2014 Ironman Women’s Preview

If this most important, historic and prestigious triathlon in the sport were decided on paper, there would be no need for the women to show up and race. But because of the heat, the wind and the wicked playfulness of Madame Pele, not to mention the fragility of the humans engaged in this sacred Ironman quest, even the best of the contenders know very well that anything can happen.

After two wins, a course record and marathon speed that outran the men's winner last year, defending women's champ Mirinda Carfrae is the safest bet. After all, she has made the podium in her first five trips to the race. But Carfrae has learned not arrogance from her success – a hanging by a thread 3rd place finish in 2012 taught her humility and the absolute necessity to take care of all the details. Then pray for luck and prepare for the worst.

While Carfrae leads the way, the field is talented and deep – with luck factored in, at least 10 women have a realistic chance of a win. That would be 11 if two-time Ironman 70.3 World champion Melissa Hauschildt hadn’t had a very unlucky massage that tore loose soft tissue from bone in her shoulder.

Good cases can be made for newcomers Daniela Ryf and Corinne Abraham, last year’s runner-up Rachel Joyce, two-time long course World Champion Jodie Swallow, two-time Kona runner-up Caroline Steffen, comeback kid and 2012 Kona champion Leanda Cave, Dutch Master Yvonne Van Vlerken, and last year’s 3rd place debut sensation Liz Blatchford. Following those favorites are a slew of dark horses who might emerge inspired and lucky on the day.

This list starts with the favorites on top and listed in the order of probability they will finish well. Any and all comments pointing out late breaking news are welcome.

Mirinda Carfrae, 33, Australia

Mirinda Carfrae aka Rinny has been the best bet for a Kona podium the past 5 years. She put off her Kona debut a year past her opportunity for an automatic 2008 start following her 2007 Ironman 70.3 World Championship. Declaring herself ready in 2009, she finished 2nd to Chrissie Wellington where the majority of her 19 minute deficit was on the bike. In 2010, with Wellington a last minute DNS, Carfrae overcame a 4 minute deficit to Caroline Steffen after the bike with a then-record 2:53:32 run that was 12 minutes better than the Swiss star. In 2011, Carfrae and Wellington finished the bike leg 20 minutes down, then the duo mowed down the field with blazing runs. Some think Carfrae’s relentless record 2:52:09 pursuit of Wellington – who was suffering from a two weeks pre-race bike crash injuries -- prompted her 2012 hiatus and subsequent retirement. In 2012, Carfrae was on Leanda Cave’s heels with 12 miles left on the run until nutrition mistakes left her woozy, redlining and nearly passing out in Alii Drive. Some say that Carfrae’s 3rd place Kona finish that year was her gutsiest. Carfrae’s masterpiece was her 2013 win in which she lost just 4:45 with a 58:50 swim, gave up just 4 minutes with a PR 4:58:20 bike split and smashed home with a record 2:50:38 run that gave her an 8:52:14 finish that broke Wellington’s race record and gave her a 4:36 margin of victory over a great performance by Rachel Joyce.

Carfrae, taking nothing for granted despite her recent 12-minutes run advantage on her closest Kona rivals, says she has been working hard on her bike split and is prepared to counter her rivals’ faster runs. This season Carfrae had a typical modest early season, mixing wins at Brazil 70.3 and Challenge St. Andrews with a 7th at St. Anthony’s short course, 2nd at Escape From Alcatraz and a 12th at Hy-Vee. There was one definitive statement that she remains on top of her game – a dominating 8:38:53 win at the 30th anniversary Challenge Roth by a familiar 4 minutes over Rachel Joyce. More impressive was the admission that she was not at full strength.

Daniela Ryf, 27 Switzerland

Ryf, an accomplished ITU Olympic distance racer with a win at WCS Seoul, World Cup and WCS podiums at Hamburg and Washington D.C., and a 7th at the Beijing Olympics, has made the transition to long course with a vengeance. Last year, she won the highly competitive Wiesbaden 70.3, took 3rd at Cozumel 70.3 and placed 6th at Ironman 70.3 Worlds in Las Vegas. This year, under the guidance of coach Brett Sutton, she has fashioned a formidable unbeaten streak culminating with a dominant victory at Ironman 70.3 Worlds. Along the way she won Ironman Switzerland a day after winning the Zurich 5i50 short course event. She won the highly competitive Wiesbaden 70.3 by 8 minutes over Leanda Cave. And she dominated Ironman Copenhagen with an 8:53:33 finish highlighted by a 4:44:09 bike split. Her 3:16:15 marathon at Copenhagen may cast doubt on her ability to stay in Carfrae’s time zone, but a 1:17:29 half marathon at Rapperswil 70.3 indicates she has plenty left in the tank that she did not need to call upon at Copenhagen. Her secret weapon? Sutton’s unmatched strategic knowledge of this race and her opponents.

Rachel Joyce, 36, Great Britain

If you believe in numerical progression at Kona, Joyce should be the favorite this year at Kona. She started with a 6th in in 2009, 5th in 2010, 4th in 2011 before her progression was interrupted by an off-day 11th in 2012. Last year Joyce, under the able direction of coach Dave Scott, who led Wellington in her last few seasons, put together an 8:57:28, the 5th fastest women's time ever at Kona, and held off Carfrae for 16 miles on the run before settling for 2nd.

This year Joyce has had a short race schedule prompted in part by an unexpected DNF at Galveston 70.3 where she felt “achy and sleepy” while her body was screaming at her to stop before pulling out at T2. Whereupon she went to her car and immediately fell asleep for 30 minutes. Since then, she has had three normal runner-up finishes at Kansas 70.3, Boulder 70.3 to Jodie Swallow and 2nd to Carfrae at Challenge Roth.

Corinne Abraham, 37, Great Britain

Last year, late blooming triathlon pro Abraham was a prime contender for the Kona podium after dominating Yvonne Van Vlerken (+15:44), Caroline Steffen (+20:26) , Natascha Badmann (+23:41) and Gina Crawford (+26:27) at Ironman Melbourne. Abraham’s race-best 4:42:09 bike split and 2:56:50 marathon there marked her as a serious threat at the World Championship – until a broken sacrum forced her to withdraw and delayed her Kona debut by a year.

This year, Abraham played it safe with a brief race schedule but signaled she was back with a resounding 8:52:40 winning time at Ironman Frankfurt – third-best women's winning time there after Chrissie Wellington’s 8:51:24 in 2008 and Caroline Steffen’s 8:52:33 in 2012. Abraham’s 54:23 swim gave away 5 minutes to Gina Crawford. Her 4:49:06 bike split was second only to Natascha Badmann’s 4:44:25 but was 7 minutes better than her chief rivals Liz Lyles and Crawford. In that crowd on that day, her 3rd-best 3:04:38 run was enough for the win – but won’t cut it in Kona.

Jodie Swallow, 33, Great Britain

Swallow, the 2009 ITU Long Distance World Champion and 2010 Ironman 70.3 World titlist, entered the ranks of top Ironman contenders with two sub-9 hour performances in 2013 – 2nd in 8:58:43 to Camilla Pedersen at Ironman Frankfurt and an 8:54:01 win at Ironman Sweden. This year she has been off the podium only once – a 4th at Abu Dhabi. As the year has unfolded, she scored a win at South Africa 70.3, 3rd at Ironman South Africa, 2nd to Meredith Kessler at St. George 70.3, 1st at Boulder 70.3 ahead of Rachel Joyce and Leanda Cave, 3rd place for $15,000 at Hy-Vee and a strong runner-up to Daniela Ryf at Ironman 70.3 Worlds.

Very strong, healthy and consistent this year, Swallow is a great bet to make the podium at Kona to avenge a frustrating DNF last year.

Caroline Steffen, 36, Switzerland

Steffen has come close at Kona twice – a 7 minute loss to Mirinda Carfrae in 2010 and passed by Leanda Cave in the 23rd mile of the run in 2012. Steffen has won big races at ITU Long Distance Worlds in 2010 and 2012, at Ironman Melbourne in 2012, and at Challenge Roth in 2013.

This year Steffen, after a coaching switch from Brett Sutton to Chris McCormack, won Ironman Melbourne once again in a swift time of 8:57:57. After wins at Sunshine Coast 70.3 and Philippines 70.3, she added a solid 3rd at Challenge Roth in 8:48:42 – 9:51 behind Carfrae.

Against the strongest women's field in memory, it will be hard for the 2014 model Steffen to finally pull off the Kona win she came so close to in 2012.

Leanda Cave, 36, Great Britain

It was painful to watch Leanda Cave, one of the proudest champions in the sport’s history, struggle through an injury-plagued 2013 season after her triumphant 2012 which concluded with wins at the Ironman 70.3 and Ironman World Championships. In 2013, she started the year with a downward spiral of interconnected leg injuries that required her to take time off to heal and recover before struggling through a 13th and 12th at the two world championships she had won the year before. Whereupon she took stock and left coach Siri Lindley for Cliff English and started again from what she termed “ground zero.”

This year, English carefully guided her to avoid injury and make steady progress to 3rd place finishes at St. Croix 70.3 and Boulder 70.3, followed by a 2nd against the typically strong field at Wiesbaden 70.3. But for someone of Cave’s high standards, that runner-up finish was not good enough to be satisfied as Daniela Ryf was 8:38 ahead at the line.

After an 8:56:50 victorious finish at Ironman Sweden, Cave has to feel encouraged by her rising arc of performances going into Kona. Her 49:30 swim was 4 minutes better than all her competitors, her 4:57:21 bike split was 6:17 better than the next best women's effort, and her 3:05:26 marathon was 2:14 better than runner-up Erika Csomor. Without a rival in the same time zone, Cave kept pushing in a race with her old self, making sure she is on schedule for a return battle for the win at Kona.

When a fan commented on a story about Ironman Sweden that she hoped Cave didn’t empty the tank with Kona only eight weeks away, Cave commented: “I'm not concerned.”

Yvonne Van Vlerken, 35, Netherlands

Somewhat lost in all the excitement about last year’s Kona podium of Mirinda Carfrae, Rachel Joyce and Kona newbie Liz Blatchford was the strength shown by 4th place finisher Yvonne Van Vlerken over the entire year. In 2013 the indefatigable Dutch speedster had a hefty menu of excellent performances at major long course races – 5th at Abu Dhabi, 2nd at Ironman Melbourne, 2nd at Mallorca 70.3, 2nd at Challenge Roth in 8:46:22 and, following her 4th place finish at Kona, she topped the year off with a course record and personal best Ironman time of 8:43:07 while winning Ironman Florida.

In this, her second year with superb coach Siri Lindley, Van Vlerken started the year off fast with an epic back-and-forth duel for the win with two-time Ironman 70.3 World champion Melissa Hauschildt at Abu Dhabi. While Van Vlerken finally lost by 23 seconds, it was a sign she would not take a back seat to anyone this time around. In a shocking development, she was hit by a car on April 2 and had to spend 5 weeks in rehab and recovery but came back unbowed. So far she won Reugen 70.3, took 3rd at St. Polten 70.3 and won Challenge Walchsee-Kaiserwinkl for the fourth time.

Van Vlerken, who has had to cope with a usual 4 to 8 minute deficit after her Ironman swims, was encouraged to come out of the water first in a non-wetsuit swim at the Olympic distance Mostiman Triathlon which she won.

Liz Blatchford, 34, Great Britain

After eking into the 2013 Kona field with a clutch 4th place finish at Ironman Mt. Tremblant last year, long time ITU star Liz Blatchford made the most of that break with a superb 3rd place finish in her very first attempt at Kona. In retrospect, she could not have improved on her first pack 54:07 swim, 5th-best 4:57:40 bike split and 3rd best 3:03:23 run which brought her home 6:07 behind Rachel Joyce and 59 seconds ahead of Yvonne Van Vlerken.

This year Blatchford has had a limited roster of races but good results – a 1st at the Husky long course, 2nd at Putrajaya 70.3 to Radka Vodickova, a 3rd at Mallorca 70.3, 5th at Wiesbaden 70.3 and defended her title at Ironman Cairns in a time of 9:16:58.

Linsey Corbin, 33, USA

The exuberant Montanan, who celebrates every finish with the wave of a cowboy hat, scored her best Ironman Hawaii with a 5th place finish in 2008. Which is not to say she hasn’t had great success in many other races. A five-time Ironman winner and four-time Ironman 70.3 champ, Corbin’s highlights include a 2nd-place 8:54:33 finish at 2011 Ironman Arizona, a 3rd at 2011 Ironman 70.3 Worlds, 8th at 2012 Ironman Hawaii, a win at 2013 Ironman 70.3 Mt. Tremblant.

This year might be Corbin’s best as she won Ironman Austria in a USA women’s Ironman record time of 8:42:42 and she won Ironman Los Cabos. Corbin’s Austria splits were all Kona–contender quality – 53:02 swim, 4:47:03 bike and a race-best 2:56:53 run.

Caitlin Snow, 33, USA

Caitlin Snow seems to have inherited some of the competitive nature of her hometown Brockton Massachusetts’ own Rocky Marciano, who retired as the undefeated World Champion Heavyweight boxer. While the diminutive Snow is quite a bit smaller than the original real life Rocky, she packs a big punch on the run which has brought her closer and closer to a Kona podium.

In 2010, she placed 8th and ran a women's 2nd-fastest 2:56:04 marathon to Mirinda Carfrae’s 2:53:32. In 2011, she placed 9th and ran a 3rd-fastest 2:53:50 behind Carfrae and Wellington. In 2012, she finished 9th and ran a 2nd-fastest 3:03:06. Last year, Snow had a more balanced race as her 2nd-fastest 2:58:53 marathon was combined with a better swim and bike and she finished 6th.

Her 2014 season shows promise with a 5th place at the talent-heavy Oceanside 70.3 with a 3rd-fastest 1:19:40 run. She also won Florida and Steelhead 70.3s as well as finished runner-up to Tine Deckers at Ironman France with a 4th-best 5:17:56 bike split on the brutal climbs and a swift-as-usual 2:52:27 run. If that performance left her with gas in the tank, she could go top 5 at Kona against the toughest women's field ever.

Natascha Badmann, 47, Switzerland

Miracle woman won this race in 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2005 and took 2nd in 1996 and 2003. For most humans, that would have been enough to retire and return to Switzerland to sip hot chocolate and yodel. Not Natascha Badmann. She was fit as can be and razor sharp in 2007 when she hit a bump 10 miles into the bike leg and suffered multiple career-threatening injuries. After a several operations which left a ton of corrective metal in her back, shoulder, arms and legs, and brutal rehab over four years, Badmann put her game back together and finished 2nd at Ironman Lanzarote in 2011. In 2012, she won Ironman South Africa at age 45, took 14th at Ironman 70.3 Worlds and was 6th at the Ironman World Championship with the fastest pro bike split.

You might think well THAT is enough! Not at all. In 2013 Badmann placed 4th at Ironman Melbourne with a 4:46:58 bike split. This year, she was second to Daniela Ryf at Ironman Switzerland with a 4:55:00 bike split and a 3:23:01 run.

Looking at her slight figure and modest, quiet voice, it is hard to comprehend what an incredibly strong body and even stronger spirit and will she possesses.

Heather Wurtele, 35, Canada

This elegantly tall Canadian looks like she should be on an Olympic basketball or volleyball team. But don’t let those long limbs fool you. She is a killer endurance athlete – a 6 time Ironman champion and 11-time Ironman 70.3 winner who placed 8th at the Ironman World Championship in 2011 and last month took a home country bronze at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship.

Things started shaky this year with a heat stroke-induced collapse and faint at Ironman 70.3 Panama. Since then she was almost perfect – 1st at Monterrey 70.3, 1st at Oceanside 70.3 with 1:17:56 run, 1st at Eagleman 70.3, and only a 3rd at St, George 70.3.

Mary Beth Ellis, 37, USA

Ellis scored silver medals at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in 2008 and 2009 and went on an Ironman hot streak -- undefeated outside of Kona with 8 straight wins. But her anticipated path to the podium, at Kona – encouraged after a 5th place finish in 2012 – was rudely interrupted by a bike crash a month before Kona last year. This year has been up and down with a runner-up to Steffen 2nd place at Ironman Melbourne, a 4th at St. George, a 7th at Panama 70.33 and a 5th at Ironman 70.3 Worlds. Let no one presume to think that Ellis is letting up. The woman known as the Honey Badger don’t let nothin’ bother her unremitting, indefatigable quest for victory.

Meredith Kessler, 36, USA

Somehow, the woman who had 47 Ironman distance finishes (most during a hungry-for-racing amateur career that began in 2000) continues to improve. This time around the sun, Kessler opened with her third straight win at Ironman New Zealand in race record time and followed with wins at St. George 70.3, Mt. Tremblant 70.3, her third straight victory at Vineman 70.3 (where she beat Ironman 70.3 World Champion Melissa Hauschildt), and Challenge Albany. Her only losses were no disgrace -- a 3rd place finish at Oceanside 70.3 and a 4th place at Ironman 70.3 Worlds. The question remains: Can she improve on her 7th place finish at Ironman Hawaii last year where she lost a duel with Caitlin Snow for 6th place on Alii Drive?

Catriona Morrison, 37, Great Britain

Morrison proved she could contend at Ironman with a 2011 victory at Texas and a 3rds at Lanzarote and Lake Tahoe in 2013. There was never a question about her 70.3 prowess – as proven with victories at St. Croix in 2011 and 2013. And if they skipped the swim, her 7 ITU Duathlon World Championship medals speak volumes. This year she won Auckland 70.3 and took 2nd at St. Croix and Panama 70.3s – but slipped a bit to 14th at Ironman 70.3 Worlds.

Liz Lyles, 36, USA

This late blooming triathlete proved she belonged in the pro ranks with a win at Ironman Wisconsin in 2012 and a sub-9 hour 8:59:44 win at Ironman Western Australia in 2013. She proved consistent that year with a 3rd at Wildflower and 4th place finishes at Boulder 70.3 and Texas 70.3 and a 5th place at Ironman Frankfurt.

But Lyles’ 2nd place this year at Ironman Frankfurt in 8:56:36, just 3:56 behind winner Corinne Abraham -- the 5th fastest ever on that course -- marked Lyles as a woman to contend with at the big races. With her 53:40 swim, a 4:56:43 bike split and a 3:01:14 marathon, Lyles has no obvious weaknesses and her run potential is definitely sub-3 hours. Her other 2nd place finishes at the half distance at Wildflower, and 70.3s at Boise and Lake Stevens show that Lyles has stepped up her game on a consistent basis.

Amanda Stevens, 38, USA

The Doc (she is a licensed physician) took well to long course after a failing in her quest to make the 2004 and 2008 Olympic teams. In 2010, she took 2nds at 70.3s in Florida and Texas. In 2011, she was 2nd at Philippines 70.3. In 2012, she raised her game and won 70.3s at Buffalo Springs Lake and Kansas and placed 2nd at Ironman UK. An NCAA swimmer, she also was first out of the water at Kona and set a swim record of 45:04 at Ironman Frankfurt. Last year, working with coach Siri Lindley, she broke through with a win at Ironman Brazil and took a decent 6th at Ironman Melbourne.

This year she was laid low for much of the season by food allergies, but happily some specialists prescribed a new diet and she experienced rapid improvement late in the summer. After just three weeks of training, she scored a 4th at Timberman 70.3 and, with a month of uninterrupted training, has hopes of matching her 11th place finish last year at Kona.

Gina Crawford, 33, New Zealand

With 12 Ironman-distance victories, Gina Crawford is yearning to improve on her Kona record which includes an 8th in 2008, a 7th in 2012 and a 9th in 2013. This year Crawford posted typically consistent top 4 results including 4th places at Challenge Rimini and Austria 70.3, 3rds at Pays d’Aix 70.3, Sunshine Coast 70.3 and Ironman Frankfurt, and runners-up at Challenge Wanaka, Challenge Kraichgau and Ironman New Zealand. Her lone win came at the MetaMan Bintan Iron Distance Triathlon.