Sunday, 7 October 2012

Ironman World Championship Preview - Pro Women

The Ironman World Championship goes off on October 13th.  For a numbers-based look at the race, check out the detailed analysis prepared by Thorsten Radde:


My take on the race is more qualitative, as we've seen evidence over the years to suggest that less racing coming into Kona is a better predictor of results. Last year Mary Beth Ellis came in having won three IM's in a short span, including a debut under nine hours and a course record at Ironman Canada, which by any quantitative indicator would have made her a contender for the title.  As it played out she placed 15th, showing it's a tough ask to race four competitive Ironmans in a 14 week period.

Executive Summary
In a contrast to the men's race, which is poised to be so exciting because all the top threats are participating, the women's race looks to be very exciting precisely because of who is not competing: Chrissie Wellington, four time winner, undefeated at the distance, and course record holder.  There are two former champions in the field (Mirinda Carfrae '10, Natasha Badmann '98,'00,'01,'02,'04,'05) though Badmann at 46 is no longer a threat for the title.

The 2012 race will be the first with a 5 minute male-female pro swim stagger.  This has been executed at a few races this year and has been well-received to allow the women to have a 'fairer' race.  Last year Amanda Stevens and Julie Dibens swam with the main pack of men to come out of the water two minutes ahead of the main female challengers, this year that will be tougher.  We can look for a lead pack to form that could have 2-3 minutes on both Caroline Steffen and Mirinda Carfrae and will likely include strong cyclists Rachel Joyce, Leanda Cave, Mary Beth Ellis and Amy Marsh.  

Out on the bike, Caroline Steffen will make her move, likely riding through all those girls and potentially locking in with some of the slower swimming men that she may have caught in the water.  If the women in the main pack work together like we see in the men's race, they could build a lead large enough to effectively eliminate Carfrae from contention by the time the group rolls into T2. 

Last year, Steffen ran down Dibens but didn't have enough gas to hold the lead, eventually fading to fifth place on the day.  This year she's a stronger athlete and will most likely come off the bike in the lead, and I think she'll be able to run her own marathon and win with a comfortable margin.  If the weather is similar to the last two years, I think she'll also break Chrissie's course record of 8:54.02 from 2009.  The main pack of T2 should follow the pattern of the men's race, a race of attrition where the strongest runners fill out the podium, with my picks being Rachel Joyce for the silver and Mary Beth Ellis for the bronze (updated following the news Joyce has a sinus infection: Steffen, Ellis, Cave on the podium).
Soon-to-be-crowned IM World Champ smiles for the camera
Here's a look at the full field: 
Happy To Be Here
With 31 pro women on the start line there’s invariably a collection of racers who have achieved their goal for the season just by earning a spot on the pier to rack their bike.  These athletes tend to race numerous times just to qualify, and are relatively tapped out by the time October arrives.  This year’s ‘happy to be here’ crowd:
Emi Sakai, 32, Japan
Sara Gross, 36, Canada
Michelle Gailey, 30, Australia
Mareen Hufe, 34, Germany
Sarah Piampiano, 32, USA
Susan Dietrich, 31, Germany

Greyhounds and Landsharks
Women who win races despite swim limitations, but who will either be too far back at T2 to be a factor, or will have to empty the tank to be near the front at T2:
Kristin Moeller, 28, Germany
Jessica Jacobs, 36, USA
Natascha Badmann, 46, Swizerland

The Fish
These women swim near the front but don't have the bike to stay in the race through T2:
Amanda Stevens, 35, USA
Simone Braendli, 32, Switzerland

In the Mix at T2
Michelle Vesterby, 29, Denmark: Kona rookie who has yet to run sub 3:20 in an Ironman.
Sofie Goos, 32, Belgium: Strong swim-biker who has yet to show a contending run.

The Darkhorses
Erika Csomor, 39, Hungary: At 39, she's been at this a long time (though not as long as Badmann!).  If she can team up with a good group out of the water she may be able to run into the top ten.

Joanna Lawn, 39, New Zealand: Another 'seasoned veteran', she's raced below her caliber the last two years in Kona, yet put on a good show in Melbourne earlier this year.  Has been fourth in Kona twice.

Tine Deckers, 34, Belgium: A strong cyclist and capable runner who typically has been too far back in Kona after the swim to be a factor.  Has shown some swim improvement this year, can she play at the front?

Anja Beranek, 27, Germany: Has a nice swim-bike combo that could have her near the front of the race after T2, has yet to show a contending run, but at 27 we haven't seen a lot of this girl and she could surprise.

Rachel Joyce, 34, Great Britain: The 2011 ITU World Champion and 2012 Challenge Roth Champ.  Originally had her pegged for the silver, but moved down to 'darkhorse' due to her chest infection.

The Players
Gina Crawford, 32, New Zealand: Gina's raced four iron-distance races already this year, though none since early July.  Strong swimmer, good cyclist and competitive runner making her Hawaii debut after racing most of her career in the southern hemisphere.

Meredith Kessler, 34, USA: A nice start to the year with two Ironman wins (St. George and Coeur D'Alene) but suffered a bad bike crash late in the summer.  On the mend, but likely not going to be fully charged this weekend.  Good swim/bike combo, run not quite on par with the top women.

Caitlin Snow, 30, USA: Has a blistering run that has put her in the top ten in Kona twice, and few women have run faster than her 2:51:46 from IM Texas in May.  Her bike is a huge liability though, when you're biking 20-30 minutes slower than the top women, 2:51 isn't going to get you on the podium.

Linsey Corbin, 31, USA: Broke 9 hours for the first time in Arizona last year following a disappointing Kona performance.  Solid across all three sports but doesn't have the swim speed to stay with the main pack of women, and though a strong rider likely can't bridge on her own.

The Contenders
Rebekah Keat, 34, Australia: 
Palmares: Three Ironman wins, two Challenge iron-distance wins, five races below 9 hours.
2012 wins: None, silver medalist at Ironman North American Champs.
Strong swim-biker who should be with the main pack into T2, hasn't shown the foot speed in the last couple seasons to keep up with the leaders.  More sub-9 races than any woman in the field.

Sonja Tajsich, 37, Germany
Palmares: Two-time Ironman champion.
2012 wins: None, silver medalist at Challenge Roth in 8:49. 
Will be behind after the swim, but has a very strong bike-run combo.  If she's able to form a group with Corbin, Csomor and Deckers on the bike that would increase her chances to be in a position to challenge.

Amy Marsh, 35, USA
Palmares: Four-time Ironman champion, six-time Iron-distance champion.
2012 wins: None, bronze medalist at Ironman North American Champs.
Placed third at both IM Texas and IM NYC, both times being in the mix at T2 and fading on the run.  She should swim and bike with the contenders then fade back on the marathon.

Kelly Williamson, 35, USA
Palmares: 70.3 World Champs silver medalist ('12), 70.3 USA Champion ('12).
2012 wins: 70.3 US Championship, 70.3 San Juan, 70.3 Muncie, Rev3 Knoxville.
Solid swimmer who has turned herself into one of the best runners in the sport in 2012.  Will likely be off the back in T2 but has the leg speed to run herself through the field like she did in Vegas.

Mirinda Carfrae, 31, Australia
Palmares: Ironman World Champ ('10), 70.3 World Champ ('07).
2012 wins: Rev3 Quassy, Lake Stevens 70.3.
In the last three years she's been 2-1-2 in Kona, yet tactics may be very different this year for the women's field.  Rinny runs her way to a win, and the quality and quantity of swim-bikers in the field may put her out of reach by T2. 

Heather Wurtele, 33, Canada
Palmares: Four-time Ironman champion.
2012 wins: 70.3 Timberman.
Placed eighth last year, decent swimmer, strong cyclist and good runner.  Her changes for improving on her eighth place increase if she can bridge up relatively early on the bike to ride with Marsh, Cave, Ellis and Joyce.

Leanda Cave, 34, Great Britain
Palmares: ITU World Champ ('02), 70.3 World Champ ('12, 2nd '10, 3rd '07), 2nd ITU LC Worlds ('11).
2012 wins: 70.3 World Championship, Escape from Alcatraz.
Coming off a big win in Vegas last month and an 8:49 performance in Arizona last November.  She should be in the mix all day but the Vegas effort may have taken enough out of her to keep her from the win.

Mary Beth Ellis, 35, USA
Palmares: Undefeated in IM outside Hawaii (5 wins), two-time silver at 70.3 Worlds ('08,'09).
2012 wins: Ironman North American Championship, Ironman Texas, Alpe d'Huez, 70.3 Singapore, 70.3 Norway.
Disappointing Kona debut in 2011, she'll be fired up to prove herself here.  Expected to ride with the main group after Steffen goes up the road, and has the ITU run pedigree to run her way onto the podium. 

The New Champ
Caroline Steffen, 34, Switzerland
Palmares: Two-time ITU Long Course World Champ ('10,'12), Silver at IM World Champs ('10).
2012 wins: ITU LC Worlds Champ, Ironman Asia-Pacific Champ, Ironman European Champ.
Xena has had a dominant season, with two Ironmans under 9 hours including a brilliant 8:34 in Melbourne.  She has the ability to bike with some of the tier 2 and tier 3 pro men, so if she can make up the five minute stagger on the swim to some of the men like Christian Brader, Petr Vabrousek or Bruno Clerbout she could legally pace with them on the bike like she did in Melbourne to build an insurmountable lead by T2.  Brett Sutton already has the female Olympic gold medalist in 2012, and he'll add the Ironman World Champion when Caroline breaks the tape.  

Behold!  Xena, a mighty princess, forged in the heat of battle:

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