How to qualify for the Ironman World Championship in Kona
The qualification for next year’s race is already in place but you can still put in place your plan of attack and try to make it to the start line.
To make the most of your abilities, giving yourself the best chance to secure that Kona slot, you need to know which courses best suit your strengths and be ready to enter as soon as the event registration opens! While being relatively a high performance athlete, get extremely fit and execute a near perfect race on your qualifying day, there is still several aspects that will have an impact if you will get or not a Kona slot.
When looking at your ironman options, you need to consider your strengths and look for an event that plays into your hands. Let’s go over the individual disciplines and what to look for in choosing the right one for you.
The first thing to consider is the water temperature, i.e. is the event likely to be a wetsuit or non-wetsuit swim? If you are a good swimmer relative to your rivals, then a non-wetsuit swim will likely increase your advantage. Conversely, if you are a poor swimmer, choosing an event with a wetsuit swim will limit your losses to the leading athletes. If you suffer in the cold, then avoid races with very cold swims and opt for events that tend to be borderline wetsuit legal such as Ironman Austria.
Aside from the issue of water temperature, we must also think about location: does the swim take place in a lake, ocean or river, and how does each of these impact my performance? An ocean swim tends to be wavy and offers a navigational challenge. If you are afraid of the water, an ocean swim may well be one to avoid as rough waters can really leave you feeling isolated and scared.
Lakes and rivers tend to be the easiest for navigation and there is no need to worry about sharks!
The race start is also a big factor to weigh in your decision: many athletes are scared of the large mass starts and tend to hold back or stay wide of the group – this tactic will cost you time and when looking for a ticket to the Ironman World Championships, these few seconds (or minutes) can be the difference between qualification and missing out. Some races have wave – or time-trial starts offering a calmer experience, which can be beneficial for athletes intimidated by swimming in bigger crowds.
While it is true that the swim will not win you the race, a bad performance in the water can sure derail your possibilities of qualification. Consider all the factors above to choose an event that fits you.
The bike is going to take up the biggest proportion of your race and most time can be won – and lost – here so this is the key area to look into. While a great athlete can race well on all courses, they will always perform the best on courses suited to their personal strengths. A great example of this is Chris McCormack: he won many times over the ironman distance including in his first attempt at Ironman Australia but could not step up to the table in Kona at the first try, failing to even complete the race. He finished the following year, in 2003, but far down the ranks, followed by another DNF in 2004. In 2005 he managed to finish sixth, before moving up to second the next year. In 2007, Macca was rewarded for his hard work and persistence, earning his first Kona victory, a feat he repeated in 2010.
Kona is not a course that suits McCormack and he had to work very hard to overcome the obstacles of the conditions in order to win. Let’s look at what we need consider in choosing a bike course.
Firstly, we need to check out the profile of the course, along with the technical nature of it. We can take two hilly courses into consideration here such as Ironman Nice and Canada: both offer big hills but Nice also throws a very long and very technical descent into the mix. Choosing Nice because you can climb well is not going to work in your favour if you don’t also possess the technical ability for the descent. You might gain 5 minutes on your competitors on the ascent, but lose 15 on the way down.
Canada’s bike course, on the other hand, offers some solid climbs without overly technical descents, so this course may be the one for you if downhill cycling skills are lacking.
Bigger athletes tend to ride better on flat course, while smaller athletes typically outperform on the hilly ones. We also have smaller athletes who ride very well on the flats, but it comes at a price as the run off the bike suffers. From your past experience and training, you should know what terrain suits your strengths.
A major factor many athletes forget to take into account is injury. If you suffer from a bad back, hip or some other constraint that is brought on, or worsened, during cycling, you have to think about that in relation to a course profile. Riding a flat course such as Ironman Florida where you very rarely change position is going to exacerbate any problems like a bad back or hip, and negatively affect your race.
Instead, you might want to choose a course with plenty of undulations that will see you regularly change position to prevent these problems from occurring. Ironman UK, for example, would fit this description.
With the run being the final section of the race, it is also the most crucial to qualification. The races are becoming more and more competitive every year, especially at the top end of the field, so a good run is vital to success. Most ironman courses are predominantly flat so terrain is not the biggest issue here.
I find the question of crowd support and temperature the two factors that need to be thought about. A bigger athlete may find conditions tough in hot or humid races and that would lead to a sub-par performance, while a smaller athlete might struggle to perform in colder conditions.
In Kona itself, we have seen athletes with various body types struggle and succeed over the years. Craig Alexander is a smaller athlete who thrives in the heat and humidity and this has shown in his success and consistency at Kona, whereas athletes such as Tjorbjorn Sindballe have really struggled with the conditions due to their body size and have had very varied results.
Also you need to look at your motivation: do you thrive in big crowds or do you prefer running in isolation just focusing on your own performance. Ironman Regensburg, for example, offers a run through the city in an amazing atmosphere that really inspires the athletes, whereas the run at Ironman UK can be very lonely at times.
Race your strength:
When it comes to Hawaii, there is no easy way – you have to risk it at some stage. If you are fit enough to do a race with qualifying for a Kona slot as your goal, it is very likely that you have done an Ironman before so “simply” finishing is not a goal anymore. That makes it easier mentally to take more risk during an Ironman, even if it doesn’t work as planned and you bonk at some stage of the race.
If you are a first-timer then your goal is to finish. Of course there are secondary goals, with the most popular one to run the run, and your whole training and racing should be focused on that objective.
A very common profile of triathletes is the strong biker with a mediocre run. If you want to qualify for Kona we are talking about high-performance age group triathletes. If running fast isn’t for you, if for any reason you feel that running 3h30 or quicker isn’t possible, but you feel great on the bike, you might do better by riding close to 5h and then do your best to run 3h40-50. With those splits you will very likely break 10h, which puts you very close to a Hawaii for most age groups in several races apart from the super-fast races in Europe or those with a stacked field.
Of course your training will have to be tailored to that. You will need to develop an extremely efficient run technique and, of course, bike strength.
The swim is roughly 10% of an Ironman. Why bother with the hard work necessary to go from an 80min swim split to 65min? In fact, it could take a year of swim focus to improve those 15 minutes – you might think that within that timeframe you could improve more in your bike or run splits.
Think again. Once you are fit and skilled enough to swim 65min, you are not only saving time, but starting the bike and run much fresher, with a lower heart rate and less muscle fatigue which will translate into faster bike and run splits.
Another benefit is that you are around much fitter athletes during races. There is no need to waste energy on overtaking hundreds of riders which can be physically and mentally stressful. Not to mention that you have more space in the water and experienced swimmers near you which usually makes the swim leg less stressful as everyone is confident and knows what they are doing.
Pacing is another benefit of being a front-of-the-pack swimmer. You save a significant amount of energy when you are “riding with” a group of steady athletes instead of playing catch-up.
Attention to details:
When it comes to Kona, every second counts. I have seen a number of athletes who missed out on a slot by a couple of minutes. They may have gone faster by paying more attention to details before and during the race.
The old saying “Never try anything new on race day” is getting more and more important as the triathlon industry throws all those new technologies and gadgets at us. Walking around the Expo days before an Ironman and seeing all those items that you don’t own yet but are supposed to make you go faster can be very tempting. Don’t give in. An extreme example comes from one very fit athlete who was reduced to walking the marathon due to blisters caused by his brand-new compression socks.
First of all, you do NOT need the best and most expensive equipment to qualify. In fact, in many situations you might go faster if you choose the cheaper options, since that what is usually designed for the world-class professional athlete may be out of the age grouper’s range of fitness or skills to handle.
You should have a very straightforward nutrition plan for race day. It has to be something you have tried and tweaked over many races and training sessions. Stick to it – the last thing you need is slowing down as a result of getting your nutrition wrong, which can cause stomach discomfort or lack of energy, which will in turn result in a slow day even when physically you were very fit.
As I’ve written in one of my articles before, there is no perfect Ironman race. Something won’t go as planned, period. That said, the more experience you have in dealing with new situations, the easier it will be for you to pick the best choice for each surprise.
If you think you are still a few years away from qualifying, use this time to get to know yourself better, race different courses and conditions, see what suits you and what doesn’t – be aware of your weaknesses and work on them.
However if qualifying is something is a realistic possibility for your, do a tune-up race in preparation for the big day – ideally a half ironman event 8-10 weeks out on a similar course (consider wetsuits, ocean or lake swim, hills on the bike and run, and weather). Use the same equipment, strategy and nutrition that you plan to do in the qualifier race, even if by doing that you might go a bit slower than you could by racing according to the 70.3 distance.
Understanding Ironman races around the Globe:
Now that you have an idea on what to consider when picking a course that will suit your strengths and maximize your chances of qualifying, you also have to understand the specifics of racing on each course and part of the globe.
Things to consider:
Matching course profile & your profile
As we discussed early in this article, finding a course that suits your strengths and won’t make you lose too much ground on your weakness should be the priority number one. Once you have picked the races around the world that fits that, consider number of slots, level of competition and traveling time, in that order.
Number of Slots
Slots per race vary as little as 30 to as much as 80 – that makes a huge difference as depending on your age group and race you go, you have a chance even if you place 15th or so if you are at the M40-44 age group for example and you are lucky that some athletes ahead of you will turn away the slot. On the flipside, races with little number of slots make it much tighter, unless you are on the top 5 of your age group, chances gets smaller.
Level of your competition
Certain races tend to attract certain types of athletes. If you want to qualify at the fastest ironman on the planet, you may as well be ready to race very, very fast. Ironmans in Europe, except a few races, are known to have a very high level of athletes, since the locals are in peak shape at that time of the year and they prefer to race their “home turf” due to logistical reasons. Showing up at Ironman Frankfurt which is the European Championships to qualify for Kona will require a perfect race regardless of your level. Prefer the races where historically finisher times are slower.
Location & Traveling requirements
Apart from the obvious fact that many athletes can’t afford too many days off work or away from home, time zones are also important when racing such a long event overseas. The general rule of thumb is a day of rest for each hour of difference, if you can’t afford that make sure you are a good traveler otherwise it may be a wasted opportunity.
Another detail to think about is the time of the race within the year and the qualifying season. Races later in the season are usually less competitive such as the ones late in August (Canada, Malaysia and Taiwan comes to mind), as most of the very fast athletes prefer to qualify earlier in the year so they can afford to take some time off, recover from their efforts, before building to Kona again. While the late races are in a way a race of “last resort” for people trying to qualify, as they need to back it up with Kona in about 5-6 weeks.
Allergies can really affect your performance which means that going to a race in peak allergy season for a given area is not a great plan. Also, races that tend to take place in humid conditions can negatively impact athletes with breathing problems.
Time of year is another key factor to keep in mind. For example, entering a race that’s held in March when you are going to have to train through a freezing winter may not be the wisest decision.
Also consider the environmental conditions you will be training in at home compared to those you will face during the race, and how they might impact your performance. For instance, for an athlete in Texas training through the mid-summer’s hot and humid conditions there for a race such as Ironman Louisville might leave them depleted and unmotivated during the long ironman-specific training. As a result, this athlete wouldn’t be in the best mental or physical condition for the race, so in that case you’d rather aim for a race in spring when training weather is more conducive.
So, which race to pick? See the Pros and Cons of the most famous ones below:
Ironman races in the Americas:
Most Ironmans in North America offers a higher amount of Kona slots, which is already a very attractive feature. Another benefit is that the level of the competition isn’t as high, since there are several Ironman races within weeks of each other and the fast athletes tend to spread thin around the races from the country. Not many overseas athletes get to go to races in NA. Most races in NA also sell out very fast, another reason that may leave fast athletes outside of the race
Ironmans Brazil and Mexico do offer a moderate amount of Kona slots but the competition may be slighter faster than in North America and Canada. In Brazil for example, if you are a Man in between 30 and 40 years, you may have to break 9h30 to have a chance.
Oceania and Asia:
The local level of athletes isn’t as fast as Europe or Australia and the late time of Gurye, Malaysia and Taiwan will also make this slightly less competitive since most of the top athletes prefer to race earlier in the year so they can recover and train specifically for Kona.
Important: For the local triathlete based in Asia, racing ‘home’ is still the superior choice if you are trying to qualify, unless you happen to be a world class age grouper that can qualify virtually anywhere you want
On the flip side you have races in Australia that are very different than those in Asia. Busselton and New Zealand are probably one of the hardest races in the world to qualify, they are early in the season, fast courses with fast athletes. If you are on a competitive age group and depending on the year, you may go 9h15 and be out of Kona. They are great for PB’s but for a Kona slot only if you are a very experienced and fast triathlete. Ironman Cairns and Port Macquire on the other hand do offer a less competitive field and a slower race and course in general, increasing the chances of intermediate level triathletes.
Ironman Races in Europe:
In Europe you got everything. From the easier races to qualify such as UK and Wales, that are later in the year, slower course with slower competitors, but they can be very unique when it comes to course profile, you better be ready for a lot of technical ups and downs and bike course, if you live on a flat area and aren’t used to technical rides, this may not fit you.
The traditional European races such as Frankfurt & Austria are also a mini version of the world championships, don’t be surprised to see several athletes breaking nine hours if you are from a competitive age group.
You may also find extreme conditions in Europe that may fit in like a glove for a very few number of athletes, which is the case of Ironman Nice for very technical and climbers bike riders, or Ironman Lanzarote for strong climbers that won’t need to be as technical but will need to handle the heat.
With the above information you have now a clear map for your “road to Kona” – unless you are a very experienced and fast ironman triathlete with several Kona starts already, picking the right race will increase your chances and make the dream a reality. And make sure you back that decision with specific, smart and hard training.
Good luck and hope to see you on the start line in Kona one day!
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