If you haven’t heard of the Ironman before, you’re most likely living under a rock. The infamous triathlon consisting of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and marathon run has made ripples around the world for one of the toughest, yet most popular, endurance races on the planet.
Although the Ironman name is a part of everyone’s vocabulary, there is usually only one big name that comes to mind when they think about the arduous race: Kona.
Some have no idea what “Kona” means besides the fact that there’s an Ironman race in Kona. Others are aware that the Kona Ironman is the World Championship for Ironman races but know little beyond that.
So for those of you that either have no idea what the Kona Ironman is or know nearly everything there is to know about the big race, I put together this all-encompassing guide to the mythical event.
History of Kona and the Ironman
Most people that know about the Kona Ironman are oblivious to the history of the big race. In fact, many people who have actually raced Kona are unaware. So let’s play Wikipedia for a second and get educated.
The Kona Ironman was thought up in 1977 by a husband and wife pair named Judy and John Collins.
The couple was hanging out with a group of friends at an annual Waikiki Swim Club event when they all started to theorize which athletes were the fittest: runners or swimmers.
This was around the time when VO2 max was hitting the sports science world and John brought up that a cyclist had just achieved the highest recorded VO2 max to date so maybe they needed to be included in the debate as well. It was then that the idea for a race that tested the endurance limits of elite athletes was born. In John’s own words:
“We were sitting around and sure, there was some beer there, and we were waiting for some more awards to be handed out. It struck me that if we put the Waikiki Rough Water Swim, which was a nominal 2.4 miles, together with the Round the Island Bike race at 115 miles, and knocked off about three miles, we would be at the start of the Honolulu Marathon. About five of us at the table were from Coronado, and knew about the first triathlons there. Our table really took to the idea and many of us – the men and the women – were excited about doing something so outrageous. So I got on stage and suggested that we put all three Oahu events together. I said the gun would go off and the clock keep running and whoever finished first, well, we’d call them the Ironman.”
So how was John’s “Ironman” idea received among the crowd?
“It got a really good laugh at the time!”
However, the tight-knit group of friends had other plans. They planned the race off and on, and finally in February of 1978 the Iron Man Triathlon was officially born. The first race saw 15 tough-as-nails athletes toe the starting line for the very first Iron Man Triathlon.
So where was this very first endurance race held? Hawaii. In fact, it was originally named the Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon. While not technically in Kona (yet), this is officially regarded as the reason that the current Ironman World Championship race is held in Kona, Hawaii every single year.
In 1980, the husband and wife gave ABC the rights to broadcast the event which officially birthed worldwide recognition to the ultimate endurance triathlon event. Around this time John Collins, with a full-time career in the US Navy decided he no longer wanted to organize and run the Ironman race.
He handed off the reigns to a woman named Valerie Silk, who in 1981 decided to move the event from the calm, peaceful, yet urbanized shores of Waikiki to the bare black lava fields of Kona. An update to the schedule with a move from a February race date to one in October and the Kona Ironman was born.
The Explosion of the Ironman
While popular, it wasn’t at the extremely popular levels of which it currently stands. It wasn’t until the 1982 race when a college student named Julie Moss decided to do the race as research for her exercise physiology thesis. With an extreme lack of training and disregarding the seriousness of the race, she raced herself to a comfortable lead with only 2 miles left in the run.
Experiencing severe dehydration she quickly started to lose motor skills and collapsed. However, it wasn’t her demise which made the Ironman a worldwide overnight sensation. It was the fact that young Julie Moss continued to crawl the rest of the way to the finish line simply to say she did it.
Ultimately getting 2nd place by less than 30 seconds, her agonizing effort at the end was broadcast across television stations around the world and it was in that moment that the legend and allure of the Ironman race was born. The following year, the race maxed out at 1,000 participants and had to turn away over 1,000 more.
Fun fact — Julie eventually married Mark Allen who is one of the greatest Ironman athletes of all time.
When did the Kona Ironman become the World Championships?
I know all of you are thinking “Great, now I know how the Ironman race got started, but when did Kona become the World Championsip?” The answer is easy: it always has been.
As the popularity of the annual Kona Ironman grew, the various parties that owned the Ironman brand over the years expanded to include races around the world under their brand of “Ironman”.
However, the minute they expanded from the single Kona Ironman to many Ironman races, it was decided that the race in Kona would always be the culminating World Championship race while the others acted as qualifiers.
Who owns the Kona Ironman?
Once John Collins handed the reigns to Valerie Silk (furthest on the right in the first picture of the article), she ran the Ironman brand for 8 years until a man by the name of Dr. James P. Gill decided to purchase it from Ms. Silk for $3 million.
Dr. Gill then created a parent company for the brand named The World Triathlon Corporation with a focus on expanding the sport of triathlon and increasing the prize purse for athletes.
The World Triathlon Corporation continued to expand and grow the sport as it changed ownership many times before ultimately being purchased by the Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group for $650 million.
Brag for the reset of your life (How to get in)
The way one gets a coveted spot in the Kona Ironman World Championship isn’t as straightforward as you would imagine. The general rule of thumb is that you need to finish in the top couple spots for your age group (or elite if you are an elite) at one of the qualifying races.
In total for this past year, there was 44 qualifying races, 4 of which were 70.3 distances.
Most people will tell you that you must crack the top 3 in every qualifying race but that simply isn’t true. How can it be so variable?
Well, each qualifying race has a certain number of Kona spots that it is allowed to award. From there it will award them to the top finishers in each age group.
Many times a top age group athlete will have already qualified in a different race so now that spot will roll down to the next person. Or maybe a certain race only has 3 racers in the 18-24 age group and they were allowed 4 spots for that age group.
That extra spot would get reallocated to another age group. This past year alone over 50% of the races rolled down past the 9th position.
Helicopters, TV Stations, thousands of spectators, crystal-clear water, and the sunrise over Mt. Hualalai helps make the swim start at the Kona Ironman the most memorable in the world.
The course is a straight forward one, being primarily out and back. Water temperature is usually in the high 70’s which makes it wetsuit illegal. This hurts most poor swimmers and helps the good ones.
As racers exit the water and hop on their bikes to trek the down and back course along the coast, they experience wild and unpredictable winds.
Disc wheels are not permitted in the race as random wind gusts of up to 50mph can easily blow a cyclist to the other side of the road or off their bike entirely.
The winds die off as the cyclists start their climb at Hawi near the turnaround point. But once they are turned around they continue to face winds the rest of the race.
After the transition off the bike, the runners will go through the town to get to the iconic Ali’i Drive where fans and spectators will be cheering like crazy. This will be the last time they see the lead group of runners until the finish.
From there the runners will go back to get on the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway and run straight to the turnaround point at the Natural Energy Laboratory Hawaii Authority (NELHA) or the “Energy Lab” as the elites like to call it.
While it is easy to explain the route in words, it is a brutal and painful course. Usually by this time of day there is no cloud cover, the heat is at it’s peak, and humidity all the way up.
After the runners turn around at the Energy lab and retrace their steps they will take a turn in town back on to Ali’i Drive where they will finish the legendary Kona Ironman World Championships to the cheers and adulation of thousands in the crowd.
Dangers of the Kona Ironman
If you do manage to secure a spot at the Kona Ironman World Championship, then job well done. You are probably excited about the opportunity to race one of the most iconic race courses in the world. The beautiful weather, crystal clear waters, elite athletes from around the world, and incredible atmosphere are so enticing.
But what most people don’t warn you about is the dangers associated with this particular race. There is a reason it is the World Championship – It’s brutal.
The sun and the heat aren’t the big problem at the race. It’s always sunny and hot, but not too hot. The temperatures are usually in the low to mid 80’s and don’t stray too much beyond that.
Even the wind may knock you off a bike since wind gusts normally hit the 40-45 mph realm and come from the cross which certainly doesn’t help on an aero-equiped bike.
But even that isn’t where the real danger is. That comes from the humidity.
So what is the big deal about humidity?
Everyone knows that when it is hot outside and you exercise, your body reacts by sweating and raising your core temperature. What many people don’t know is what your body does next.
If the heat is dry (low humidity levels) it means that there is not a lot of moisture in the air so your sweat evaporates into the air fairly easily. This process cools your body off – not simply the act of sweating.
So when the humidity is high it means that the air cannot hold much more water since it is already saturated. Essentially the sweat evaporates at a much slower rate, leaving your body warmer than it would be in a dry environment.
Over the extreme length of this race, your body will continue to try its best to expel as much sweat as it can to respond to your increasing body temperature. If your body isn’t able to respond to the increase in sweat demand and your body temperature can’t cool off then you run the risk of heat stroke.
Sometimes your body is able to handle the temperature increase and sometimes it can’t. Even if your body can undertake the stress of cooling itself off, it still doesn’t mean you are in the clear just yet.
If your body steps up and is able to regulate your body temperature effectively then you are most likely sweating a lot. That means fluids and valuable electrolytes are pouring out of your body faster than a tsunami. So the solution is to just drink a ton of water and sports drink right?
Wrong. If you consume too much liquid and not enough electrolytes to match your sweat rate, then the sodium levels in your blood can become extremely diluted, potentially causing life threatening problems. This is by far the most common life-threatening issue that the medical staff at the Kona Ironman see.
Every single year at the Kona Ironman approximately 15-25% of all athletes are seen in the medical tent. Don’t replace the fluid and electrolyte loss and you dehydrate. Just replace the fluid loss and not the electrolytes and you risk hyponatremia.
Can’t adjust to the sweat demand and you risk heat stroke. The Kona Ironman is no joke and is one of the most brutal endurance events in the world. Treat it as such and prepare properly and you will be okay. Don’t and you could face big consequences.
Who is racing in the Kona Ironman World Championship in 2017?
Before diving into the various elite athletes that could cross the finish line 1st this year in the Kona Ironman World Championship, we need to look at who is actually competing.
Now that you are aware of how incredible tough this race can be on your body, I would like to present the men and women who do this professionally. Here are the men and women elite start lists.
1 Jan Frodeno (GER)
2 Sebastian Kienle (GER)
3 Benjamin Hoffman (USA)
5 Patrick Lange (GER)
6 Timothy O’Donnell (USA)
7 Frederik Van Lierde (BEL)
8 Kyle Buckingham (RSA)
9 Tim Don (GBR)
10 Boris Stein (GER)
11 Pete Jacobs (AUS)
12 Matthew Hanson (USA)
14 Andy Potts (USA)
15 Terenzo Bozzone (NZL)
16 David McNamee (GBR)
17 Matthew Russell (USA)
18 Bart Aernouts (BEL)
19 James Cunnama (RSA)
20 Nicholas Kastelein (AUS)
21 Josh Amberger (AUS)
22 Braden Currie (NZL)
23 Ronnie Schildknecht (SUI)
24 Tim Reed (AUS)
25 Nils Frommhold (GER)
26 Patrik Nilsson (SWE)
27 Joe Gambles (USA)
28 Tyler Butterfield (BER)
29 Ruedi Wild (SUI)
30 Lionel Sanders (CAN)
31 Brent McMahon (CAN)
32 Ivan Tutukin (RUS)
33 David Dellow (AUS)
34 Cyril Viennot (FRA)
35 Michael Weiss (AUT)
36 Marko Albert (EST)
37 Alessandro Degasperi (ITA)
38 Tim Van Berkel (AUS)
39 Igor Amorelli (BRA)
40 Thiago Vinhal (BRA)
41 David Plese (SLO)
42 Marc Duelsen (GER)
43 Harry Wiltshire (GBR)
44 Jan van Berkel (SUI)
45 Ivan Rana (ESP)
46 Kirill Kotsegarov (EST)
47 Reinaldo Colucci (BRA)
48 Patrick Evoe (USA)
49 Cameron Wurf (AUS)
50 Daniel Fontana (ITA)
51 Jesse Thomas (USA)
52 Markus Fachbach (GER)
53 Giulio Molinari (ITA)
54 Denis Chevrot (FRA)
55 Michael Fox (AUS)
56 Kaito Tohara (JPN)
58 Chris McDonald (AUS)
59 Eneko Llanos (ESP)
101 Daniela Ryf (SUI)
102 Sarah Crowley (AUS)
103 Kaisa Sali (FIN)
104 Sarah Piampiano (USA)
105 Heather Jackson (USA)
106 Michelle Vesterby (DEN)
107 Susie Cheetham (GBR)
108 Anja Beranek (GER)
109 Michaela Herlbauer (AUT)
110 Linsey Corbin (USA)
111 Leanda Cave (GBR)
112 Elizabeth Lyles (USA)
113 Rachel Joyce (GBR)
114 Annabel Luxford (AUS)
115 Laura Siddall (GBR)
116 Jodie Robertson (USA)
117 Carrie Lester (AUS)
118 Lucy Charles (GBR)
119 Astrid Stienen (GER)
120 Alexandra Tondeur (BEL)
121 Camilla Pedersen (DEN)
122 Asa Lundstrom (SWE)
123 Corinne Abraham (GBR)
124 Maja Stage Nielsen (DEN)
125 Kristin Moeller (GER)
126 Sonja Tajsich (GER)
127 Dimity-lee Duke (AUS)
128 Mareen Hufe (GER)
129 Gurutze Frades (ESP)
130 Lauren Brandon (USA)
131 Alicia Kaye (USA)
132 Diana Riesler (GER)
133 Melissa Hauschildt (AUS)
134 Celine Schaerer (SUI)
135 Katharina Grohmann (GER)
136 Jocelyn McCauley (USA)
138 Haley Chura (USA)
139 Nikki Bartlett (GBR)
140 Jeanne Collonge (FRA)
For everyone else who isn’t focused on the elite Ironman athletes that will be battling it out this year at Kona, here is the list of every other athlete competing this year at the big race:
Both the men’s and women’s elite fields for this year’s Kona Ironman are stacked with talent.
On the men’s side the obvious favorite is the Ironman prodigy himself, Jan Frodeno. This year Frodeno is looking for his 3rd Kona win in a row as he stood atop the podium in 2015 and 2016.
Fellow German and last year’s runner-up Sebastien Kienle is also looking to add a notch to his Kona win belt since he won the race in 2014. Patrick Lange, also a German and last year’s 3rd place finisher posted a record breaking marathon split last year in his Kona debut and will be looking to get on the podium again this year. Can anyone else besides a German win?
Absolutely. The 5 other athletes that I think could stand atop the podium this year at the Kona Ironman are Tim Don, Lionel Sanders, Josh Amberger, Ben Hoffman, and Tim O’Donnell.
Tim Don is the current Ironman world record holder after he threw down an amazing time of 7:40:23 at the 2017 Ironman South African Championship. He is in peak form this year and has rarely been beat as of late. He was the 3rd place finisher at this year’s 70.3 World Championships and he is much more dangerous at the longer distances.
Lionel Sanders is another heavy favorite going into the race this year. The 29 year old is considered young in the sport of Ironman but regardless, he has established himself as a machine on race day. His incredible work ethic, hard training, and mental fortitude has propelled this former drug addict to the tops of the Ironman rankings.
He is an absolute beast on the bike and run portions of the race but struggles a lot in the swim. While he has improved a lot on the swim over the years, the 2.4 mile course with no wetsuits allowed may pose to be troubling for the mediocre swimmer.
Although, he did put together a winning race in August at the ITU Long Distance World Championship even with getting a flat on the bike portion! With Lionel Sanders, anything is possible.
Josh Amberger is another youngster who has a legitimate shot at the top if he races well. He held off Lionel Sanders for the entire ITU Long Distance race until the last couple miles of the run. Amberger also won this year’s Asia-Pacific Ironman Championship and will be looking to continue his winnings in Kona.
Ben Hoffman is the wildcard in my opinion. The American took home the silver in the 2014 Kona Ironman World Championships and barely missed the podium last year by coming in 4th. A quiet competitor, Hoffman has always been training solely to eventually sit atop the podium in Kona.
The final athlete that could take home the gold this year at the Kona Ironman is Tim O’Donnell. A die-hard American patriot, Tim O’Donnell is a former Naval officer and current Ironman rockstar. He largely flies under the radar but always performs when it matters. In 2015 he finished 3rd in the big race and has been training hard all year to take home the Kona crown as an American for the first time since 2002. Why do I think he has an edge? He is married to one of the greatest female Ironman athletes of all time: Mirinda Carfrae. Considering his wife has sat on the podium in 6 of her 7 Kona Ironman attempts and been the champion of 3 of them, I would consider this an advantage to Tim.
In the women’s field, the clear favorite is Daniela Ryf of Switzerland. The 2016 Kona Ironman World Championship winner is having another dominating year by winning 7 of the 8 races she has done this year. The one event she didn’t win she ended up getting 3rd. The Swiss racer’s most recent win was a dominating performance at the 70.3 World Championship where she won comfortably by nearly 7 minutes. Unless an injury or severe technical issue plagues Daniela Ryf there is likely nobody who will be able to stop her.
If there is someone who can stop Ryf it will most likely be one of these 3 ladies: Heather Jackson, Sarah Piampiano, or Anja Beranek.
Last year’s bronze medalist at the Kona Ironman World Championships, Heather Jackson was the first American on the podium since 2006. The heavily tattooed American is a favorite in this race as she is a tough competitor at any race she attends and has put in the training to win.
At 37 the American Sarah Piampiano is one of the older threats to Ryf’s title claim this year. With two 7th place finishes at Kona, Piampiano is one of the fastest women once she gets out of the water. She is usually lagging behind on the swim but plays a great game of catch-up. If she is able to have a powerful bike leg this year then she may be starting the run with the lead group. That will definitely play into Piampiano’s favor.
The 32 year old German is one of the best at the first 2 legs of the race. She isn’t the fastest female runner but was able to keep up with Ryf all the way up to the run in last year’s race. If she has improved her running this year then she may be a threat.
Since there are a handful of pros that will have great swim legs but won’t have a shot at the podium, I am only going to focus on the 8 athletes I mentioned above. For the 2.4 mile swim it will most likely be a large lead pack that will stick together and include Jan Frodeno, Tim Don, Josh Amberger, and Tim O’Donnell within it. These 4 men are all great swimmers and will most likely come out ahead of the others.
The second group will only be a minute or less behind the lead pack and will probably contain Sebastien Kienle, Patrick Lange, and Ben Hoffman.
If the swim was wetsuit legal I wouldn’t be surprised if Lionel Sanders was able to hang on and swim with this group, but without a wetsuit, I think Lionel is going to struggle a bit more. I would place Lionel about 2 minutes behind the lead pack coming out of the swim.
Of the women mentioned above, the clear leaders in the swim will be Daniela Ryf and Anja Beranek. If last year is any indication, they will be 5-7 minutes ahead of their main competition.
Heather Jackson will likely come in around 5-7 minutes back and Piampiano a couple minutes behind her.
Unless the men get penalized in the bike leg like Lange was last year, I would imagine that all of these men will ride together. Kienle and Hoffman will file in somewhere near the leader and Kienle will probably try and take the lead.
Amberger and Tim Don will hold their own but slip a little towards the back of the front group. I think Lange will think he can rely on his run legs too much and will slip too far back in the bike.
Lionel Sanders is arguable one of the best bikers in the field and he will need to lay down an impressive bike split to pull up near the leader. Last year he went out way too hard on the bike and ultimately died on the run which will be something he will be trying not to do this year. Lionel is an amazing runner and needs to have his run legs fresh if he wants a shot at the top of the Kona Ironman podium.
I would imagine that he is able to pull up to the back of the lead group by the end of the bike leg. However, I expect Kienle, Frodeno, Hoffman, and Tim O’Donnell to be 3-5 minutes ahead of the rest of the group by this point.
After the swim margin that Ryf will most likely have created, it will be very difficult for anyone else to catch her incredibly powerful bike leg. Last year she was able to put an additional 8 minute lead on the competition on the bike.
Beranek will most likely hold on and Heather Jackson will probably put down the fastest bike leg of the day to catch Ryf. I would assume Ryf will still have a couple minute lead after the bike though.
With a couple minute lead going into the run it will be very tough to catch Frodeno, Kienle, O’Donnell, and Hoffman. However, I think Tim Don closes the gap quickly while Frodeno starts to slip.
I think Patrick Lange will not be able to catch up this year while Lionel Sanders starts to close the gap with every step. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Frodeno drop off around mile 16, Hoffman around mile 18, and Tim Don around mile 20.
By mile 20 Lionel Sanders will have most likely caught the lead pack and the final 10k will be a foot race of pain between the trio of Kienle, O’Donnell, and Sanders.
My prediction: With about 2 miles to go I think Lionel Sanders will pull ahead of Kienle and O’Donnell and secure his win by a minute or more. O’Donnell will ultimately prevail over Kienle but only by 20-30 seconds.
By this point in the race it will be very tough to catch Ryf if she has a decent lead. If any of the previously mentioned women can come within a minute or two of her going into the run then they may have a shot. I think Heather Jackson has the best chance of doing this.
My prediction: I think Heather Jackson will go into the run 10 minutes behind Ryf and do her best to catch her. I don’t think this will be enough and I predict Ryf to win by 2-3 minutes over Jackson.
Where you can watch Kona Ironman World Championship?
Some television stations will broadcast the event live but the easiest way to watch the race and all the exclusive events will be through Ironman.com. Considering they have won multiple Emmy awards for their coverage of the event, their full coverage will capture every part of the race and also include a hosted show, athlete tracker and live blog. For live tracking, real-time results and instant notifications, you can also follow both the professional and age-group athletes on the IRONMAN Tracker app available for download from the Google Play and/or the iTunes App Store.
NBC will also be airing the Kona Ironman live on Saturday October 14th:
- Live race start coverage on NBCSN from 12:30-2 p.m. ET
- Live reports on NBC and NBCSN from 2-8:30 p.m. ET
- Live race finish on NBCSN from 8:30-10 p.m. ET
- Comprehensive streaming coverage on NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app, and IRONMAN.com from 12:30-10 p.m. ET.
You can also follow me on Twitter @OneToMulti as I will be live tweeting the event in full.