The new point system for professional triathletes wanting to compete in Kona was announced in September of 2010. This may have been the most significant change of the year. The KPR—Kona Points Ranking—is now the ranking system that determines who will and will not compete at the Ironman World Championship at the pro level. If you’re a pro, your KPR is amassed by adding up points gained from your five best “races”—races that are “Ironman branded full-distance and 70.3 events worldwide that are authorized by the World Triathlon Corporation.” The window for gathering points for 2012, for example, started Sept. 4, 2011, and will end on Aug. 31, 2012. You may rack up the points from whatever combination you bake up, but one full-distance Ironman is required, and a max of three 70.3 finishes can contribute to the score. If you have won an Ironman World Championship in the previous five years you’re exempt from having to battle through the KPR, but you need to “validate” by finishing an Ironman—not Kona—within the window. Kona slots are available for the best 50 men and 30 women, numbers that have restricted the field as compared to the past.
“I’m all for a qualifying system,” said 2008, 2009 and 2011 Ironman world champion Craig Alexander, who was forced to race Ironman Coeur d’Alene with a broken rib so that he could validate his 2009 world championship with enough time to race well in Kona this year. “All the big sports have structure to them and this adds structure. It’s a point system where the more important the race, the greater the points and prize money. I wasn’t as impacted as some; I only had to validate by racing Ironman Coeur d’Alene. But even there, I put out the best performance I was capable of. So maybe there needs to be some tweaks, but the way I see it is that we found out about it last September and it’s a pro’s responsibility to schedule your season. You need to go to the races that have the most points and most money. Having to qualify for Kona adds prestige and status to the race.”
Alexander added that any tweaks would likely be related to preventing pros from getting wiped out. “Ironman racing is not like racing two- or four-hour events,” he said. “We need to be careful that we don’t over-race.”
Germany’s Andreas Raelert, who walked the marathon portion of Ironman Regensburg to validate his Kona entry, agreed with Alexander. “Every sport has a ranking system for the world championship, but there are some important issues—mainly how can you protect the athletes from not doing too many full Ironmans? You can do one or two of these at a peak level per year. So you have to do this right in order to get the best athletes on the starting line.” Raelert referenced what 1972 Olympic gold medalist marathoner Frank Shorter has long maintained about running high-level marathons—that there are only so many top performances that can be extracted from a human body. Raelert seemingly chose to use one of these limited performances to break the iron-distance world record at the 2011 Challenge Roth, a non-WTC sanctioned event, with his 7:41:33 victory.
“I personally feel that this is the Ford Ironman World Championship and that you should have to do an Ironman to qualify,” four-time Ironman world champion Chrissie Wellington said. “I believe there’s a credible half-Ironman series and its world championship is a fantastic race in a challenging location, and a 70.3 series race should count toward that. But if you want to race in Kona you should have to validate your entry with an Ironman, whether you’re the returning champion or otherwise. However, not every pro has the luxury of having financial sponsors so that they can travel and race strategically, and lower-tier pros might not be able to afford the flying around.”
Wellington, who is known for racing several Ironmans a year and racing them hard, suggests that for her, a fix might be in order, but all in all she applauds the new system.
“I think it’s working fairly well. The smaller field size produces a much more fair race by minimizing the drafting. I give it my whole-hearted support.”
Some athletes are a little more outspoken about the dangers of racing too many Ironmans, however.
“I do think the point system is a good thing, but Chrissie and I have had some heated arguments about this in the past,” 2010 Ironman world champion Mirinda Carfrae said. “I don’t agree with her. I think the top five finishers at the Hawaii Ironman should get automatic selection. If you prove yourself in Kona you shouldn’t have to go out and race [another Ironman]. Chrissie can perform fantastically well at three Ironmans a year. For me, it’s about longevity in the sport and looking after your body. So I think it needs some tweaking.”
Carfrae added that there appears to be room for adjustment. “They’ve been listening to our opinions.”
To whatever degree the point system affected the elite field at Kona, it was nothing compared to what life threw at them. This was particularly true in the cases of Alexander and Wellington, who both arrived in Kona with the explicit, impassioned purpose of regaining crowns lost in 2010. Wellington, sick with a viral infection, never started the race in 2010, and Alexander finished fourth last year after Chris McCormack rallied a fleet of other top contenders and simply punished him during the bike leg, granting McCormack his second title in the process.
It was a day that was painfully hammered into Alexander’s memory.
“Getting beaten in 2010 hurt me a lot,” Alexander said. “Not because I got beat, but because I had a good race and got beat. And beat up.”
Alexander exudes precision—in the past years we’ve watched him wield sports science as if he were running a small space program, using everything from aerodynamic wizardry to ingestible thermometers that help determine optimal strategies for governing one’s response to heat and humidity. You can see the precision in the way he walks and talks. He walks as if plugged into a source of electricity. Ask him what happened in a race and he can report the specifics—the splits, the moves, tactics, speeds, problems—in excruciatingly minute play-by-play detail.
But whatever master plan he began to engineer with the sting of his 2010 defeat still fresh in his mind, everything began to unravel when a virus struck and forced him to withdraw from May’s Ironman Australia, his target for the newly required validation. Recovery came slowly, and in the ensuing weeks he would cough so hard he would tear intercostal muscles and break a rib.
“I hadn’t had a forced layoff since 2002 when I had the chicken pox,” Alexander recalled. “But I didn’t panic. As you get older you understand that things happen for a reason.”
In fact, Alexander, now 38, decided to go after both the 70.3 world championship, moved from November to September, and Kona in October.