Of course chance always plays a significant role, and pre-race accidents, an elbow to the face on the swim, flats, or bike penalties can disrupt all preconceptions. This year’s women’s field is filled with highly talented Kona veterans – Rachel Joyce, Leanda Cave, Jodie Swallow, Caroline Steffen, Liz Blatchford, and Mary Beth Ellis – and Kona rookies with great pedigrees like Melissa Hauschildt, Angela Naeth, and Heather Jackson.
But barring any last-minute illness, injury, or some unforeseen accident, odds are that this race will come down to a duel between last year’s 1-2 finishers, three-time and defending champion Mirinda Carfrae of Australia and two-time Ironman 70.3 world champion Daniela Ryf of Switzerland.
From their initial encounter at Kona last year, there is a template of strengths and weaknesses. Ryf starts with a 56:55 swim to Rinny’s 1:00:14 split. Advantage Ryf - 3:09. Ryf powers away on the bike, 4:54:33 to Rinny’s 5:05:48 split. Advantage Ryf - 10:15. Then Carfrae’s record 2:50:26 run tops Ryf’s 3:07:00 by 16:34.
There are two key questions: Can Ryf, for the first time in four Ironman finishes, break 3 hours for the run, so that Carfrae’s oft-proven 2:50 speed won’t erase Ryf’s advantage in the swim and the bike? Likewise, can Carfrae match her 2013 Kona-best marks of a 58-minute swim and a 4:58:20 bike split, on a day with tougher conditions, and then run that 2:50 marathon to hold off Ryf?
Or, as Madame Pele often decides to shake things up, will someone else have the race of her life and take down the favorites? In order of their predicted finish, here are some of the women who will contend for the Kona crown.
Daniela Ryf, 28, Switzerland
Since her transition from short course to long course racing in 2014, Ryf is undefeated in 70.3 racing and is the first woman to win back-to-back Ironman 70.3 World Championship gold. In the 70.3 realm, she has a 1:17:29 personal best run to go with her dominant bike splits. This year her women’s-best 1:22:51 run at Zell Am See was all she needed to finish 11 minutes 33 seconds ahead of the runner-up.
This year, Ryf topped Chrissie Wellington’s course record at Ironman Frankfurt with an 8:51:00 clocking that was 10 minutes faster than runner-up Julia Gajer. She has a killer bike and her overall strength doesn’t leave her wasted after her usual 4:44 to 4:54 Ironman bike splits. The big mystery - at this race, against Rinny Carfrae - is Ryf’s run. On Ironman days her run splits have been 3:11:03, 3:16:15, 3:07:00 at Kona, and 3:06:06 at Frankfurt. Before Carfrae and Chrissie Wellington, those were good enough to win at Kona. Not now. Ryf has the speed and potential to crack 3 hours and super coach Brett Sutton has Ryf working on that run.
Mirinda Carfrae, 34, Australia
Carfrae has been the best bet at Kona for the past six years. Second to Wellington in 2009, a win in 2010 when Wellington was a last minute withdrawal, a 2nd pushing Wellington to her breaking point in 2011, a 3rd to Leanda Cave and Caroline Steffen in 2012. Then followed by come-from-behind wins in 2013 and 2014, thanks to dominating 2:50 runs.
Under the guidance of coach Siri Lindley, who learned many lessons when coached by Sutton, no one prepares better than Carfrae for the single biggest day in the sport. If Carfrae didn’t have such a bullet proof record at Kona, finishing third when she was ailing and struggling at her worst, you might worry about her 2015 season: 7th at Ironman Melbourne, 8th at Ironman 70.3 St. George, 3rd at Escape From Alcatraz, and 3rd at Ironman 70.3 Vineman. In anticipation of a duel with Ryf, the guess here is she is playing her cards close to the vest and dismisses the significance of every race save Kona.
Rachel Joyce, 37, Great Britain
Joyce has the best recent Kona record of Carfrae’s challengers - 2nd in 2013 and 3rd in 2014. Her runner-up finish in 2013 was accomplished in 8:57:28, the 5th-fastest women's time ever at Kona. Outside of Kona, she won the 2011 ITU Long Distance World Championship, 2012 Challenge Roth, and 2013 Ironman Texas, and took 2nd behind Helle Frederiksen at 2014 Challenge Bahrain.
This year, after switching coaches from Dave Scott to Julie Dibens, Joyce scored a 3rd place at Ironman Texas, 10 minutes behind Angela Naeth’s 8:55:19 and 7 minutes back of Leanda Cave’s 8:58. In a late summer tune-up, Joyce finished 3rd at Timberman 70.3 behind Naeth and Jackson.
Jodie Swallow, 34, Great Britain
Swallow has a very strong career record, with a 2009 ITU World Championship long distance gold, and wins at the 2010 Ironman 70.3 Worlds, 2010 Alpe d’Huez, 2010 ITU World Cup Korea. She won 2013 Ironman Sweden with an 8:54 time, as well as a 2nd at 2013 Ironman Frankfurt in 8:57. She finished 2014 very strong with a 2nd at Ironman 70.3 Worlds, 4th at Kona, and 3rd at Challenge Bahrain.
This year Swallow began with a win at Ironman South Africa. But overtraining led to a series of setbacks. Defending her title at Boulder 70.3, she finished walking and gasping for air due to a vitamin B12 shortage which caused her red blood cells to swell and not bind with oxygen effectively. A pre-race crash in Austria doomed her Ironman 70.3 chances. But a recent wire-to-wire win at Ironman 70.3 Lanzarote is a hopeful indicator that she might be firing on all cylinders at Kona.
Caroline Steffen, 37, Switzerland
Steffen came 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. Her other Kona finishes include 5th places in 2011, 2013 and 2014.
Steffen has won many big races - ITU Long Distance Worlds in 2010 and 2012, Ironman Melbourne in 2012 and 2014, Challenge Roth in 2013, and Ironman Frankfurt in 2012.
This year she took 3rd at Ironman Frankfurt - 20 minutes behind Ryf and 10 minutes behind Julia Gajer, 3rd at Ironman Melbourne, and she won 70.3s in Cairns, Cebu and Vietnam.
Leanda Cave, 37, Great Britain
After her glorious double - winning the Ironman 70.3 and Ironman World championships in 2012, Cave suffered through an injury- and illness-plagued 2013. In 2014 under new coach Cliff English she made a steady cautious comeback, taking 3rds at St. Croix and Boulder 70.3s, 2nd at Wiesbaden 70.3, and a very encouraging 8:56:50 win at Ironman Sweden. However, the comeback hit a pothole in Kona where she faded to 18th.
This year Cave looked good winning Cannes International and taking 2nd at Ironman Texas. Her 8:55:19 finish there was 2:53 back of a strong performance by Angela Naeth, and included a 2nd-best 4:47:43 bike split.
Angela Naeth, 33, Canada
Like Hauschildt, Naeth’s expected debut at Kona has been a long time in the making. After what seemed like an endless string of runner-up finishes on the 70.3 circuit, Naeth broke through in 2011 and arrived at the top in 2012 with 70.3 wins at Panama, St. Croix, and Syracuse, and middle distance half triumphs at Rev3 Portland and Leadman 125.
In 2013, she had a modest 5th place Ironman debut at Lake Tahoe and a 6th at Melbourne the next spring. At the end of last year, she won three straight 70.3s and then had a big Ironman breakthrough, winning Chattanooga in sub-9 hours with the fastest bike split and women’s race record. After a modest-for-Naeth 5th, 3rd, and 2nd at early season 70.3s, she transformed herself into a serious Ironman contender with a rousing win at 2015 Ironman Texas where she dropped the hammer with a women’s best 4:41:38 bike split that was 6:05 better than Leanda Cave and 11 minutes better than two-time Kona podium finisher Rachel Joyce.
Strategically, Naeth, who makes up for slower swims with a ton of bike course records, should arrive at T2 within range of the leaders. If she can duplicate her Ironman Texas 3:09 run, Naeth will have a chance at the podium and is a sure bet for a top 10.
Liz Blatchford, 35, Australia
After a stellar ITU Olympic distance career, Blatchford burst on to the Ironman scene in 2013 with a win at Ironman Cairns, a 4th at Ironman Mt. Tremblant to qualify for Kona, and a shockingly good 3rd in her Ironman World Championship debut. In 2014, she defended her Ironman Cairns title and placed 10th at Kona.
Current form includes a 3rd-straight win at Ironman Cairns, a 2nd by 50 seconds to Mary Beth Ellis at Ironman Mt. Tremblant, a win at Geelong 70.3, and 2nd place finishes at 70.3s in Vietnam and Busselton.
Mary Beth Ellis, 38, USA
The Honey Badger has 9 Ironman wins since 2011, two silver medals at Ironman 70.3 Worlds, and gold at the 2015 ITU long distance Worlds. After a broken collarbone and AV joint damage due to a September 2013 bike crash training for Kona, she had a good 2014 comeback with a 2nd at Ironman Melbourne and a 5th (despite struggling with injury) at Ironman 70.3 Worlds. After switching back to coach Brett Sutton in May, Ellis went on a tear recalling her peak form in 2011-2013 - winning ITU long distance worlds, Challenge Denmark, and Ironman Mt. Tremblant.
Julia Gajer, 33, Germany
As a 5-time Ironman podium finisher and 3-time sub 9-hour finisher, Julia Gajer comes back to Kona with a hunger to improve on her 6th place finish last year.
Last year she won Kraichgau, took 2nd at Ironman Texas, was 5th at Challenge Roth, and 6th at Kona. This year she won Luxembourg 70.3, and took an impressive 2nd at Ironman Frankfurt, and 2nds at Mallorca and Kraichgau 70.3s.
Eva Wutti, 26, Austria
This 26-year-old Austrian made a name for herself with four sub-9 hour Ironman performances. Her best was a women’s 7th-best ever 8:37:36 at 2013 Ironman Copenhagen, followed by an 8:45:37 at 2015 Ironman Austria, 8:49:21 at 2014 Ironman Barcelona, and 8:51:01 at 2013 Ironman Barcelona. Wutti is a dangerous all-around talent, as her Ironman Austria performance included a 52:39 swim, 4:53:57 bike and 2:54:42 run.
Heather Wurtele, 36, Canada
This 6-time Ironman winner and 13-time Ironman 70.3 champion has made her mark with a 3rd place at the 2014 Ironman 70.3 World Championship to Daniela Ryf and Jodie Swallow, and a runner-up this year to Ryf at the 70.3 Worlds in Zell Am See. Wurtele also showed she belonged with the elites at the big races with a 2nd place at Challenge Dubai this year. This tall champion has half Ironman foot speed and lags behind the best Ironman runners with a 3:15:29 in her best Kona finish in 2011 and a 3:09:10 winning Ironman Coeur d’Alene in 2013. So far she has not reached her potential on the Big Island. From an 8th place in 2011, she fell to 12th in 2012, 10th in 2013, and 15th last year.
Camilla Pedersen, 32, Denmark
In 2013, Pedersen was near the top of the Ironman world with an 8:56:01 finish and a win over Jodie Swallow at Ironman Frankfurt, and a victory at the Ironman 70.3 European Championship in Barcelona. But on a training ride near her home in Denmark that September, she crashed trying to avoid hitting a group of kids and suffered bleeding on the brain. Doctors put her in a medically induced coma and she was told she would never be able to walk again.
Defying the odds, she raced again in 2014 and won many Ironman 70.3 titles as well as the ITU long distance World Championship. This year Pedersen has 70.3 wins at Barcelona, Kraichgau, and Wiesbaden, and a 2nd at ITU long distance worlds.
Meredith Kessler, 37, USA
This 8-time Ironman winner, 13-time Ironman 70.3 victor, ITU Long Distance Worlds bronze medalist, and 4-time Ironman New Zealand winner has been hungry for a podium at Ironman 70.3 Worlds [best was 4th in 2014] and retains dreams of a top 5 at Kona.
This year Kessler started well with a win at Auckland 70.3, had a disappointing 7th at Challenge Dubai, won her 4th straight Ironman New Zealand, and took 2nd at St. George 70.3. She then went on a four-race win streak at Raleigh and Mt. Tremblant 70.3s, Challenge Williamsburg, and yet another win at the classic Vineman 70.3. Zell Am See was a disappointing DNF. But with memories of her 7th place at Kona in 2013, the dream lives.
Caitlin Snow, 33, USA
Snow gained Ironman fame with some of the fastest women's Kona marathons, including a 2:56:04 when placing 8th at 2010 Kona, 2:53:50 while placing 9th in 2011, and 2:58:53 while placing 6th at 2013 Kona. This year, Snow had a breakthrough win at Ironman France which included a 57:43 swim, a 5:21:59 bike split over Nice’s brutal hills, and a stellar 2:58:26 run which held off Lisa Roberts and her race-best 2:54:45 run for a 1:10 margin of victory.
Heather Jackson, 31, USA
Jackson has been yearning for a healthy Kona debut for years while amassing a fine 70.3 record. Career highlights include 3 wins and a women's course record at Wildflower, 2 wins at Oceanside 70.3, a win at Escape From Alcatraz, and a runner-up finish at the 2014 Ironman 70.3 World Championship.
This year she had a discouraging 11th place finish at Ironman Texas, but quickly renewed Kona optimism with a win at Ironman Coeur d’Alene. Jackson has the bike chops to roll into the mix by T2. If she can duplicate her 3:08 Coeur d’Alene marathon, she will have a shot at a top-10 Kona debut.
Gina Crawford, 34, New Zealand
Crawford is a 13-time Ironman-distance winner and is a frequent visitor to the top 10 at Kona. She finished 8th in 2008, 7th in 2012, 9th in 2013, and 8th in 2014.
Beth Gerdes, 35, USA
After the birth of her daughter Wynne a year ago, Beth Gerdes and partner Luke McKenzie have been racing around the world with baby, and it’s working. Globe-trotting with baby seems to agree with Gerdes, who is raising her triathlon game to new levels. This year she was 5th at Pucon 70.3, 2nd at Subic Bay70.3, 5th at Ironman Melbourne with the best women’s run of the day, 2nd at Ironman 70.3 Philippines, and had a triumphant win at Ironman Switzerland where she passed Mary Beth Ellis with a women's-best 3:01:24 marathon.
Annabel Luxford, 33, Australia
Like Liz Blatchford, fellow Australian Annabel Luxford switched from ITU Olympic distance racing to long course the past few years. Luxford had an encouraging 2014 with wins at Challenge Shepparton, the Australian 70.3 championships, and second places at the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon, Auckland 70.3, Challenge Gold Coast, and Challenge Melbourne. The Ironman 70.3 World Championship was not as encouraging as Luxford was 11th there. This year Luxford stepped up in distance and took 6th at Ironman Melbourne.
Diana Riesler, 31, Germany
Riesler is a 5-time Ironman podium finisher and has broken 9 hours twice. She showed she could be in the mix at Kona with her win this year at Ironman Lanzarote.
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, 4th place finishes at Boulder 70.3 and Texas 70.3, and a 5th place at Ironman Frankfurt. Lyles’ 2nd place at the 2014 Ironman Frankfurt in 8:56:36, just 3:56 behind winner Corinne Abraham, was the 5th fastest ever on that course. With her 53:40 swim, a 4:56:43 bike split, and a 3:01:14 marathon, Lyles has no weaknesses and her run potential is definitely sub-3 hours. This year she won Wildflower and was 2nd at Ironman Brazil.