Ironman World Championship

Ironman World Championship

Travel and Accommodations
kona_viewUnless you live on the Big Island (or surrounding islands), your flight/travel into Kona is likely to take some time. Flight costs can often be quite high given the demand of travel at this time of year, so booking your flight early is beneficial, though the price will probably still be somewhat inflated. Similarly, when it comes to accommodations, prices are going to be higher than normal. I once heard someone say that, “Kona has two seasons: Ironman and Christmas.” With that in mind, you will find that most places are booked well in advance and often require a minimum of 6-7 nights. Given the length of the trip, this is likely not a major issue for anyone doing the race.

The best way to keep the overall cost of the trip down is to try and stay in multi-room condosor houses, but if the preference is to have more alone time, there are plenty of options for that. Just be sure to do your homework and check multiple sites (such as Airbnb, VBRO, Expedia, etc.) before booking.

One final point to make is that the island and town are small and it gets heavily congested during race week. You may have no option than to drive to certain locations, but keep in mind that traffic gets heavy and there are cyclists, pedestrians, runners, everywhere. Be careful and take your time when traveling around. If you can ride or walk short distances, I would definitely suggest that over trying to drive.

Pre-Race Workouts
Swim: The obvious choice for a swim training venue is from the pier; the start of the Ironman World Championship. The water is generally calmest in the morning so getting an early start is likely the best time of day to swim. However, during race week, this area is extremely crowded, which might not be a huge deal if athletes weren’t starting and finishing their practice swims in the same location. It becomes surprisingly easily for athletes to start swimming toward each other head on, so be careful and sight frequently within your practice swims.

The second most popular spot for swim training is the Kona Aquatic Center. This facility is free and is often quite busy as the day goes on. You may need to share or wait a little bit for a lane if you swim at popular times of the day.

There are plenty of other places to access the ocean along Ali’i, but the two above are the ones with which I have the most experience. If you venture into open water, please be careful and always swim with a partner.

Bike: The majority of pre-race riding takes place on the Queen K; not only because it’s the bike course, but because it is the only real option unless you venture into the hills above town. The Queen K has a big shoulder and is safe for riding, but the first and last miles in town are going to be the most crowded. Whenever I roll out of town, I always ride out past the Aquatic Center and past Target; I do not use Palani or Henry or any other busier roads that access the Queen K.

If you are in town for quite a while pre-race, I suggest venturing off the course and checking out the High Road and Holualoa which feature beautiful areas and some great climbing. Just be careful as certain areas of the road are narrow and traffic varies depending on location.

If you have any bike needs, the folks at Bike Works have always been great.

Run: Like the bike, the primary run options are on the run course itself; either along Ali’i drive or on the Queen K towards the Energy Lab. There is also a track near the aquatic center if you need access to that. I strongly advise against running with headphones in these locations. It gets very crowded on Ali’i and the Queen K and being aware of surroundings is not only beneficial to you, but to the other athletes and locals on the road.

It’s the tropics. It’s going to be warm. It’s going to be windy. How warm and how windy will vary somewhat from year to year, but there will always be a strong element of both. While I have done other races that have been hotter than Kona, I have yet to do many races where the intensity of the sun is as strong as it is in Hawai’i. You are going to be heavily exposed on the bike so it’s important to respect those elements and use generous amounts of sunscreen and/or cover your skin appropriately.

Rain can always happen and is more likely on certain parts of the course (Hawi), but it is generally drier at this time of year.

Race Morning
Staying warm is likely not an issue, but I still suggest bringing a long sleeve shirt, just in case. The body marking takes a bit longer than other races because they individually block the numbers and apply them. One other aspect that might stand out is the size of the transition area. The space allocated per athlete is quite tight in this race and while it may not seem that way when you check in, it will definitely feel that way when you get everyone in there at the same time on race morning. Be patient, give yourself plenty of time and help out other athletes when you can. Race karma is real!

The swim course in Kona is one loop, non-wetsuit and has great clarity. There are often some swells on the course and they become more evident towards the turnaround. There can also be somewhat of a current and from my experience it was resulted in the swim being a bit quicker on the way out than on the way back (though that could just be a result of my swim fitness!).

The bike course in Kona is a one “loop” course that is primarily an out-and back on the Queen K. I tend to break it up into sections:

  • Section one: Getting in and out of town.This section is not particularly long, but it is difficult to settle into a rhythm because of the terrain and turns. This section begins with a climb up to the Queen K and to the top of Palani, a quick descent into a sharpleft hand turn onto Kuakini, a climb up Kuakini, a return descent and a final short, steep climb up Palani before starting out on the Queen K. This is not very long, but each section offers opportunities to really overdo it. Everyone is fit, excited and ready to go. Riding too hard up Kuakini and Palani is not only a possibility, but likely the norm. Stay calm and remember that it’s a long day.
  • Section Two: Queen K to Kawaihae. This section is where you can finally start to establish a race rhythm. Sometimes people think of this section as being somewhat “flat” but the reality is that you are almost always slightly going up or slightly going down. It is much hillier than it is known for. Additionally, if this is your first time racing in Kona as an age grouper, you will likely be surprised at the early crowds on the course. Even with the introduction of wave starts, you are still left with a race that has more athletic parity than any other Ironman in the world. It can be easy to get frustrated in this section, but don’t let these circumstances affect your race plan.
  • Section Three: Kawaihae to Hawi. I also break up this section into two parts: the first part is rolling terrain until you see a sign on the right that says “Hawi 7.” From there you have a consistent 2-3% uphill grade that is likely coupled with cross headwind. Most people think of this section as being all uphill, but the reality is that the real elevation gain comes in those final seven miles. Additionally, the headwind is what makes this section run so slowly as opposed to the climb itself. Special Needs is at the turnaround in Hawi.
  • Section Four: Hawi to Kawaihae. This is everything about the above section in reverse. The initial seven miles tend to run very fast because of the elevation loss and the cross tailwind. This is also an area where there can be strong gusts, typically felt as a crosswind. Once you get past this initial descent, you will encounter rolling terrain back to Kawaihae. While there is a small elevation drop, people often mistake this section as being fast and easy all the way back, but it is not. Be prepared to settle back into a good rhythm in this section as opposed to thinking you get to back off.
  • Section Five: Kawaihae to Kona. This is the final section of the race and the most crucial in my opinion. This section has lot of rolling terrain and a couple extended climbs: the first one is at the beginning after leaving Kawaihae, the second is the climb to Scenic Point. Additionally, you will likely encounter a cross headwind for the majority of the return to Kona. The athletes who can execute their race plans in this section will gain a significant advantage over their competitors.

I also break this into multiple sections.

  • Section One: Ali’i. This is the longest single section as it equates to the first 9 miles of the course. This section is lined with spectators and has a lot of great energy. It’s also pretty darn hot. The ocean breeze is somewhat negated because of buildings along the coast making the air feel stagnant and warm. As in any race, it can be easily to go out too quick and the spectators and excitement only add to this aspect. Also, Ali’i is thought of as being flat, and relative to the rest of the course, it is, but there are still some slightly rolling sections to be aware of.
  • Section Two: Only about a mile, the climb from Ali’i to the Queen K. It is the steepest and longest climb of the run course. I think of it as its own section simply because it doesn’t really tie into the section along Ali’i, nor the section on the Queen K. It stands in and of itself.
  • Section Three: Top of Palani to the Energy Lab. From a terrain standpoint, this section is rolling and you never turn. However, the real challenge is you begin to enter the area of the run course that challenges you mentally. There is minimal crowd support outside of aid stations and at one point, spectators are banned from entering the course. It can be easy to lose mental focus here.
  • Section Four: The Energy Lab. The most famous (infamous?) part of the run course. In reality, I believe the challenge is that you are entering miles 16-20 of an Ironman run course. This section of any race is tough, no matter what. In the case of Kona, you start by descending one mile, running about two miles on the flat, then climbing back out of the Energy Lab to the Queen K. This climb is often accompanied by a tailwind making it feel exceptionally warm. You will find Special Needs in this section around mile 17-18 — a good bit later than you might be accustomed to in other races.
  • Section Five: Queen K to Ali’i. Once again, rolling terrain that closes with a descent down Palani to Ali’i drive. One aspect of this course that often gets overlooked is the gradual climb in the final miles to Palani. It is quite long and seems even more so given how late it is in the race.
  • kona_finishSection Six: Ali’i Drive. It’s not a long section either, but it’s the best part! Enjoy the closing meters of the Ironman World Championship. If you aren’t gearing up for a sprint finish, give some high fives to the thousands of spectators along the road.

It’s Hawai’i. It’s awesome. The options for post-race activities are endless and there are probably a lot better resources out there than anything I am going to post. I tend to spend most of the time on a beach making note of the athletes who have worse sunburns than me!

Final Thoughts
Kona is what I like to call the Super Bowl of our sport. It transcends triathlon as a sport and has a history that parallels any other sports lore out there. The energy of the island and the athletes is unlike anything I have experienced at other races. Have a great race and enjoy your time on the island!

Justin has raced Kona 4 times, once as an age grouper and three times as a professional.

About Author

Justin Daerr

Justin Daerr is a professional triathlete. You can follow him on Twitter @justindaerr.