By JOE FERRARO
The news excited Craig Alexander last year, providing the motivation to get “a half-percent better here and there.’’
He’d have the chance to compete in the Ironman world championship against someone known for having a competitive drive like no other: seven-time Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong.
But Armstrong’s recent doping scandal took that opportunity away, with the World Triathlon Corporation banning Armstrong from Ironman events shortly after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency announced its intent to file doping charges against Armstrong and strip him of his Tour de France titles in June.
For Alexander, however, Armstrong’s absence won’t diminish his drive to win another title – or make that task any easier.
The three-time Ironman world champion will return to defend his men’s title at the Ironman World Championship Presented by MyList, which takes place Saturday on the Big Island.
Featuring more than 1,900 registered athletes, the 140.6-mile race begins at 6:30 a.m. – 6:35 a.m. for the professional women and 7 a.m. for age-group athletes – with a 2.4-mile swim in Kailua Bay. A 112-mile bicycle ride that takes triathletes to Hawi and then back to Kailua-Kona, and a 26.2-mile run follow.
The men’s and women’s champions will each receive $120,000, while the runners-up get $60,000.
Last year, Alexander added onto a resume of greatness, taking down Luc Van Lierde’s 15-year-old Ironman world championship course record with a time of 8 hours, 3 minutes, 56 seconds and becoming the oldest Ironman champion at age 38.
“(The possibility of Armstrong competing) was exciting to me because I thought everybody knows his level of preparation,’’ Alexander said Thursday in at news conference at King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel. “That’s going to raise the bar. I think he was going to bring a level of professionalism that we haven’t seen.”
The Australian maintains he supports “WTC’s stance of zero tolerance for performance-enhancing drugs” but questions whether or not officials have sufficient evidence to penalize Armstrong.
“Is it enough to lasso a man on innuendo and so-called testimony?” the 39-year-old Alexander said.
Alexander admitted being disappointed over Armstrong not being able to race but emphasized the quality in the men’s field, which includes two-time champion Chris McCormack and the second- through fifth-place finishers at last year’s world championship in Pete Jacobs, Andreas Raelert, Dirk Bockel and Timo Bracht, respectively.
Alexander also won titles in 2008 and 2009, while McCormack, who did not race in Ironman events last year to focus on Olympic training, placed first in 2007 and 2010.
“I’m going to have my hands full with the guys who are here,’’ said Alexander, who on March 25 topped an elite field at the Ironman Asia-Pacific Championship in Melbourne with a time of 7:57:44. “Everybody wants to make it out as a two-horse race between Chris and myself. Obviously, we have won the last five times, and I think that’s a talking point. That’s great, but it’s not a two-horse race.”
Australia’s Jacobs, plagued by nagging injuries in recent years, said he was pleased with last year’s runner-up finish but would like to turn in a performance in which he excels in all three of the race’s disciplines. He thought he struggled on the bike last year, and he also experienced quadriceps issues near the Natural Energy Lab during the run.
“Last year, I was happy with (making the) podium,’’ said Jacobs, who recorded the third-fastest world championship marathon leg of 2:41:05 in 2010. “This year, I’m driven to win. … I’m definitely in the best shape I’ve ever been for Hawaii.”
In the past three years, Germany’s Raelert placed third in 2009 and 2011 and second in 2010. Two years ago, he set the current Ironman-distance world record of 7:41:33 in Roth, Germany.
Other notable athletes in the men’s field include Belgium’s Marino Vanhoenacker, who one week before Raelert’s 2011 performance in Roth set the previous Ironman world record with a time of 7:45:58 at Ironman Austria in Klagenfurt, Austria.
This year, Vanhoenacker won the Frankfurter Sparkasse Ironman European Championship on July 8 with another stellar time (8:03:31). A week earlier, the other past men’s champion in Saturday’s field, Germany’s Faris Al-Sultan (2005), won Ironman Austria with a time of 8:11:31.
Germany’s Sebastian Kienle, who beat Alexander at the Ironman 70.3 Championship in Las Vegas on Sept. 9, will also compete along with Aquadraat Sports Ironman U.S. Championship winner Jordan Rapp of the United States.
The women’s field will not include four-time Ironman champion Chrissie Wellington, who chose to take time off after winning her fourth world title in five years last October.
No one has been more dominant at the event in recent years than Wellington, who broke Paula Newby-Fraser’s 17-year Ironman world championship record with a time of 8:54:02 in 2009. Her absence opens the door to a world title for several triathletes.
Australia’s Mirinda Carfrae, who sandwiched two-second place finishes around a world crown in 2010, remains formidable because of her strong running.
Carfrae set the world championship run course record in 2009, clocking in at 2:56:51. Then she promptly broke that mark in each of the past two years, running a 2:52:09 last year on her way to a total time of 8:57:57.
However, because she trailed Great Britain bicycle leg specialist Julie Dibens by 24 minutes during the race, she committed to bettering her performance on the bike this year.
Working with advisor Matt Steinmetz, who also helped Alexander record the fourth-fastest bike split in world championship history (4:24:05) last year, Carfrae said she has performed better on the bike even though that improvement didn’t translate into victories this year.
“All I know is that I have improved, and I hope to see that on Saturday,’’ the 31-year-old Carfrae said.
Her biggest competitor, Switzerland’s Caroline Steffen, has improved on the bike and on the run this year, and her strides led to victories at the Ironman European Championship (8:52:33) and Ironman Asia-Pacific Championship (8:34:51). At the latter, her time fell just 55 seconds short of the women’s Ironman-distance world record Wellington set a year earlier.
Turning in such performances has produced a title Steffen doesn’t mind: race favorite.
“I’m starting to get used to being favored in races,’’ said Steffen, who placed fifth at last year’s world championship.
The 2011 third- and fourth-place finishers, Great Britain’s Leanda Cave and Rachel Joyce, will also compete along with six-time Ironman world champion Natascha Badmann of Switzerland, and the United States’ Kelly Williamson and Mary Beth Ellis.
Cave won the Ironman 70.3 world championship, where Williamson finished runner-up.
Ellis took the top spot at Memorial Hermann Ironman Texas (8:54:58) and at the Aquadraat Sports Ironman U.S. Championship (9:02:48).