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Pro Men: how to win Kona 2014
Posted by: JohnLevison
Posted on: Thursday 2nd October 2014


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The FIVE men that can WIN Kona in 2014...?

Tri247 Editor John Levison puts the crystal ball predictions and opinions on hold (temporarily), to see if a purely statistical approach can help pick an Ironman World Championship 2014 winner.


I wrote an article very similar to this two years ago, and it generated quite a debate. Some thought it was interesting, others thought it was garbage, many took to contacting me with "but you've forgotten athlete X, Y, Z" - and a few people thought I didn't have a clue what I was talking about! But, ultimately, I suppose it proved 'correct' in one sense - in that it said, based on the data reviewed, one of only five men could win Kona in 2012 (based on this analysis only...!), and one of those - Pete Jacobs - did win.

Let's run the same numbers and approach - with a few additional upgrades - to see if it applies to 2014 too. We'll only know that early on Sunday 12th October, UK time.

"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 just over a week, Saturday 11th October to be precise, the 2014 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? Is Crowie too old? Can Jan Frodeno walk in and waltz off with the title at the first attempt? Can Van Lierde defend? 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 seven or more years. I'm sure I'll be doing more of that 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 15/20 or so could win'. But... I think that's rubbish. At least it is based on statistical history.

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' to address this question:

How many, and who of the men's start list for Kona 2014 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 approach.

Ironman World Champions (Men) - Last 25 Years

Year
Winner
Best Previous Result
Previous Year Kona Result
2013
Frederik Van Lierde (BEL)
3rd (2012)
3rd
2012
Pete Jacobs (AUS)
2nd (2011)
2nd
2011
Craig Alexander (AUS)
Winner
4th
2010
Chris McCormack (AUS)
Winner
4th
2009
Craig Alexander (AUS)
Winner
Winner
2008
Craig Alexander (AUS)
2nd (2007)
2nd
2007
Chris McCormack (AUS)
2nd (2006)
2nd
2006
Normann Stadler (GER)
Winner
DNF (Punctures)
2005
Faris Al-Sultan (GER)
3rd (2004)
3rd
2004
Normann Stadler (GER)
3rd (2000)
4th
2003
Peter Reid (CAN)
Winner
2nd
2002
Tim DeBoom (USA)
Winner
Winner
2001
Tim DeBoom (USA)
2nd (2000)
2nd
2000
Peter Reid (CAN)
Winner
2nd
1999
Luc Van Lierde (BEL)
Winner
2nd
1998
Peter Reid (CAN)
4th (1997 & 1996)
4th
1997
Thomas Hellriegel (GER)
2nd (1996 & 1995)
2nd
1996
Luc Van Lierde (BEL)
DEBUT
N/A
1995
Mark Allen (USA)
Winner
DNS (sabbatical)
1994
Greg Welch (AUS)
2nd (1991)
DNS (injury)
1993
Mark Allen (USA)
Winner
Winner
1992
Mark Allen (USA)
Winner
Winner
1991
Mark Allen (USA)
Winner
Winner
1990
Mark Allen (USA)
Winner
Winner
1989
Mark Allen (USA)
2nd (1987 & 1986)
5th

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. In addition for 2014, I also show what their result was 'last year' in the next column.

For example, when Normann Stadler won his first title in 2004, his previous best performance was third (in 2000), while the previous year (2003), he had finished fourth. When he won again in 2006 his previous best was, of course, winner but his 'previous year' results was a DNF - Too much glue!

Let's summarise some of that information in bullet points:

  • 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 (58%).
  • In the last 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), seven had previously finished second, three had placed third and only one (Peter Reid), won with a previous best of 'only' fourth place.
  • 13 of the 25 years (52%) reviewed were won by previous champions.
  • 6 of the 25 years (24%) reviewed were won by the defending champion.
  • Of the 11 first time winners (excluding the Luc Van Lierde debut win), 8 (73%) 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. (Normann Stadler won in 2004 with a previous best of third in 2000).
  • 96% of Kona winners in the last 25 years had previously finished fourth or better - only Luc Van Lierde's 1996 debut win fails this test.
  • 92% of Kona winners (23 out of 25) in the last 25 years had previously made a Kona podium (top three).
  • It is 16 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 in his career. He finished fourth in both 1996 and 1997 prior to his first victory in 1998.
  • Only once in 25 years (excluding DNS's, one puncture-related DNF from Normann Stadler and Luc Van Lierde's debut), has a Kona winner not finished within the top five the previous year - and even then, only Mark Allen managed to finish fifth, and then return to win the following year (1989)

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).
  • If at all possible, have finished in the top five - more likely top four - last year.
  • 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 2014?

Previous winners

There are four previous Kona Champions starting this year: defending champion Frederik Van Lierde. 2012 champion Pete Jacobs, three-time champion Craig Alexander and 2005 winner Faris Al-Sultan.

Faris Al-Sultan has finished 11th / 10th / 10th / 10th / 5th / 10th (2008-2013) inclusive. That is incredibly consistent Kona performaces, but is it indicative of Kona winning form in 2014? It is now nine years since his best Kona performance (win), and so based on the numbers that rules out Faris based on these statistics.

Frederik Van Lierde, of course, is a potential winner - defending champion and in good form with second at Ironman Frankfurt ticking all of the 'statistics' boxes above, with his best performance last year too.

Craig Alexander - or so we thought - had retired from Kona competition after finishing 21st (8:43:59) in 2013. He raced Ironman Melbourne in March this year (5th, 8:05:47) saying his "body is a rental car and I’ve been racing with the handbrake on" - before surprisingly indicating to us at Ironman UK that he may be returning to Kona. Can he make it four career Ironman World Championship wins? His last Kona victory was three years ago, and he's now 41 years old - he's everyone's favourite, the "pro's pro" and much more - but statistically, it must be a long shot as 12th and 21st over the past two years goes against all of the trends above. He does however have that 'previous winner' box ticked - three times!

Pete Jacobs also ticks the 'previous winner' box and doesn't turn 33 years old until late October - in Ironman terms, he's a youngster. However... he was 32nd male Pro last year (9:06:39) which, if we are going to apply this approach (!), suggests that he won't win this year, as only once in the last 25 years has an athlete had a 'bad' race (and even then, it was a puncture impacted DNF for Normann Stadler in 2005), to return the following year and win.

Pete Jacobs ©Boardman Bikes, Frederik Van Lierde ©Nils Nilsen/ Ironman.com, Faris Al Sultan

Previous performers

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

Luke McKenzie 2nd, 2013
Sebastian Kienle 3rd, 2013
James Cunnama 4th, 2013
Andreas Raelert 2nd, 2012 & 2010
Marino Vanhoenacker 3rd, 2010
Eneko Llanos 2nd, 2008
Ronnie Schildknecht 4th, 2008

Luke McKenzie. Little (nothing?) else is an indicator of future Kona success more than past Kona results. McKenzie certainly surprised almost everyone with a superb race to second place last season to add to his ninth in 2011. That shows the progress of a potential future Ironman World Champion - but will, like Chris Lieto, Andreas Raelert, Cameron Brown and Eneko Llanos, second proved to be the best it gets for McKenzie? I don't know - but statistically, he has to be on the 'potential winners' list given his best ever result was a podium last year.

Sebastian Kienle. Fourth in 2012, third last year. Two years ago in a similar analysis I said that Kienle couldn't win Kona first time out. That's not the case now - he is on the progress path of a potential champion, and winning Ironman Frankfurt in Sub-8 hours only adds some 'form' to these stats. A potential winner this year, absolutely no question about that.

James Cunnama. A Sub-8 hour iron-distance finisher and Challenge Roth winner in 2012, Cunnama produced a superb performance in 2013 to finish fourth. That marks him out as having winning chances - though, perhaps slim in 2014, given that only once on the last 25 years has a 'previous best of fourth' been enough to indicate a winner.

James Cunnama ©Chris Hitchcock/Ironman 70.3 South Africa, Andreas Raelert ©Getty Images Marino Vanhoenacker ©Rob Holden (www.robholdenphotography.com)

Andreas Raelert. 3rd/2nd/3rd/2nd over four seasons (2009-2012), the Raelert assault on Kona came to abrupt end last year with an injury related DNF on the bike. Andreas gained his Kona spot late in 2014, following a rolldown from a withdrawing athlete. His form of late has not been at the levels that had many calling him the 'best athlete never to have won Kona (yet)', and late confirmation of entry can't have helped. At his best, he certainly has the class and talent to win - but are his best days behind him? Based on the 'last years result' statistics, it is is difficult to single him out as a potential winner this time around - even if writing off the iron-distance world record holder based on statistics seems madness.

Marino Vanhoenacker. Less than a minute behind Andreas in 2010, DNF in both 2011 and 2012, DNS in 2013. After six consecutive wins and an Ironman record at Ironman Austria, Marino took a different direction in 2012 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. With no Kona start due to injury and point in 2013, Vanhoenacker has been working his way back to full fitness in some style, winning 70.3 Luxembourg, Ironman Canada and 70.3 Salzburg of late. A fit and healthy Vanhoenacker is one of the best athletes in the world to watch - and I'm a huge fan. However... this article isn't about assessing form lines (or even my 'opinion'), it's about trying to apply statistics... and they suggest his winning chances are very slim with a best result at Kona dating back four years.

Eneko Llanos. 5th in 2006, 7th in 2007, 2nd in 2008, 7th in 2010 - has the Llanos 'window of opportunity' slipped by on the big island? Llanos is a threat, but six years since his Kona best finish - 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 six year gap since that result suggests that Ronnie will need to produce something outstanding to win - so statistically, I can't predict that here.

Potential winners from this group then: Luke McKenzie, Sebastian Kienle, James Cunnama.

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? Well, most people have their eyes on this one...

Jan Frodeno. Little in any sport comes bigger than an Olympic Gold medal, and Frodeno has one of those on his C.V. from Beijing in 2008. He's been a revelation at the Ironman 70.3 distance over the last 18 months, recently finishing a close second to Javier Gomez in Mont Tremblant. His Ironman experience is limited to one race, Frankfurt this year. He had two punctures there, cramps on the run... and still finished less than seven minutes behind the current Ironman World Champion with an 8:07:05 at his first attempt, for third place. Frodeno has historically struggled in colder conditions, so that won't be an issue for him in Kona. It's a big ask for anyone to win the Hawaii Ironman at their first attempt - but Frodeno comes with the tools that indicate he shouldn't be ruled out - even if history suggests the chances of a win first time out are small.

Jan Frodeno

Anyone else to consider in this section? I don't think so - not if we are assessing winning potential for 2014. Nils Frommhold (GER) should go well, but expectations of a debut win are surely too much. He's one for the future.

And then there were five...

So, to answer the question I started with - using a statistical approach - there are five potential 2014 Ironman World Championship winners, and here they are:

  • Frederik Van Lierde
  • Sebastian Kienle
  • Luke McKenzie
  • James Cunnama
  • Jan Frodeno

We'll find out on 11th October whether that proves to be the case....

Who's your money on?

#GBKONA 2014 Coverage


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