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Women Celebrate a Long-Awaited Two-Day Format and Equal-Size Fields in Kona

After many years of campaigning, pro and age-group women alike are now celebrating this change.

After almost a decade campaigning for gender equality, the news this week that the Ironman World Championship in Oct. 2022 is set to feature separate men’s and women’s races—as well as equal size fields—has been met with delight.

Back in 2015, several female athletes joined forces to start the 50 Women to Kona Campaign in response to the fact there were 50 slots available to men at the race in Kona, Hawaii, but only 35 for women. Although prize money has always been equal, the disparity in the slots available to women has, for a long time, been a source of controversy.

Former pro triathlete and Kona runner-up Rachel Joyce was one of the first to lead the call for change as long ago as 2013, saying that the different sized fields “sends out the wrong message.” The news this week, then, was a long-awaited cause for celebration.

She said: “I am delighted by the news that Kona in October 2022 will be held over two days, with a separate women’s race and, finally, there will be an equal number of professional men and women able to compete at the Ironman World Championship. The 70.3 World Championship has shown us that the separate day format means the women’s professional race can be truly celebrated. Looking past the professional race, I am so happy for age-group women who will now get a cleaner race. And when it comes to the equal professional fields, I guess it’s a case of better late than never!”

Like Joyce, Alyssa Godesky has also worked hard for gender equality on the sport’s biggest stage. She said: “This is fantastic news. The women’s field in Ironman racing has long been deserving of the opportunity to equally showcase its talents. I am already eager to see how this will shake up the race, and more excited to see how the women’s field will rise to this occasion, putting on a show that you won’t want to miss. Hopefully this signals a new chapter of Ironman racing that will value equality as much as anything else.”

She added: “Plenty of work remains in the world as we work towards gender equality. I’m happy to check this box, though, and I have put up a toast to this milestone. I hope the many others who helped advocate for this with me through the years do as well.”

Ironman champion Meredith Kessler said: “Firstly, how awesome is it that Ironman athletes have two opportunities to race a world championship in 2022. The fact that the October race will now be a two-day event for women and men truly is historic and prolific in every way. I can imagine that it was a really first-class decision to be able to navigate through a surplus of detail in an effort to make that happen, and I hope it carries on to future world championship races going forward. In fact, I’m hoping they decide to make it a two-day event in St. George in May as well. Regardless, especially during this time, everyone should truly be thankful that they get to be a part of history, wherever that may be.”

Age-group women are welcoming the two-day format as well. Lisbeth Kenyon, a 10-time Kona finisher and five-time age-group winner, says the one-day structure of the race, coupled with the popularity of the event, created significant and compounding challenges for the women’s field: “The first year I raced in 1996, there were fewer than 1,500 of us and I did not see much drafting,” Kenyon said. “When I returned to Kona in 2008, the field was much larger and growing year by year. Draft packs were common on the Queen K passing me by. The bike is my strength by far, so it was frustrating to witness women here and there tucked in the middle of large packs of mostly age-group men. Even when they separated men and women into two swim waves, it was still an issue to some degree.”

Though Ironman attempted to address this issue by separating men and women into their own waves for the swim start, it also meant women started later, creating a new problem for women. “It seems age-group women some years have a completely different race because of changes in trade wind conditions as the morning warms up. Many years there is almost no wind early, and at some point late morning, it’s like someone flips a switch and suddenly the winds become strong,” Kenyon said. “Women were impacted more by the trade winds than if we had started an hour earlier. I recall watching the pros descend on their return, looking smooth, while two hours later upon my own return, I was white-knuckle holding on to my handlebars. I saw a small, older woman literally knocked off her bike by a sudden wind gust.”

With the two-day format, however, women will get a chance to begin their race earlier than in previous years, giving the field the possibility of racing without the interference of men’s draft packs or trade winds.