The Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, is the pinnacle of triathlon. The Holy Grail. Trying to do such a pantheon of talent justice in a race preview meant that we also had to reach out for the best; enter The Chief.

I picked the brain of the founder of Witsup about everything happening on the Big Island this year with the aim of gaining insights from one of the most knowledgeable minds in women’s triathlon.

Text By Rob Sheeley with Stef Hanson | Images By Getty Images and Witsup

 

With a different racing demographic to recent years, we started by looking at whether or not that had any effect of the atmosphere leading up to the race.

“This is my sixth year here, and each year it’s different, yet it’s the same. Just like the humidity, the energy and intensity is thick here – and I don’t think that will ever change. And, as we inch closer to race day, the excited energy changes more into nervous and anxious energy as athletes prepare for the biggest race of the year. I see it in pros and age groupers alike every year.

“It’s interesting being out here so early and just watching this place transform – both physically with the amount of people and the race infrastructure going up around you, but also energy wise, you feel that change.

“The obvious difference this year is the amount of pro women who are pregnant or have just had a kid who are missing from the island this year. It’s funny; I called this a year or two ago. I knew that there was a shift coming, and it would be because many of the pro women would be starting families. But I never expected so many of them to do it at once!

“I guess because I have been out here for six years in a row now, those top consistent performers, or those consistent influencers at this race have been here too over those six years too, which is why I guess it does feel different.”

In 2017, two of the fastest swimmers the sport has seen will be on the start line via Lauren Brandon and Lucy Charles. Add to that Haley Chura who led the swim in 2013 and it looks as though we may be looking at a different dynamic to the “usual” as the athletes exit the water.

(c) Getty Images

“So we expect to see a battle for the first out of the water to be between Lauren Brandon, Lucy Charles and Haley Chura. Then I think it will be a distinct gap back to the chase pack – which would ordinarily include a lot of those women who are missing from the start line this year – Jodie Cunnama, Meredith Kessler, Caroline Steffen, Liz Blatchford, Mary Beth Ellis etc. Which means that those strong swim/bikers – who have consistently been a part of that main pack of the group for the past years – won’t be leading the charge.

“Instead we’ll see some different faces in that chase pack, and that’s where I think we’ll see the biggest difference in dynamics. Even Rachel Joyce, who is typically part of that solid group of bikers at the front of the race, had a year off and now returns will look around to see a different group around her this year on the Queen K. And it’s not that those other women are unknown it’s more that they are somewhat of an unknown quantity in this race, or have yet to show as much consistency at this point in the race over the years.

Click Here To See Wahine Warriors: Rachel Joyce

“If Joyce wants to attack, who will she ask to go with her? If she wants to sit back a bit, who can she trust to keep a solid pace? AND, let’s face it, everyone will be expecting Daniela Ryf to take this race up the road much like last year, so will the women employ a different set of tactics, and not attempt to shake down Ryf but instead opt to eye each other off for second place?

“There’s no denying it, that would have to be going through some of these women’s heads. Sure you don’t go into a race already defeated, you never should, but do you go into a race with some race smarts, and instead of chasing an athlete who ‘on paper’ (and obviously a proven champion) is extremely hard to beat and run the risk of blowing yourself up, or do you remain cool, and stick to your own game plan?

“But back to those swimmers out the front. I mean a lot of attention has been on Lucy Charles in the lead up. She has had a great year, that’s for sure. But I’m interested to see how she reacts when Ryf catches her on the bike and passes her. Will she try to go with her? I don’t know.

“Her first year in Kona as a pro, it’d be a big call if she was going to try and go with Ryf on the bike. But then, there will be some solid riders behind her as well… does she wait for them to catch up and then join the train? Again, I don’t know because it’s her first time racing as a pro, and is just unknown over this course as a pro. She’s raced as an age grouper here, but obviously that’s a very different race!”

On the topic of riding with Daniela Ryf, it is a case of something that many have tried but few have succeeded at. In 2016 Anja Beranek surprised many by staying with Ryf for an extended period before the champion took charge. Beranek ran well to hold fourth place. It will be interesting to see if anyone attempts this feat in 2017.

“Truthfully, I didn’t pick Anja for a top five last year at all. She was the biggest shock for me. And when I saw how long she stayed with Ryf on the bike, I certainly didn’t give her enough credit to hold it together on the run for a fourth place. She had an incredible race last year, that’s for sure – full credit to her. It was impressive! In saying that, my gut says that no one will stay with Ryf on the bike at all.”

We looked towards the run and who may be the big guns to look out for. In 2016 Kaisa Sali flew early before tiring and finishing in a creditable fifth place. In the leg where the champions often emerge, The Chief put a few names forward who may come up big during the marathon.

“Last year I don’t think Kaisa was patient to be honest. She flew on the first part of the marathon after getting excited and powered past the fastest runner in our sport, Rinny. She then started to fade a bit and Rinny took control again. I think Kaisa had a few more moments when she had to keep herself under control or she would have been close to blowing up. This is also the beauty of being a first timer here – some first timers have ripper days because of the unknown of racing here – I wonder how much of what Kaisa learnt from last year will make her more risk adverse? She’s also had a slower start to her season as well, which makes it hard to judge where she’s at leading into this race.

“Major players in the run I think will come more from those patient athletes, or those athletes who are slow off the mark in the swim and claw their way back through the run.

“I think we need to watch for the likes of Susie Cheetham. In fact two years ago when she ran her way into sixth place on debut on the island she ran past a coach of another athlete and their response was “who the hell was that?” as she flew past their athlete – so she turned a few heads two years ago, and she’s a much more rounded athlete with two more years experience under her belt. She will be one to watch definitely.

Click Here To See Wahine Warriors: Susie Cheetham

“Other runners, no surprise here, Heather Jackson, a fifth on debut, then a third. She’s really focussed on this race.”

Many of the best in our sport have taken time and experience in Hawaii before they were able to produce their best in the race. Could 2017 produce someone of that ilk?

“The most consistent performer on this island, who hasn’t come away with the win is Rachel Joyce. I’d love to see her take that top step but that’s a massive call after just returning to racing this year and up against the likes of Ryf and several top contenders.

“But Joycey is as smart as they come when it comes to Ironman racing and she knows this course as well as anyone. She has been close enough on a couple of occasions to know what it takes to win the race.”

With a number of Kona rookies having quite established resumes I wondered who she thought might get it right at their first appearance on the Big Island. One of the beauties of The Chief spending so much time with the athletes means that she sees things that many others don’t and that spawned a prediction that many would not have as their obvious selection.

“Nikki Bartlett – I think she’s just so pumped to be here and loving life that she’ll be out there running on adrenalin all day.”

Click here to see Wahine Warriors: Nikki Bartlett

“Obviously someone like Laura Siddall also comes into calculations. She has had a year that would even be beyone her expectations and is armed with plenty of experience despite being a “rookie” in this race. If she just does her own thing on race day she is a definite top-ten candidate.”

With the Witsup’s Wahine Warriors prominent during the lead up to the race, it was interesting to ask if anyone looked in extra good fettle for the big event.

“To be honest, there’s no surprises. Everyone looks as fit as I’d expect. They’re impressive specimens. Did you see the veins in Ryf’s arms in our interview? KAPOW!

Click here to see Wahine Warriors: Daniela Ryf

“Actually I will say that Ryf seems more relaxed this year. I don’t know why, or how, but to me she seems more chilled. Not that she was highly strung or anything in the last couple of years but something seems calmer. I don’t know.”

The commitments on athletes during the lead up to this race is like no other. A day does not go by when you don’t see your favourite athletes popping up in interviews, photo shoots, videos and other sponsor commitments. I wondered what sort of toll this takes on them.

“It’s an interesting juggling act for athletes, and I’m not sure if anyone has the right formula. Rinny said yesterday that it would be a stressful week and she didn’t think that she would operate well with that much stress around her, she was surprised when she found out that she thrived on it.

“I do see a lot of athletes over doing it trying to please sponsors or potential new sponsors. it’s a hard one to balance.”

The ultimate question was whether or not anyone could end the Daniela Dynasty in Hawaii.

“Chrissie Wellington. Haha!  I would love to see that race though. How amazing would it be if you could get the different generations of athletes to duke it out to see who is the champion overall.

“Daniela is clearly the one to beat. I think Sarah Crowley has been a formidable force this year and has really honed in her racing and her team around her. She’s raced some big races, but I think she’ll have another great day out there on Saturday.”

Click here to see Wahine Warriors: Sarah Crowley

 

About The Author

Rob Sheeley is the Race Editor for WITSUP

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