2014 Ironman World Championship: Van Lierde, Carfrae face big challenges

While the Ironman race series has grown to more than 100 events spanning six continents and more than two dozen countries, the most prestigious title is still found in Kona.

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While the Ironman race series has grown to more than 100 events spanning six continents and more than two dozen countries, the most prestigious title is still found in Kona.

A professional field of 54 men and 38 women will be at the start line Saturday in Kailua Bay for the 2014 Ironman World Championship, all gunning to be the next world champion.

Last year’s champions, Mirinda Carfrae and Frederik Van Lierde, are back to defend their titles, but they will be tested by a deep and talented field.

These are some storylines to follow on race day.

Professional men

Van Lierde became just the second Belgian world champion when he crossed the finish line at 8 hours 12 minutes and 29 seconds in 2013, edging Australia’s Luke McKenzie and ending a six-year Australian reign at the race.

Luc Van Lierde is the other Ironman world champion from Belgium (1996, ’99), and while the two are not related, Luc is Frederik’s coach and mentor.

“It has been a fantastic year so far. It was a pleasure to race as world champion,” Van Lierde said. “There are more people looking at you and more media attention, especially in Belgium. There is a lot more to do, but I think I managed it well and I am happy with where I am right now.”

Sebastian Kienle (Germany) is among the top contenders vying to prevent Van Lierde from claiming consecutive titles. Kienle finished third in 2013, but has two Ironman 70.3 titles (2012, ’13) to his name. The German is not one to race conservatively, and is embracing the diverse conditions the Big Island course offers.

“Predicting the weather and the winds is just like trying to predict the pro race. Everyone tries. Sometimes it will be very different than predicted,” said Kienle. “If you believe the predictions it will be a little better, which by better I mean a little worse for everyone else. It’s always nice to see white water out there and wind out on the highway. Of course, it would change the race. It’s like no other race. Sometimes you need to go close to eight hours to win. Other days you win the race in 8:30. That’s not because the athletes were worse that year. It depends so much on the conditions, and of course wind favors my strengths.”

Last year’s runner-up Luke McKenzie (Australia) led for a large portion of the race in 2013, but he conceded his lead to Van Lierde on Mile 16 of the run. The Australian had a less-than-stellar lead up to Kona, but he is hungry for a title.

“It was a frustrating year race-wise,” McKenzie said. “I had some really sub-par results and I know I have got a really good result within me. I think that makes me hungry about coming back here and racing on Saturday.”

After a forgettable 32nd place finish last year, 2012 champ Pete Jacobs is hoping for better results this year.

“It’s nice to not be the defending champ. There is a little less pressure,” Jacobs said. “It’s a good course for me and I usually do well here.”

There has not been an American champion in Kona in more than a decade. Andy Potts and Timothy O’Donnell — who finished fifth as the top U.S. finisher — hope to change that.

“I know there are a lot of Americans out there rooting for me and (female pro) Meredith (Kessler), along with all the other Americans,” O’Donnell said. “It is all positive to me now and is energy I can use knowing I have their support out there.”

Despite announcing his retirement in March, course record holder, three-time champion and triathlon legend Craig Alexander (Australia) is another standout among the field. “Crowie” finished 12th in 2012 and a disappointing 21st in 2013.

“It feels good to be back,” Alexander said. “I felt last year was my last year. I thought last year at this time I would be in Australia, doing school drop offs and trying to start a coaching business or something. But I changed my mind. I love to race and I love the opportunity to spend another summer in the Northern Hemisphere.

Alexander faces an uphill battle against a competitive field to take home a fourth title, but at 41-years-young, he has the advantage of experience on the Kona course.

“I’m guessing everyone is in great shape — possibly the best shape of the year, or they should be — but you have to be physically and mentally prepared and make smart decisions,” Alexander said. “Take last year for example. There are 27 guys in the front group, but on the return trip from Hawi there was basically only five or six guys out front. Everybody is fit, but it is usually the fittest and the smartest, who make the good decisions and race their own race to their strengths who do well.”

Jan Frodeno (Germany), who won the 2008 gold medal in the Bejing Olympic games, is making his Kona debut and is a surefire contender for a top-10 finish.

Professional women

Carfrae has made the podium her last five times in Kona. She set the women’s course record last year with a time of 8:52:14.

“This is the world championship and the most coveted event in triathlon, outside of the Olympics,” Carfrae said. “I expect to be racing against the best in the world and I am prepared for it.”

Carfrae said she took a “mental break” from her normal routine leading up to Kona — including getting married to U.S. professional Tim O’Donnell — but the thought of the world championship race never left her mind.

“Throughout the whole year this race is on the back of your mind,” Carfrae said. “It has to be if you want to be successful here on the island.”

Rachel Joyce (Great Britain) finished just 5:14 back of Carfrae and has a simple outlook to improve her finish in 2014.

“I’m going to have to ride faster and run quicker. It’s not rocket science,” Joyce said. “(Carfrae) beat me by five minutes last year, so I could say I need to be six minutes faster, but I don’t know what is going to happen. This is a different race.”

Daniela Ryf — aka Angry Bird — represented Switzerland at the 2008 Summer Olympics, where she finished seventh in the triathlon. She also has the 2014 Ironman 70.3 World Championship title on her resume. It is her first time in Kona.

“I’m very excited. I love it here and everyone is really friendly and seems really happy,” Ryf said. “It’s the happy island to me.”

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Savvy veteran Meredith Kessler (U.S.) has some experience on her competitors, but is summoning her spirit animal to keep up with Ryf and the rest of the field.

“I realize I have a near decade in age on (Ryf) and they call her the Angry Bird,” Kessler said. “I need to be more of a grumpy old cat that chases that bird, with the utmost respect to Daniela.”

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