IRONMAN WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP PREVIEW
It is considered the world’s toughest one-day endurance test. Dreamed up by a bunch of Navy Seals to determine who the world’s fittest athlete might be, the Ironman World Championship got its start in 1978 when 15 men took on a course that combined the Waikiki Rough Water Swim (3.8 km), the Around Oahu Bike Race (180 km) and the Honolulu Marathon (42.2 km). They shortened the bike portion by two miles so they could start things back at the beach, and voila, the Ironman distance was born. Within a few years the Ironman would become one of the most prestigious one-day endurance events in the world. Less than a decade later qualifying races started to spring up around the world as more and more people wanted to take on the Ironman challenge.
WHEN IT COMES to dialing in qualifying numbers, no one is more on top of the game than Raymond Britt. A 29-time Ironman finisher, Britt’s company analyzes Ironman races across the globe to see how people get to the big show in Kona every year. We asked Britt to come up with some numbers for us on just how the pier in Kailua-kona gets filled up every year.
So, is it harder now to get to Kona than it was 10 years ago? You bet it is. The number of Ironman qualifying events around the world has gone from 19 to 41 in the last decade, although in that same time frame the total number of Kona slots has increased from around 1,900 to 2,300 (See chart above).
As a sign of just how popular the sport has become, to meet with the demand of athletes wanting to do an Ironman event, World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), the company that owns the Ironman name, has more than doubled the number of Ironman qualifiers around the world in those 10 years. As the number of full-distance events has risen, there’s also been a huge increase in the number of Ironman 70.3 races every year (over 90 in 2015), but the number of 70.3 races offering world championship slots has decreased dramatically (there was only one that had Kona qualifying slots for 2015) and even the number of pros, lottery slots and media entries has decreased dramatically (during some years that number was up to 17 per cent of the field) to allow for more qualifiers to fit on the pier in Kailua-kona.
With the news earlier this year that Ironman’s lottery was declared illegal by the U.S. government, “average” Ironman athletes will likely be left to Ironman’s legacy program to get themselves a chance to race in Hawaii. The Legacy program was created a few years ago as a kind of “rewards” program for multiple Ironman competitors. Once you’ve completed 12 full-distance Ironman events you become eligible for the Legacy lottery draw and are guaranteed a chance to race in Kona at least once.
But what if you don’t want to do 12 Ironman races to try and get to Kona? Are there easier races to qualify at than others? Yes and no. The huge increase in the number of qualifying races has levelled the playing field to some extent in terms of the number of qualifiers at each race. Believe it or not, there was a time when Ironman Canada offered 150 slots for Kona – as did races like the European Championship (the Ironman Germany event that used to take place in Roth). Those days are long gone. Of the 41 full-distance Ironman races this year, two have 25 slots (one of those is Kona, where age group champions are given a spot for the following year), one 70.3 race offered 30 Hawaii slots, eight had 40 slots (many of those are licensee races) and most of the others had 50 qualifying slots. To promote the regional championship system it’s put in place over the last few years, WTC has increased the number of qualifying slots at those races to 75. (See charts above and opposite.)
Where does that leave an athlete trying to figure out which race will give them their best chance of qualifying? It comes down to the number of athletes in the race. This year’s best bets are likely to be two new additions to the circuit – our very own Ironman Muskoka and Ironman The Netherlands, where 4.9 and 7.1 per cent of the field will be Kona bound.
Easy, right? Get that entry in for Muskoka or The Netherlands and book the place in Kona. Oh, that it were so simple. Qualifying for Kona is never going to be easy as the level of age group competition has skyrocketed over the last decade. Then, at each race, some slots may roll down to the age groups with the most competitors if there aren’t any finishers other age groups.
Let’s use Ironman New Zealand from this March as an example. That event had 50 qualifying slots, with each age group allocated at least one spot. (See chart on p.52) Based on the number of spots allocated, and
the number of competitors, your chances of qualifying for Kona varied from a low of 2.4 per cent if you were in the men’s 40 to 44 category to 33.3 per cent if you were in the men’s 75 to 79 age group. (See chart on p.52) Adding to the fun of figuring all this out is the fact that a number of slots rolled down to other categories. Since there were no finishers in men’s 65 to 69, for example, there ended up being a total of five slots available in the men’s 45 to 49 category. (See chart on p.52)
Have we completely confused you yet? If not, we’ll leave you with one final bit of information that will hopefully help you figure out what your best shot for Kona might be. Once all was said and done at the Ironman New Zealand Kona roll down ceremony, Britt was able to determine the qualifying times required for each age category from Ironman New Zealand. (See chart on p.52) In case you’re thinking that we’ve finally got to the magic number, though, it’s not quite that simple. Let’s say you’re in the men’s 45 to 49 category and feel like you’re a sub-10 hour guy. Looking at the 9:57 number might get you thinking about booking that flight for New Zealand next March. The question is, are you a sub-10 hour racer in New Zealand, or in Frankfurt? The courses are probably fairly similar in terms of topography, but dramatically different in terms of times. The rougher roads in New Zealand make for much slower bike times than those seen on the pristine pavement you’ll ride for much of the Frankfurt course. The conditions can even vary dramatically year to year. This year in Frankfurt the age group field was decimated by the heat, making for much slower times than previous years.
Which brings us around to where we started. Getting to the Ironman World Championship is not easy. But that’s exactly the way those who get in want it to be.
The growth of the sport since we started publishing Triathlon Magazine Canada 10 years ago has been unprecedented. While the sport has undergone incredible change, it is the world of Ironman that has undergone the most growth. As we head into next October’s Ironman World Championship in Kailua-kona, Hawaii, we decided to not only preview the athletes to look for this year, but also to have a look at the current state of Ironman racing.
The bottom line? It’s never been harder to make it to the big show in Kona. Here’s why.
The transition zone at KailuaKona pier
KONA BY THE
NUMBERS Age grouper Philip Hatzis races to the finish of the 2014 Ironman World Championship in Kona
Angela Naeth races the Ironman 70.3 California Oceanside