Last year’s IRONMAN World Championship in Kailua-Kona was about time. This year, it’s about timelessness.
Germany’s Patrick Lange and Switzerland’s Daniela Ryf smashed course records in 2018 in the men’s and women’s professional divisions, respectively. Lange, 33, became the first person to crack the eight-hour barrier, clocking a time of 7:52:39. Ryf, 32, set the women’s mark with a time of 8:26:16, outpacing the previous record by 20 minutes, despite sustaining jellyfish stings under each armpit just minutes before the race began.
“I think I will always remember that race,” Ryf said at a pre-race press conference Thursday. “It will be the race where I got stung by a jellyfish and overcame a problem and finished really strong.”
This time around, the VEGA IRONMAN World Championship is as much about legacy as it is about the stopwatch. Lange, the two-time defending champion, can become the fourth man to win three championship titles in Hawai‘i and the first German to accomplish that feat.
Ryf, the four-time defending champion in Kailua-Kona, can become only the second triathlete to claim five World Championship crowns in both the full IRONMAN event and IRONMAN 70.3 if she wins today.
Yet, despite recent dominance by the two frontrunners, cementing their legacies with milestone victories in 2019 may prove more difficult than ever. Both acknowledged that with each passing year, the field improves as interest in triathlon grows. Prognosticators are in wide agreement that parity on the men’s side has made this year’s event one of the hardest races to call in IRONMAN history.
“That’d be great, and I’d like to play a big part of it,” said Lange, when asked about the potential for one of the tightest finishes the World Championship has ever seen. “(The field) is really, really competitive.”
A primary obstacle in Lange’s path to triathlon immortality is fellow countryman Jan Frodeno, who returns to Kailua-Kona after missing last year’s race with a stress fracture in his hip.
Frodeno is the only man in history to win an Olympic gold medal in triathlon, which he accomplished for Germany in 2008, as well as an IRONMAN World Championship. Frodeno, 38, claimed the Kona crown in 2015 and 2016, and he also won the IRONMAN 70.3 world title in South Africa last year before being sidelined by injury.
“It was an interesting year, and obviously a hard year,” Frodeno said. “Having to sit on the sidelines and (watch) a race that made history — it’s definitely not my favorite way to spend the day.”
Based on 2018 results, the premier US challenger to the German stranglehold on the sport over the last four years is Tim O’Donnell. Threatening to finish high most of the day, the 39-year-old O’Donnell faded on the back half of the marathon, settling into fourth position by the race’s end — one spot off the podium.
“My coach … and I joked that I only had one dark patch during my race last year, but it was 13 miles,” O’Donnell laughed. “So I’m going to try to keep that a little bit shorter.”
Ryf, who described her showing last year as a “classic performance,” also commented on the evolution of the women’s field.
“The competition gets better and better,” she said. “You can’t have any weakness.”
Lucy Charles-Barclay of Great Britain, who finished second to Ryf in 2018, will return to the starting line again this year. Also back is third-place finisher Anne Haug, of Germany. But perhaps most emblematic of the competitive shift in women’s triathlon Ryf mentioned is Sarah True, an American who finished fourth last year in her first Kailua-Kona appearance.
True, 37, enters the race on the heels of what was literally a catastrophic collapse at IRONMAN’s European World Championship held in Frankfurt in July. True led the women’s field by several minutes before collapsing during the last mile of the race. Temperatures topped out at 100°F in the German city that day.
“Ultimately, racing is uncertainty,” said True, adding that she still isn’t precisely sure what went wrong on the course three months ago. “I go into this race with a level of uncertainty that I would not have expected, but I embrace that. … I don’t know, frankly, how my body will respond.”
Weather across the course Saturday will provide a challenge to competitors, but temperatures should be decidedly less oppressive than those True faced in Frankfurt.
Saturday morning forecast information said racers should expect the following conditions at various points across the IRONMAN track:
When asked about the myriad challenges facing triathletes who are under pressure to perform, True summed up her thoughts succinctly.
“It’s IRONMAN,” she said. “I mean, IRONMAN should be hard.”
Professionals on the men’s side will start the swim portion of the race off Kailua Pier at 6:25 a.m. today, while the women will enter the water at 6:35 a.m.