Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Looking Forward To Kona


Matthew Dale has an early preview of the women's race at the Ford Ironman World Championship.

When Faris Al-Sultan came up sick the night before last year's Ford Ironman World Championship and Normann Stadler lost his breakfast, lunch and dinner on the bike, fans were cheated out of the anticipated Chris McCormack-Stadler-Al-Sultan fireworks. Here's to hoping the threesome make it to the starting line next October fit and feisty.

Unfortunately for journalists, the women are not as catty toward one another as their loquacious male counterparts. What they lack in dirt, though, they make up for in substance.

On the 30th anniversary of the world’s most famous triathlon, the women’s field potentially could be its deepest ever. From Chrissie Wellington to Samantha McGlone to Kate Major to Michellie Jones to Natascha Badmann, the cast is loaded and talented. Nor would it be stunning if Joanna Lawn or Leanda Cave were fitted for the winner’s wreath.

“How many years has the women’s race looked like it was down to two or three people? Say Natascha and Michellie,” says Bob Babbitt, co-publisher of Competitor Magazine. “Not now.”

Any discussion of potential winners must begin with the defending champion, Wellington. The Brit seemingly materialized out of thin air last year to win at Kona. After racing (and winning) her first Ironman seven weeks before Hawaii, Wellington dominated last year’s depleted Kona field. Her 2:59:58 marathon was the second fastest ever at Hawaii, only 42 seconds behind Lori Bowen’s 1999 record.

As if to prove her performance was no fluke, Wellington not only added an Ironman Australia win last weekend, but shattered the course record by 9 minutes, 5 seconds. One difference for Wellington come October: she won’t sneak up on anyone.

“It’s going to come down to how she handles that pressure,” says Babbitt. “People can melt down. She’s training in the Philippines, training in Thailand. It’s not like there’s a thousand people clamoring for her time. Then she’ll be in that pressure cooker known as Kona. In terms of her talent, there’s no question about that.”

Another question for Wellington is how she’ll hold up. There are reports she may race as many as four Ironman events. There are also stories that her training far exceeds intense. Triathlete magazine publisher John Duke said that Wellington and Erika Csomor push each other so hard during track intervals that they had to be separated “so they wouldn’t kill each other,” Duke says. “That’s the scouting report.”

Triathlete editor-in-chief T.J. Murphy traveled to the Philippines for a story about Australian coach Brett Sutton and his athletes.

McGlone’s second-place finish at Kona came in her Ironman-distance debut. She doesn’t have an Ironman scheduled before Kona, loading up instead at the 70.3 distance.

“I think that’s great,” offers Babbitt. “She’s focusing on her speed. Dave Scott, Mark Allen, they focused on that one race. She can run a 2:55 (marathon).”

One reason Wellington set a record at Australia was because she was pushed by Major. Major, too, broke Rebekah Keat’s old course record, finishing in 9:09:12.After last October, Major now holds three third-place Kona finishes.

“I think Kate Major is the Rodney Dangerfield of the field,” says Duke. “She’s been the supposed heir to the throne for a long time. I know it’s got to the point where people, including myself, quit banking on her. They said it’s not a matter of if Kate wins, but when Kate wins. Her race in Australia, she was just a couple minutes behind the reigning Ford Ironman World champion. I think everyone’s talking about everyone but Kate. That’s gotta fire her up.”

Then come the grand dames, Jones and Badmann.

Jones, who’ll be 39 when she races at Hawaii, is coming off an injury-marred 2007 season. A foot injury curtailed her training for 4½ months early in the year. Three weeks before Hawaii, where she was the defending champion, Jones suffered a perforated eardrum. She eventually dropped about 90 miles into the bike, throwing up on the Queen K.

“Basically,” Jones told the San Diego Union-Tribune, “nothing about last year went the way I wanted.”

In her 2008 shakeout performance 11 days ago at the Ford Ironman 70.3 California, Jones struggled on the run, falling from first off the bike to finish fourth. It’ll be interesting to see how she fares Sunday at Ford Ironman Arizona.

“Michellie’s history has been that as soon as you start counting her out, she kicks some serious (butt),” says Babbitt.

Adds Duke, “She’s a champion and a lot of things can happen in Hawaii. I wouldn’t be shocked to see her win Hawaii again. The problem is, there’s too many (women) coming at her. It’s like shotgun shells. It’s not one or two bullets she’s got to dodge. It’s like a firing squad. It may come down to can she run under three hours.”

Jones’ two marathon splits at Hawaii: 3:18 and 3:13.

Badmann may be the wild card in the women’s field. She has undergone surgery to both her left and right shoulders after last October’s bike crash at Kona. She only recently began swimming and swimming was already her weakness. No one in their 40s has won at Hawaii. Badmann, the six-time champion, is 41.

“She’s the X factor,” Duke says. “We don’t know if she’ll recover. At 41, that’s hard. In all honesty, if she’s completely healthy, I don’t think a 41-year-old woman can run with these girls.”

No doubt, other women will be factors on the Big Island. Lawn owns fourth, seventh, fourth and fifth place finishes the past four years. Will Desiree Ficker - second in 2006, a non-factor last year - rejoin the mix?

If you’re looking for this year’s Chrissie Wellington, someone seemingly coming out of nowhere, keep an eye on Wellington’s frequent training partner, Csomor. Her 70.3 win 11 days ago at California included an impressive 1:20 half-marathon.

Bottom line, six months from now, the women’s race figures to be compelling.

“I think it’s going to be more of a race than the men’s race,” Duke contends. “I think that it’s the race.”

You can reach Matthew Dale at mdale@ironman.com

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