Every year the impossible task of predicting the outcome of the Ironman World Championship elite titles draws in the foolish, the mad, the deluded. We are all doomed to failure by the very thing that makes Kona so alluring. Madame Pele will always upset the applecart, confound the odds and reveal new and old heroes as it pleases her. The only hope is that by assembling some relevant facts and making some semi-plausible arguments as to the relative merits of these fine athletes, it will stir passionate arguments for and against your favorites who have the talent and courage to pit themselves against the elements and their noble rivals. If your hero is listed too far down or not in this list altogether, nothing would make this wretched prognosticator happier than to be made to eat his words and salute those he has ignored.
This is a selection of my favorites listed top to bottom in order of the predicted outcome.
Sebastian Kienle, 31, Germany
The defending Ironman World Champion proved last year that the Ironman 70.3 World title he had won twice already (in 2012 and 2013) was not as important as saving it all for Kona. He basically bombed at Mt. Tremblant 70.3 Worlds last year, shrugged it off and showed what he could do on the sport’s biggest day. So what is he up to this year? Nothing as impressive as his 2014 Frankfurt winning time of 7:55:14 with a 4:12:13 bike split and a 2:49:35 run. This year at Frankfurt, Frodeno whipped Kienle by 11 minutes, and was 4 minutes faster than Kienle’s 2014 Frankfurt bike split. After Frankfurt Kienle had an OK win at Kraichgau 70.3, a shrug-it-off 3rd behind Giulio Molinari and Frodo at Cannes International, and a catered workout 4th at Challenge Heilbronn.
Then came the 2015 Ironman 70.3 World Championship at Zell Am See. Rather than going on a kamikaze mission on the bike to make up for his 1:50 deficit to Frodeno after the swim, Kienle was content to let Frodeno wear himself out and gave up another 50 seconds on the bike leg so to begin the run with a full tank of energy. Surprisingly, Kienle unleashed a 2nd-best 1:15:22 run that was faster than Frodeno AND 5-time ITU world champion Javier Gomez. Kienle fell 1:29 short of running down the 2008 Olympic gold medalist for the win. But it wasn’t so much the numbers as how fresh Kienle looked. Frodeno, the man with the Olympic gold pedigree and a substantial lead, appeared to be suffering and took his time at aid stations. Kienle, on the other hand, looked smooth as silk and totally in control. He seemed to be saving his best bike split for Kona and showing that his run was strong and his endurance was up to the task of holding off Frodo on the marathon.
Jan Frodeno, 34, Germany
Last year Frodeno surrendered to Javier Gomez on the run at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship, despite the fact that Gomez was flat after his WTS series win and Grand Final 3rd place the weekend before. This year, Frodeno was even better at long course – he broke the Ironman Frankfurt race record by 5 minutes and set a new bike course record there with a 4:08:44 split. He was also 11 minutes ahead of runner-up Kienle, the Kona champ. So why did Frodeno look overcooked in the final miles of the run at 70.3 Worlds? Up against Kienle’s smooth bike and renewed run, Frodeno will have to maintain even pacing on the bike and run and not risk redlining on the bike - or the run - to become the first to win an Olympic-Kona double gold.
Marino Vanhoenacker, 39, Belgium
This mild mannered Belgian with enormous Ironman talent did not seem like the guy to fall into a swoon over his troubles at Kona. After a relentless rise from 6th in 2006, 5th in 2007 and a 3rd in 2010 it seemed inevitable that he would stand atop the podium in the near future at the Ironman World Championship. In 2011, his second-fastest–in-history 7:45:49 finish at Ironman Austria, polished off with a scary-fast 2:39:24 marathon, seemed an augury of imminent greatness at Kona. In 2012, Vanhoenacker surged into a 10-minute lead on the bike and held it for 12 miles of the run until he fell behind on his hydration and DNF’d due to heat exhaustion. In 2013, Vanhoenacker seemed recovered after a 2nd place finish at Ironman Melbourne. But at Frankfurt he slogged through to 5th place and post-race tests revealed a stress fracture of the pubic bone and he had to postpone his rematch at Kona.
Last year he started with a 6th at Melbourne, a 2nd at St. Polten 70.3 and a win at Luxembourg 70.3. A late summer win at Ironman Canada in 8:16:10 was promising. But at Kona, he was battling a cracked sacrum with wishful thinking; After a 55:31 swim and a 3rd-best 4:24:59 bike, he walk-trotted home 34th with a marathon that was 7 minutes slower than his bike split. Vanhoenacker then vowed never to allow the Queen K to break his heart again.
But when all his injuries healed, Vanhoenacker unleashed more great performances in 2015 - he started with a 7:53:44 win at Ironman Brazil then followed up with a 4th-best-ever 7:48:45 with an 18 minutes margin of victory at Ironman Austria. Like a jilted suitor who was offered one last date with his dream girl, Vanhoenacker signed on for another heartbreaker on the Queen K.
Frederik Van Lierde, 36, Belgium
In 2013, Van Lierde came to Kona with the momentum of a 3rd place Kona finish in 2012 and a 2013 season that included a win at Abu Dhabi, an impressive win in the challenging hills at Ironman Nice, and 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 that gave him a workmanlike 8:12:29 finish and a 2:46 margin over the inspired effort of Luke McKenzie.
The next year, Van Lierde came to defend his title with a thinner résumé – 4th at Abu Dhabi, 4th at Aix en Provence 70.3 and a solid 2nd at Ironman Frankfurt, albeit 5 minutes back of Kienle. Then he finished Kona in 8th place. So has Frederik Van Lierde recharged for another Kona winning effort? A win at Ironman South Africa with a 49:20 swim, by-far race–best 4:32:45 bike split and a 2nd -fastest 2:49:45 marathon was enough to finish in 8:16:35 with a whopping 14:10 margin of victory over Ivan Raña, 19:24 over Bart Aernouts and 21:15 over Eneko Llanos. A middling 5th-place finish at Frankfurt and a 3rd at Barcelona 70.3 were not so impressive. But if Van Lierde can summon the spark he displayed in South Africa, he has a real shot at Kona.
Andi Bocherer, 32, Germany
Bocherer’s consistent high finishes should put him in contention for the Kona podium but his lack of one great race leaves him under the radar. Still, his win at Challenge Heilbronn, beating Michael Raelert, Andreas Dreitz, and Kienle was sweet. Finishing 3rd at Ironman Frankfurt behind Frodeno and Kienle was respectable, but beating Frederik Van Lierde, Andreas Raelert and Eneko Llanos there showed he always belongs in fast company. Throw in 70.3 wins at Aix en Provence and St. Polten, a 2nd at Kraichgau and a 6th at the Ironman 70.3 World championship at Zell Am See, and Andi is ready for his close-up.
Andy Potts, 38, United States
After his career-best 4th place Kona finish last year, just 1:06 off the podium, Potts continued to perform at a high level in 2015. Potts began 2015 with a disappointing 12th at Challenge Dubai, the result of a penalty during the bike leg. At Ironman Oceanside 70.3, Potts took 2nd to reigning Oceanside champion Jan Frodeno. Potts has since put together 1st, 2nd, and 1st-place finishes at New Orleans 70.3, Texas 70.3, and Chattanooga 70.3 respectively. And on a super-hot day he won his 3rd victory at Ironman Coeur d’Alene in 8:20:25, finishing with a 20-minute margin of victory over runner-up Callum Millward.
Andreas Raelert, 39, Germany
Andreas Raelert had a 12th and a 6th place at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics. And two 2nds (2010 and 2012) and two 3rds (2009 and 2011) at the Ironman World Championship. Plus his silver at the 2008 Ironman 70.3 Worlds, his 4 Ironman wins and 9 Ironman 70.3 wins and his world-best 7:41:33 at Challenge Roth in 2011 are hall of fame material. Does he still have it? His 2015 highlights - 2nd at Wiesbaden 70.3, 3rd at St. George 70.3 and 4th at Luxembourg 70.3 - indicate he remains dangerous.
Timothy O’Donnell, 35, United States
After his 5th place and top American finish at Kona in 2013, O’Donnell was aiming at the podium. However, Madame Pele threw him a curve and he faded to 32nd with abdominal issues, while Ben Hoffman (2nd) and Andy Potts (4th) had Kona career days and took top American honors for the year. On a bit of a comeback this year, O’Donnell did not have big wins but stayed healthy and was consistently near the front. He started with with a win at the Mooloolaba Olympic distance, took 2nd at Brasilia 70.3, and had a brilliant Ironman Brazil where he was a close 2nd to Marino Vanhoenacker and finished in sub-8 hours - only the second American to do so. He also took 2nd at Timberman 70.3 and a 4th at Vineman 70.3.
Brent McMahon, 35, Canada
Brent McMahon decided to jump to long-course racing after competing in the 2012 London Olympic Games. With several 70.3 wins to his name, McMahon took on Ironman for the first time last November, shattering the course record and posting the fastest Ironman debut time ever with a 7:55:48 win at Ironman Arizona. Fresh off of a second-place finish at the Ironman 70.3 North American Championships in St. George and the announcement of his inclusion on the star-studded Bahrain Endurance 13 Team, McMahon placed 3rd at Ironman Brazil in 7:56:55, won the Challenge Penticton half and took 3rd at Philippines 70.3.
Ben Hoffman, 33, United States
After his joyous breakthrough runner-up finish at Kona last year, Ben Hoffman might be forgiven if he thought he was falling victim to the curse of the long shot Kona runner-up finishers that seemed to hit Luke McKenzie after his 2013 second place finish and Desiree Ficker after her great runner-up in 2006.
This year Hoffman was 5th at St. George and New Orleans 70.3s before taking on Ironman Texas. Things started well with a 2nd-best 49:29 swim and a 3rd-best 4:20:38 bike split. Then things unraveled and his 3:18:30 run left him in 8th place. Hoffman regained a great deal of optimism after outdueling Andy Potts by 2 seconds at Calgary 70.3. Hoffman has the game and the mindset to repeat, but his better chance might come in 2016.
Tim Van Berkel, 31, Australia
Timothy Van Berkel is one of the hardest working triathletes with many races a year and heaps of 70.3 and Ironman podiums. In 2013 and 2014, he was constantly on the verge with runner-up finishes at Port Macquairie 70.3, Texas 70.3, Ironman Cairns, Yeppoon 70.3, MetaMan, the Australian 70.3 championship and Ironman Cairns. But beyond all these medals, Van Berkel earned a great deal of tri-cred with his 7th-place finish at Kona last year and seems quite capable of moving up.
Bart Aernouts, 31, Belgium
This talented Belgian had fantastic 2014 – 1st at Ironman France, 1st at Wiesbaden 70.3, 2nd at Mallorca 70.3, then a bit of a letdown with 9th at Ironman 70.3 Worlds and 9th at Kona. Now his 2015 results offer more promise - 4th at Challenge Dubai with a 1:11:17 fastest run, 3rd at Ironman South Africa, 3rd at Challenge Rimini, 1st at Challenge Poznan and 4th at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship at Zell Am See.
Eneko Llanos, 38, Spain
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 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 and Llanos placed 11th at Kona. This year Llanos was 5th at Ironman South Africa, 8th at Ironman Frankfurt and went to Kona early confident in his renewed fitness. Once again bad luck struck. He wrote “a mouth infection is killing me” October 1 on social media and was seeking a Kona dentist.
Jordan Rapp, 35, United States
After recovering from a life- and career-threatening injuries when struck by a hit-and-run driver on a training ride in 2010, Rapp embarked on the hot streak of his life that included wins at 2011 Ironman Canada, 2012 Ironman Texas and Ironman New York. Then he hit a puzzling 2-year slump with dwindling results. He recovered his mojo with a dominating win at Ironman Mt. Tremblant where he carved out an 18-minute margin of victory
with race-best 4:25:01 bike split and a race-best 2:55:53 run. Like Marino Vanhoenacker, Rapp was contemplating never going back to Kona again. But now his confidence is renewed that he is capable serious contention and is headed back to the Big Island with renewed resolve.
Nils Frommhold, 28, Germany
Frommhold proved he could run at the front and win with victories at Ironman Arizona in 2012, Ironman South Africa in 2014 and a 2nd at Challenge Roth in 2014. This year he showed he could perform consistently with a 7:51:28 winning time and a 4:09:30 bike split at Challenge Roth, a 2nd at St. Polten 70.3 and 5th at Ironman Melbourne.
Cyril Viennot, 33, France
This Frenchman is no stranger to Kona and keeps improving. He finished 18th in 2012, 12th in 2013 and created a splash with his 5th place finish last year which included a 54:32 swim, 4:31:18 bike and a 2:51:55 run. Outside Kona, he scored a win at the 2014 UK Ironman and has stayed in winning form with a victory at the 2015 ITU long distance Worlds in Motala, Sweden.
Tim Don, 38, Great Britain
Don won Ironman 70.3 St. George with a 1:14:02 rundown of early leader Brent McMahon. At Brazil 70.3 he passed Timothy O’Donnell at the 15km mark on his way to a race-best 1:13:20 run. He also won Monterrey and Ecuador 70.3s but fell to Callum Millward at Boulder 70.3. He did not repeat his 2014 3rd-place finish at Mt. Tremblant 70.3 Worlds, disappointing with a DNF at Zell Am See.
Ivan Raña, 36, Spain
Ivan Raña made a significant step up with 2014 Ironman Austria win in 7:48:43 – the third fastest men’s Ironman-distance time in history. More encouraging, Raña’s race-best 4:15:57 bike split there was the third-fastest winning bike split at Klagenfurt.
Raña, the 2002 ITU Olympic distance World champion and two-time Olympic 5th place finisher, is great in the heat proven by his debut Ironman win at Cozumel in 2012 and also by his strong surge to finish 6th at Kona in 2013. So, with that momentum, what could he do at Kona in 2014? Sad to say, he had an off day and finished 17th, faltering on the bike with a 4:58:10 split – 38 minutes slower than Kienle. Raña still managed a race-best 2:44:38 run. In 2015 he had a 3rd at Ironman Austria. This time out Raña was 21 minutes slower than Vanhoenacker on the bike while his run remains excellent - 2:44:27.
Luke McKenzie, 34, Australia
This six-time Ironman winner had a career breakthrough in 2013 with his runner-up finish at Kona in 2014; McKenzie showed how hard it is to back up a first-time stellar performance at Kona. McKenzie had arm injuries after a pre-race bike crash at Melbourne, a slow swim, lost time fixing a slipped helmet strap and had a slow bike. He arrived at T2 in 27th place but did not give up – advancing to 13th at the wire after a sub-3 hour run. At Challenge Roth, he finished 10th and he dropped to 15th at Kona. This year McKenzie found hope with a return-to-form win at Ironman Cairns.
Tyler Butterfield, 32, 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. In 2014 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 run – 7 minutes back of Bart Aernouts of Belgium. This year, he placed 7th at Ironman Frankfurt.
Terenzo Bozzone, 31, New Zealand
Bozzone 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. Last year at Ironman 70.3 Worlds, he was off form and finished 9th at Mt. Tremblant. This year Bozzone was on form when he won Challenge Dubai, looked OK when he finished 2nd at Ironman New Zealand, beat a weak field at Challenge Taiwan, took 2nd behind Sam Appleton at Busselton 70.3, and took 3rd behind Cunnama and Tim Reed at Vietnam 70.3. Bozzone has the potential to make his mark at Kona but so far it’s been a frustrating quest.
Boris Stein, 30, Germany
Last year Stein had an encouraging win at Ironman Switzerland but a discouraging 20th at Kona. This year Stein’s performances are looking up. He won Ironman France by 2:28 over Victor Del Corral, closing with a 2:44:20 run. He also won Ironman 70. Wiesbaden and finished 2nd at Pays d’Aix 70.3.
Bas Diederen, 35, Netherlands
Has stayed an elite contender the last four season: 2nd at 2012 Ironman Cozumel, 3rd at 2013 Ironman Frankfurt, 2nd at 2014 Abu Dhabi, 4th at 2015 Ironman Frankfurt and 2nd at Luxembourg 70.3
Lionel Sanders, 27, Canada
In 2014 he had notable wins at Ironman 70.3 races in Muncie, Racine and Steelhead. After his 4th-place finish at the 2014 Ironman 70.3 World Championships Sanders won his first Ironman race as a professional at Ironman Florida.
This year Sanders continued to dominate the 70.3 world, winning at Galveston, Mt. Tremblant, Muskoka and Racine while taking a 4th at Ironman Texas. His bike split there was promising – a 2nd-best 4:11:25. But his vaunted foot speed at the 70.3 distance did not translate – his 3:11:22 marathon was 26 minutes slower than winner Matt Hanson.
Matt Hanson, 32, United States
Hanson made a big breakthrough winning a $30,000 payday at Ironman Texas this year. Hanson finished in 8:07:03 with a decent 4:21 bike split and a race-best 2:45:47 run The run was no surprise as in 2014 he posted a 2:41:38 marathon while finishing 6th at Ironman Texas, a 2:42:07 while finishing 5th at Ironman Coeur d’Alene and 2:47:40 while winning Ironman Chattanooga.
Jeffrey Symonds, 30, Canada
Symonds broke into the triathlon spotlight with a 3rd place finish at the 2011 Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Las Vegas, He won 2011 and 2013 and 2014 editions of Challenge Penticton but rose in prestige with a victory this year at Ironman Melbourne.
Igor Amorelli, 31, Brazil
Amorelli’s best performances include 2nd at Ironman Brazil in 2013, 13th at the 2013 Ironman World Championship, a win at 2014 Ironman Brazil in 8:07 closing with a 2:52:07 marathon.
Maik Twelsiek, 34, Germany
In 2013, super cyclist Twelsiek hit a high point his Ironman endeavors with a win at Ironman Wisconsin and 2nd places at Ironman Austria and Ironman Lake Tahoe. In 2014, Twelsiek rode a 4:24:03 split, second to Sebastian Kienle, at the Ironman World Championship bike leg, finishing 11th. A month later, he followed the same plan at Ironman Arizona and finished 4th in 8:07:59. This year he rode out front at Ironman Coeur d’Alene but faded to 14th on the run in 100-degree heat.