Michael Lovato expects Chattanooga to deliver fast racing, brave risk taking, and heated battles right to the finish line. Make sure you’re versed in the talent with our preview of the professional race.
by Michael Lovato
For the first time since its inception in 2006, the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship is offering two exciting days of racing, with the (pro and age group) women competing on Saturday September 9th, and the (pro and age group) men hitting the same course the next day.
Just as the past two years in Austria and Australia, the Chattanooga, Tennessee race course will offer up a challenging bike ride. This year, a primary variable is that the athletes will be facing hot and humid conditions on race day, making the hilly run course that much more difficult. Factor in a swim that starts against the current in the Tennessee river, and the 2017 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship is sure to offer an honest challenge to the world’s best triathletes.
For several weeks—even months—it was a forgone conclusion in my mind that Great Britain’s Holly Lawrence would dominate the women’s field and defend her title. On the men’s side, equal dominance would come from another British athlete: IRONMAN 70.3 rookie and double Olympic champion Alistair Brownlee. But there’s no such thing as a forgone conclusion in triathlon, and injuries have kept these athletes’ dominance in check.
Fortunately, Lawrence has overcome her injury and will toe the line fresh and ready; however, much to the dismay of the IRONMAN fans, Brownlee has been sidelined, opening the door for one of many other frontrunners to take the 2017 title.
Analysis: The women’s race
Looking at Saturday’s competition, it’s still very difficult to look past the odds that Holly Lawrence carries into the race. Being one of the few women who can sit on Lauren Brandon’s (USA) feet for any extended period of time, I expect her to duplicate the swim effort we saw from her last year, exiting the water with a gap to the other contenders, including Daniela Ryf (CHE), Laura Philip (DEU), Heather Wurtele (CAN), Helle Frederiksen (DNK), Annabel Luxford (AUS), and Jeanni Seymour (ZAF).
Despite the gap they’ll enjoy coming out of the water, Brandon and Lawrence will soon be joined by other ultra quick swimmers like Jennifer Spieldenner (USA), Alicia Kaye (USA), Haley Chura (USA), Sarah True (USA), Luxford, Frederiksen and Ryf. This group will tackle the opening five miles of the bike together, and there won’t be much separation until they hit the steep, three-mile climb. I see the group distancing themselves from the likes of Wurtele, Philip, and Seymour, each of whom can rely on consistently quick bike and run splits to bring them back into the mix.
The challenging climb will do some damage to the weaker riders, and although I feel we will see a larger front-pack dynamic for much of the bike race, I believe some athletes will pay the price for matching those opening speeds.
Once through the bulk of the ride, we’ll see a few stars begin to shine. Included in that bunch will be Lawrence, Ryf, Frederiksen, Philip, and Wurtele. That elite five will begin to wear down the legs of the other racers, while the runners of the group like Heather Jackson (USA), Melissa Hauschildt (AUS), Seymour, and Lesley Smith (USA) will keep pace enough to remain in striking distance.
Over the closing miles of the bike and out onto the run, I believe we’ll see Lawrence continue to draw away from the others. Her tenacity when out front is unrivaled, and she seems to thrive on rolling along at breakneck—almost suicide—speeds. The next closest rival into T2 will be two-time IRONMAN world champion, Daniela Ryf. Once the dominant force at IRONMAN 70.3 racing, I believe she’s back on form to truly contend at this distance. Philip will roll into transition with a small deficit, and a ton of confidence off her four wins at this distance so far this year.
Helle Frederiksen is fresh off a second-place finish at the ITU Long Distance World Championship two weeks ago, and I see that long-course race only adding to her strength as she tackles this relatively shorter event.
Once onto the hilly and humid run course, I expect to see Lawrence run away with the victory. Second place will go to the two-time IRONMAN 70.3 world champion, Daniela Ryf. Third place will go to Helle Frederiksen, and in fourth we’ll see Laura Philip, whose run speed and recent hot streak make her a valid threat to the podium. Jeanni Seymour will round out the top five. It’s difficult to say Heather Jackson is a dark horse, but with the possibility of a heavy Kona training load slowing her down, it’s tough to know if she’ll be in top IRONMAN 70.3 form.
Analysis: The men’s race
In short, Javier Gomez (ESP) will win.
The only athlete who will be close to Gomez is Sebastian Kienle (DEU), who will take yet another second place. Tim Don (GBR) will find enough speed within his Kona build to find the third spot on the podium, while fourth place will go to last year’s winner Tim Reed (AUS). Fifth place will go to Sam Appleton (AUS), who is enjoying an impressive season of racing so far. There are two dark horses in the men’s race: Ben Kanute (USA), and Mauricio Mendez Cruz (MEX).
I see the men’s race playing out a lot like the women’s. The men will have the advantage of having seen the women’s race the day before, but very few of them will heed the warning and change their tactics based on what they learned. The same way I expect to see a larger front pack emerge from the water and tackle the opening miles of the bike, I believe the most well-rounded and balanced athletes will run away with the top five spots.
This is the reason Gomez (pictured above) is the clear favorite. His only weakness is his relative inexperience at the distance, but that didn’t stop him from winning the title in 2014 or taking third in 2015. He is the type of athlete who thrives on winning high level competitions, and I predict this being more of the same.
Kienle has minimized his swim losses of late, and his bike-run combo is one of the best in the business. In the same vein, Don has improved his cycling so much that he now owns the IRONMAN world record. Finally, Tim Reed and Sam Appleton have both established themselves as potent all-around athletes—guys who are tough to discount in any of the three disciplines.
Boasting a impressive list of international talent in each race, there’s little room for error in the professional competition. I expect we’ll see fast racing, brave risk taking, a few dramatic blow-ups, and heated battles right to the finish line.
Michael Lovato is an IRONMAN Live host and a IRONMAN Certified Coach.