The highest peak of 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 smattering of hotels and the Kona Farmers Market.
Since 1981, the town of around 20,000 has played host to the pinnacle of the sport: the Ironman World Championship. Annually, 2,500 athletes qualify to participate in the event, having outraced those in their age groups in a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon.
“Everyone who has heard of triathlon as a sport has heard of Kona,” Todd Wakefield, a world championship qualifier said.
But on Jan. 5, Ironman officially announced that it would be making a long-term change to the annual world championship. The 2023 event will take place across two days in two cities. This year, men will be racing in Nice, France, on Sept. 10, while the women will race in Kona on Oct. 14. The two cities will host until 2026, with men and women switching locations every year.
No longer would Kona be singularly synonymous with the top Ironman triathletes in the world.
“Heartbreaking,” Drew Jordan, another world championship qualifier, said. In 2018, Wakefield and Jordan began sharing their triathlon journey and a look at the most prestigious course on an Instagram account called Couch to Kona.
The “two dudes trying to stay fit,” as they call themselves, were inundated with messages after the official call came down. Everything was 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 one that was realized in 2022 in part because of an enormous glut of qualifiers who had yet to race because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Andrew Messick, the chief executive of Ironman.
In an effort to get qualified athletes racing again, the 2021 world championship — the first held after the 2020 race’s cancellation — was moved to St. George, Utah, a location with looser Covid restrictions.
Qualifiers from 2019 were given an option of either racing in May 2022 in Utah (the event counted as the 2021 championship) or deferring their qualification to the usual time and location of the championships, the second weekend of October in Kona (an event that would count as the 2022 championship).
Most athletes picked the latter, choosing the mystique of Kona over the first championship to return since the onset of the pandemic.
“Everyone’s dream is Kona,” Skye Ombac, a triathlete from Hawaii, said. A fan of the sport, Ombac streamed the St. George world championship 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 still make it Kona, but it’s not in Kona.”
“It was a world championship,” Ombac continued. “But everyone said it was the world championship in quotation marks; it’s not Kona.”
After a series of conversations with Mitch Roth, the mayor of Hawaii County, Messick and his team decided to host two days of racing in Kona in 2022, with men and women competing on different days. There were two live broadcasts.
This was the future, Messick thought. Bigger fields, more qualifying slots for age-group athletes and a clear way to highlight the women’s race, which has historically been swallowed up by simultaneous coverage of the men’s race.
“We need to continue to adapt to what has been an extraordinary growth in demand for the world championship,” Messick said. “While Kona is a huge part of the history of Ironman, we have outgrown the ability to do a world championship in just one day there.”
Around 2,500 athletes translates to some 10,000 visitors for the coastal town on the west side of the island of Hawaii. For many, it feels like the race subsumes the area. Bicycles that are worth tens of thousands of dollars flood the airport, and popular pre-race foods like bananas become impossible to find on the island. Road closures in the small town make travel nearly impossible.
Permanently increasing the number of participants — and adding a second race day — 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 as the number of athletes competing in the Ironman series of races has exploded in the past 17 years. It has gone from 15,500 registrations for full-distance Ironman triathlon events in 2005 to some 94,000 registrations for full-distance Ironman races in 2022. In 2005, there were 14 full distance Ironman triathlons around the world. In 2023, there are 44 such races scheduled. But the number of athletes who could toe the line in Kona remained squarely around 2,500.
That’s in contrast to an event like the Boston Marathon. That race, a pinnacle for amateur distance runners, had a field of close to 20,000 in 2005. It has grown to a field of around 30,000 in 2022.
It is difficult to overstate the significance of place to these races. For runners and triathletes, qualifying for a race is qualifying to “run Boston” or to “race Kona.” Runners don’t want to qualify for the Boston Marathon 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 beginning 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 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 have on years and off years.
If there’s one point 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 were vehemently opposed to the change — nodded toward that progress.
It’s “good for the sport,” Sarah Crowley, a two-time world championship bronze medalist who finished seventh in the 2022 race, said.
“After seeing the success of the two-day format I can see the importance of the women’s only race,” Crowley, an Australian athlete, said. “Being a female competitor at the highest level, it showcased the women individually and gave us our own day.”
As she discussed the change in location, she said she would go anywhere to race in the world championship. A world title is a world title, she said.
But then she paused. It may be a different conversation if she were headed to Nice this year after all.
“It’s easy to see it through my eyes because I get to go to Kona this year,” she said.