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Tue 7th Dec 2021
Pro Men: how to win in Kona...
Posted by: John Levison
Posted on: Wednesday 3rd October 2012

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...and the FIVE men that can WIN in 2012

Tri247 Editor John Levison puts the crystal ball predictions on hold to see if a statistical approach can help pick an Ironman World Championship 2012 winner. He thinks it can...

(You can check out the ladies Kona 2012 analysis HERE)

"The three best stretches", "the five steps to a faster bike split", "the seven ways to improve your running"...etc.

Magazines, websites, books - they (we...) all do it. It grabs the attention, it provides a focus, it 'seems' as if any particular topic can be summarised in a bullet point of any particular number the author chooses. It also provides, to the unaware at least, a sense of certainty as if putting a number on a topic it makes it "true". Of course, it rarely if ever does!

And yet, in one sense at least that's what I've done/am doing here - except, I can promise that the 'five' in the title was the very last word I wrote. Only when I got to the very end of this analysis could I come up with a number I was happy with. Let me explain.

In a little under two weeks, Saturday 13th October to be precise, the 2012 Ironman World Championships in Kona will be run and won. That means of course that the triathlon world - athletes, media, fans, coaches - will start the annual prediction-fest for the Kona podium. Who is in form? Who's got the experience? Will Macca's Olympic dream be an asset or liability? Is Crowie too old? Is Michael Raelert too young? And on, and on. And, that's great. It's fun, and it's not an insignificant part of what I've done myself on Tri247 over the last five or more years. And I'm sure I'll be doing more before Kona too!

Every year I hear that it's 'the strongest field ever' or 'the most open race' or 'difficult to predict, any one of 15 or so could win'. But... I think that's rubbish.

I wanted to see if there was anything from history that would be a great pointer towards forecasting the Kona future, to try and take (mostly at least), opinions out of the equation and use what I suppose scientists might call, an 'evidence based approach'. At least, I think that's what they might call it - but it's been a fair few years since I collected my Chemistry and Physics A-Levels, so I could be mistaken...

How many, and who of the men's start list for Kona 2012 can WIN the Ironman World Championship this year?

That word 'WIN' is very important here. For this analysis, I'm not assessing who can be competitive, or who can impact the race, or who could make the podium - it's solely focussed on identifying the potential winners. Ignoring the "past performance cannot be used to predict future performance" warnings of an investment commercial, I'm going to try just that.

Ironman World Champions (Men) - Last 25 Years

Previous Best Result
Craig Alexander (AUS)
Chris McCormack (AUS)
Craig Alexander (AUS)
Craig Alexander (AUS)
2nd (2007)
Chris McCormack (AUS)
2nd (2006)
Normann Stadler (GER)
Faris Al-Sultan (GER)
3rd (2004)
Normann Stadler (GER)
3rd (2000)
Peter Reid (CAN)
Tim DeBoom (USA)
Tim DeBoom (USA)
2nd (2000)
Peter Reid (CAN)
Luc Van Lierde (BEL)
Peter Reid (CAN)
4th (1997 & 1996)
Thomas Hellriegel (GER)
2nd (1996 & 1995)
Luc Van Lierde (BEL)
Mark Allen (USA)
Greg Welch (AUS)
2nd (1991)
Mark Allen (USA)
Mark Allen (USA)
Mark Allen (USA)
Mark Allen (USA)
Mark Allen (USA)
2nd (1987 & 1986)
Scott Molina (USA)
4th (1982)
Dave Scott (USA)

Ok, so presented above is a table showing the winners of the Ironman World Championship over the past 25 editions. What is also shown is what their previous best Kona result was, prior to winning that year, along with the year that they achieved it. For example, when Craig Alexander won his first title in 2008, his previous best performance was second. When he won in 2009 and 2011 his previous best was, of course, winner. But what does all of this tell us?

  • Over the past 25 years only 12 men have won an Ironman World Championship.
  • Of those 12, seven won the title at least twice in that period (and Dave Scott won five titles prior to his final win in 1987 too), so effectively, eight multiple winners out of 12 (66%).
  • In 25 years, only one athlete (Luc Van Lierde, 1996) has won on their debut in Kona.
  • Excluding that Van Lierde debut win, in 25 years no man has won Kona who hasn't finished at least fourth previously.
  • Of the champions that hadn't previously won (and excluding the Van Lierde debut), six had previously finished second, two third placed and two fourth places.
  • 14 of the 25 years (56%) reviewed were won by previous or defending champions.
  • Of the 10 first time winners (excluding the Van Lierde debut), 60% secured their best previous result the year immediately prior to that first win.
  • To add to that, only once in the last 17 years has a first time winner not had their best ever result the year immediately prior to their first victory.
  • 96% of Kona winners in the last 25 years had previously finished fourth or better.
  • 88% of Kona winners in the last 25 years had previously made a Kona podium (top three).
  • It is 14 years since an athlete won Kona who hadn't previously finished in the top three - and Peter Reid proved to be rather special, winning the race three times.

Want to win Kona? Then this is solid advice:

  • You need to be exceptional - not many men win an Ironman World Championship.
  • Ideally, make sure you've already won it before!
  • Ensure you have finished at least fourth before, but more realistically that you are a previous podium finisher (second/third).
  • Once you've done well and got that podium, win it for the first time the following year if you possibly can - the window of (winning) opportunity is small.
  • Possibly - but unlikely - make an exceptional debut. (Luc Van Lierde broke the Kona course record in 1996).

Applying this to 2012?

Previous winners

There are three previous Kona Champions starting this year: three-time and defending champion Craig Alexander. Two-time champion and 2010 winner Chris McCormack. 2005 winner Faris Al-Sultan who was 11th / 10th / 10th / 10th (2008-2011) inclusive has solid Kona form, but it's not Kona winning form. That, combined with a seven year gap between wins means that I'm ruling out Faris as a potential 2012 winner.

Alexander looks as good as ever, McCormack returned from Olympic distance racing and promptly won the ITU World Long Distance Champs and the pair have shared the last five Kona wins - Crowie and Macca can certainly win in 2012. That's two then.

Craig Alexander ©Henry Budgett, Chris McCormack ©Janos Schmidt/ITU

Previous performers

Ok, so let's say you've raced before but haven't won - who has finished fourth or better, and starts this year?

Pete Jacobs 2nd, 2011
Dirk Bockel 4th, 2011
Andreas Raelert 2nd, 2010
Marino Vanhoenacker 3rd, 2010
Eneko Llanos 2nd, 2008
Ronnie Schildknecht 4th, 2008
Cameron Brown 2nd, 2005

Pete Jacobs: 8:30, 8:23 and 8:09 over the past three seasons, second last year and a demon runner. Yes, Jacobs is a real contender and fits the statistical criteria above.

Dirk Bockel: 7th (2:57 marathon), 8th (2:52), 4th (2:53) over the last three seasons is very strong Kona form - but will Kona 2012 be won with a 2:5X run split? I believe Dirk will need to resolve that to win. Combined with the 14 years since a male with a previous best of fourth won, I'm not putting him in winning contention. Yet. However, a step (or two) up in 2012 would change that for 2013.

Andreas Raelert. 3rd/2nd/3rd over three seasons, with 2011 achieved despite an awful race program which left him forced to 'validate' late in the year at Regensburg after a world record setting Challenge Roth. No question at all, Raelert could win - and has a much improved 2012 schedule to help him.

Marino Vanhoenacker. Less than a minute behind Andreas in 2010, DNF in 2011. After six consecutive wins and an Ironman record at Ironman Austria, Marino took a different direction this summer and headed to Frankfurt to take on the best of the German's on their home patch. And won, leaving Sebastian Kienle and Andreas Raelert behind. I think the key to his Kona success might be the race he didn't do. The cancellation of Ironman New Zealand and the 70.3 held in its place might prove to be the key to keeping 'Bink' fresh and firing in Hawaii. Potential winner? I'll say yes.

Eneko Llanos. 5th in 2006, 7th in 2007, 2nd in 2008 - has the Llanos 'window of opportunity' slipped by on the big island? Still a class act, winner of both Ironman Texas and Arizona in 2011, alongside fourth in a stacked Melbourne field this year, Llanos is a threat, but four years since his Kona best - on this analysis - suggests his winning chances are slim.

Ronnie Schildknecht. The master of Ironman Switzerland, but a previous best of fourth combined with a four year gap since that result suggests that Ronnie will need a podium finish first in 2012 before stepping up again next year if he is to be an Ironman World Champion.

Cameron Brown. Unbeatable at (a full length) Ironman New Zealand, the 40 year old is as fast as ever. Seven years since his Kona best though means that he doesn't fit this model, despite the close second to Crowie in Melbourne.

Potential winners here then: Pete Jacobs, Andreas Raelert, Marino Vanhoenacker.

Pete Jacobs ©Boardman Bikes, Andreas Raelert ©Getty Images Marino Vanhoenacker ©Rob Holden (

Debut sensations?

Can anyone do a 'Luc Van Lierde 1996' and rock up and take away the win at their first attempt? Are there any contenders? Here, arguably, are the top three debutants:

Jordan Rapp. An ITU Long Distance Champion, five time Ironman Champion and a combination of ex-rower work ethic combined with an engineer's precision make Rapp a real talent wherever he races. I think he'll race very well, and very smartly - and nobody will leave the island with more notes, thoughts, analysis and plans for future Kona campaigns - but it won't be as an Ironman World Champion. This year at least.

Michael Raelert. Twice 70.3 World Champion, the younger brother of Andreas was due to debut last year before injury curtailed that plan. He finished second in his first full distance event at Ironman Regensburg this season and has great talent, combined with the knowledge and experience of brother Andreas. I'm pretty sure he will win Kona. One day, but not this year.

Sebastian Kienle. The only thing surprising about Kienle's victory at the 70.3 World Champs in Vegas was that there were some who still considered him to be unknown or 'under the radar'! Without question, the best cyclist in the sport, he proved in Vegas that he can bike like a bullet, handle the heat and run strong too. He'll likely have fingers crossed for an incredibly windy and tough day on the bike - the like of which we haven't witnessed for several years. He's raced four iron-distance races, gone under eight hours twice - but so far only has three second places and a sixth to show for it. A non-wetsuit swim won't play into his hands either (on average he has lost around 4:30 in the water to his main competition in his (wetsuit) iron races to date), and given the rarity of a Kona debut win, is making him a potential winner realistic? Statistically at least, no. But I can't wait to watch him!

And then there were five...

So, to answer the question I started with - using a statistical approach - there are five potential 2012 Ironman World Championship winners, and here they are:

  • Craig Alexander
  • Chris McCormack
  • Pete Jacobs
  • Andreas Raelert
  • Marino Vanhoenacker

We'll find out on 13th October whether that proves to be the case....

Crowie, Macca, PJ, Andi or Bink - who's your money on?

#GBKONA 2012 Coverage

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Have Your Say
Re: Pro Men - how to win in Kona...
Posted by nicksinclair
Posted at 09:41:33 2nd Oct 2012
Reply to this

Sebastian Kienle "Without question, the best cyclist in the sport,"

Just want to address that statement and ask your opinion. Do you think that if Kienle and Lance Armstrong were in the same race, and both came out of T1 together, That Kieble would get into T2 before Lance? Genuine question, as i can't see that myself! Lance is still an absolute machine on the bike leg!
Re: Pro Men - how to win in Kona...
Posted by Editor
Posted at 10:12:42 2nd Oct 2012
Reply to this

One answer to that is that as of now, Lance isn't 'in' Triathlon (within WADA sanctioned events at least...). Lance swims much better than Kienle, but the only time they raced together Sebastian cycled faster than Lance, ran past him early and then came very very close to winning the race overall too. It would be easy (ish!) to find a professional cyclist who is 'better' than Kienle, but if they can't swim and run to a good level, their use IN a Triathlon is limited. Kienle proved in Vegas (70.3 World Champs) - and he's done it elsewhere - that he can use a crushing bike split to overcome a relatively weak swim AND add to it a very solid run to WIN consistently. To me at least, that makes him at the present time, the best cyclist in our sport.
Re: Pro Men - how to win in Kona...
Posted by JimboP
Posted at 11:29:07 2nd Oct 2012
Reply to this

Be interesting to see if Rasmus Henning can top 3. Maybe if he remembers to take off his swimskin and doesn't suffer from cramps I wouldn't bet against it. Looking at the start list there's a whole host of others who could be in the mix too. Should be a pretty amazing race!
Re: Pro Men: how to win in Kona...
Posted by DrTim
Posted at 09:54:26 9th Oct 2012
Reply to this

Aussie 1-2-3!!!

Alexander - Jacobs - McCormack in that order ... Ok, with a side bet on Kienle :)
Re: Pro Men: how to win in Kona...
Posted by dragster
Posted at 09:03:55 10th Oct 2012
Reply to this

Who's tired of hearing about Lance? Who cares! So not including the 7 times TdeF champions Sebi is the best rider in Triathlon, and at the moment one of the best triathletes in the world period. I can't wait till his swim clicks and he's coming out 1-2 down on the leaders.. trust me, he can swim.
By the way, I am hosting Ironman Betting Game so if you want to mail me your predictions, Magic-Sportfood is supplying prizes.. check ou the rules at lukedragstra dot com. Gonna be a very exciting race!