A bunch of women with legitimate aspirations of taking the championship. This should be a championship to remember.
By Kevin Mackinnon
As a rule, I don’t do this. All week long, as I walk around Kona, people continually ask me “who’s going to win.” To which I always reply: “I don’t do that.” I hate trying to pick favorites for any race, especially this one, because, well, that’s why we have the race. (And the inevitable fact that eventually one of the pros I didn’t pick comes up to me and asks why I didn’t.) That said, I get the fact that we’re supposed to come up with some pre-race predictions, which is why I’m going to get it all out of the way for the women’s race in this, the first of my daily Ironmanlife columns here this week in Kona.
Feel free to lambast me accordingly if I’ve missed anyone that you think should appear on this list. I will warn you, though, that thanks to the reduced field here in Kona thanks to the new qualifying system, almost the entire field of 30 women has what it takes to be a top-10 finisher, so literally everyone in the race deserves mention.
When Chrissie Wellington announced that she wouldn’t be competing this year, life became very interesting for a number of women with very legitimate claims to favorite status at this year’s championship. That said, many of those women felt they were making inroads into Wellington’s domination of the race. While she was injured heading into last year’s race, Wellington was pushed to the limit in Kona last year by the likes of Mirinda Carfrae, Caroline Steffen, Rachel Joyce and Leanda Cave.
After her dominating performance at the Asia-Pacific IRONMAN Championship in Melbourne earlier this year, Switzerland’s Caroline Steffen put the world on notice that Wellington’s seemingly unbeatable times are suddenly in jeopardy. Steffen rode the race with the second group of men, even passing them at times on her way to a 4:35:29 bike split. She followed that up with a career-best 3:01 marathon. In the end she narrowly missed Wellington’s “official” Ironman world best time of 8:33:56 (yes, we know, her world best full-distance time of 8:18:13 was set in Germany last year) by just under a minute. The word is the run course in Melbourne was a few hundred metres long, which puts Steffen even closer to Wellington’s records.
Steffen followed that win up with a successful defense of her IRONMAN European title in Frankfurt, cruising in well ahead of her competition in an impressive 8:52:33. If she remains in that kind of form Steffen will be very hard to beat in Kona this year, which would add a nice bit of irony to the Wellington-less race – Steffen was the last person Wellington passed in an Ironman to maintain her unbeaten streak.
Steffen is only one of the favorites for this year’s title, though. While Australian Mirinda Carfrae was a distant third in Melbourne, her Kona record is nothing short of stellar. She was second in her debut, setting a new run course record. She won in 2010, the year Wellington had to drop out due to sickness, and then finished second again last year, setting another run course record. The year started slowly for Carfrae, who left long-time coach Siri Lindley at the end of last year, but has started to build as we near Kona with a number of 70.3 and half-distance wins. Carfrae knows that to win in Kona this year she’s going to have to bike faster than she has in years past and seems to be honing her biking skills accordingly. She’s going to lose time to Steffen on the bike – the question is how much. Considering she’s run a 2:52 marathon in Kona, that could give her as much as a nine-minute cushion. Believe it or not, though, she’ll have to have a fantastic ride to keep her losses to single digits to Steffen in Kona, which should make things interesting during the marathon.
The UK’s Rachel Joyce is another woman who could very much be in the mix this year, as she has been over the last few years. Joyce has steadily moved up in the results over the last three years, finishing sixth in 2009, fifth in 2010 and passing Steffen in the finishing chute for fourh last year. She was second to Steffen in Melbourne, shattering the nine-hour barrier for the first time by almost 16 minutes, and followed that up with a win at a full distance race in Germany in July. To do that she ran her first sub-three-hour marathon, which puts her very much in the picture, too.
Last year Leanda Cave was nothing short of outstanding in October and November, finishing third in Kona, winning IRONMAN 70.3 Miami, finishing second to Joyce at the ITU Long Distance World Championship and then winning IRONMAN Arizona. She struggled with some health issues during the early part of this season, then put all of those to rest with an outstanding win at the IRONMAN World Championship 70.3 in Henderson, Nevada last month. If she can keep up that form, she should also be a major factor in the race. She’ll be amongst the leaders out of the water (plan on seeing Dr. Amanda Stevens lead the way) and can ride with the best. Another solid marathon puts her in the hunt for the title.
Mary Beth Ellis arrived in Kona last year with three IRONMAN wins to her credit as she made a mad effort to claim enough qualifying points to just be here on the Big Island. This year she enters the IRONMAN World Championship considerably more rested after two impressive wins at Memorial Hermann IRONMAN Texas and the IRONMAN U.S. Championship in New York. She’ll be another woman to watch as the race unfolds on Saturday.
Another American who arrives here in Kona with a couple of wins to her name is Meredith Kessler, who won in Utah and Coeur d’Alene this year. Her running has really improved this year and she’s shown she’s got the wheels to compete with the best after 70.3 wins at Eagleman and Vineman, so you can’t count her out, either.
While we’re on the American favorite front, we might as well mention Linsey Corbin, who came over to Kona earlier this year for some pre-race course familiarization when she won IRONMAN 70.3 Hawaii. She also won IRONMAN Austria earlier this year and has finished as high as fifth (2008) here in Kona.
Moving north of the border we need to mention last year’s eighth-place finisher here at the IRONMAN World Championship, Heather Wurtele. A bad break with her bike put her out of the race in Couer d’Alene, which forced her to play catch up a few weeks later in Frankfurt to ensure she qualified for Kona. Her running has improved immensely this year and she’s always been able to swim and ride near the front, so look for the Canadian to be a top-five contender in 2012.
Anyone who saw Jessica Jacobs fly through the IRONMAN Florida course last year, breaking nine hours in impressive style, will know that the American super-mom has what it takes to certainly finish in the top ten, too.
Finally I’ll include Kelly Williamson on my “definitely watch this woman” list – while she hasn’t done an IRONMAN in 2012, she has been running up a storm of late thanks to her sixth place finish at the Hy-Vee 5150 championship with the fastest run split of the day and her runner-up finish to Cave at the IRONMAN World Championship 70.3, again with the fastest run split.
Others we wouldn’t be surprised to see near the front include:
Look for Caitlin Snow to blast through the marathon. The fleet-footed American has been working on her cycling – I saw her finishing the tough Green Mountain Stage race a few weeks ago – so she could be closer off the bike than she has been in years past. There are a bunch of European women who have very legitimate aspirations for a top-10 finish including Erika Csomer (HUN), Sonja Tajsich (DEU), and Belgians Sofie Goos and Tine Deckers. Gina Crawford (NZL) continues to get faster and faster after her year off to have a baby in 2011. Jo Lawn is another New Zealander who is no stranger to the front of this race and certainly has legitimate aspirations for another visit to the podium. Rebekah Keat (AUS) has been dealing with some injuries this year – if she’s over those then she goes from being a top-10 contender to a top-five contender in a hurry. Finally, would anyone on the planet be upset to see six-time champ Natascha Badmann somehow finish in the top-10 at 46? How cool would that be?
Women’s race breakdown:
Swim: Amanda Stevens will likely lead the way out of the water with a few-minute cushion over Cave and Steffen. Look for Amy Marsh to be another woman at or near the front of the women’s swim.
Bike: Steffen, Cave, Marsh and Joyce will likely be joined by a few others (Wurtele, Kessler) to create a lead group that will do their best to gain as much time on Carfrae as possible. Look for Steffen to try pull away from that group at some point.
Run: Who can hang on? After biking as hard as they’re likely to, the run will become a battle of attrition for those up in front. Carfrae will be steadily gain on everyone in front of her – the question is how far behind she’ll be and will she be able to make it up. Adding to the list of runners likely to be catching up through the marathon are Williamson and Snow.
So, now that I’ve managed to put together a list that pretty much includes the entire field, let me throw out one final thought:
In my mind Caroline Steffen arrives here in Kona as the woman to beat. Last year she’d been dealing with a foot injury, which left her run preparation decidedly compromised. If she is still in the form she’s shown for much of the year, watch out. To win, though, Steffen will need to be well ahead of Carfrae, who might not have had the same kind of success this year, but has a track record here in Kona second to none. If Steffen rides like she did in Melbourne, this is going to be a boring race. If she can’t duplicate that sort of pace or the rest of the women have raised their game to the point where they can keep up, she’s going to have a lot of company at some point on the marathon and we’ll have an incredibly exciting race.
Here’s the list of pro women competing here in Kona on Saturday:
Steffen Caroline CHE
Carfrae Mirinda AUS
Cave Leanda GBR
Joyce Rachel GBR
Ellis Mary Beth USA
Kessler Meredith USA
Beranek Anja DEU
Wurtele Heather CAN
Corbin Linsey USA
Keat Rebekah AUS
Marsh Amy USA
Lawn Joanna NZL
Williamson Kelly USA
Crawford Gina NZL
Snow Caitlin USA
Brandli Simone CHE
Sarah Piampiano USA
Badmann Natascha CHE
Jacobs Jessica USA
Tajsich Sonja DEU
Goos Sofie BEL
Deckers Tine BEL
Moeller Kristin DEU
Stevens Amanda USA
Gailey Michelle AUS
Dietrich Susan DEU
Csomor Erika HUN
Sakai Emi JPN
Vesterby Michelle DNK
Gross Sara CAN
Hufe Mareen DEU
You can reach Kevin Mackinnon at firstname.lastname@example.org