If the Ironman World Championship isn’t happening in Kona, has it even happened?
The highest peak in a triathlete’s career can be found along a stretch of Ali’i Drive in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
It’s a small road, one dotted with local cafes, a handful of hotels, and the Kona Farmer’s Market.
Since 1981, the city of around 20,000 people has hosted the pinnacle of sport: the Ironman World Championship. Each year, 2,500 athletes qualify to take part in the event, having surpassed those in their age group in a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon.
“Anyone who’s heard of triathlon as a sport has heard of Kona,” said world championship qualifier Todd Wakefield.
But on January 5, Ironman officially announced that it would be making a long-term change to the annual World Championship. The 2023 event will take place over two days in two cities. This year, the men will race in Nice, France on September 10, while the women will race in Kona on October 14. Both cities will host until 2026, with the men and women changing location each year.
Kona would no longer be singularly synonymous with the best Ironman triathletes in the world.
“Heartbreaking,” said Drew Jordan, another World Championship qualifier. In 2018, Wakefield and Jordan began sharing their triathlon journey and a glimpse of the most prestigious course on an Instagram account called Couch to Kona.
The “two guys trying to keep fit”, as they call themselves, were inundated with messages after the official call. It was all about Kona, they said, one echoing the other between sighs. “We’ve literally been thinking about trying to qualify for this race for four years now,” Jordan said.
It was a major change that many have seen coming for some time, but which was realized in 2022 in part due to a huge glut of qualifiers who had not yet raced due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to Andrew Messick, the general manager of Iron Man.
In an effort to get qualified athletes racing again, the 2021 world championship — the first held after the 2020 race was canceled — has been moved to St. George, Utah, a location with looser Covid restrictions.
2019 qualifiers had the option of racing in May 2022 in Utah (the event counted as the 2021 championship) or rescheduling their qualification at the usual time and place of the championships, the second weekend of October at Kona (an event that would count as the 2022 championship).
Most athletes chose the latter, choosing the mystique of Kona over the first championship to return since the pandemic began.
“Everyone’s dream is Kona,” said Skye Ombac, a triathlete from Hawaii. A fan of the sport, Ombac streamed the World Championship from St. George in May 2022. “They still had the Hawaiian drums, and the volunteers had the fake leis. And there were Hawaiian dancers and they were trying so hard to do Kona again, but it’s not in Kona.
“It was a world championship,” continued Ombac. “But everyone said it was the quote-unquote world championship; it’s not Kona.
After a series of conversations with Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth, Messick and his team decided to host two days of racing in Kona in 2022, with men and women competing on separate days. There were two live broadcasts.
This was the future, Messick thought. Bigger fields, more qualifying slots for age-range athletes and a clear way to highlight women’s racing, which has always been swallowed up by simultaneous coverage of men’s racing.
“We have to continue to adapt to what has been an extraordinary growth in demand for the world championship,” Messick said. “While Kona is a big part of Ironman history, we’ve exceeded the capacity to do a one-day World Championship there.”
About 2,500 athletes translate to some 10,000 visitors for the coastal city located on the west island of Hawaii. For many, it feels like the race subsumes the region. Bikes worth tens of thousands of dollars flood the airport and popular pre-race foods like bananas become nowhere to be found on the island. Road closures in the small town make getting around nearly impossible.
Permanently increasing the number of participants – and adding a second day of racing – would not have been sustainable in Kona in the long term.
The number of athletes who could qualify for the world championship has not changed, even though the number of athletes competing in the Ironman race series has exploded over the past 17 years. It has grown from 15,500 entries for full distance Ironman triathlon events in 2005 to some 94,000 entries for full distance Ironman races in 2022. In 2005, there were 14 full distance Ironman triathlons worldwide. In 2023, 44 such races are scheduled. But the number of athletes who could toe the line in Kona remained squarely around 2,500.
This contrasts with an event like the Boston Marathon. This race, a peak for amateur distance runners, had a field of nearly 20,000 in 2005. It grew to a field of around 30,000 in 2022.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of location to these breeds. For runners and triathletes, qualifying for a race means qualifying to “run Boston” or “run Kona”. Runners don’t want to qualify for the Boston Marathon just to run the marathon in another city. And many aren’t interested in qualifying for a world championship to race outside of Hawaii.
Some athletes, including Jordan and Wakefield, are starting to strategize. They still plan to focus on qualifying for the World Championship, but only when it’s their turn to race in Kona. Ombac, a teacher who was cheered on by the students on race day, said competing in Kona was one of the best days of her life, but traveling to Nice for a championship is too expensive. Some athletes may be years and years old.
If there’s one thing everyone can agree on, it’s the improved coverage of the women’s race that came with a separate event date. Athletes interviewed – even those who vehemently opposed the change – nodded towards this progress.
It’s “good for the sport,” said Sarah Crowley, a two-time world championship bronze medalist who finished seventh in the 2022 race.
“Having seen the success of the two-day format, I can see the importance of the women-only race,” said Crowley, an athlete from Australia. “Being a competitor at the highest level, it showcased the women individually and gave us our own day.”
As she discussed the venue change, she said she would go anywhere to compete in the world championship. A world title is a world title, she said.
But then she stopped. The conversation might be different if she went to Nice this year after all.
“It’s easy to see it through my eyes because I’m going to Kona this year,” she said.