The stage is set for the Ironman World Championships in St. George, Utah. This is the first time that the race will be held outside the island of Hawaii and provides a brand new and challenging course for the athletes to contend with.
The strength of both the men’s and women’s fields is seriously impressive with Olympic champions, multiple Kona winners, young blood and experienced veterans creating a plethora of athletes who could contend for the win or reach the podium.
However, the lack of athletes including Jan Frodeno, Patrick Lange, Joe Skipper, Laura Philipp and Lucy Charles-Barclay – unable to race due to injury or illness – will no doubt shake up the race dynamics as triathlon looks to crown its first IM world champ since October 2019.
Since transitioning to long course racing, superstars Gustav Iden (PTO World #1) and Kristian Blummenfelt (PTO World #42) have left a clear mark on the sport, with many suggesting they are now the ones to beat.
This will be Blummenfelt’s second ever full distance race, having previously only raced IM Cozumel where he set the world-best time over the distance. Iden has also only ever raced one full-distance race previously, IM Florida. Astonishing performances from both Norwegians in their first full-distance efforts made the triathlon world sit up and pay attention.
The Norwegian pair will both likely come out of the water either at the back of the first swim pack or the front of the second and try to bridge up to the lead bikers early on. Even if either of them is 5-10 minutes back coming off the bike, their run prowess – having clocked 2:35 marathons on debut – will mean they are very much still in for a chance of the win.
THE GREAT DANE
With a podium finish at the 70.3 World Championships last year and a proven track record over the full distance, Daniel Bækkegård (PTO World #4) is undoubtedly a strong podium contender. As a strong swimmer, Bækkegård will be able to stick with the front swim pack and set himself up to be in the mix at the front of the race.
The only possible question mark over Bækkegård in regards to his chances of winning is his run. Bækkegård’s best marathon to date is 2:45 (by no means slow), however, with the likes of Blummenflet, Iden as well as Jan Van Berkel all having clocked sub 2:40 marathons, the Dane would likely require a significant gap going into the run to hold them all off.
At 70.3 Oceanside a little over a month ago, Alistair Brownlee proved that his longstanding injuries have been put to bed. Brownlee was expected by to wipe the floor with the competition in California but that certainly did not end up being the case. After leading for most of the run, Brownlee came home in a disappointing fourth behind a sensational Jackson Laundry and that epic sprint finish between Rudy Von Berg and Lionel Sanders.
Brownlee put it down to not being over a recent illness, so we can only hope that he has been able to recover fully so we can see him at his double-Olympic winning best. The Brit’s overall swim, bike and run prowess mean that if he is showing up healthy and measures his efforts accordingly he can absolutely be counted as a contender for the win.
LS, SAM LONG & CAM WURF
Lionel Sanders (PTO World #3), Sam Long (PTO World #5) and Cam Wurf (PTO World #31) are three athletes who are sure to provide excitement no matter the final race outcome.
In classic Cam Wurf fashion, it was still unclear until yesterday’s appearance on Breakfast with Bob if he would be racing due to commitments to pro cycling team Ineos Grenadiers.
We can all say that we are thrilled to see Cam being able to make the race, including Sanders and Long who have both said how happy they are to have Wurf’s firepower on the bike. Wurf was always known to be one of the best cyclists in triathlon but over the past two years he has proven these credentials in pro cycling. Only last week Wurf could be seen leading out over the famous cobbles of Paris Roubaix, setting up an incredible win for his team.
Sanders, Long and Wurf have all historically had similar swim abilities and have needed their strong bikes to allow them to bridge the gap to the lead group. This will be the case once more, though it will be fascinating to see what gains both Sanders and Long have been able to make in the swim having both focused heavily on improving this discipline.
For Sanders and Long it is about being amongst the lead group coming off the bike if they are to have hopes of winning. Though it is possible to make up some deficit on the run to some athletes, it would be a serious challenge to make inroads to the Norwegian duo with even a small deficit.
On paper, Sanders is the better runner and also has form in St. George having won the 70.3 there in May last year by outsprinting Long. On the other hand, Long took second at the 70.3 world – also in St. George – last September.
SEBI’S LOOKING TO SURPRISE HIMSELF
Another athlete who could be in the mix with the chasing bike pack, Sebastian Kienle (PTO World #36) is the only previous IM World Champion on the men’s side who has made it to the start line (with Lange and Frodeno both injured). Kienle announced he will retire at the end of 2023, making this his penultimate chance to bag another IM world title.
Though Kienle is in the latter stages of his career, this absolutely does not rule him out of podium contention. For Kienle, it will be important to minimise his deficit on the swim and then get to work on the bike, likely being surrounded by fellow uber bikers Sanders, Long and Wurf.
Kienle has struggled with injury on and off for the last couple of years so we can only hope that he is fully healthy coming into this race and if he is able to come off the bike with or near the front of the race, there is absolutely no reason to rule him out of winning it all!
Already mentioned for his run abilities, Jan Van Berkel (PTO World #30) could very well be one of those athletes we see working their way through the field late in the race and could very well have podium chances depending on what is happening around him.
The USA’s Ben Hoffman (PTO World #24) has form at IM World Championships having clocked four top-10 finishes including second back in 2014. Hoffmann is also coming off a fantastic win at IM Texas two weeks ago, a performance that saw him rise a whipping 57 places in the PTO World Rankings.
Braden Currie (PTO World #16), one of those athletes who loves the big stages and has previously been able to achieve fifth place finish in the world champs. Perhaps he will be able to improve on it this Saturday.
Then there is Kyle Smith (PTO World #22), actually picked as one of Jan Frodeno’s favourites to be on the podium once everything has been left out on the course. Smith and Frodeno are training partners so if anyone has the inside track on the form that Smith is bringing into the race, it’d be the German star.
DANIELA RYF – QUEEN OF ST. GEORGE?
With four Ironman world titles Daniela Ryf (PTO World #3) is known by many as the Queen of Kona, but will she also be crowned monarch of St. George this weekend? Ryf has won four IM World Championships, five 70.3 world titles and has dominated the sport for years. However, in recent months Ryf has had some disappointing performances (some would say out of character) where she would have typically been expected to dominate.
There is no doubt that if Ryf is firing on all cylinders then she is undoubtedly one of the favourites to take the win. Her game plan is sure to be the same as in her other victories –
catching the leaders on the bike and then riding away from them to establish a large enough gap to hold off faster runners. If the likes of Haug, Matthews or anyone who can put in a strong run are level with Ryf at the start of the run then Ryf’s chances of victory will be significantly lowered.
HAUG’S TITLE DEFENCE
After two years since the last IM World Championship, Anne Haug (PTO World #5) is finally able to defend her title. The German has banked strong and consistent results over the last year despite battling with Covid-induced diabetes during 2021. Unlike many of her fellow athletes, she managed to stay injury-free, however.
In her most recent race at IM 70.3 Lanzarote in March, Haug finished second, four minutes behind Kat Matthews. Likely not the result that she would have wanted in her main build race going into St. George against one of her main competitors.
Haug did say in her Breakfast with Bob interview this week that she had experimented with coming straight from an altitude camp to the Lanzarote race and could still feel the effects of altitude and the sluggishness in her system. Haug took this as a learning and adjusted the timing of her altitude camp leading into St. George – hopefully to good effect.
If Haug is to take the title, she will need to ride smart and run at her best. Making up a deficit on the run to most athletes is well within Haug’s ability but if the German gives away too much time to Matthews on the bike, closing on the fleet-footed Brit will be a big ask.
KAT MATTHEWS’ DEBUT CHAMPS
Kat Matthews (PTO World #6) has taken the triathlon world rather by storm since turning pro in 2019, impressing with podiums and wins including IM Florida in 2020 and IM UK in 2021 before winning 70.3 Lanzarote in March. Though Matthews has form across all three disciplines, it is her bike-run combination that is her true weapon.
This will be the first IM World Championships for Matthews and she has lofty ambitions of wanting to take the win. This is not at all outlandish though, looking at her track record Matthews has the goods to back this up.
Matthews can be expected to exit the water amongst the second pack of swimmers and will want to bridge to the front (and potentially ride away) as quickly as possible. To give Matthews the best chance of victory over Haug, she will be looking for a buffer after the bike given the two being closely matched on the run. With that talent for running, Matthews can be confident that if she comes off the bike with anyone other than Haug, she could comfortably see them off.
At the top of the list of strong female contenders who are racing on home soil are Skye Moench, Jocelyn McCauley and Heather Jackson.
As the top-ranked US athlete on the start line, Skye Moench (PTO World #8) goes into St. George as the favourite among the Americans. This long-distance specialist had a strong and consistent 2021 and came fifth and sixth at 70.3 St. George and the IM 70.3 worlds in St. George respectively last year. That being said in Moench’s final IM of 2021 – Florida – it was Heather Jackson who beat her to the top step.
In an interview with Triathlon Mockery, Moench said Heather Jackson is one athlete she would like to bark at like a junkyard dog as she passes, so perhaps we’ll see these two fighting it out throughout the race for the top US-finisher accolade.
The most recent victory for Heather Jackson (PTO World #13) was that race against Moench at IM Florida at the end of 2021. Having had a difficult season until that point, the result was surely a confidence boost showing training was working – boding well for this race. However, Jackson’s only race to date this year yielded her a DNF at Oceanside. That said, Jackson often rises to the occasion – as shown by her four top-five performances in Kona.
Like Ben Hoffman, Jocelyn McCauley (PTO World #15) is coming into St. George having raced and won IM Texas two weeks ago. This certainly shows that McCauley is in great form but the question is whether she’s been able to recover from this effort. Racing a full distance race within two to three weeks of the World Championships is a risky tactic but could it pay dividends for an iron-distance specialist like McCauley?
Lisa Nordén (PTO World #17) hasn’t quite fullfilled the promise of her Olympic-silver winning performance since stepping up to long course, but there’s no doubt she’s one of the strongest cyclists in the sport. A good swimmer, too, Norden could push the pace alongside Ryf on the bike to try and hold off swifter runners.
Fenella Langridge (PTO World #22) impressed on her IM debut last year, coming second at Coeur d’Alene and third in Roth. Her first world champs, this great swimmer might just share the limelight with Haley Chura at the front of the race. She’s got the bike chops too so could feature well towards the finish line.
Ruth Astle (PTO World #31) took two Ironman titles late last year, clinching victories in Mallorca and South Africa. Her strong bike legs could play a role in St. George leading a chasing pack to cut swim deficits but she’ll need a much improved run to factor in the overall – the question is whether the Brit has made those gains over winter.
Joanna Ryter (PTO World #43) might not be the biggest Swiss name in the women’s field, but she’s one to watch. After four top-five Ironman finishes last season, Ryter came third in Texas a fortnight ago. Her 94% run ranking tells you all you need to know – look out for her making up places on the marathon.
At PTO World #73, Maja Stage Nielsen’s palmares don’t match the cream of the crop in St. George, but solid performances in Kona – 12th, 15th and 11th over the last three editions – along with podiums in Lanzarote and Cozumel show she can handle the heat. This was proved recently at Clash Miami, where the Dane took third place. If attrition in St. George is anything like that race, Stage Nielsen could be the one to profit.