marsh posted a race-best 47:45 swim, 8th-fastest 4:41:04 bike split and 3rd-quickest 2:56:24 run. He placed second, 4:55 behind men’s winner Luke Bell which vaulted him from 83rd to 16th in the KPR rankings to earn a start at Kona. Marsh will face a loaded lineup but his strength in the heat and humidity, his strong swim and bike - and improved run - will leave him within range of a money finish.
Paul Amey, 40, GBR
This 2004 Olympian with golds at the 2005, 2007 and 2008 ITU Duathlon World Championships had an Ironman breakthrough this year with a win at Ironman Texas by a 2:29 margin over James Cunnama. Amey showed he was tough in the heat on a moist, muggy hot day near Houston, posting the only sub-3 hour marathon on his way to a 8:25:06 finish. In a frantic last minute mission to qualify for Kona, he took 3rd at Ironman Canada after an 11th at Ironman Mt. Tremblant. If he has anything left for the Ironman World Championship, Amey will have to tuck in behind a strong swimmer so he won’t miss the leading bike chase pack.
Jordan Rapp, 33, USA
If he were in top shape, Rapp would be near the top of this list as would be proper for the man who dominated Ironman Texas and Ironman USA in New York City last year. But this year Rapp has been fighting to regain his form after a very decent 4th at Ironman Melbourne. Since then, his 70.3s have been forgettable -- he finished 8th at Vineman 70.3, had a DNF at Honu 70.3 and suffered what he calls a “personal worst” at St. George 70.3. On the sunny side, Rapp has not worn himself down with a lot of top drawer Ironman-distance performances as he did last year on his way to a disappointing 13th at Kona and should have much more energy in the tank when he hits his stride at his natural distance. However, when a car crashed into him while on a training ride on September 1, Rappstar might have been hit with bad memories of his near-fatal of a couple of years ago.
David Dellow, 34, Australia
Last year, Dellow came strong in long course races with a 5th at Ironman Melbourne, a 2nd at Alpe d’Huez, and a win at Ironman Cairns before taking 9th at Ironman Hawaii. This year Dellow’s performances have mellowed with a 10th at Frankfurt and a 6th at Abu Dhabi.
Andrew Starykowicz, 31, USA
This year the man with a first-pack swim and the Ironman distance bike split world best of 4:04:39 set in Florida last November will be expected to lead überbiker Sebastian Kienle on a charge to the front on the Queen K. After that, Starykowicz’s improving run skills may just keep him in the top 15 against the best Ironman field in the world. This year he won Ironman 70.3 San Juan with a second best bike split of 2:00:45 and a decent 1:21 half marathon run.