CAN LIONEL BREAK THE GERMAN HOLD?
Can Lionel Sanders take on the German juggernaut and secure the win at this year’s Ironman World Championship? Is there anyone who can compete with Daniela Ryf to make the women’s race interesting? Our look at what you can expect on the Big Island in October. Raymond Britt looks at the numbers behind Ironman champions, proving once again that you “bike for show and run for dough.”
As much as the men’s race at the Ironman World Championship could look like it might be better dubbed the German national championships, there is a chance that we could see a men’s champion from somewhere outside of Germany for the first time since 2014. A lot of that chance sits with Canadian Lionel Sanders, who was second last year to the sixth different German to claim the Ironman World Championship title, Patrick Lange. Before Lange, Jan Frodeno had taken the 2015 and 2016 titles. Before Frodeno, Sebastian Kienle took the 2014 world title. Kienle was the first German to win in Kona since Normann Stadler took his second Kona title in 2006. In between Stadler’s two wins (he won in 2004), Faris Al-Sultan led from start to finish to claim the 2005 title.
In 1997, Germany got its first Ironman world champion in the form of Thomas Hellriegel. For years, German athletes like Wolfgang Dietrich and Jurgen Zach had got themselves lots of television time at the front of the race on the bike (and in Dietrich’s case, the swim, too), but it took Hellriegel to finally give Germany a win on the Big Island. While it was another seven years before another German champion was crowned, it was Hellriegel’s win that heralded the beginning of the German Kona tradition. Alongside Hellriegel, his countrymen Zach and Lothar Leder, the first man to break the eight-hour full-distance barrier, joined him on the podium in 1997.
All of which is to say that the men’s race at the Ironman World Championship has seen a lot of German success over the years. The last few years we’ve seen that success explode. Kienle would likely have a few more wins to his name in Kona were it not for 2008 Olympic gold medalist Jan Frodeno, who seemed to be the man to beat for the third straight time at last year’s race, but would struggle on the run due to a back issue.
That seemingly set the stage for Sanders to break the German string and take his first Kona title. That was until Lange pulled out his second-straight supermarathon (in 2016 he broke Mark Allen’s marathon course record to finish third behind Frodeno and Kienle) to pass Sanders in the closing stages of the marathon. Lange went on to set a new course record in taking the title.
YOU’D BE NUTS TO BET AGAINST FRODENO, BUT IT’S NOT AS THOUGH ANYONE WILL BE HANDING HIM THE RACE.
Peter Reid, the Canadian who took the Ironman world title three times, always said that the hardest thing to do in the sport is to defend a Kona title. There’s all the media hype.
The surge in sponsorship responsibilities. More importantly, though, is the motivation that coming second or third provides to those in the hunt for the world title. Sanders, renowned as one of the most intense and driven athletes in the sport, was already thinking of ways he could improve his run split hours after he finished last year’s race.
“I’m motivated,” he said at the press conference held right after the world championship. “I feel like there’s time on the table, over the marathon. I just have to keep working the nutrition, the electrolytes, working the hydration and, of course, probably better bike pacing would help.”
As Sanders put it during that interview, his “analytical mind wanted to get back to the chopping block tomorrow.”
So, while Lange was celebrating and being feted across Germany as the world champion, Sanders was back in Windsor in his pain cave, honing his skills to go after the title once again.
If you think Sanders was motivated after last year, he had nothing on Jan Frodeno coming out of Kona. The two-time defending world champion was slowed to a walk for much of the marathon on the Big Island. As gutty as it was that he finished, his 70th place finish in 9:15 after a 4:01 marathon – well, it hurt. The rumours were that the next morning Frodeno decided that in 2018 he would take on Sanders at Ironman 70.3 Oceanside, Kienle at Ironman 70.3 Kraichgau (although it is his home-town race, Kienle had to skip Kraichgau to compete at the Challenge Championship) and Lange at the Ironman European Championship as he prepared himself for the world championship. When asked if that was truly the case, Frodeno corrected one aspect of that story. It wasn’t the next morning.
“I may or may not have put down my last beer and said to Felix (Rüdiger), my best buddy and manager, this is what I want to do,” Frodeno said as he prepared for the European Championship in Frankfurt. “He said ‘Thank God you’ve said it, because I’ve thought of nothing else the last three hours.’”
Frodeno has been frightening throughout 2018, “schooling” Sanders (his words, not mine, I assure you) in Oceanside, dominating Lange and a strong German field in Kraichgau and then destroying Lange in the marathon in Frankfurt.
“I learned to channel my anger, which has worked in my favour,” Frodeno said in Frankfurt. “It was one of those things, dealing with my results, from a sporting perspective. I’ve turned it into a positive energy.”
Like the Brownlees did as they prepared for the last two Olympic Games, experimenting with different approaches to taking the Olympic gold medal – everything from leading from the start of the swim to breaking away on the bike to taking the race in a sprint – Frodeno has nailed a few different approaches to his wins as he gears up for Kona. In Oceanside and Kraichgau he led from start to finish. In Frankfurt, he chose to stay with a group on the bike, pouring on the pressure to ensure that Lange would start the marathon with tired legs, then hammering through a 2:39 marathon to dominate the final leg.
Does that mean Frodeno is the hands down favourite to take a third Kona title in October? Well, you’d be nuts to bet against him, but it’s not as though anyone will be handing him the race. If Sanders was motivated after his runner-up finish in Kona last year, the runner-up finish at Oceanside left him doubly determined to make the changes required to compete for the win on the Big Island. A new bike size, position, handlebars, pedals and a refined running technique were all part of Sanders’s Kona prep for this year.
Counting Lange out would be a huge mistake, too. The defending champ was injured for much of the first half of last year, so this year’s build is already well ahead of where he was a year ago. He also now knows exactly what he needs to do to take Frodeno on this October – run better after a fast bike.
Then there’s Sebastian Kienle, who has
become the sport’s main legitimizer for the past few years. Sanders became much more of a legitimate star once he beat Kienle on a regular basis, especially after the two ran together for 16 of the 21 km run at the Championship last year. Frodeno’s 2016 win over Kienle in Kona also saw the two running stride for stride for a portion of the marathon and the win elevated Frodeno’s status even more because it came in a tight race over a former champion.
As much as Kienle is one of the sport’s classiest acts, he’d be much happier taking the wins at those big events. The 2014 Kona champ proved he can win when he’s supposed to, with an impressive performance at Challenge Roth. While some might downplay the win because he didn’t face any of the big names in Roth, it’s important to note that Kienle rode much of the bike ride with Cameron Wurf, the Australian former bike pro who has been turning the triathlon cycling world upside down over the last few years. Last year, in Kona, Wurf destroyed the old bike course record, taking Sanders and Kienle along for the ride. Wurf was never a factor on the run last year, while Sanders and Kienle couldn’t run off the bike as well as they needed to in order to take the win, no doubt thanks to the punishing bike pace Wurf provided.
Kienle’s race in Roth this year provided exactly the kind of test he needed for Kona. Rather than break down after a super-hard bike behind the Aussie speedster, Kienle put together an excellent marathon.
That might just do the trick this year. Wurf adds a wild card factor to the Kona picture for 2018. He’s been working on his running, following a unique training program that has seen him complete a number of full-distance races this year. A week before he finished fifth in Roth he was third at Ironman France. Wurf will once again look to dominate on the bike and hope that he can gain enough time on the rest of the field to hold on for the win. That’s not likely to happen with so many potential low-2:40 (or even 2:39) marathon runners in the field, but what if Sanders and Kienle can hold their marathon running together that much better this year? What if they choose to follow the Wurf express towards a big win?
Add in the much-anticipated arrival of Javier Gomez to the mix, and the bottom line is we’re in for a very exciting Ironman World Championship men’s race. The last time a Kona rookie (on the men’s side) won the world title was Luc Van Lierde in 1996. Since Van Lierde’s win almost every men’s champion in Kona has finished in the top three the year before. The only ones that haven’t were previous champions.
Are there other men who could be a factor in Kona later this year? Absolutely. American Tim O’Donnell has finished as high as third in Kona. Another American, Matt Hanson, delivered a scary fast marathon in Texas this year. Last year’s third-place finisher David McNamee has quietly been gearing up for another big day on the Big Island.
In the end, though, its hard to imagine that tradition will change very much. Other than the question mark that Gomez provides, the men most likely to contend for the win are the men who have been contending for the win the last few years. And that list includes a bunch of Germans and one very determined Canadian.
THE BOTTOM LINE IS WE’RE IN FOR A VERY EXCITING IRONMAN WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP MEN’S RACE.
As exciting as the men’s race looks to be, the women’s race in Kona could be very boring. We’re all hoping that won’t be the case, but that all depends on Daniela Ryf’s fitness heading into the big day. Two years ago, Ryf shattered the course record, finishing almost 25 minutes up on three-time Kona champ Mirinda Carfrae. There was so much time between Ryf and the rest of the women’s field that the Swiss star could easily have had a shower, a coffee and a decent snack before it was time for her to greet the day’s runner up.
Last year Ryf defended her title, but having spent much of the early part of the year dealing with back issues, wasn’t nearly as dominant. That is far from the case in 2018. Ryf entered just hear second race of 2018 at the Ironman European Championship in Frankfurt. The first was Ironman 70.3 Rapperswil in her home country, where she dominated. The race in Frankfurt went beyond domination – it was frightening. Ryf blasted through the course to set another course record, despite the fact that the bike was five km longer than the last time she’d set the record. She finished seventh overall, just 38-minutes behind men’s champion Jan Frodeno, and was almost 26 minutes ahead of American runner-up, Sarah True.
The race provided Ryf and her coach, Brett Sutton, all the important feedback they need to adequately prepare for Kona:
“It was one of the days when I felt like I pushed and pushed and didn’t get tired,” she said after the race. “It was a really amazing feeling. I think coming down from altitude really helps, you really feel your lungs are able to give you more and the muscles also felt strong. I am really happy with my bike performance, it felt like I was flying all along the course. It was good to see that the changes we did with my set up seemed to work and definitely the form – it’s all coming together well. Today it was very nice to see in numbers.”
See what I mean about how the race could be boring?
One way we could see some competition for a healthy Ryf is if Lucy Charles, who, in many ways, stole the show in Kona last year, can continue to improve her run split. The former Great Britain national team swimmer is no stranger to high-level sport. Having competed for a spot on Great Britain’s Olympic team as a 17-year-old, she handles pressure well and knows all too well about the hard training required to be a world champion. Charles was a close second out of the water last year, led pretty much the entire bike ride, forcing Ryf to push hard at the end of the ride to lead into T2, and ran well enough last year to keep the Swiss champ honest.
Charles continued her impressive Ironman winning ways with a wire-to-wire win at the Ironman African Championship in April, dominated the Challenge Championship in Samorin, Slovakia, and got exactly the kind of motivation she needed to up her game with her finish at Challenge Roth. In Roth, Charles held a huge lead after the swim and was still over four-minutes up into T2, but struggled with stomach issues during the run. A portapotty stop at 28 km might have got her some relief, but considering she lost the race to Germany’s Daniela Saemmler by nine seconds, turned out to be an expensive pit stop.
Like all those motivated men gunning after Lange this year, though, Charles comes out of the race in Roth suitably motivated. Like so many champions, it didn’t take her long to figure out what could be learned from the Roth experience.
“I feel like it was a big box ticked that I was able to overcome that mental battle of wanting to pull out and carrying on and being able to push at the end,” she said after the race in Roth.
ONE WAY WE COULD SEE SOME COMPETITION FOR A HEALTHY RYF IS IF LUCY CHARLES CAN CONTINUE TO IMPROVE HER RUN SPLIT.
“IT DOESN’T PHASE ME TO BE RUNNING HEAD TO HEAD WITH SOMEONE. IF IT CAME TO THAT IN KONA, I’D BE UP FOR THAT. BRING IT ON.” —LUCY CHARLES
“I’m happy to have that kind of battle. It doesn’t phase me to be running head to head with someone. If it came to that in Kona, I’d be up for that. Bring it on. I think that’s a good thing as well, that mentally I can cope with that.”
And like so many of the men who talk about being motivated after a result that left them wanting, the close loss in Roth might just have provided Charles with some muchneeded motivation.
“I find it really hard after I’ve had a good result to go back to training, because you’re on high and it’s hard to settle yourself and get back into training,” she said. “I find it much easier if I’ve had a result that I’m not 100 per cent happy with, because I think that it’s time to knuckle down and get the work done because I never want to feel that again. I think that’s going to help me want to get back to training and work really hard.”
Like Ryf, last year’s third-place finisher in Kona, Australian Sarah Crowley, has raced considerably less than she did a year ago. Crowley was one of the distant competition in Frankfurt and is fully aware that all the women will have their work cut out for them if they are to contend on the Big Island.
“That was a bit of an excaliber bike,” Crowley said of Ryf’s impressive day. “It’s phenomenal. We’ve got some work to do for Kona – I think everybody does.”
If Ryf has another Frankfurt-like day in Hawaii this October, it’s hard to imagine anyone will be close. But if she doesn’t, who other than Crowley and Charles could we expect to see near the front? American Heather Jackson has finished fifth, third and fourth in Kona in her last three appearances. Three-time Ironman World Champion Mirinda Carfrae has returned from last year’s maternity leave and has been biking very well in her comeback races, that include runner-up finishes at Ironman 70.3 Texas and Ironman Cairns. The woman who beat her in Texas, Kaisa Sali, has finished fifth in Kona the last two years and is
KAISA SALI IS ANOTHER FAST RUNNER WHO COULD RUN HER WAY TO THE PODIUM IN THE RIGHT CONDITIONS.
another fast runner who could run her way to the podium in the right conditions.
Denmark’s Michelle Vesterby has traditionally shone on the Big Island in October, finishing fourth in 2015 and sixth in 2016. A strong swimmer and cyclist, she is one of the few who could conceivably be near the front with the likes of Ryf and Charles on the bike – the question is whether she has the run to be able to make the step up to the podium.
Another Dane that will garner lots of attention at this year’s race is Helle Frederiksen, who is making her Kona debut. Fresh off a home-country win at the ITU Long Distance World Championship, Frederiksen was second at Ironman Arizona last year and could certainly be a factor in this year’s race.
As could another Kona rookie, two-time Olympian Sarah True. The American managed to out-run Ryf by four minutes in Frankfurt this year in her full-distance debut, running her way to second.
But when you start the marathon 30 minutes down, gaining four minutes doesn’t exactly provide much excitement if you’re looking for a close finish. Which is why this year’s women’s race at the Ironman World Championship has the potential to provide little suspense. Sure, there will likely be some drama for the other spots on the podium, but if Daniela Ryf continues to race the way she can and has done this year, that spot is taken.
ABOVE Patrick Lange at the Ironman European Championship
OPPOSITE Lionel Sanders defends his Challenge Championship title
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Kevin Mackinnon, David McColm
LEFT Age-group competitors race along the Queen K highway Kevin Mackinnon