2014 Kona Men’s Preview

As the years go by, the fields at Kona get deeper, faster, more talented – and more subject to the vagaries of weather, injury, luck and fate.

While past performances and recent race results can have some bearing on these predictions, there is greater influence exerted by recent health and fitness, the efficacy of training blocs which cannot be monitored as the athletes have been spread all over the globe.

This time around, the contenders are listed in order of probability of a win with as much relevant information backing up these choices as possible included in this opinion piece.

As always, I will happily eat crow, admit that I am an idiot and celebrate anyone and everyone who proves these predictions wrong with a great day after being left out of this Ouija board exercise. I might remind outraged fans that being left off this list can have great motivational value and coming into Kona as a dark horse can serve to lessen any last minute tension.

Also, given the impossibility of monitoring all the contenders, we welcome all last minute news of withdrawals, illnesses and other relevant news.

Last but not least, we salute those who might have made the race much richer and tougher but succumbed to inevitable bad luck. Dirk Bockel, Peter Robertson and Timo Bracht will be missed.

Frederik Van Lierde, 35, Belgium

The defending champion is not at all as spectacular as his most talented rivals. He does not have the Olympic winning long run stride and foot speed of 6-foot 4-inch Jan Frodeno – nor does he have Frodeno’s breakaway capable swim speed. He does not have the bike power and speed of Sebastian Kienle when the latest German überbiker is on. Never has Van Lierde posted the blazing fast, 3rd-best-ever Ironman time Ivan Raña scored at Austria. And he certainly does not have the career Kona record of Craig Alexander.

Furthermore, his 2014 season pales in comparison to his pre-Kona races in 2013. One year ago, he came to Kona with a win at Abu Dhabi, an impressive win in the rugged hills at Ironman Nice, had a swift late summer win at the unheraladed Deinze half Ironman. Van Lierde wrapped it up at Kona with a carefully calibrated set of splits – a tied-for 3rd-best 51:02 swim, a 4th-best 4:25:35 bike split and a 4th-best men’s marathon of 2:51:18 – topped by women's winner Mirinda Carfrae.

This year he might seem vulnerable with a thinner résumé – 4th at Abu Dhabi, 4th at Aix en Provence 70.3 and one impressive outing – a solid 2nd at Ironman Frankfurt, albeit 5 minutes back of Kienle.

And yet, under the wise guidance of his coach, the long-time Kona record holder and not-related Luc van Lierde, Frederik Van Lierde will very likely come perfectly rested and prepared, has proven that he will have a perfectly balanced and executed strategy on the biggest day in the sport. And he will do it without drama and with the calm precision of a master carpenter.

Sebastian Kienle, 31, Germany

Which Sebastian Kienle will show up? Will it be the man who won Ironman Frankfurt over his strongest rivals Frederik Van Lierde and Jan Frodeno? The man whose 4:12:13 bike split there crushed Frodeno by 21 minutes and whose 4th-best 2:49:35 run gave back just 6 minutes to Frodo? Or will it be the sorry Seb who could not (would not?) explain his 18th place finish – including a 14th-best bike split and a 7 minutes slower run - at Ironman 70.3 Worlds?

The best measure of his probable Kona day will be last year’s splits: His 54:13 swim started off 3 minutes down, his 4:22:33 bike passed everyone but Andrew Starykowicz and Luke McKenzie and put him into T2 in a virtual tie with Van Lierde. Whereupon Kienle’s 2:58:35 run left him 3rd, 7 minutes off the win. Unless Kienle is still suffering from some secret illness or nagging injury that ruined his Mt. Tremblant race, this will be the blueprint of his Kona day which may fall into a numerically consistent climb from 4th in 2012 to 3rd in 2013 to 2nd this year.

Jan Frodeno, 33, Germany

No less an authority than Brett Sutton notes that Frodeno has the physiology, short course speed, and Olympic pedigree (gold in 2008, 6th in 2012) to join a short list of men (Gordon Haller, Tom Warren, Dave Scott, Luc Van Lierde) who have won this race in their first attempt. How ready is he?

In his two years of focus on long course, Frodeno placed 2nd at Wiesbaden 70.3 in 2013, then put the pedal to the metal in 2014 – 1st at 70.3s in Auckland, Oceanside and St. George, 3rd at Ironman Frankfurt behind Sebastian Kienle and Frederik Van Lierde and 2nd to Javier Gomez at the Ironman 70.3 Would Championship. His 70.3 run speed is second to none – he posted a race-best 1:11:49 at Oceanside, race-best 1:09:12 at St. George, and a second-best 1:10:36 at 70.3 Worlds.

The question is how well has Frodo prepared for the Iron distance? His 3rd place at Frankfurt answered with Kona-worthy splits of 45:39 for the swim, and a race-best 2:43:14 on the run. The big question remains the bike. Despite a lead pack 2:05:48 56-miler at Mt. Tremblant, his 4:33:34 at Frankfurt gave away 21 minutes to Kienle and 9 minutes to Van Lierde. Two flats accounted for about 7 minutes of delay, but that still left him 14 minutes off Kienle’s pace.

One good point – Frodeno has not over raced and he has had 5 weeks to recover peak fitness after Mt. Tremblant. He needs to be careful – had to borrow water from Caitlin Snow on one recent long training ride on the Queen K.

Iván Raña, 35, Spain

Plus: Raña placed sixth at Kona last year and posted the day’s second best marathon - 2:47:54. Minus: Raña’s 4:40:34 bike split was 15 minutes slower than Van Lierde and 18 minutes slower than Luke McKenzie and put him out of reach of the podium. Big plus: Raña posted the third-fastest ever men’s Ironman time of 7:48:43 winning Ironman Austria this year. Even better plus: Raña’s Austria bike split was 4:15:48 – right in Kona-winning sweet spot and within seconds of previous Ironman Austria-winning bike splits by Dirk Bockel and Marino Vanhoenacker. Added plus: Raña’s Ironman Austria run was 2:43:43.

Final question: Did Raña expend his best performance of the year three months before Kona?

Timothy O’Donnell, 34, USA

Big question: Will switching coaches from long time mentor Cliff English to Mark Allen pay off with a better Kona finish? After scoring a personal best 5th place and top American finish at the Ironman World Championship last year (where he ran faster than Van Lierde), O’Donnell played it safe with a super-slow Kona validation finish at Ironman Florida late last year. With the decks cleared, T.O. played it cool with wins at the St. Andrews half and St. Croix 70.3, 2nds at Eagleman 70.3 and Brazil 70.3, and 5th places at Olympic distance hits out at Chicago and St. Anthony’s.

The most important factor is O’Donnell is not worn out with an Ironman races and, says coach Allen, O’Donnell has stayed virtually injury- and illness-free and has had a full year of consistent, unbroken training.

Andy Potts, 37, USA

For the past five years, Potts has won a ton of 70.3 races and a few U.S. Ironman crowns and has been the top American at Kona with 7th place finishes in 2008 and 2012. In addition to Ironman 70.3 wins at Calgary and New Orleans, a 6th win at Escape From Alcatraz, and another win at Ironman Coeur d’Alene, Potts did well in his first confrontation with Frodeno this year – a close 2nd to the 2008 Olympic champion at Oceanside 70.3. His second meeting with Frodeno didn’t go so well – he was 5th to Frodeno’s win at St. George.

Presuming he does not want to yield the top U.S. finisher title at Kona to O’Donnell, and he has designs on the podium, Potts has tapered longer than usual for Kona. If he arrives fresh, those dreams could come true.

Nils Frommhold, 28, Germany

After some frustrating years trying to break into the ranks of Germans with enough points to earn starting slots at World Triathlon Series events for Germany, Nils Frommhold went long in 2012. That year he had a 3rd at Challenge Walchsee-Kaiserwinkl and a breakthrough win in 8 hours and 3 minutes at Ironman Arizona. Things went pretty well in 2013 with three 70.3 podiums before his career momentum was broken by a stress fracture. This year Frommhold was older, wiser and stayed injury free, putting together a win at Ironman South Africa, a 2nd at Luxembourg 70.3 and what seems to be a second breakthrough – a 2nd at Challenge Roth against one of his toughest fields – 4:39 behind veteran Timo Bracht and ahead of such stalwarts as Eneko llanos, Joe Gambles, James Cunnama and Dirk Bockel.

Marino Vanhoenacker, 38, Belgium

Vanhoenacker seemed to be on an inevitable rise to the top at Ironman Hawaii with a 6th in 2006, a 5th in 2007 and a 3rd in 2010. But since then he has displayed star-quality at other venues – notably his 7:45:58 winning time at Ironman Austria in 2011 where he swam 46:49, biked 4:15:25 and ran a scary-fast 2:39:24 marathon. Then at Kona in 2012, he appeared ready for a coronation when he burst into a 10 minute lead on the bike and held it through 12 miles on the run before he fell behind on his hydration and DNF’d due to heat exhaustion. In 2013, Vanhoenacker was ready for redemption after a 2nd place at Ironman Melbourne to start off the year. But at Ironman Frankfurt he suffered pain from the swim start and slogged through to a finish to validate for Kona. But post-race tests showed he had a stress fracture of the pubic bone and had to postpone his rematch at Kona.

This year he started a bit more tentatively with a 6th at Melbourne, then a 2nd at St. Polten 70.3 behind Eneko Llanos and a win at Luxembourg 70.3 ahead of Nils Frommhold. A late summer win at Ironman Canada in 8:16:10 seems like a confidence booster. But if all had gone well this past year, he wouldn’t be chasing an Ironman finish so close to Kona.

Tyler Butterfield, 31, Bermuda

Butterfield vaulted into international prominence with a 3rd place finish at Abu Dhabi in 2013 and has managed to establish a firm hold on contender status in major events since then. During the rest of 2013, he placed 2nd at 70.3s in Muncie and Calgary, placed 7th at Kona and placed 2nd at Ironman Cozumel. This year he continued his upward trend with a win at Abu Dhabi and a strong 3rd at Ironman France on the tough course at Nice, closing with a Kona-promising 2:49:39 – 7 minutes back of Bart Aernouts of Belgium.

Bart Aernouts, 30, Belgium

After an 8th place finish and a race-best 2:44:03 marathon last year at Kona, this great duathlete seems ready to make a bigger mark at Kona. In 2014, he was 4th at Abu Dhabi, took 2nd at Mallorca 70.3, then won two prestigious races against tough opposition – Ironman France and Wiesbaden 70.3. An 8th at Ironman 70.3 sufficed as a catered speed workout and he should be ready to move up on October 11th.

Craig Alexander, 41, Australia

Crowie called his retirement from Kona a year ago. Nothing left to prove after two Ironman 70.3World titles and 3 Kona wins culminating in 2011 when he finished in 8:03:56 and broke the 15-year-old race record set by Luc Van Lierde. Not to forget a 2nd in 2007 and a 4th in 2010. But back troubles in 2012 left him 12th and then 23rd in his planned farewell to Kona in 2013.

This year he felt better and decided to come back and give Kona a proper finale at age 41. In a limited schedule, he had a few highlights – a win at Geelong 70.3 and 5th at ITU Long Distance Worlds in China a few weeks ago – capped off by a dominating 1:09 split for the final 20k run. The trouble with the 5th place in China was that Crowie was hit by excruciating back pain in the swim and uncomfortable back pain on the ride. Mysteriously, his back came good on the run and he finished with his usual world class speed. Since then, Alexander has been getting major physio treatments on his back and will make a last minute decision if he step to the start line at Kona.

James Cunnama, 32, South Africa

After a sub-8 hour win at Challenge Roth in 2012, Cunnama had a bike crash and two DNFs to start the 2013 season before recovering with a 2nd at Challenge Roth. Another crash at Alpe d’Huez was worrisome, but he gathered himself for an impressive 4th at Kona last year and the South African seemed to be on track for greatness. This year he won South Africa70.3, took a respectable but off-form 5th at Roth then had an off day DNF at Ironman 70.3 Worlds. He has the game to podium, but unless he has recovered from the issues that bothered him at Roth and Mt. Tremblant, looks like he will take a step back at Kona this year.

Pete Jacobs, 32, Australia

From 2010 through 2012, the muscular Australian had an unusual pattern of serious early season physical woes followed by remarkable recoveries and excellent performances at Kona. These bouts of trouble led Jacobs to term himself a “fragile” athlete - but one with remarkable powers of recovery and great good luck with timing. In 2010, he put himself on the map with a 3rd-fastest-ever Kona marathon of 2:41:05 which brought him home 9th. In 2011, Jacobs finished 2nd to Crowie’s record-breaking win with a closing 2:42:29 marathon. In 2012, Jacobs suffered a stress fracture in his foot and back pain due to a pinches nerve in his right hip and glute which left him hobbling through a validating race at Lake Placid 30 minutes behind winner Andy Potts.
Whereupon he ran a more balanced race and won the Big One with a closing 2:48 marathon.

In 2013, the script started with his usual troubles - he spent 6 weeks unable to run in March and April due to a series of physical ailments. He started his annual comeback with a gradual improvement – 8th at Honu 70.3and 4th at Cairns 70.3 before a setback at Frankfurt where he had to walk the last 10 kilometers to validate his Kona entry. Not discouraged, he dominated the field at Sunshine Coast 70.3 with a sizzling fast bike and run the day after stomach cramps left him with a tight hip and back and wondering if he should even start that day. Sadly, there was no redemption at Kona as he finished 32nd after a survival slog 3:30:40 marathon.

This year, Jacobs was shocked when Ironman CEO Andrew Messick criticized him as “unprofessional” for another slow validating finish at Ironman Switzerland necessitated by injuries and the KPR qualifying rules. Jacobs took his time before with a well-reasoned reply that took the high road. Jacobs hopes he will be able to fashion another late season recovery to return to the podium or at least the top 10 stage at Kona.

Andreas Raelert, 38, Germany

Historically, Raelert has been the surest bet for the Kona men’s podium since his 2009 debut 3rd place finish. He followed that with 2nd to Chris McCormack in their famous duel in 2010, 3rd in 2011 and 2nd to Pete Jacobs in 2012. Last year, Raelert looked good early with 3rd at Mallorca 70.3, 2nd at Muskoka 70.3 and a win at Ironman Austria. But his string of success at Kona was broken by a DNF.

This season, Raelert has had a low profile, not-so-shining record that includes a 3rd at Mallorca, 4th at the Heilbronn half Iron, and a 3rd at Mt. Tremblant 70.3 (not the World Championship).

Can Andy return to the form that brought him a still-standing world Ironman-distance best time of 7:41:33 at Challenge Roth in 2011? There are no signs of that in his races this year. But the answer lies in how strong and how healthy this 9-time Ironman 70.3 winner and 4-time Ironman victor has been in the final six weeks of training.

Luke McKenzie, 33, Australia

This six-time Ironman winner had a career breakthrough last year with his runner-up finish at Kona where he backed up second-fastest 4:22:27 bike split with a strong 2:57:20 run that left him just 2:50 behind the winner and 4:05 ahead of überbiker Sebastian Kienle.

So far this year, McKenzie has been an illustration of how hard it is to back up a stellar performance at Kona. McKenzie suffered some arm injuries after a pre-race bike crash at Melbourne and had a shocking slow swim, followed by more time lost fixing a slipped helmet strap. After bike time lost he arrived at T2 in 27th place and advanced to 13th at the wire after a sub-3 hour run. Perhaps he was a bit distracted as he and pro Beth Gerdes had their first child Wynne born in May. At Challenge Roth, he had another off form day and finished 10th. Odds are he won’t duplicate his 2nd place finish at Kona. But who knows what some healing rest and an uninterrupted training bloc before Kona can do?

Joe Gambles, 32, Australia

Gambles has a silver medal at the 2011 ITU Long Distance World Championship, a bronze at the 2013 Ironman 70.3 Worlds, 10 course records and 15 professional victories including a four-peat at Boulder 70.3 and a win in his 2010 Ironman debut at Wisconsin.

This year, Gambles decided to focus on a few key races in the lead-in to Kona. He fought hard but ended up one slot out of the podium at Challenge Roth and was 6th at Ironman 70.3 Worlds. While Gambles surely has the game for a Kona breakthrough, the signs say that his big splash will occur in a coming year.

Michael Weiss, 33, Austria

Weiss seemed ready to explode out of the penalty box after accepting and serving a 2-year ban for a decade-old doping charge related to his days racing on Austria's Olympic mountain bike team.

In December 2013, Michi won his first race back at Ironman Cozumel in an impressive 7:55 clocking. So far this year, Weiss has had middling (for him) results – 4th at Challenge Walchsee-Kaiserwinkl, 3rd at St. Polten 70.3, 4th at Ironman Melbourne, and a disappointing 8th at Ironman Austria – a race at which he placed 2nd in 2011 in a time of 7:57:39 with a 2:42 marathon.

Without offering any excuses or reasons for his performance at Klagenfurt, we can only guess whether this was a significant lack of form or just an off day.

If he is to contend at Kona, Weiss must find some fast feet to follow on the swim, stick with the lead pack on the bike and save some energy so he can come closer to his 2:42 Ironman PR run than his most recent 2:57:53 run split at Austria.

TJ Tollakson, 34, USA

The biggest breakthrough of the 2014 season was TJ Tollakson’s smashing win at Ironman Mt. Tremblant where the strong swimmer-cyclist put it all together with a 49:43 swim, a 4:26:55 bike split that put 8 to 10 minutes on his closest pursuers and finished it off with a 2nd best 2:54:21 marathon that gave him an 18:58 minute margin of victory over Daniel Halksworth and 22:14 over no less an adversary than Andreas Raelert.

Tollakson should be a factor in the front pack of the bike with the likes of Andrew Starykowicz, Jan Frodeno, Luke McKenzie and Frederik van Lierde.

Andrew Starykowicz, 33, USA

The man with 4:02 and 4:04 record Ironman bike splits in Florida and the race’s fastest bike split last year at Kona (4:21:50 before fading to 21st on the marathon) is back with a new weapon – his run. While nobody in contention for the win is afraid, Starykowicz did outrun (1:17:27) Tim O’Donnell to win Eagleman 70.3 and did the same to hold off ITU veteran Will Clarke at Puerto Rico 70.3. After his 4:02:17 bike split at IM Florida he did muster a 2:58:18 run that could not stave off Victor Del Corral for the win, but did get him to the finish in 7:55:22. He should be the straw that stirs the drink on any bike breakaway on the Queen K and might crack the top 15 or 20 with a career run day.

Eneko Llanos, 37, Spain

Llanos had by far the best pre-Kona season in 2013 with a 2nd at Abu Dhabi and wins at Ironman Melbourne and Ironman Frankfurt. But his 11th place 8:32:04 finish at Kona was far off from his 2nd place finish in 2008 and was perhaps a signal that he should save his best for last.

This year he finished 6th at Abu Dhabi thanks to a pre-race cold, beat Vanhoenacker at St. Polten 70.3, and took an average-for-him 3rd at Challenge Roth. You could say that coach Dave Scott has built in more rest for his charge to peak at Kona. Or you might guess that the Spaniard is slipping.

Faris Al-Sultan, 36, Germany

Al-Sultan peaked a decade ago at Kona with a 3rd in 2004, a win in 2005 and a 3rd in 2006. Since then he has won Ironman events in Arizona (2005), Malaysia (2008), Regensburg (2010), Frankfurt (2011) Austria (2012) and Lanzarote (2013). Since then, he has stayed in the picture at Kona with a 5th place in 2012 and a 10th last year. This year he took 3rd at Ironman South Africa, but has largely stayed out of the spotlight.

Marko Albert, 35, Estonia

The Estonian edged into the spotlight with a 2nd at Ironman New Zealand in 2013 and a win at Taupo in 2014. The two-time Olympian signaled that his New Zealand result wasn't a one-hit-wonder as he posted a decent 5th place finish at Ironman Austria which he concluded with a 2:47:50 marathon. Last year, Albert finished 17th at Kona.

Terenzo Bozzone, 29, New Zealand

As a prodigy, Bozzone smashed the course record at Wildflower with a 3:53:43 mark that still stands unchallenged. Since then he has won countless 70.3s in addition to his gold at the 2008 Ironman 70.3 World Championships and silver at 2013 70.3 Worlds. This year, he took 3rd at Ironman New Zealand, 1st at Mandurah 70.3, 3rd at Auckland 70.3, 6th at St. George 70.3 and held on through cramps to take 9th at Ironman 70.3 Worlds.

Still waiting for a strong Kona.

Bevan Docherty, 37, New Zealand

When Bevan Docherty scored a race record 8:15 win at the 2013 edition of Ironman New Zealand, it looked inevitable that the 2004 Olympic silver medalist, 2008 Olympic bronze medalist and 2004 ITU World Champion was on the express train for Kona success. But at his Kona debut stomach issues led to a deeply disappointing DNF. At the start of the 2014 season, Docherty was plagued by a stomach ailment which forced a DNF at Ironman New Zealand and required a consult with several physicians. The answer came in spring and, with proper metabolism restored, he won Ironman Texas in 8:09:36. Since then Docherty has remained under the radar and his Kona prospects remain a mystery.

Ronnie Schildknecht, 36, Switzerland

The 7-time Ironman Switzerland winner had a promising 4th place finish at Kona in 2008 but the best he has done since was 15th in 2010. In 2013, he had wins at Ironman South Africa and Ironman Switzerland and a 2nd at South Africa 70.3 This year he seems to have achieved a decent level with a 5th at Abu Dhabi, 4th at Ironman Frankfurt and 2nd at Challenge Kraichgau.

Tim Reed, 29, Australia

Back in 2012, Reed placed 2nd at Ironman New Zealand but since then he has had little experience at the full distance. In 2013, he placed 5th at Ironman 70.3 Worlds and was one of the most consistently excellent half Ironman and 70.3 triathletes -- he won Yeppoon 70.3, Challenge Forster, Huskisson long course and took 2nds at Vineman, Buffalo Springs Lake, Busselton and Cairns 70.3s.

In 2014 he stayed on the 70.3 podium track with wins at Vineman and Buffalo Springs Lake and 2nds at Geelong and Cairns, plus a 7th at Ironman 70.3 Worlds.

A mystery man with potential at the Ironman distance.

Paul Matthews, 31, Australia

Matthews signaled he could be a factor in major races with his 2nd place finish 1:12 back of winner Dirk Bockel, at Ironman Melbourne this year. At Boulder 70.3, he took a catered workout 5th place finish but should be all tuned and tapered under mentoring by Craig Alexander.

Richie Cunningham, 41, Australia

Cunningham is a world-class contender at the 70.3 distance, as witnessed by his bronze medal at the 2008 Ironman 70.3 World Championship. But after countless podiums at 70.3s like St. Croix, Galveston, Panama City, Oceanside, New Orleans, Laguna Phuket, Austin, Auckland, Boulder, Muskoka and Rev3 events, his only full distance performance was a 2nd place at the inaugural Boulder Ironman this summer.