By Lee Gruenfeld | Ironman
Asking me to handicap age groupers in Ironman events is like asking Dennis Rodman to handicap curling at the Winter Olympics.
So why do I keep getting asked? Because I know Jerry MacNeill, who knows more about age group triathletes than anyone alive.
Jerry is a Minnesota-based race announcer, race director, race racer (duathlons, anyway, like those count), as well as a celebrated bon vivant and legendary CIA honey-trap tester. (Note: Being a celebrated bon vivant in Minnesota is like being a celebrated bobsledder in Bora Bora.)
We’ve done this now some half dozen times and Jerry’s record is incredible: He’s predicted seventeen of the last three winners. Here’s how our conversation earlier this week went…
LEE: To start off, are there any things that stick right out about this year’s age group men?
JERRY: Yes. There appears to be more than the usual number of conspicuously absent elite masters and grandmasters this year: Yves Tabarant, Ben Ewers, Reinhold Humbold, Joe Bonness, Bent Anderson, Andrea Zamboni, Curt Chesney. It would be foolhardy to suggest that any of their shoes will be adequately filled this weekend, but this is Kona. Special performances happen. Someone, or perhaps two or three someones, will rise to the occasion Saturday and surprise us.
LEE: As long as we’re on the subject of legends in the geezer division, let’s start with the 80+ athletes.
JERRY: Careful: One of those “geezers” is liable to hurl you over the seawall without even spilling his mocha latte.
LEE: I’ll just tell him you said it. 2011 was a banner year for that division, wasn’t it?
JERRY: It was historic. Three of them beat the cutoff and had official finishes. I have a feeling that could be bettered this year. Cokan and Roberts are back. 2012 and 2011 world 70.3 champ Bob Scott DNF’d here last year and now he’s hungrier than ever. I’d pick him automatically but there’s an intriguing new addition to the field, Japan’s Hirumu Inada. He went a truly jaw-dropping 15:02 at Ironman Korea last year at the age of 79.
LEE: What’s the current 80+ record for the Kona course?
JERRY: Robert McKeague’s 16:21, which has held for six years. If the current weather forecast for this weekend stands up, Inada could shred it into pieces.
LEE: How about 75-79?
JERRY: I see a new record there.
LEE: Are you serious? Somebody’s going to crack Bob Scott’s 13:27?
JERRY: No, that one’s going to stand like DiMaggio’s hitting streak. What I means is that we could see a record number of 75-79ers finish before the cutoff. Thirteen are scheduled to start, and if seven of them finish it’ll be unprecedented, and just plain cool.
LEE: Who’s the standout favorite? Yutaka Kojima?
JERRY: He’s won the last two years so you’d think so, but I’m calling it for a Swiss guy named Georg von Shrader.
LEE: With a name like that he should be conducting the Zurich Philharmonic.
JERRY: Does Zurich have a Philharmonic?
LEE: No idea. Just sayin’. Milos Kostic is representing 70-74 again. Do we need to discuss this one?
JERRY: No. I think they pre-engrave his name on the umeke every year.
LEE: What’s another exciting division?
JERRY: 55-59. Can you believe that there are 90 competitors in it?
LEE: Hard to make a prediction in a field that large.
JERRY: Actually, no. Greg Taylor is the defending champ and, not only do I think he’s going to repeat, I think he can break ten hours. He went 10:03:43 last year and the guy just keeps getting better. He’s a radiologist in South Dakota and doesn’t even need to wear one of those lead aprons; he just puts on all of his Kona medals.
LEE: How long did it take you to come up with that?
JERRY: Most of the night. How’d I do?
LEE: Really, uh…adequate. Any thoughts on the overall amateur competition?
JERRY: This is going to be an amazing race, possibly the best ever. Eight amateur dudes broke the 9-hour barrier in 2011, and three of them are returning: Belgium’s Sam Gyde (8:50:09), San Francisco-based Finn Sami Inkinen (8:58:59) and Texan Joe Thorne (8:59:16).
LEE: Sounds like Sam Gyde has the edge, with a time like that.
JERRY: If that’s all we had to go on, I’d agree. But if you look at 2012 results, one particular performance stands above all the rest: Sami Inkinen won the amateur crown at Ironman Sweden on Aug. 18 with a blistering 8:24:27.
LEE: I just did a quick lookup. That time would have put him twelfth among the pros.
JERRY: He will definitely have a target on his back Saturday.
LEE: The top amateurs represent a couple of age groups. How do those look in terms of likely winners?
JERRY: What you have to remember is that the top open class guys are gunning more for overall place than age group awards. They’ll win their divisions en route to fast clockings and satisfying overall places.
LEE: So we can expect to see Sami Inkinen on the top podium spot in 35-39.
JERRY: That’s the best guess. Should be a great horse race with Sam Gyde, but let’s not forget about Tim Hola, one of America’s premier long-distance athletes who’s gone sub-nine several times.
JERRY: Joe Thorne, but he’s got some real competition. Grant Bovee, 29, of Denver, Colorado, is one of two guys who will be closely watched this weekend by USAT’s Athlete of the Year Selection Committee. He was the Top Amateur at Ironman Canada, placing 6th overall in 9:04:10, just 15:40 behind the pro winner. He was also the fastest amateur at Vineman 70.3. A sub-9 is definitely possible. There’s also Steve Zawaski of Boulder, who was the amateur winner at Wildflower. (Grant was third.) Tough guy, obviously.
LEE: Who was the other closely watched athlete?
JERY: Brian Duffy, Jr., 24, of West Chester, PA. He’s the reigning National Champion at the Olympic distance but hasn’t quite mastered long distance racing so he has much to prove at Kona.
LEE: Who’s he going to be fighting in 20-24?
JERRY: Ryan Frederickson, all of 21 years old. He was top amateur at the Racine 70.3 in 4:09:28 and 8th overall at Chicago Elite. A star of the future.
LEE: What about 30-34?
JERRY: Keep your eyes on Adam Otstot and Sean Schnurr. Adam was top amateur at Texas in 8:51, and Sean was second at Kona last year and first at the Ironman 70.3 Texas this year. Breathing down their necks will be B.J. Christensen, James Chesson and Benjamin Winterroth.
LEE: So do you feel pretty confident about your predictions?
JERRY: Hell, no. This is IRONMAN, where anything can happen, and usually does. If I hit 33 percent I’ll be amazed.
LEE: Is this like setting the bar low for the presidential debate so you look better by exceeding expectations?
LEE: Got it. Thanks, Jerry. Keep warm in Minnesota this winter.
JERRY: Are you rubbing it in because you live in Palm Springs?
JERRY: Got it.
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