Let me begin with: I understand why Ironman is considering moving the IRONMAN World Championship out of Kona for the foreseeable future. There are many valid reasons to do so. That said, the World Championships should come back to Kona once it is safe to do so.
My earliest memory of the race was from 1983. The race was the TV edited broadcast where Dave Scott beat out Scott Tinley. I knew nothing of the sport, I was 13 and a baseball player myself. What drew me in was the craziness of the situation, trying to do an event that long, in the heat and wind. I watched both Pro’s and Age Groupers alike be eaten alive by the conditions. I have vivid memories of this race including watching the release of the 13 minutes Michael Jackson “Thriller” video immediately after.
Life and a surgical residency later got in the way, and by the year 2000 I was out of shape. But by 2006 I started running, and then a friend talked me into getting a bike. I registered for a triathlon in 2007 and got the bug, which has led me to a healthier lifestyle, which really was the point.
Thinking back on my younger years, and now being engrossed in triathlon, I became fascinated with the idea of qualifying for Kona. I had repeated results in the top 10 in my AG, but was always just on the outside, even being passed in the last 200 yards at IMMT in 2014, beaten out by 7 seconds for a qualification! At some point, I resolved that this wasn’t going to happen. I’m married, two wonderful daughters and am a full time OB/GYN. With my level of talent and free time, it wasn’t going to happen, not without compromising things much more important.
Honestly, I accepted this and began to just race once a year with no time goals and no real expectations. In 2018, a great friend of mine and I were set to race Louisville in October. He had to drop out beforehand, but decided to come along as my Sherpa. A rainy day in the 40s with a shortened swim resulted in hypothermic conditions and I had the race of my life. Just like they say, when you stop obsessing over something, you sometimes perform better, this was true of that October day in Kentucky. I finished 3rd in M45-49 and earned my World Championship slot.
Would I have flown to another spot in the world for this championship, other than Kona? No.
Why? There are many reasons. But it starts with the history, and the idea of ‘getting to the big island’ that comes from those old Wide World of Sports videos.
Those are reasons that I’m sure aren’t that special, but here’s my strongest one:
Kona isn’t really a true age group world championship. Shhhh, I know they say it is, but it isn’t. For the professional athletes it is. For the age groupers, it is not always the fastest or best. It is for those who can afford the expense and the time to go. The guy who won the overall age group race in Louisville in 2018 didn’t accept his Kona slot. He explained that he just didn’t want to go and did not like the idea of racing in the heat. This story is played over and over with the age group race. It isn’t like the Olympics where the absolute best are almost always there. Rather, it’s a race for the fastest people who can afford to be there.
What do I mean? I mean that as full time, husband, Dad and OB/GYN, getting to Kona was the goal. Getting to the place where Chrissie Wellington dominated; where Mark and Dave battled; where Normann Stadler threw his bike in the lava screaming “not another flat f***ing tire,” where Lionel Sanders almost won, and where Julie Moss crawled to the finish. That was the goal. I wasn’t there to win or place. I did train and finished in a respectable time, having an awesome day with my family being there. I am one of those who could afford it. I am not the elite athlete that belongs at a “true” world championship.
I wouldn’t have travelled to Europe, Australia, or even elsewhere in the USA to do this race. I’m sure others would and will, but for me it was about Kona.
Was it everything I thought it would be when I went? Yes it was. Being on a course with the top male and female pros was exciting. Doing the team and traditional things such as the parade of nations was fun. Meeting with good friends and seeing them on the course was beyond memorable. The week stay with my family after was probably the best though.
Truthfully, I had been warned that the race course itself is a little bleak, and it truly is. I remind those that have not been there that most of the bike race is on a highway that has lava rock on one side and lava dust on the other. The run is on some of that same bleak highway and, of course, The Energy Lab. While Hawaii is beautiful, they don’t hold the race on that part of the island. It’s held on the bleak, windy highway part. Lake Placid, Louisville and Mont Tremblant all were much more scenic courses in my opinion.
That’s not the point.
I doubt I’ll ever do Kona again, but it was a truly memorable experience. I hope it continues to be the site of the championship. It’s honestly so remote and such a bleak course that I would not want to travel to this island for a non-championship race. It is the combination of the hype and excitement that only comes from both history and tradition that makes it worth it.
When you race in Kona, you get to race in the footsteps of the legends of the sport: past, present, and future. It provideds a connection to childhood memories and to more recent ones watching the race. I would not trade that experience for anything.