Ironman

Ironman says it’s Committed to Kona, But Other Venues are Asking About Hosting Championship Race

By Tom Hasslinger
December 16, 2021, 3:00 PM HST
* Updated December 16, 2:26 PM
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JUST BREATHE: Professional triathlete Lauren Brandon (USA) nears the end of the 2.4-mile swim in Kailua Bay at the 2019 Vega IRONMAN World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawai`i on Saturday, Oct. 12. (Photo Credit: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images for IRONMAN)

The Ironman World Championship will return to Kona in 2022 after a two-year break, albeit under a different format.

In October, Hawai‘i’s famous race will hit Kona’s water and streets not once, but twice, Oct. 6 and 8, 2022.

The change was made as organizers navigated state, county and travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. And for the first time in the race’s 40-year history, it will be spread out over a couple of days, featuring an expanded women’s professional field of 50 athletes on the first race day, and 50 professional men on the second day, Oct. 8. Age-qualifying participants will also join the field.

It’s one of two major changes Ironman made to accommodate hosting the popular even during the ever-changing COVID-19 situation. The other alteration was a hosting the championship race at a different location, St. George Utah, which was tabbed as the host city for the 140.6-mile championship race for 2021 while Hawai‘i Island took a break.

Ironman’s 2021 Ironman World Championships will take place in St. George, Utah on May 7, 2022.

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But that doesn’t mean the change is permanent.

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Ironman said it intends to call Kona home, whether the race returns to its typical one-day format or sticks with the new two-day format.

“Kona is special place and an important part of our history, and it is our intention is to continue to make Kona home and return every year,” said Diana Bertsch, Senior Vice President, World Championship Events for The IRONMAN Group. “We are excited to return to Kona in October of next year with two days of racing for the 2022 IRONMAN World Championship, with the support of the county, the state, and the community.”

While Kona is the unquestioned home for the championship triathlon, praise for the decision to host it in the Beehive State has been notable.

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Utah, unlike Hawai‘i, adopted a “return to normal” approach to the pandemic in 2021, hosting large events throughout the year, including the Ironman 70.3 North American Championship race back in the spring, The Triathlete website reported Sept. 15.

“This isn’t our first large format event during COVID. We’ve been hosting events with enhanced safety protocols for several months,” commissioner Gil Almquist, chairman of the Washington County Commission in Utah, told the publication. “We have stayed open in Washington County while exercising all precautions at large events. With the Ironman 70.3 North American Championship, we showed our health department, citizen volunteers, spectators, and participants that an outdoor race can be held with minimal health risk.”

Aside from being prepared to play host before Hawai‘i was, the Utah venue also earned kudos from some athletes in the racing community for being a better racing destination overall.

Retired professional racer Heather Wurtele opined on the issue for the Triathlete website in her guest commentary, “Why St. George Trumps Kona.” 

Wurtele gives Kona props in her piece, but said St. George offers more room for athletes to spread out with its abundance of trails, is easier to navigate logistically, including finding hotel accommodations, and is just as scenic as Hawai‘i.

Also, she wrote, Utah is just plain friendlier.

“No, there’s nothing quite like swimming in the ocean in Kona. The speedo-clad posturing and people-watching at Dig Me Beach during race week is pretty spectacular, but look away from the people in the water, and you’ll see understandably grumpy locals rolling their eyes as thousands of triathletes descend on their small community,” Wurtele wrote in her Oct. 5 column. “At the single tiny local pool, triathletes can be found deck-changing, jumping in sweaty after running or riding, and generally making a nuisance of themselves. For pros, race week is often a special exercise in timing training sessions to avoid people — hard to do in a village of only 15,000.”

Ouch.

Wurtele goes on to lobby for the championship race to continue a rotating format, so different places besides Kona and St. George can host the event that brings in thousands of people from dozens of countries, much the way the Super Bowl shifts venues every year. A rotating format would challenge athletes to “prove they can adapt to any environment, not just one particular corner of the globe,” she wrote.

Bertsch didn’t speak to the likelihood of such a change taking place, other than saying the race intends to call Kona home every year. But she did say that other race venues have contacted Ironman to see if they could host the championship race, too.

“We have not been urged to keep it in Utah, however, several other cities from around the world have inquired if the Ironman World Championship will rotate similar to the Ironman 70.3 Championship.”

To Wurtele’s credit, hosting the race in Kona is a somewhat polarizing topic for locals, as some people love the spectacle of it, or hate the inconvenience of it, or a mixture of both.

Emotions aside, Ironman does leave a big financial impact on Hawai‘i Island.

Bertsch said that in 2019, Ironman brought in over 2,500 athletes to the Kona area and infused a $72 million economic impact, according to Markrich Research.

Besides the race-day tourism draw, Ironman and its foundation have donated $1.9 million to the Kailua-Kona region since its inception. Despite not racing the last two years, the charitable giving continued. In July of 2020, it led a targeted initiative, Kahiahu Together, which committed to donate $1 million to local suffering from food insecurities due to the pandemic.

“By this year’s end, the Kahiahu Together initiative will have hosted 25 events locally, serving over 132,000 meals through the distribution of food bundles of locally sourced fresh proteins, fruits, vegetables and starches,” Bertsch said. “An estimated $30,000 in grant from the Ironman Foundation has been provided to nonprofits feeding their communities.”

Economic figures were down across the board in Hawai‘i during 2020 and 2021. In October 2019, the last time Kona hosted the championship race, visitors spent $1.33 billion in the state that month. In October 2021, with the state opened for travel, they spent $1.12 billion, down 15.3% percent from 2019, according to the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority.

Tom Hasslinger
Tom Hasslinger is a journalist who lives in Kailua-Kona. Prior to joining Big Island Now, he worked as the managing editor for West Hawaii Today and deputy editor for The Garden Island newspaper on Kauai. He's worked for over 15 years as a reporter for the Oahu-based Civil Beat news outlet, as well as in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and Douglas Wyoming.
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