Kona Calling

Kona Calling

Want to qualify for the big show? Outside of dedicated hard training and a little bit of luck, the key to giving yourself the best shot is to play to your strengths.

By Raymond Britt and the Triathlete Editors

Just over 2,000 of the best athletes in the world get to race in the Ironman World Championship every October, and the competition to qualify is fierce. If you want to improve your odds of getting there someday, you’ll need a strategy based on your strengths in each discipline.

We enlisted Raymond Britt of RunTri.com to slice and dice race data from the 41 Ironman events on the calendar in 2015, with a closer look at the North American events, and categorize them based on difficulty of each segment. On the next page, he ranks 12 North American races based on the average finishing times across multiple years (when possible) of each segment to show where the competition is slowest (and often where that portion of the course is most difficult).

“If you want to have a better chance to qualify for Kona, pick races that show red in your particular strengths,” Britt suggests. “Red ratings mean the course is too tough for most, but if you have the ability to absolutely excel and crush those red legs (no pun intended), your odds of finishing way above average—much closer to your goal of getting to Kona—will be with you.”

Simple rationale: If you’re among the best and strongest in a certain discipline, pick races with the slowest average times in that area. For instance, if you’re a super cyclist and you see Ironman Lake Tahoe’s average bike split is 7:16, it’s a race to consider. That 7:16 is the result of most of the field riding far slower. If you are a weak swimmer, look for a course that aids your swim time, like the calm conditions of Lake Placid or the current at the end of the swim at Ironman Austria.

“The weak swimmer may want to choose Austria; a good swimmer but slower cyclist, say, would have far less of an advantage in the water in Austria,” Britt says. “Better he not choose that course, but go for one that’s choppy and unpredictable where he can cut through much faster than the rest, and have an advantage of minutes over his Kona competition.”

Note: Judging a course based on finishing times is an imperfect science because it’s difficult to take into account the quality of field and consequential faster times, but the average times for each segment are interesting to note when you’re scoping out a potential race.

Britt analyzed toughness of the North American races, but consider these questions when researching your next 140.6 in another part of the world.

Climate: What is the typical forecast on race day? Given your race history, do you do better in hot or chilly race conditions?

Swim: Is it an ocean swim with the chance of rough water (which will really benefit stronger swimmers)? Does it historically have cold temperatures (and how does your body deal with that)?

Bike: What is the elevation gain? Do you climb well, and does your home environment lend itself well to training on hills? What types of hills are they—long, gradual inclines or short, steep grades? Is wind a factor?

Run: Similar to questions surrounding the bike leg—what’s the total elevation? Is it exposed or shaded? On all road or some trail?

Quality of the field: Finishing times in races with a high-density population of talented triathletes (such as Germany or Australia) and an overall much higher male ratio will generally be faster, so look at the top 5–10 people in your age group. Are their times close to what you’re capable of? Are there a couple outliers, or are the top contenders around the same finishing time?

The good news is that there are more slots overall (2020 in 2015) for age-groupers to get to Kona as compared to a few years ago (1,662 in 2012, for instance); the bad news is that they are spread out over more races, for an average of 48.7 slots per each of the 41 events. The majority of races offer 50 slots, which are distributed based on the percentage of participants who make up the field (e.g., if the male 40–44 age group has 500 athletes and the women’s 25–29 has 50, the men might get something like six slots while the women get one slot).

Photos by John David Becker,Thierry Deketelaere/Endurapix and Eric Lars Bakke/Endurapix.