During the Ironman World Championship this week in Kailua-Kona, Mick Shockley, owner of the Da Shark Shack bar on Ali’i Drive, will sells chairs on his patio for $200 a day and a table with six chairs for $5,000 on race days.
“We have a waiting list of about 30 people. Italy to France, I got China,” he said. “[But] It’s not all about the money. It’s about the good time. I enjoy the hell out of it.”
That is not the case with Chrystal Thomas Yamasaki, president of the land surveying firm Wes Thomas Associates, which is located just off Kuakini Highway. Her business also is smack in the heart of the Ironman’s 140.6-mile swimming, biking and running race route.
In the past, Yamasaki said the world-class event on the Big Island had been manageable because it always was held on Saturdays when her office is closed.
But this year, Ironman organizers have added a second race day on Thursday, a work day. Access to the office and company vehicles will be impossible on Oct. 6, with 2,500 athletes racing on that day and thousands of people cheering from the sidewalks. So Yamaski said she was forced to take a financial hit and close her business on Thursday, giving all 13 employees a paid day off.
“It is an impact,” said Yamasaki, whose firm does not benefit directly from the race. “I’m hoping my clients are understanding because we did have to juggle a little.”
The Ironman World Championship has called Kona home since 1981. For the first time in its Big Island history, there are two races, on Thursday and Saturday, to accommodate a surplus of athletes who deferred their entries during the pandemic when the race was cancelled.
Ironman averaged about 2,500 triathletes in past races in Kona. But this year there are 5,500 registered. The women’s field and some of the men’s age-level groups will race on Thursday and the rest of the men’s field will take the course on Saturday.
Beginning in the summer, Ironman officials have hosted public information and talk story sessions in town to help spread the word and detail logistics of the changes to lessen the impact — and alarm — for community members. They also made a presentation to the Hawai‘i County Council stating they were aware that doubling the race days was a big ask for the community of about 23,000.
“We do impact the community excessively,” said Diana Bertsch, race director for the Ironman World Championship Race and the vice president of Ironman’s World Championship events. “We can’t sugarcoat this.”
But a big part of Ironman’s impact, she said, is pumping millions into the local and state economy.
In 2006, an economic impact study by the firm Markrich Research LLC found the world famous event brought $25 million to the state. In 2019, the amount had grown to $72 million. This year, with more racers and race days, Ironman is expecting it to generate in excess of $100 million.
“We’re excited what this is going to do for the businesses here,” Bertsch said.
But is it worth it for everyone?
Many businesses – especially bars and restaurants along the race’s finish line, Aliʻi Drive – said they are counting down the days until the money starts rolling in. But other businesses like Yamasaki’s surveying firm don’t reap the direct economic windfall of the onslaught of more than 20,000 spectators and competitors.
Donna Bondallian, a U.S. Tennis Association certified instructor, doesn’t benefit directly from the event. She runs private tennis classes and lessons at the tennis shop inside the King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel. This week, the hotel is the Ironman headquarters with the lobby jammed with work stations, booths, a media center and athlete registration desks.
Bondallian has been a longtime supporter and volunteer of the event that brings worldwide recognition to Kona. But this year she’s closing down her shop for the entire week, a few days earlier than usual, to accommodate the extended schedule.
She said there’s no way her clients can access the tennis courts at the back of the hotel with the Ironman tents and equipment taking over the parking lot.
“I think it’s asking a lot, I really do,” Bondallian said. “I lose money, totally.”
She’s “made peace” with the adjustments she’s had to make but said she feels the two-day format has rubbed some in the business community the wrong way.
With Ironman already announcing a two-day format for 2023 in Kona, some of the businesses negatively affected say the event organizers should allocate a pot of money to be given to businesses that lose money during the races. They want something similar to coronavirus economic relief funds the government provided during the pandemic. Ironman already has a foundation that donates millions to the cities that host them.
“There’s a lot of people unhappy this year,” Bondallian said.
There also are a lot of happy ones.
Kathleen Clark, manager at the Fish Hopper restaurant on Ali‘i Drive right across the street from the Kona Pier, where the race begins and ends, expects her staff to serve 1,500 tables each race day — about 1,000 tables more than normal and way more than Motherʻs Day, their second busiest event of the year.
To handle the influx of hungry and thirty patrons, they have every staff member working during the rush. They won’t take reservations for the prime seats, and will impose hour time limits on the tables to meet the demand.
“We’re gonna be super busy,” Clark said. “The whole town, the whole island, it’s not just us.”
Regular residents take advantage of the booming market, too. Apartment rental rates triple for people who rent out their homes on a short-term basis during early October. Residents who rent out their personal vehicles through Turo, a third-party online platform, also are expecting an increase in income.
Ironman participant Chris George, from Oxford, England, has felt the pinch of that escalating market. George is renting a room from a Kona resident for the four weeks he’s on the Big Island to take part in the race.
It’s his second time competing in Kona’s championship race, and he said the prices for everything around town are double or triple what he saw in 2016. Some prices are higher than when he lived in London.
George knows his landlord is making some coin, too. She charges for all sorts of incidentals in addition to the room rate, including a few bucks each load to use the washer or dryer. To save money, George washes some of his belongings in his sink.
“She’s a businesswoman,” George said. “She wears the trousers.”
But while he might be paying a pretty penny, he said he knows others are paying even more.
“I’m getting good value compared to everyone else,” he said.
The double race format is returning next year to handle the surplus of athletes who are owned race registrations due to the backlog created during the two-year pandemic pause. In July, Ironman announced its two days of races will be Oct. 12 and Oct. 14, 2023.
Yamasaki, who owns the land surveying firm, said she already has a plan to feel less of a financial pinch next year. She is making the Thursday race day as one of the companyʻs paid days off on its vacation schedule.
For many in the community, Ironmanʻs decision to expand to two days without asking first is an insult.
Bertsch, the Ironman race director, told community members during a September informational gathering that the organization didn’t poll residents about expanding the race because it didn’t believe the results of a voluntary survey would shed any crucial or beneficial feedback. She said Ironman once surveyed residents in Lake Tahoe on an issue and the responses didn’t offer anything new.
Bertsch said the organization felt it didn’t need to ask for the community’s blessing to expand its format in the place it’s called home for 40 years, so long as they secured the proper county permits and worked in collaboration with the community before and after to ensure they could host the events successfully.
“Kona is our home,” she said.
She said the organization thought it was more beneficial to the community to make sure residents are aware of the changes and to take proactive measures to lessen the impact on the island.
The organization tackled this in a number of ways. Unlike in the past, it is keeping the northbound lanes on Queen Ka‘ahumanu Highway open to motorists during race day — separated from the bicyclists who will occupy the southbound lanes of the highway. Ironman has posted everything road and traffic-related on its website.
Part of Ironman’s racing awareness campaign included one of the biggest radio advertising buys in its history, informing the public of what to expect. They also launched an athlete education initiative, called Live Aloha, which educates the athletes on how to be conscientious, gracious visitors to Hawai‘i.
That messaging includes asking them to use appropriate, reef-safe sunscreen, as the county recently banned non-mineral sunscreen on the Big Island. That law doesn’t go into effect until December, but the message tells athletes to consider it now.
“We’re incredibly grateful you share your island with the visitors and the athletes,” Bertsch told a group of residents during one of the meetings.
Nobody doubts that Ironman is an economic homerun for Kona and Hawai‘i.
But some residents wonder if the actual impact to the town is actually worth the dollars it brings in. Some, like 51-year Hawai‘i resident Marty Richardson, wonder if the event is simply outgrowing its small host city. The two-race format seems too much to ask of a town that bursts at the seams when it hosts just one.
While Richaradson said she knows the race is a big deal and appreciates it, she said reaching out to the community before switching to a two-race format would have been good PR for the organization to show it was thinking of the town.
“In the Hawaiian culture, you need to ask permission,” Richardson said. “I just don’t feel I was every appropriately asked.”
Then there is what Ironman really sells: the experience of an incredible race.
Many athletes who train laboriously for months to conquer the grueling race that lasts up to 17 hours undergo a life-changing experience. It’s more than an athletic feat. It’s something otherworldly, divine, they say. Hawai‘i, with its unmatched spirituality, is the perfect home for it. What type of price tag does that carry?
Jantzen Hing, a 2016 Kealakehe High School graduate, thinks it’s priceless. He is competing in his first Ironman race on Saturday, and the road to the starting line has already transformed him.
“Everyday I feel more confident, I feel more energized and just happier in life,” he said.
He can’t wait to experience what the rest of the process has in store. The early morning swim with hundreds of his peers splashing beside him, the lonely, long, hot bike ride, and the run through town, where thousands of spectators, including friends and family, will cheer him on madly as his body pushes on.
He will go through that, he knows, and his heart and soul will continue their change. The local man understands the community’s misgivings about playing host. He grew up here. But he’s thankful that despite the inconveniences the town is still giving him the opportunity to experience something he could never purchase in a store.
“I would just express my gratitude for all the many years allowing Ironman to be here,” Hing said. “I know, deep down, without a doubt, this is the best place for it.”