21 Things I Learned in the Kona Ironman World Championships

Kona Ironman World Championships swim start
My Alternate Title

Things I Wish I Knew Before Racing in the Kona Ironman World Championships

The Kona Ironman World Championship is one of the most daunting challenges in all endurance sports. The competition takes place as a two-day event in Kailua-Kona on the big island of Hawaii. It covers a race distance of 140.6 miles (226 kilometers). Participants qualify for the Kona Ironman because it is the Ironman World Championship and is held once a year (typically in early October).

If you’ve had the amazing experience of qualifying for the Kona Ironman World Championships and are set to race on the big island of Hawaii, you are probably super excited, and perhaps a little terrified at the same time.

You’ve certainly seen plenty of videos of the race and know the conditions that you’ll be racing in. However, there are some things very unique about racing in Kailua-Kona that I have not seen in any other Ironman.

After racing it once, there are certain things I would do differently to have a better race. Knowing what awaits you will help you finish faster and race more confidently.

Race Week

1 Everybody looks fitter than you

21 Things I Learned in the Kona Ironman World Championships

The Ironman World Championship isn’t a normal Ironman. Everybody is super-super-super-fit. There are no exceptions. It’s freaky, and it can make you feel unprepared.

I had breakfast with Jan Frodeno and he mentioned that he doesn’t even stay in town before the race. Being around everyone else and having their low body-fat levels on full display can play games with his mind. He said that everyone starts looking fitter than him and he doesn’t want any doubt to enter his mind before the race.

Hearing this from pretty much the fittest person on earth made me realize how easy it is to get psyched out before the race even begins. At this point, we compared abs and he said he felt better.

2 Celebrities Are Everywhere

Those people you see on TV and in magazines are everywhere. Like everywhere. Try not to freak out if you are swimming next to a World or Olympic Champion, celebrity chef, or Tour de France green jersey winner. It’ll be ok. Just breathe.

3 Beware the Sun

I stayed in the race hotel – Courtyard Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel. It’s literally at the Kona Pier, which is perfect for race morning. You have to walk a lot of places though, so be prepared for this. The expo is fairly far away, and you might be outside more than you anticipated just from walking around.

NOTE – You probably won’t drive to most places. The big island is kind of desolate, and the main shops are along Ali’i Drive. Walking and biking are the normal modes of transportation.

Protect yourself from the sun at all times. A sunburn will ruin your race.

4 Vendors Are Awesome

I had a chain issue during one of my pre-race rides. I stopped by the Shimano tent to see if they could fix it. They quickly looked it over, slapped about $250 of new Dura-Ace parts on my bike, and said “Get outta here!” No payment or anything. Gave me a couple of new water bottles and a Shimano hat as well. They were awesome.

If you get in trouble before race day, find the vendor and explain your situation. I think they’re empowered to really go out of their way to be an awesome partner here.

Bike Check-in Is An Event

5 You’re On Display

You’ll walk through this line of vendors that are all scoping you out. There’s literally every vendor there looking at every bike, to see if their part is on your bike. Typically, if they find someone using their parts, they throw out more products to them as a reward or something. Quintana Roo was giving out free wetsuits to anyone riding their frames. It was crazy.

You then go through this line of photographers – like 50 of them – who are each taking photos of your bike. Later the magazines publish how many people are using each pair of cranks, tires, etc.

6 Meet Your Handler

Upon actually entering the transition area, you’re assigned a handler to guide you through everything. Things like where to hang your gear bags, how to run through transition, and finally where to put your bike.

They don’t use typical racks but use bike slots that your rear wheel fits into similar to ITU races. The handler will stay with you the entire time and answer any questions you might have. They don’t want anyone’s race ruined by not knowing something.

Race Day at The Ironman World Championships

The big day has arrived. What exactly makes this race different from other Ironman races and what do I wish I had known beforehand?

Race Morning

7 You Get Weighed

Get in line early for body marking. Handlers do pretty much everything for you. They put on race tats, and weigh you. I’ve never been weighed prior to any other Ironman. I expected them to weigh me post-race to decide if I need an IV, but they did not. Not entirely sure what the morning weigh-in was actually about. (UPDATE: I have been told that if you have to visit the medical tent they will weigh you to determine your IV needs.)

I decided to weigh myself after the race, and I was 9 pounds lighter. I certainly should have had an IV, but I instead opted to lie down in the shower fully clothed for two hours.

The Swim

21 Things I Learned in the Kona Ironman World Championships

8 The water is very salty

The water saltiness is higher in Kailua Bay than in many other places. Why is that? I have no idea, but it sure dries out your mouth. You’re going to naturally ingest some salt water during the swim, and it will begin to give you a sore throat during the race.

I had not experienced this previously, but it’s a serious issue here. By the time I got out in 1:20, my throat was very, very sore. I didn’t really swallow any water by accident but I still had a strep throat-like sore throat from the saltwater. Be ready for that.

9 The water is warm

The water temperature is like 80 degrees Fahrenheit. No wetsuits, so everyone wears a swimskin.

I think with the saltiness of the water, it’s easier to get chafed if you have an ill-fitted suit. Be ready to apply body glide pre-race if this is you.

10 The Water Can Be Rough

It’s a single-loop swim, and you’re swimming pretty far out from shore. The water depth reaches about 100 feet, and the swells can be large. The cool part is that I could see all the way to the bottom even when rounding the Body Glove boat. It’s really beautiful and a bit calming.

11 Drafting is Easier in Kona

Everyone is fast, and drafting off someone seems easier than other races. The pack is generally well-trained in the water, compared to a normal Ironman which may have a much smaller percentage of fast swimmers to draft from. There’s always someone here though, so just swim easy and marvel at all the coral beneath you.

We had a pod of dolphins swim under us during the race. Apparently, this isn’t uncommon, so keep an eye out for them.

12 You’ll be dehydrated from the swim

This one is important. Read and remember.

The saltiness of the water will really beat you up. You won’t feel dehydrated yet, but you just swam hard for 60-90 minutes, and you’ve ingested a large amount of salt during it. Your body will need water. I strongly recommend quickly drinking a bottle of pure water to balance yourself out after the swim. I wish I had done this.

The Bike

13 Your ego will be tested

I’m a decent cyclist, but holy crap some people are on another level. In a typical Ironman, I’m doing a lot of passing, but in the Kona Ironman, I was getting passed left and right. These cyclists were truly another level of fast.

Your ego gets beat up a little bit. It gets worse as the race goes on because you may be more alone than in a typical Ironman race. You’ll have plenty of time to wonder where everyone went.

14 Helicopters!

They’re everywhere filming the leaders for this championship race. They’ll fly by you at like 10 feet above the ground. It’s cool.

15 It’s Windy

Holy moly, it’s windy. Like scary windy. You might have to pedal just to go downhill. Wouldn’t you think a headwind would turn into a tailwind on the way back to Kona? Nope. For some reason, the headwind is in both directions. I’m not kidding. It’s 112 miles of hard pedaling.

16 It’s Hot

Good God, it’s hot. I had raced in plenty of hot environments before, but this is different. It’s really tough. If you didn’t get your hydration correct, you’re going to be suffering here. It’ll seem hotter than what’s possible.

This was the only race where my legs began cramping (and locking up) severely on the bike. The heat and dehydration are race killers.

The Run

“Do not leave T2 until you are totally ready for the run”

The run is the hardest part of the race. Be ready for it. A wise person (Dave M) told me 5 minutes before the race – “Do not leave T2 until you are totally ready for the run”. This is truly wise advice and I recommend it to everyone.

I had cramped a fair amount on the bike, so I took my time to regroup before leaving the changing tent in T2. I stretched and hydrated a bit, which helped prepare me mentally a little bit for the hell that was to come.

17 The heat and humidity are oppressive

Everything you have heard about the heat is true. It’s warmer than anything I had been in up to this point. The lava rock just amplifies everything back at you. You will not cool down anywhere, so do whatever you can to keep your body temperature from rising too much. Check out Secrets to Running In The Heat.

18 “It’s All About Thermoregulation

racing the Kona Ironman World Championships
Don’t forget to wear your sunscreen! Here Mark S is telling me how the run is all about thermoregulation – keeping your internal temperature down.

You must mentally concentrate on keeping your body temperature low. It’s a delicate balance between running at the speed you want to run and overheating. Your internal temperature will only get higher as the race continues, so delay it as much as possible.

Holding some ice in your hand until it melts after every aid station helps. It will feel good while cooling you down – slightly.

19 There is no shade

There might be a little shade in certain places, but in reality, there is none. It’s a wide-open blast furnace and the dial is set to eleven. I saw many people become delirious in the middle of the run and have to be taken away by ambulance. One guy had exited the energy lab and couldn’t remember which way he was supposed to go (even though there were 20 athletes running next to him). His race was over.

Be ready for this part of the race. I’m not overexaggerating this. There’s no place anywhere on the run course that will allow you to recover. It’s a long slow death so do whatever is necessary to stay alive.

20 Everyone will see you suffering

Yeah, there are like a million people watching the Ironman World Championships on race day, so your suffering is on full display. Just try not to lose control of your bodily functions and become a viral meme. That’s not cool.

21 When the Sun Goes Down, It Gets Really Dark

After the sun goes down, the course can get pretty dark. Especially in the Energy Lab. There are just not many street lights there.


That pretty much sums up the things I didn’t realize prior to getting to Kona. In summary:

You need to be in peak physical condition

There’s no getting around it – the Kona Ironman is an extremely physically demanding race. You probably already do this, but it helps if you train year-round, and participate in winter endurance activities as well.

You need to train specifically for the conditions

If you’re not used to racing in hot and humid conditions, it’s important to do some specific training beforehand. And then expect the conditions to be worse than you imagined (because they will be).

You need to have a strong mental game

The Kona Ironman World Championships is as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one. Prepare yourself to not be “the fast guy” here like you are in any other Ironman.

You need to know your limits

It’s important to listen to your body during an endurance race like the Kona Ironman. Know your limits, and race within them.

I hope this helps. If you know of anything I missed, please contact me and let me know!

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