With a more relaxed attitude and new training regimen, Pete Jacobs is one very confident defending champion heading into Saturday’s Ironman World Championship.
“I’m back here physically and mentally stronger than last year, and I’m very aware of the position that puts me in,” the 31-year-old Australian said. “I was always ahead of the guys last year. I now feel I’m further ahead, and they have some catching up to do.”
Flanked by his toughest competition Thursday at a Kailua-Kona news conference, Jacobs made one thing clear: It’s good to be king.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it on and off the racecourse,” he said. “Last year, nobody talked about me. But this year people are picking me now, and that’s a nice feeling. It’s nice to have their confidence. I’m taking their confidence with me.’’
With just under 2,200 athletes registered, the 35th edition of the 140.6-mile race begins at 6:30 a.m. for professional males – 6:35 a.m. for the pro women and 7 a.m. for age-group athletes – with a 2.4-mile swim in Kailua Bay. Triathletes pedal 112 miles to Hawi and back, then finish with a 26.2-mile run.
Jacobs overcame what he described as excruciating pain with just over 6 miles to go last year to prevail in 8 hours, 18 minutes, 37 seconds to unseat fellow countryman Craig Alexander.
If Jacobs can become the event’s fifth repeat champion, or if Alexander can win his fourth title in five years, they’d extend Australia’s stranglehold on the top spot to seven straight.
Jacobs said an injury earlier in the year forced him to re-evaluate his training program, and in turn, his regimen became more instinctual and free-spirited.
He feels fitter and faster, and that puts the target, he says, on everyone else.
“I’m in a position of power,” Jacobs said. “Guys will be watching me. I feel they’ll be reacting to whatever I do.”
The 40-year-old Alexander said he feels as good as he did in 2011 when he became the race’s oldest winner and set a course record in 8:03.56.
But he hinted this could be his farewell tour on the Big Island, especially if he goes out with a fourth victory.
“I love the race, but I have a family, and other things in life take over,” said Alexander, who scored a victory at Ironman Hawaii 70.3 earlier in the year. “I pride myself on being an athlete where every race is a world championship. It’s been like that for 10 years. But that hasn’t always been the case this year. I have to pick my battles.”
There are an ample number of contenders looking to end the Aussie reign.
German Andreas Raelert has been a model of consistency, placing either second or third the past four years. Powered by the fastest run split in 2012, the 37-year-old was runner-up, more than 5 minutes behind Jacobs.
Sebastian Kienle, a 29-year-old German, debuted in fourth place last season, posting the best bike split of the day despite losing five minutes to a flat tire. He’s the reigning 2013 Ironman 70.3 world champion.
Spaniard Eneko Llanos, 36, enters the race with a solid 2013 resume that includes victories at both the Asia-Pacific and European championships.
Much like Jacobs, defending women’s champion Leanda Cave said she’s also benefited from an injury.
The English competitor ran down Caroline Steffen of Switzerland with just over 2 miles to go to take her first title in 9:15:54.
Cave’s been slowed by a hamstring injury this year, but she called it a “blessing in disguise.”
“It gave me a break for a couple of weeks, and when I came back my training was as good as ever,” the 35-year-old said.
Steffen, 35, who had dominated on the bike before being caught by Cave, looks to improve on her runner-up finish in 2012.
Another defending champion in the field is Australian Mirinda Carfrae. The 32-year-old is the run-course record-holder and was contending last year during the run back to Kailua-Kona when a lack of hydration cost her. She wound up third.
Her plan this year?
“Drink, drink, drink,” she said.
“I found a way to put the puzzle together (in 2010), and I found what works. Hopefully, I continue to make it work.”
Rehabbing a broken collarbone she suffered just over a month ago, Mary Beth Ellis, 36, is among the top American hopefuls. She’s gone unblemished in the Ironman races – except in her two tries on the Big Island.