Kona – the Mecca of Triathlon. The Holy Grail. The Big Kahuna. If you are a long course triathlete, you dream of being at this event and racing through the history. Is Kona all it’s cracked up to be? If you race Ironman, should this race be your goal? I went to Hawaii with these questions in mind. After experiencing it firsthand, I’ve been able to think about my Kona takeaways.
This was my first time on the island, and I came here as a spectator and race support for my husband (first Kona) and my friend (fourth Kona).
My Kona Takeaways
The atmosphere was wild. I’ve been to Ironman races. I’ve been to 70.3 Worlds and the World Championship in St. George this past May. Trust me when I say those do not hold a candle to what went down in Kona. First, the crowds were massive. This is a race where you bring your whole family. Mom, Dad, Grandma, kids, partner- all with matching t-shirts and big proud smiles. They were all here. Second, if you worked for Ironman in any capacity, you were also here. The most staff I’ve seen at a race, ever. Third, all brands and media outlets that deal with triathlon were all here. And fourth, the whole island comes out to volunteer and support this race. “It takes a village” is true. There was a lot of pre-race talk about respecting the locals and the island, and for the most part, I saw that. Lots of smiles and pride from both sides.
The course is brutal. In the days before the race, I swam on the course. I ran on Ali’i drive. I drove my husband out to the turnaround at Hawi so he could ride that section. Let me tell you this: this course is challenging. On paper, it might not look like a hard course. There are races with hillier bikes; there are races with hillier runs. And, while this swim is gorgeous, it’s wavy, and has a strong current and never wetsuit legal. The bike is windy and decidedly not flat. The run…oh the run. The run will break even the strongest athlete- exposed to the elements, running on blacktop the whole time and so so (SO) hot. So many athletes started their run strong and then blew up and ended up walking.
The talent is unmatched. After a 3 year hiatus, this year’s Kona felt like an Uber Kona. Three years (minus a Covid year) of people qualifying and waiting and training and going ALL IN. The athletes showed up fit, focused, and ready to race. On the first day of racing, I remember walking alongside the run course and it was probably about 13 hours into the race, and in a normal Ironman, the course would be filled with runners, some with miles to go until the finish. However, the run course was fairly empty, with only a few people running, because a huge portion of the athletes had already finished- by 13 hours! Only in Kona can a male age grouper go sub 10 and be only 79th in his age group. Unreal! And let’s not forget the pros. The top four pro men ALL BROKE THE COURSE RECORD. The top 10 men all went sub 8. Insane.
Kona is beautiful…and expensive. The athletes get to swim in crystal blue waters, looking at tropical fish. They bike through lava fields, with a view of the ocean. They run down Ali’i drive, while the waves crash onto the stone wall beside them. Palm trees, white beaches, ocean and mountains. I question the heart of the athlete or spectator who doesn’t have at least one moment of awe while here in Kona. Yet, the case must also be made that as this race and our sport has grown, Kona has become increasingly more and more expensive to qualify for and to travel to. The registration fee, plane tickets, lodging, and food once here- well, it’s not a cheap race and some people don’t take their Kona slots because of this financial burden. Should it be moved somewhere else? Before this week, I might have said YES. This race should travel like 70.3 Worlds. But after witnessing this race in person, I’m not so sure anymore. I don’t have a solution; triathlon in itself is expensive. But so are a lot of other hobbies and sports. It’s something to keep thinking about.
I love this sport. It’s impossible to leave this island without having a renewed appreciation for triathlon. As my friend Christine said, you can see why people want to sign up for an Ironman after watching the midnight finishers. Triathlon is one of the few sports where the elite athletes share the same course and experience the same conditions as the age groupers. There is mutual respect because of this. All the athletes who toed the line on Thursday and Saturday knew they were in for A DAY. A day that some of them had been thinking about for over THREE YEARS. And from what I saw, the grit and determination and respect for this island and this course was evident with every mile they covered.
So, is Kona worth all the hype? Absolutely. Do I want to race this race? Not yet. If (IF) I race Kona, I want to be ready. For me, that means a bit more experience at the 140.6 distance before I attempt this epic course. If I do it, I want to be confident and a bit stronger of a swimmer (my weakest discipline). But for now, mahalo Hawaii. I’ll be back and I’ll remember my Kona takeaways