Qualifying for Kona – The Quest
Racing in Kona – the big island, brings many different emotions to triathletes and many other endurance athletes. It’s a place of legend and often-legendary conditions have put many people to the test of their life. Images from the early races there, with people shown collapsing as they approached the finish, impacted a whole generation of athletes, but not me…
I came into my quest to race the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii from a background that did not suggest a focus or interest there. My earliest competitive love was racing down a mountain on skis or on my mountain bike and the speed and thrill of being on the edge of crashing was more to my liking. I hated going uphill or running anywhere.
Somewhere along the way, after participating in mountain bike races at high levels in the US and in Europe, I became aware of my natural strengths, both physically and mentally. I could suffer. I could suffer as much or more than most of my competitors. In fact, I loved races where I suffered the most – more than any other. It didn’t take long for that realization to lead me to a different arena, one that included this strange sport called swimming. A triathlon is a weird collection of events designed for endurance athletes, one that is often debated (swimmers feel they don’t get their fair distance to establish a big enough lead over the cyclist and runner-focused triathletes, cyclists don’t feel they have enough time to catch the swimmers or get ahead of the runners, and so on).
As soon as you do a triathlon, the word Kona becomes well known. Casual bystanders, work associates and family ask you if you are planning on qualifying for Kona as soon as you say you did a triathlon. It’s such a funny result, and one that almost all triathletes have experienced. Why is qualifying for – and racing in - Kona such a thing? What makes it so special? It can’t be just the great finishes, or the inclusiveness of allowing amateurs to race alongside professional endurance athletes on the same course at the same time. There is something bigger and deeper that draws people to the Ironman Triathlon in Kona.
It is expensive to get to, far away from almost everywhere, hot and humid all the time and is on terrain that is unforgiving in a number of ways. Kona is not even where most people see when they visit the Hawaiian Islands. I can’t qualify it or really fully grasp why qualifying for Kona is such a huge pull. I do know that triathletes (myself included) will break themselves getting there, will sacrifice relationships, health, careers and friends. There are few healthy all-consuming things in life, but this is one that seems to become more consuming as time goes on.
As for me, my journey began in 2007. I made the transition from cycling to triathlons in 2005 after a decade of racing. I was feeling a bit bored and was intrigued by the challenge of doing three sports back to back to back. I felt my cycling strength would help overcome my lack of swimming, and that running would be simple if I came off the bike far enough ahead.
My first attempt at qualifying for Kona was at Ironman Switzerland in July of 2007 and it was a shocking, miserable day of numbing cold and rain that was a perfect intro into a world of extreme suffering. I just missed qualifying there (due to a boneheaded mistake on my part), and came away determined to make amends.
That led me to Western Australia just 5 months later. The race there is in a great town called Busselton and features a swim out into the Indian Ocean along one of the longest piers in the world. It is a hot and exposed race and it was a near disaster for me. I came into the race with bronchitis and got hit by a car the day I arrived in Sydney, so I was hacking and bruised from shoulder to knees.
The next opportunity to qualify for Kona was back in Switzerland the following year, and unlike the prior year, it was perfect weather, and I raced a smart race, coming away with a great time. Sadly, the reality of modern sports brings cheating into play, even in the amateur arena, and those who made decisions to get a free ride overwhelmed my day. My placing in that race was 10 places lower, despite finishing 30 minutes faster. I was saddened, angry and even more determined to succeed. I decided that one way to eliminate that unsavory aspect was to choose a race that had a lot of climbing, which would likely eliminate the opportunity for drafting.
I chose Ironman St George (in Utah near Las Vegas) in May 2010. It was a real hard man’s course (so much so, it only lasted 3 years before being converted to a half distance race). It was a beautiful race on a course that was hard, fair and full of tremendous natural beauty. The water was shockingly cold, but otherwise the day was perfect for racing. I finally qualified that day, despite running one of my worst marathons ever. The hills on the run were brutal, some would say sadistic and they literally broke me, or rather my leg. After qualifying for Kona, I found I had a fracture in my femur, due to the pounding from the descents on the marathon.
The last 3 years have been one injury after another – including ending up in the hospital at Ironman Texas in 2012.
The journey to Kona continues for me, and 2015 is my current target.