Analysis: Forget What You Know About Racing Kona. It’s All Wrong.
Rookies reigned, records were shattered and conventional wisdom proved not-so-conventional after all. We dig into the future significance of the most competitive Hawaii Ironman World Championships ever.
Halfway through the swim of the men’s pro race at the 2022 Hawaii Ironman World Championship, it was obvious something was different.
There wasn’t a little pack of two or five off the front, there was literally a field of racers swimming together. And then another one not far behind. And then another.
When they finally stepped out of the water, 19 men were in that front pack.
By the time the packs had truly coalesced in the early miles of the bike, we saw a group of 19 in the lead, 13 together less than two minutes back, and another 15 men two minutes behind them. That’s 47 of the best long-course triathletes in the world, all within four minutes of each other heading out onto the Queen K.
But it wasn’t until the “real racing” started near Hawi that the true density of the race would slowly peel back and reveal who was unflinchingly at the pointy end of this insanely competitive field. There, the curtain raised to reveal the fresh-faced young talent who would play starring roles in a drama that would unfold over the next 75-plus miles of riding and running.
On Saturday, the usual “superbikers” were powerless against the front pack of five that had established themselves before the Hawi turnaround—France’s Sam Laidlow, Magnus Ditlev of Denmark, Australia’s Max Neumann, and Kristian Blummenfelt and Gustav Iden of Norway. The usual game plan of strong cyclists in Kona – “oh we’ll get them on the way back into town” – simply didn’t apply anymore. And the most shocking part about this five-man wrecking crew? They had an average age of 25 years old. That’s right, not one of the men in that group was older than 28. Not one of them had ever raced Kona before. It was a true display of next-generation triathlon.
Many of us thought at least a few of these whippersnappers would explode. Certainly, experience would prevail, as it had so many years before. Sentimentally, we wanted the grizzled veterans to show the young guns the ropes. But as it turned out, it was the rookies who had a few things to teach us all.
Forget the old rules that you have to pay your dues by racing several years before you can crack the Kona code, or that you can’t swim very very fast, ride very very fast, and still run very very fast. As it turns out, you can – ”island spirits” be damned.
The youngest of the group, Sam Laidlow, absolutely destroyed the bike course record with a time of 4:04:36, once set by someone we once considered an invincible übercyclist—pro cyclist Cam Wurf. Twitter followers even asked us if Laidlow would still get the record if he dropped out on the run—that’s how little faith fans had in the 23-year-old upstart to finish this thing upright.
But as you probably know by now, Laidlow did stay upright, and if he hadn’t been passed by another Kona rookie at mile 22, he would have also set the overall course record—as did eventual winner Gustav Iden, third-place finisher (and Olympic champion) Kristian Blummenfelt, and Max Neumann who finished in fourth place despite being on absolutely no ones radar. All four of these “Kona-rookie-cursed” dudes shattered the old record by no less than six minutes. Let that sink in.
At the end of the day, the raw newness of talent in the top eight is even more staggering when you dig into the numbers:
If you look at the race resumes of the five Kona rookies in the top eight—Iden, Laidlow, Blummenfelt, Neumann, and Ditlev—you’d have a total of 12 combined iron-distance finishes between the five men (before they started IMWC 2022 on Saturday). That’s 26 fewer Ironman races combined than sixth-place finisher Sebastian Kienle, who has 38 finishes to his name. In fact, Kienle has raced Kona more times (eight) than the entire IMWC 2022 podium had raced iron-distance events (seven) before Saturday.
We used to run a pre-Kona story about how rare it was for Kona rookies to do well on the big island and how the winner almost always had a high finish in their previous attempt. For some reason this year, it seemed like dumb superstition, and given the way the pro landscape has changed in the last three years, I decided not to run it. That decision was further reinforced on Thursday when Chelsea Sodaro became the first Kona female rookie to win on the Big Island since Chrissie Wellington – someone else we all once considered invincible – and the first American to do the deed in over a quarter of a century. (And though a lot of people are saying Sodaro was the first mom to win an Ironman World Championship, too, that honor actually goes to the Swiss Miss, Natascha Badmann. Not bad company to be in.)
Objectively speaking, if you look at the finishing times, it’s obvious that the long-course men’s field has never been more competitive, but if you look harder, you should be amazed by the sheer density (more good men than ever) and future depth potential (these men will be good for a very very long time) as well. It’s exciting, but it’s also a little scary—if you’re over 30, that is.
So throw out the old rules, the old superstitions, and even the old strategies and tactics, because if the men’s race at this year’s 2022 Hawaii Ironman World Championships has taught us anything, everything is now made new.
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