Commentary: IMWC, Don’t Leave!

The stories, legends, and ghosts of Kona are the soul of the Ironman World Championship. To move it would strip away the event’s essence.

Photo: Lois Schwartz

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Let’s start with the obvious: Since I wrote the coffee table books to celebrate the 25th, 30th, and 40th anniversary of the Ironman World Championship, I love the history, traditions, and legends of what I consider the most important one-day endurance event on the planet. In my opinion, a huge part of what makes the Ironman World Championship so damn special is the Big Island of Hawaii itself.

Moving the Ironman World Championship from the Big Island would be like moving the Boston Marathon to New Hampshire or the New York City Marathon to Albany.

There are very few events in the world where the course and the location make up a huge part of the mystique and, in my humble opinion, the Ironman World Championship and its connection to the Big Island is at the very top of a very short list.

I totally understand that the pandemic is forcing the Ironman to move the 2021 Ironman World Championship to St. George, Utah, next May, but I also expect that this is a one-time thing and that the world’s most important triathlon will then return to its home on The Big Island next October.

Read the counterpoint: Commentary: Why St. George Trumps Kona

John and Judy Collins created the Ironman in February of 1978 and 15 crazies showed up on Oahu that day to see if someone could actually complete 140.6 miles of swim, bike, and run. Unbelievably, 12 actually finished. In 1979 the same number of crazies finished, but with one cool addition: Lyn Lemaire became the first woman to enter the race and she finished fifth overall. The Sports Illustrated story on the 1979 race led to huge growth the next year and 108 of us, including myself, eventual six-time champion Dave Scott, future mountain bike legend Ned Overend, cycling star John Howard, and future Boston Marathon Race Director Dave McGillivray raced the last Ironman on Oahu.

Tom Warren, winner of the 1979 edition en route to a 10th-place finish in 1982. Photo: Mike Plant

Race Director and visionary Valerie Silk realized that the Ironman could not grow if she didn’t find a location that could grow with her event. She did. When Valerie—who was not a triathlete herself—first visited the Big Island and thought about ways to create an epic course, she thought the athletes might be bored riding on the Queen K Highway, and the plan was to take the cyclists out towards the volcano and back. Cooler heads prevailed, and the most iconic course in all of triathlon came to be. The athletes swam in Kailua Bay back in 1981 and have swam there every year since. When the athletes return to Kona in October of 2022 they will walk down the very same steps towards Dig Me Beach that every Ironman World Champion from Dave Scott to Jan Frodeno and from Paula Newby-Fraser to Daniela Ryf has walked down since 1981. When I go for my early morning swims whenever I am in Kona, I get goosebumps every time I walk down those stairs.

The view at “Dig Me Beach”

History can do that to you.

When the Ironman hopefuls in 2022 emerge from the ocean on race day, they will get on their bikes and head out on the Queen K Highway to the quaint seaside town of Hawi. Along that storied bike course in 2007 defending champion Normann Stadler ended up dropping out of the race with a flat tire and “too much glue;”  in October of 1982 Mark Allen introduced himself to Dave Scott after catching him on the bike; in the early 1980s Dave Horning had a catered lunch delivered to him complete with a table, tablecloth and a waiter; in 2010 Chris McCormack enlisted other top cyclists to help him attack Craig Alexander in the cross winds between Kawaihae, Hawi, and back so that Alexander wouldn’t win his third title in a row and Macca could win his second; in 2008 Chrissie Wellington stood on the side of the road with a flat tire and no way to put air into it until fellow pro Rebecca Keat tossed her a Qwikfil so she could repair her tire and defend her title; and in 1995 Germany’s Thomas Hellriegel flew by Mark Allen on his way to building up a 13:31 minute lead on the then five-time Ironman World Champion.

Ironman World champion Normann Stadler stands on the side of the road in 2007. Photo: Rich Cruse

The lore of Ironman is all about those classic moments in time when a move was made or not made, when an athlete rose to the occasion and became an instant legend or simply disappeared in the bright lights of our sport’s biggest stage.

It all blends and weaves together. I can’t drive along the Queen K Highway from the airport to Kailua-Kona without glancing to my right and remembering Leanda Cave and Mirinda Carfrae racing down into the Natural Energy Lab in 2012 pretty much together—with Cave surprisingly in front when they emerged. That was also the spot where we watched Dave Scott at the age of 40, five years after his last Kona attempt, chasing young Aussie Greg Welch and whittling the lead down to 11 seconds in 1994. Welchie became the first non-American man to win the race that year, and in the 25 years since, only two American men—Mark Allen in 1995 and Tim DeBoom in 2001 and 2002—have won.

Closer to town is Mark and Dave Hill, the spot where in 1989 Mark Allen surprised Dave Scott and made the move 23.5 miles into the marathon that brought him his first Ironman World Championship title in his seventh try.

Dave Scott and Mark Allen race neck and neck at the 1989 “Ironwar.” Photo: Lois Schwartz

After winning the race that I dubbed IronWar, Mark Allen never lost on the Big Island again.

When you go for a training run and turn right on Hualalai before taking that legendary right turn on Ali’i Drive, you can almost see what Karen Smyers saw back in 1995: Right in front of her was the person she had been chasing seemingly forever—seven-time Ironman World Champion Paula Newby-Fraser—directly in front of her and totally out of gas. Karen actually put out a hand to help keep Paula from toppling over before heading off to win her first and only Ironman World Championship title.

And when you do turn right on Ali’i Drive, as you head towards the pier, you know that right along that stretch of pavement is where Julie Moss collapsed and ended up crawling to the finish after being passed for the win by Kathleen McCartney in February of 1982.

Julie Moss crawls to the finish after giving up the lead at IMWC in 1982. Photo: Carol Hogan

That moment changed our sport forever.

These are not just moments in time, these are moments in time tied forever to the Big Island of Hawaii. If the powers-that-be choose to rotate the Ironman World Championship to other parts of the world, my fear is all of those classic Ironmoments, which are so connected to the Big Island and which we get to relive each and every October, will simply cease to exist.

The race, the history, the legends, and all of those special moments are tied together forever to this windy, hot, brutal, beautiful, unforgiving backdrop known as the Big Island of Hawaii, and the Ironman World Championship should never, ever leave it behind.

Prepare for Ironman St. George and the 2022 Ironman World Championship race with Heather Wurtele’s comprehensive race recon of the course: Everything You Need To Know About the Ironman St. George Course


Jan Frodeno Reflects on His Final Ironman World Championship

Immediately after finishing 24th place at his final Ironman World Championships, the Olympic medalist (and three-time IMWC winner) explains what his race in Nice meant to him.