By JOE FERRARO
Being drawn to the “family ohana spirit” of the Big Island, Chris Lieto has thoroughly enjoyed being a Hawaii resident the past two years.
Today in Waikoloa, he hopes he can enjoy triathlon a little more than he has over the past few months.
The 2009 Ford Ironman World Championship runner-up is among approximately 1,500 athletes entered in Lavaman Waikoloa, an Olympic-distance triathlon that begins at 7:20 a.m. with a 0.9-mile swim in Anaehoomalu Bay.
Triathletes will then travel north on Queen Kaahumanu Highway for a 24.8-mile bike ride before returning to Waikoloa for a 6.2-mile run on the Waikoloa Beach Resort grounds.
The 41-year-old Lieto, also an Ironman 70.3 Hawaii runner-up in 2009 and 2011, has battled Achilles tendinitis for the past year. The injury particularly bothered him when he placed seventh overall at the Laguna Phuket Triathlon on Nov. 25, and he hasn’t raced since.
“(The pain) was a lot more then, but it’s a lot better now,’’ said Lieto, who will compete in Lavaman Waikoloa for the first time. “I finally feel like I’m coming out of it.”
That doesn’t mean Lieto, who has immersed himself in mission work at the University of the Nations along with wife Karis, will place a lot of weight on victory.
Back on Nov. 18, Lieto did win Lavaman Keauhou on his first try.
“Hopefully, as always I’d like to win, but to be able to go out and compete would be a huge success for me,’’ said Lieto, who lived in Danville, Calif., before taking up residence on the Big Island in 2011. “I’m going to go out there and enjoy myself and have fun.”
Lieto and 10 other athletes entered in Lavaman Waikoloa’s pro/elite division cannot win their respective age groups.
Two of the other 10, professionals Tim Marr and James Cotter, have enjoyed success at Lavaman Waikoloa in the past.
Marr, a 34-year-old from Honolulu, won Lavaman Waikoloa in 2006 and 2007. Last year, he finished third with a time of 1 hour, 57 minutes, 29 seconds, with Chris McCormack (1:51:12) and Jens Beck (1:56:16) taking first and second, respectively.
At Lavaman Keauhou, Marr finished runner-up to Lieto.
Marr’s longtime friend, James Cotter, won Lavaman Waikoloa in 2008. Formerly of Kailua-Kona, he now resides in Texas.
Other notable competitors include a trio of Kailua-Kona triathletes: Thomas Vonach, Penn Henderson and Sam Corace.
Vonach (1:58:57) and Henderson (1:59:52) placed fourth and fifth, respectively, at last year’s Lavaman Waikoloa, while Corace (2:02:15) took eighth.
At Lavaman Keauhou, Vonach and Corace took third and fifth, respectively.
McCormack, a two-time Ironman world champion, also won Lavaman Waikoloa in 2009 and 2010, setting a course record in both appearances. He had registered for this year’s race but bowed out with a broken hand that will require surgery.
The defending women’s champion, Kailua-Kona’s Bree Wee, will also miss today’s race.
The 32-year-old Wee won her third consecutive Lavaman Waikoloa title with a course-record time of 2:02:47 last year, but she has committed to race in the Ironman Asia-Pacific Championship, which takes place Sunday in Melbourne.
One of Wee’s longtime friends in triathlon, Amber Stull, figures to be a race favorite.
The 35-year-old Anchorage resident had registered for last year’s Lavaman Waikoloa but broke her arm during a bike training session a week before the race. A year earlier, she placed third with a time of 2:13:23 – 21 seconds behind Kealakekua’s Rani Tanimoto.
The 37-year-old Tanimoto, Henderson’s wife, placed third at last year’s Lavaman Waikoloa but she won’t compete this year because she is expecting the couple’s first child.
Notes: Britain’s Jenson Button, the 2009 Formula One Champion, participated in his second consecutive Lavaman Waikoloa last year and finished sixth (2:01:55). However, Button will not race this year because he will compete in Formula One’s Grand Prix of Malaysia today. … Six-time Ironman world champion Dave Scott and Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi are expected to make their third consecutive Lavaman Waikoloa appearances. … Tennis great Martina Navratilova, who has won 18 grand slam titles, will race on a relay team that also includes Canadian Silken Laumann, an Olympic rower who won a silver medal at the 1996 Olympics and bronze medals in the 1984 and 1992 Summer Games.