Swim, Bike, Run, Travel: Ironman Championship Moves Outside of Hawaii

Last month, the triathlon world descended upon St. George, Utah, for the first Ironman world championship event since 2019.

Top athletes arrived from over 80 countries to compete in a half-Ironman, also known as a 70.3 for the number of miles required: swim 1.2 miles, bike 56 miles and run a half marathon at 13.1 miles.

The race was competitive and local enthusiasm was electric. It was the type of event Andrew Messick, the chief executive of Ironman, had envisioned since the coronavirus pandemic essentially shut down his sport and threatened the Ironman brand.

“It’s been a very challenging 18 months for us,” Messick said. “We’ve had to learn a whole bunch of things on the fly that we didn’t know we needed to know.”

Ironman has successfully held 119 events in 26 countries in 2021 so far, a rebound after canceling or postponing 96 this year and holding a fraction of its scheduled races in 2020. Ironman’s year was going well enough that as of August, Messick and his staff were prepared to host their signature full-distance world championship event on the second weekend of October in Kona, Hawaii, as they have every year since 1982.

It’s a cinematic, brutal race that begins with a 2.4-mile swim in the Pacific Ocean, followed by a windswept 112-mile bike ride and a marathon through sun-blasted lava fields that wilt many competitors.

That race, first held in Oahu with 15 participants in 1978 before moving to the Kona coast in 1982, helped launch an entire sport. The location is held in such high esteem it’s become synonymous with the world title. You don’t win the world championship. You win Kona.

But this summer, the Delta variant hit Kona hard, and in August, Ironman moved the October race to February 2022. Every athlete who makes the trip to Hawaii brings three other people. That translates to an average of 10,000 visitors on packed sidewalks in a county with just nine I.C.U. beds. Local community members privately urged Ironman to cancel the race. On the eve of the half Ironman championship in Utah, Messick hinted he was considering moving the signature Kona race out of its longtime home for the first time since it was moved from Oahu.

On Sept. 23 he made it official. The 2021 Ironman world championships would be held in St. George, Utah, in May 2022, and the 2022 championship will be held in Kona five months later.

“I don’t think it’s healthy for the sport to just cancel the world championship again,” Kristian Blummenfelt said. Blummenfelt, a 26-year-old Norwegian, won gold in the shorter format race at the Tokyo Games this summer, and is eyeing both championship events in 2022. “We needed to find a solution.”

Utah is a triathlon-crazed state with easy access to medical care and looser Covid restrictions. But it isn’t Hawaii. Still, pro triathletes are happy to be racing for a 2021 championship anywhere, and a share of the $750,000 purse. The winners of the men’s and women’s field win $125,000.

Jan Frodeno has won the Ironman World Championship in Kona three times. “Kona is the golden egg of Ironman,” he says. Credit…Darryl Oumi/EPA, via Shutterstock

Jan Frodeno, a 40-year-old German who is the defending Ironman champion and who also won in 2015 and 2016, understands that logic, but wonders if he’ll feel as driven to win in May in Utah as he has felt each fall in Hawaii.

“I think I’ll struggle to put the same kind of heart and soul into it,” Frodeno said. “Of course, it’s a world championship, but it just doesn’t have the same prestige and the same feel and the conditions aren’t as iconic. You know, that heat, the wind, and all those things that really make or break athletes.”

He would know. In 2017, then the two-time defending champion, Frodeno led the race going into the run when conditions got the better of him. He had to walk the marathon.

That Big Island mystique looms even larger for amateur triathletes, the economic engine of the sport. Many 2019 qualifiers planned to race in Kona in 2020 and thousands of additional amateurs scored qualifying slots in 2021. When given a choice in events, most signed up for Kona — not St. George.

As a result, there are too many qualified athletes to fit in the transition area on the Kona pier on one day. Ironman’s solution is to hold a two-day race next October that could result in the field doubling to some 5,000 athletes. That’s a healthy boost in cash flow: amateurs pay $1,500 each for the privilege to suffer in Kona.

The women will race on Thursday and the men will race on Saturday. Instead of one live broadcast there will be two.

“If they put the same level of coverage and media into the women’s race as they do with the men, then it can only be a good thing,” said Lucy Charles-Barclay, the rising English star who won the 70.3 or half-Ironman world championships this year and has finished second in Kona three times. “I’m hopeful that if we get the coverage that we deserve then it will just bring a lot more attention to the women’s sport.”

But given that the women will race midweek, that benefit could be limited. Especially in Europe, where triathlon is more popular than in North America.

Hovering over this entire conversation is the notion that these changes might not be temporary. “We’re going to have an opportunity, that frankly none of us were anticipating, to see what an Ironman World Championship outside of Hawaii looks like,” Messick said.

Moving the championship race every other year could be revealing. Different conditions would provide a rotating series of challenges to the world’s top endurance athletes. It could also expand access.

Frodeno has heard all those arguments and suggestions before and remains a traditionalist. “Kona is the golden egg of Ironman as a brand and as a sport,” he said. “The thing that’s really made Ironman over the years is having a world championship in Hawaii.”

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