There’s a sense of deja vu about the women’s Ironman World Championship this year, with a red-hot favourite, a rising adversary and an improving supporting cast trying to figure out a way to upset the odds. If it’s the same script as 2018, it’s clear it’s going to take more than a jellyfish sting to stop the all-conquering Daniela Ryf taking centre stage as she looks for a fifth straight Kona title.
Behind her, Lucy Charles-Barclay, second twice in the past two years, leads the quest to try, but it’s not just a two-woman race. The likes of three-time champion Mirinda Carfrae, German duo Anne Haug and Laura Philipp, USA’s Sarah True, who has come through more than enough drama already in qualifying, and experienced podium-chasers Sarah Crowley, Kaisa Sali and Heather Jackson, will all hope to feature prominently. Five other Brits also line up alongside Charles-Barclay, with the return of 2018 ninth-place finisher Corinne Abraham, Nikki Bartlett, Susie Cheetham and Laura Siddall, and a first start for Kimberley Morrison.
Who will make the top 10? As we do every year, 220 has researched the form and fitness of the main contenders to reveal our predictions…
10. Kaisa Sali, 38, Finland
The Finn has visited Hawaii in the past three years and sliced 10mins off her finishing time on successive visits. It was good enough for two fifth-places and then seventh last year and with another sub-9hr performance at Ironman Cairns in June, there is little reason to think she won’t again be contending for prize money. Sali has raced sparingly this year, but did return for the recent Ironman 70.3 World Championship where she placed a commendable 12th. Yet it’s the longer distance where she excels, with a race built around a strong bike leg and a consistent marathon around the 3hr mark. As if to illustrate, her 10 iron-distance marathon times are separated by less than 10mins, ranging from 3:08 down to 2:59.
9. Laura Philipp, 32, Germany
You could be forgiven for not being overly familiar with the name Laura Philipp because the German triathlete has just one Ironman race to her name and that was in Barcelona in October last year. However, not only did she win to qualify and give herself over 12 months to prepare for her Hawaii debut, but in finishing in 8:34:57 with a 2:52:00 marathon she became the fastest female debutant ever in one of the fastest women’s times ever. For good measure, Philipp added another five 70.3 titles in an undefeated season and looked set to take 2019 by storm. That hasn’t happened. After winning in Marbella in April, an injury forced her to quit Challenge Heilbronn in Germany on the run in June. Under the guidance of coach and husband Philipp Seipp, who has also been coaching an improved Sebastian Kienle for the past year, Philipp has rehabilitated and is ready to give Kona a crack. If she can find anything like the form she had pre-injury, then she’ll be worth keeping an eye on.
8. Heather Jackson, 35, USA
After three top five finishes in Hawaii, Jackson had a rare off-day last year, where she slipped back on the run to 14th place. The 35-year-old put any demons to bed over that result by delivering a stellar 8:39:18 performance to win Ironman Arizona the following month in a new best time over the distance. Jackson, a former track cyclist who grew up playing ice hockey and football, has also enjoyed victory in 2019 on a rare excursion to Europe for the inaugural Ironman-branded Vitoria-Gasteiz in northern Spain, and 70.3 success on more familiar territory, for a fourth straight year at Chattanooga and a second time at Coeur d’Alene. Suited to the heat and with a strong back-half of the race, a top 10 will be the least she expects.
7. Jocelyn McCauley, 31, USA
If McCauley can piece together her perfect race then she has the ability to be a force in Hawaii. Last year the American looked set to improve on a creditable 10th place on debut in 2017 before she blew out on the marathon and eventually toiled down Ali’i Drive in 30th. But this year she has stepped up a level. Two of her declared ‘outcome goals’ were to win an Ironman and finish under 9hrs. She achieved both in New Zealand in March with a new course record of 8:53:10, and then went even faster in Texas the following month with 8:39:41. Both races were pegged on sub-3hr marathons, which puts the 31-year-old from Idaho in with a shout of achieving her final outcome goal for the season – placing in the top five in the Ironman World Championship.
6. Sarah True, 37, USA
It’s been a dramatic season for Sarah True, defined by the final throes of her two Ironmans – of which she has little recall. A former World Triathlon Series race winner and fourth-placed finished in the London Olympics, after transitioning from short-course racing and finishing second in Ironman Germany in 2018, she backed it up with fourth place in Hawaii. But although it was an impressive debut on the Big Island, being placed outside the top three meant that there was no automatic qualification to Kona by just completing an Ironman in 2019. She’d have to earn her spot outright. That led True to Cairns and a DNF 17km into the run where she said she “blacked out and it was super scary”. If that was worrying, in her next attempt, on an unseasonably hot summer day back in Frankfurt in June, she was 700m from the finish with an otherwise unassailable lead when she fell victim to heatstroke. True eventually cemented qualification in August in Mont Tremblant by finishing runner-up to Australia’s Carrie Lester who had already bagged her Kona spot in France. Whether she had any energy left for the Big Island or can handle the heat remains to be seen, but if she races to her potential then another top five finish is within her capabilities.
5. Mirinda Carfrae, 38, Australia
The three-time champion in 2010, 2013 and 2014 is the only woman to have beaten Daniela Ryf on the Big Island, and although she may not be the force she once was, Carfrae is still capable of producing a performance that threatens the podium. Having last won five years ago, she took time out after finishing runner-up in 2016 to start a family with triathlete husband Tim O’Donnell. Last year’s return saw the Australian finish fifth when calm conditions helped her post her fastest ever bike split in an iron-distance race. As a past winner, Carfrae’s validation race was ticked off with sixth place in Ironman Mar del Plata in Argentina in December and this summer saw June and July successfully filled with 70.3 races where she won in Victoria and Mont Tremblant before finishing runner-up in Coeur d’Alene and Santa Rosa. It means the 38-year-old should arrive in Kona fresh for another assault on her favourite race. Don’t write her off yet.
4. Sarah Crowley, 36, Australia
Replacing the two Ironman victories the Australian achieved in both 2017 and 2018, Crowley has had to accept two runners-up spot in Ironman Cairns and Challenge Roth this year. But those defeats came at the hands of New Zealand’s Teresa Adam, who has opted out of competing in Kona, and the redoubtable Lucy Charles-Barclay, and do little to undermine Crowley’s pedigree as one of the finest long-distance triathletes in the sport. It’s a consistency that’s extended to Hawaii, with a third place in 2017 and sixth last year. Perhaps wisely choosing to race – and win –a low-key 70.3 event in Santa Cruz than travel to the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Nice, Crowley has set herself up neatly for another crack at the podium. A consistent performer over all three disciplines, she lacks the potent weapon of a Charles-Barclay swim, Ryf bike, or Haug run to threaten for the title, but her footspeed is improving. In the latest of her 13 iron-distance finishes, in Roth, she came within 2sec of cracking the 3hr barrier on the marathon, her best yet.
3. Anne Haug, 36, Germany
The German posted a time of 8:31:21 at Ironman Copenhagen in August to place her in exalted company with only Chrissie Wellington, Daniel Ryf and Melissa Hauschildt having gone faster over the full distance. It was only the third Ironman of Haug’s career after moving across to long distance racing last year with a fourth-place finish in Germany and going one place better in Hawaii. Her small frame and strong running style always marked her out as a threat for Hawaii and a 2:55:20 race-best marathon on the Big Island confirmed that potential. Haug has seen her swim and bike times improve in all three races too and it’s a direction of travel she’ll need to maintain if she’s to be within striking distance of Ryf come the business end of the race. If she can be, then she had the chance of achieving what Mirinda Carfrae did in 2014, running down the Swiss and becoming only the second woman to have beaten her on the Big Island. But that remains a big ‘if’.
2. Lucy Charles-Barclay, 26, Great Britain
Runner-up on her past two visits to the Ironman World Championship, a yardstick as to whether Charles-Barclay is closing in on her nemesis Daniela Ryf was denied to us in the 70.3 worlds after the Brit picked up a 5min drafting penalty that effectively ended her chances of victory.
Can Lucy Charles-Barclay win Kona 2019?
Until then Charles-Barclay had kept her 2019 powder dry on the rivalry between the sport’s top two, and produced an impressive and undefeated season with headlines victories at Ironman South Africa, Challenge Roth and the Challenge Championship in Samorin, Slovakia, for a third consecutive year. With the sanction in Nice only fuelling the fire for another shot at the Swiss here, expect the 25-year-old to open a gap after the swim (she broke the long-standing swim course record last year), and try and maintain that advantage all the way to T2. If she does, then running shoulder-to-shoulder with Ryf over the marathon will be a test of both Ryf and Charles-Barclay’s improved run form. Twice the Brit has run under 3hrs for the marathon, both of which have been this year.
The Swiss looked at her indomitable best as she collected a fifth Ironman 70.3 world title in six years on the Cote d’Azur at the start of September, and it’s difficult to see how anyone can stop her winning a fifth consecutive Ironman World Championship. Ryf’s dominance over both 70.3 and the full iron-distance now surpasses any triathlete in history and while she was seventh in the Olympic Games in 2008 and was European junior champion as far back as 2004, there are few signs that her mind or body are losing their edge.
Her greatest challengers are likely to be Lucy Charles-Barclay attacking from the front, and Anne Haug trying to run Ryf down from behind, but there’s a sense it will take something incredible from either, or both, plus a sub-par Ryf performance or mechanical calamity to usurp her. In 2018, Ryf, in unprecedented calm conditions, broke the bike (4:26:07) and course (8:26:18) records despite being stung by a jellyfish during the swim and thinking she may have to quit. No-one has been able to apply any real pressure on the Swiss since Mirinda Carfrae chased her down on debut in 2014. The Australian broke the run course record that day in one of the all-time great Ironman performances. You’d sense someone will have to do similar to take Ryf down again.