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As about 5,700 triathletes descended onto the Big Island of Hawaii (which is actually quite small) along with thousands of family members and friends, it quickly became apparent that the 2022 Ironman World Championship would be unlike anything we’d ever seen before. And it was.
From new mom Chelsea Sodaro breaking the tape in the women’s race to Kona rookie Gustav Iden clocking a fresh course record, the first-ever two-day Ironman World Championship rewrote the history books in more ways than we can count.
But it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns (although I can personally verify there was a nice rainbow at the swim start of the women’s race on Thursday). The logistics behind a race that spanned 72 hours (women’s race on Thursday, a gap day in between, then the men’s race on Saturday) quickly showcased just how tiny the Big Island is. From traffic backups to limited dry goods in the stores, the locals – and some triathletes – feel there may be a better way to host the Ironman World Championships in the future.
Most athletes arrived five-to-seven days before their respective race, as is the norm. By Tuesday of race week, the Island already felt like it had reached critical mass. Forget about driving along Ali’i or even on the Queen K near town. The backups on these single-lane roads lasted for hours.
Four-time Kona finisher Leah Roberts (40-44 age group) opted to stay north of Kona, in the direction of the bike course turnaround, to avoid the chaos of being directly in town. Even still, challenges were apparent leading up to the race.
“This year was nutty for an even longer period of time pre-race,” Roberts said. “Supermarkets were stripped of staples like milk and eggs. I felt terrible for the locals and completely understand their frustration regarding not just a larger race, but a larger one spanning two days.”
As Roberts noted, this wasn’t just a frustration for triathletes, but more importantly, was disruptive for those who call the west side of the Island of Hawai’i home. While Kona will reap the benefit of a predicted $100 million added to their economy thanks to the Ironman World Championship, most locals still had to navigate their way through triathlon traffic to get to work, to run errands (at their now-depleted stores), and try to maintain a status quo on their lives as triathletes squeezed onto the Island.
From Ironman’s perspective, they aimed to “refine race week in a way that improved and built upon the overall event experience,” according to Diana Bertsch, senior vice president of World Championship Events for Ironman.
Bertsch went on to say that Ironman viewed the two-day race format with a “refresh day” in between as “opportunities to evolve the event.”
While pre-race was undoubtedly chaotic, some of those opportunities Bertsch alluded to played out during the women’s race on Thursday.
The Women’s Race
Most women will tell you they loved racing with primarily other women, save for the few men’s age groups that also raced on Thursday.
“Women race differently,” Roberts said. “We are more supportive and respectful of each other. It was nice not to shove my way through men on the swim, and there were definitely fewer aggressive packs of men on the bike.”
Outside of ag- group praise, the triathlon community couldn’t get enough of following solely the women’s pro race on Thursday. The two-day format finally gave female pros the media and global attention it deserves. Would we have seen Chelsea Sodaro snap an American drought live if there was a battle up front for the men’s race? Would we have watched as Anne Haug tried (and ultimately failed) to run down Lucy Charles-Barclay if we were interviewing the men’s podium? It would be hard to return to a single-day world championship for this reason alone.
However, pros and amateurs alike bemoaned the fewer aid stations on the run, a result of Ironman not being able to source enough volunteers (another major obstacle for a two-day event in a small town).
Instead of run aid stations located every mile as is typical at an Ironman, aid stations were approximately 1.6 miles apart. While 0.6 miles might not read as a huge distance, that is anywhere from four-to-seven extra minutes of running, jogging, or walking between aid stations. And when you’re out there roasting on the Queen K, those minutes can feel like hours.
“In my opinion, Ironman held a very unsafe run course due to the fewer aid stations,” said Roberts. “This is also the first time I have done this race where there were zero sponges or wet towels on the course. I’d like to see Ironman pay extra volunteers in the future and return to aid stations every mile. To continue with aid stations 1.6 miles apart is unacceptable.”
The Men’s Race
There was hardly a moment to soak in Chelsea Sodaro’s epic Thursday victory before the cannon went off for the men’s race Saturday morning.
This was Nick Weiler’s (35-39 age group) first time racing the Ironman World Championship. Initially, he was concerned that the two-day format meant it would be hard to stay away from being on his feet all day supporting the women’s race, but he found a happy medium in the end.
“I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to resist the urge to cheer for people on Ali’i all day,” Weiler said. “Thankfully, I was able to stay at our condo to focus on my race after cheering friends on; in turn, those same friends came out on Saturday to cheer me on. It was nice to support each other in that way across our races.”
Weiler noted that due to the increased numbers of athletes this year – and many of similar abilities in his age group – there was a lot of bunching on the swim and bike. While this may be somewhat inevitable regardless of a two-day format, drafting remains an ever-present challenge for Ironman to contend with on this course.
The main thing Weiler noticed was the lack of run aid stations and volunteers, just like Roberts.
“The volunteers Ironman was able to recruit were amazing as usual, but you could tell there weren’t quite enough to keep up with the demands of the race,” Weiler noted. “Starting at about mile 17 of the run, many aid stations were out of ice. I didn’t believe this could happen at the Ironman World Championship, and I felt bad for those who were still coming off the bike and just beginning their marathon – they had a long, hot day ahead of them.”
This was the case in the women’s race, too. Some later run aid stations began running out of water and ice around 4 p.m. HST on race day. Considering folks have until well into the evening to reach the depths of the run course, this presented a dangerous scenario that could easily have seen some athletes descend into heat stroke.
Erin Weiler is a Kona finisher herself and attended Kona this year to support her husband (Nick, above).
With their young kiddo in tow (just another example of a supermom at Kona), Erin supported friends on Thursday and then her husband on Saturday – an endurance feat in and of itself.
“It was fantastic to devote an entire day to seeing the women race,” Erin said. “In the past, I’ve been focused on my friends and have missed the pro women’s action. However, spectating in the heat and humidity is hard and come Saturday I was still beat from Thursday and only had the energy to cheer on my husband [as opposed to finding other friends on course].”
Just like racing, spectating is an exercise in patience and logistics. For those who have friends and loved ones racing on both days, it’s a big ask to bring the energy and hype twice in just 72 hours.
On the other hand, female pros were seen lining the course during the men’s race (and actually vice-versa, to some extent), shouting encouragement to their male counterparts—a great picture that never would have been captured on any other Hawai Ironman.
Decisions are currently up in the air as to whether or not a two-day format is solidified for 2023, despite Ironman already announcing it as such.
“As it relates to continuing two days of racing in 2023, we recognize the opportunity to have fully focused men’s and women’s races would provide further enhancements to showcase our athletes,” Bertsch said. “However, to plan for it, Ironman and its local and state partners both required lead time for planning purposes in addition to needing to meet the requirements of an Ironman qualifying calendar that started in August of this year.”
In essence, Ironman would like to continue the two day format, but has not yet achieved the official sign-offs from the community to make that happen.
From our age groupers’ perspectives, two days of racing meant that the women pros got the attention they deserve. It is undoubtedly beneficial for media attention to have separate races. Plus, amateur women no longer have to fight their way through packs of men on the swim and bike to find their space on the course.
Additionally, we heard from numerous pro and age group women that they enjoyed being able to volunteer and spectate the men’s race on Saturday. It allowed the triathlon community to truly support one another in a way that hasn’t yet been seen at the full distance.
However, the Big Island isn’t all that big. It has its infrastructure limits. Ironman is handing out 3,800 total Kona slots in the 2023 qualifying cycle, which is 46% more slots than in 2019, but nearly 2,000 athletes fewer than raced this year.
There is great concern among triathletes and locals alike about Hawaii’s ability to sustain such a large race across two days. Athletes also have mixed emotions about Ironman making it easier to qualify for Kona – but that’s a story for another day.
“I’m very torn; as a spectator, it was amazing to give women professionals their own race and it was great to support so many friends on Thursday,” Weiler said. “Having raced on Saturday, though, I don’t think Kona can logistically handle another race like this. Grocery shelves were depleted, traffic was backed up for miles, and the airport was overwhelmed. My bike is still sitting in Kona as I write this – and I left a couple days ago.”
The future of Kona hosting the Ironman World Championship hangs in the balance. There are many factors at play from logistics to monetary benefit to the Island to the basics of respecting a place. The magic of Kona is so deeply ingrained in the Ironman World Championship that it’s hard to imagine it anywhere else (despite the one-off in St. George). But times change, and it could be that we find ourselves racing the next “Kona” anywhere but.