Many triatletes in the first race of the 2022 Ironman World Championship on Thursday were shocked to be handed water at an aid station by three-time and defending Kona champion Jan Frodeno.
The German joined the volunteers since he didn’t have to prepare for Saturday’s professional men’s race. In August, he crashed his bike, sustaining injuries that require several surgeries.
But even with Frodeno’s absence, the men’s field is packed.
“We have easily five rookies who have the chance to win the race and maybe 10 guys in total who have a chance to win,” said 2013 Ironman World Champion Sebastian Kienle of Germany. “Every year I’ve been up here [for the pre-race press conference] we say it is the strongest year, and probably it is true every year.
“But now, after missing two years [due to the canceled races caused by the COVID-19 pandemic] the field is double as strong as 2019 probably.”
This year’s race is full of new blood. Leading the way is race favorite and Kona rookie Kristian Blummenfelt, who is ranked No. 1 in the world by the Professional Triathletes Organization. The 28-year-old Norwegian superstar nicknamed Big Blu overcame illness to win the most recent Ironman World Championship in May in St. George, Utah. The event was the rescheduled 2021 Kona race.
Blummenfelt set the Ironman World Championship race time record of 7:49:16 to seal the victory, becoming the first rookie to win the world title since Luc Van Lierde in 1996.
Blummenfelt also won Olympic gold in the triathlon at the 2020 Tokyo Games and finished first at the 2021 World Triathlon Championship. During his Ironman debut at 2021 Ironman debut in Cozumel, he posted a world-best 7:21:12.
“Even though it is my first time on the island, i’m working on heat preparation,” he said.
But as women’s clear race favorite Daniela Ryf showed on Thursday, even superstars can have a rough day. She led after the bike but ran out of energy on the run and finished a disappointing eighth, nearly 29 minutes behind surprise rookie winner Chelsea Sodaro.
One of Blummenfelt’s biggest competitors is his training partner and fellow Norwegian Gustav Iden, also a Kona rookie.
“This is going to be my second start ever at the full-distance Ironman,” Iden said. “I’m not only a rookie on the island but a rookie at the distance. But I get a lot of confidence with my training and I almost did an Ironman this past weekend. I think I have a plan and if the plan holds, it should be a good result.”
The 26-year-old had to withdraw from the World Championship in St. George just 24 hours before the start with a respiratory infection. At the time, Gustav was ranked No. 1. He won his Ironman debut in Florida in 7:48:05 and earned two Ironman 70.3 World Championships. (A 70.3 race is half the distance of the Ironman’s 140.6 mile triathlon).
Another top contender is 24-year-old Kona rookie Magnus Ditlev of Denmark, who burst into the spotlight two years ago. In 2021, he won the 70.3 Cartagena but race officials disqualified him for course cutting. After review over the next few days, the ruling was reversed. In 2021, he also won the 70.3 Cascais.
In April, Ditlev was second at the Ironman Texas and won the Challenge Roth this summer, defeating two-time Ironman World Champion Patrick Lange. Most recently, he outsprinted Sam Long to finish second at the PTO US Open in Dallas, just 42 seconds behind surprise winner, American Collin Chartier.
Over the past two months, Chartier has been on a breakout path, earning a Kona spot with a last-minute qualifier win at Ironman Mont-Tremblant with a 2:45 marathon to defeat Josh Amberger.
The rookies are strong, but don’t count out the old timers. Lange, 36, is considered one of the best male runners in Kona heat. He said he is feeling strong after overcoming a broken shoulder from a bike crash during training early in the year.
“The journey after surgery was good,” he said. “And coming to this place is always special, the excitement is bigger than any other race. … I feel better than ever. I’m ready to go.”
Lange holds the run course record in Kona at 2:39:45, set in 2016. And, the last time the Ironman World Championships did not have a German male winner in Kona was 2013.
Another Ironman veteran with a chance to win is Lionel Sanders of Canada. He was second in St. George in May and runner-up in Kona five years ago. He joked about his fair amount of walking on the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway.
“I guess I am a veteran. I’ve walked this race many, many times,” he said while the media laughed. “And that is the outcome for generally half of the field most of the time.”
He has worked on not bonking during the second half of the marathon, although he said he won’t say he has it figure out “and jinx it.”
In August, he won Ironman 70.3 Mont Tremblant in 3:48:02, but on Sept. 18 he finished only 21st out of 32 racers at the scorching hot PTO US Open in Dallas, which led to questioning if he should come to Kona with its heat and humidity. But he’s here.
Brit Joe Skipper also has a shot. He is the winner of Ironman races in New Zealand, Chattanooga, Tenn., Florida and the United Kingdom. This year, he overcame a 25-minute deficit due to a bad swim and mechanical failures on his bike to win Ironman Wales.
No other triathlete can say this: In 2020 he set a British biking record covering 326 miles in 12 hours.
Also in the mix is Braden Currie, 36, of New Zealand. After winning his first attempt at Ironman New Zealand in March 2017 and winning Ironman Asia Pacific Championship in June 2018, Braden has a new goal – to become the only New Zealand male athlete to ever win in Kona.
He finished third at the World Championship in St. George.
“I probably didn’t go as deep as I needed,” he said of that race.
Currie said the Ironman has “become a bit of a normality” for the pros. “It’s about tolerating this heat and knowing how fast you can go. I think we can sort of step off the couch and do an Ironman these days. The distance isn’t that scary. It’s more how fast you can push it that things start getting nervewracking.
“I know the rookies here are pretty fired up and will throw everything at it. I also know the old wise heads here will still be gritting their teeth and hanging in there. It’s going to be a tough day of racing, and at the moment it is pretty unknown [who will win].”
The race favorite for Hawai’i County Mayor Mitch Roth probably is Kienle, who is competing in his ninth and last Ironman in Kona.
“If I win the race, I will sponsor three lifeguards for one year for the pool here [in Kona] so that the pool can stay open 12 hours a day, not just for triathletes. I promise.”
Mayor Roth replied: “Thank you.”
Then Kienle appeared to whisper in the ear of Ryf, “Because I know I won’t.”
The men’s race has had 22 different champions from 6 countries. Hall of Famers Mark Allen and Dave Scott are tied for the most Ironman World Championship crowns with six. And the United States has the most victories with eight.
American Tim O’Donnel, who is making his 10th Kona start, isn’t expecting to win. But he is showing what the sport is about: heart.
“I’m happy to be here, not just for the racing, but to be here after the heart attack in March of 2021,” he said. “It’s pretty crazy. This is a bonus race for me. The first thing the cardiologist said after I got off the table was it looks like you’ll have to find a new career.”
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