Kona predictions: men’s top 10

We’re getting ever closer to the biggest race in the triathlon calendar, which began in 1978 with 15 hardy souls and now attracts the pinnacle of long-distance athletes from all over the world.

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From ITU and Olympic champions to previous Ironman World Championship winners, there are a host of contenders  to take the title in 2015, including Brits Tim Don and Joe Skipper, with the potential there for a fiercely-fought battle akin to Scott and Allen in 1989 and McCormack and Raelert in 2010.

Here 220 columnist Tim Heming counts down his predicted top 10 finishers…

10. Matt Hanson

Past results: ninth in Age-Group 2013; IM Texas winner 2015, IM Chattanooga winner 2014

There can’t be many professionals in Kona newer to the sport than Hanson, who only took up triathlon in 2011, but as a professor of exercise science and director of the human performance program at Buena Vista University, he’s well placed to optimise his training and the rise has been impressive.

Two years ago he finished a mere ninth in his age-group (25-29) in Hawaii, but hinted at his potential with a 2:53 marathon, the fastest amateur split. Since turning professional he has won Ironman Chattanooga in a course record 8:12:32 last year and did the same this time around in Texas with 8:07:43 where he ran down a 9min deficit to Joe Skipper and extended to a 9min margin of victory. That 2:45:47 showing was not even Hanson’s fastest marathon in an Ironman – the 30-year-old ran a 2:41:38 on the same course last year and a 2:42:07 in Coeur d’Alene, both course records.

The likelihood is that Hanson will struggle in the swim and suffer on the bike, but with few expectations, the man from Concord, Massachusetts, might just fly on the run.

9. Tim Don

Past results: IM Mallorca winner 2014; IM 70.3 Monterrey winner 2015; 2006 ITU World Champion

Don validated his full distance race requirement by winning with a comfortable 4min cushion on debut in Mallorca last September, with his qualification chances already buffered by a glut of points from last year’s third place at the Ironman World 70.3 Championship.

The Boulder-based Londoner wisely elected not to fit in another full distance effort, and instead took to the 70.3 circuit with victories in Monterrey, Brasilia, Utah and Ecuador; a predominantly South American schedule linked to a Coca-Cola team endorsement signed alongside British female professional Rachel Joyce.

It was all going so well until Don came off his bike just before the business-end of the season. Thirty-six stitches in his face, two in his knee, six internal and two to save his thumb meant he flew to Austria for the 70.3 worlds topped up on antibiotics, and pulled out before the end.

Missing the last big training block is far from perfect preparation for a first crack at Kona, but enforced layoffs can be turned to a positive, and Don is of that mindset, with assurances he’s fit and firing if a little fatigued. In some ways it’s exactly where you should be a few weeks out, and he does have a lifetime of endurance conditioning to fall back on.

8. Joe Skipper

Past results: Second place IM Texas 2015; three podiums at IM UK

This could be the highest achieving year yet for British male triathletes in Kona, with debut appearances from Tim Don and David McNamee. Skipper, though, could top the lot. Unlike the others, the 27-year-old from Norfolk has not come through the British Triathlon system but since stepping up to long course action has been a breath of fresh air, with his honest endeavour, candid views, heavy-hitting bike legs and slick run splits.

He’s had three consecutive podium finishes at Ironman UK, a race he’s desperate to win and must surely land within a couple of years. But the result that really put his name forward as a contender – and into exalted company in the saddle – was a runner-up spot in the Ironman North American Championship in Texas. A 4:10:07 bike split was the fourth fastest official Ironman bike ride ever. Given the company he’s keeping, the reality is Skipper is only a dark horse for the top 10, but his strong bike leg could make him an exciting prospect. 

7. Eneko Llanos

Past results: IM 70.3 Lanzarote winner 2015; Ironman Europe Champion 2013; Three-time XTERRA World Champion 

Of the four Spaniards on the startlist, Llanos looks to have the all-round talent to produce the best result in Kona. At 38, there are plenty of miles on the clock with an Ironman career stretching back over a decade, three XTERRA world titles and an appearance in the first Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000.

He DNF’d last year in Kona after the bike leg and an eighth place in the Ironman European Championship in Frankfurt with a 3:18:34 marathon was also below par, but Llanos is still a regular top 10 performer and retains some of his short course speed, as proven by a 1:11:16 half-marathon in a packed Challenge Dubai race in February. He’s also proved he’s in good current shape with a win at the recent Lanzarote 70.3 race, so expected to be in the mix.

6. Brent McMahon

Past results: IM Arizona winner 2015 (course record); three-time IM 70.3 North America champion

Owner of the fastest Ironman debut time ever at Arizona last year (7:55:48), the Canadian certainly has the speed to impress on debut in Hawaii. 

Now 35, he experienced two Olympic Games eight years apart in Athens and London, improving from 39th to 27th, and will not have lost all the speed from the 31:09 10km split he put in at Hyde Park. Hailing from Victoria, British Columbia, McMahon has also worked with the same coach, Lance Watson, for two decades and despite the extended short course career, Watson believes his protege was always destined to go long, saying: “I knew when he was in his early twenties that he’d be best at Ironman, but Brent’s complete commitment to what we were doing long-term gave us the luxury of not rushing him to that distance.” The pair will hope the cool, calculated approach pays off on October 10.

5. Andy Potts

Past results: 4th IM World Championship 2014; IM 70.3 Calgary winner 2014; Escape From Alcatraz winner 2014

At 38, time should be running out for the ever-dependable Potts, and yet he’s showing few signs of slowing down, particularly in Hawaii. Save 2013, when he pulled out injured on the morning of the race, the American has been competing on the Big Island since 2008, collecting three top 10 finishes in the process.

Such is Potts’ reputation and history as the perennial swim leader, the lead kayak might as well be assigned as his personal companion, although Jan Frodeno tried to upset the etiquette by out-muscling him on to the pier last year and it’s likely New Zealand’s Dylan McNeice will have a say this time around. A 2004 Olympian in Athens where he was first out of the water and finished 22nd, Potts will undoubtedly lose a few spots on the bike, before – if he’s having a good day – forge back into race on the run.

Log on to Potts’ website and the first thing that greets you is a slogan saying: ‘Andy Potts is always a contender’. I don’t see anything changing here.

4. Bart Aernouts

Ninth IM World Championship 2014; IM France winner 2014; IM 70.3 Wiesbaden winner 2014

Two things to know about Aernouts: he won’t win, yet he won’t be overtaken on the marathon. On dry land, the former duathlete and Uplace BMC team member excels.

The Belgian is the type of athlete you don’t hear about all day then pops up on Ali’i Drive in an impressive position having clocked just about fastest run split. In 2013 the 2:44:03 was good enough for eighth, last year’s 2:50:12 resulting in ninth. The non-wetsuit swim is where he suffers, but he’s improving – in 2012 he couldn’t break the hour, last year it was down to 55.43.

This year does offer more hope, as neither Kienle or Skipper are front-pack swimmers either, but will be amongst the strongest bikers in the race. If they come out of the swim in dribs and drabs it may not suit, but as a combined second or third chase pack it will be fun to watch, fireworks will fly and it could set Aernouts up perfectly to unleash yet another impressive run.

Find out who our tip for the top spot is on page 3

3. Freddie van Lierde

IM World Champion 2013; eighth in IM World Championships 2014; IM Port Elizabeth winner 2015

Just as in 2013, Van Lierde will not be many people’s pick to win Kona – including the Ironman public relations department – but if you had to choose a top 10 certainty, it would be the Belgian. Van Lierde just gets the job done.

He keeps a low profile, as low as any world champion as he controlled the race to claim victory two years ago. He also rarely has a bad day, the worst of Van Lierde probably arriving last year when suffering from stomach cramps to finish eighth.

Rarely found wanting in the swim, a smart, strong biker and consistent runner, Van Lierde is coached by namesake and two-time Kona winner Luc van Lierde. He doesn’t race too often, but will be as well prepared as any athlete on the island.

But can he live with the best of the best? It may sound like it’s detracting from his 2013 win, but the field is considerably stronger that it was two years ago. Van Lierde could even perform better than the 8:12:29 he produced in 2013 and still finish third.

2. Sebastien Kienle

IM World champion 2014; IM 70.3 World Champion 2012, 2013; IM European Champion 2014

The reigning champion. One of the sights of the Ironman World Championship is to watch Kienle, having clawed back the deficit from the swim, power past a paceline of 20 or so triathletes and burst into the lead on the Queen K. If this scenario plays out again then there’s no better front-runner in the sport than Kienle, who melts out fearsome power on the bike and always produces a measured, unflappable run. But will it be enough to retain the title?

Only four men have ever successfully defended the No 1 position on the Big Island, Dave Scott, Mark Allen, Tim DeBoom and Craig Alexander, and the year-long extracurricular commitments for reigning champions have only intensified. Ever candid, Kienle is also not one to turn down interview requests and has worn the mantle of champion with distinction.

In 2015, though, he hasn’t been quite as dominant. Out-split by 2:24mins by Frodeno in Frankfurt, and 2:19mins by Andreas Dreitz at the 70.3 Worlds in Zell am See, it could be his way of holding back the throttle to fathom the fastest combined bike-run strategy in Kona. Certainly the run is looking sharper than ever, including out-splitting Javier Gomez at the 70.3 Worlds over the half-marathon.

Expect Kienle to revert to type on October 10 and lay it all out in the second half of the bike leg, because he knows he needs a cushion leaving T2. From there a 2.50 marathon might pressure the faster marathoners to falter, except this year, I think there will be just one that won’t…

1. Jan Frodeno 

Third IM World Championship 2014; IM 70.3 World Champion 2015; IM Frankfurt winner 2015 (course record); Olympic Champion 2008

Frodeno heads to Hawaii looking to repeat the performance of Craig Alexander in 2011 by winning both the 70.3 and full Ironman world championship crowns.

The big German also looks without a weakness to attack. Any remaining questions over his step up from ITU racing hung over race management and nutrition, and he’s answered both. This year Frodeno returned to Frankfurt for the Ironman European Championship and set a course record in unseasonably hot conditions of 7:49:48.

Most notably, astride his new-fangled Canyon, he biked away from compatriot Sebastian Kienle – despite the nose cone dropping off. Kienle’s weapon of a second discipline may still re-emerge to full effect if the crosswinds take hold in Hawaii, but Frodeno has laid down a powerful psychological marker.

It hasn’t always been smooth progression – since winning gold at Beijing 2008, Frodeno only stood atop the World Series podium twice in ITU racing and not since 2010. Sixth at London 2012 having battled an injury was impressive, however, and now we’re witnessing a reinvigorated champion, and one who is unlikely to be stopped.

Given favourable conditions, even a course record – as Alexander achieved in 2011 – could be on the cards, and, whisper it quietly, maybe even a finish time under eight hours.

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