How to qualify for Kona
Got your sights on getting to the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii? Great, but how do you actually qualify to race at the world’s most famous tri? Here’s our seven-step guide to securing a Kona slot…
The old adage of completing an Ironman and bragging for the rest of your life still rings true. But to actually race at the annual Ironman World Championship in Hawaii takes things up a notch or three and will provoke at least a double take from anyone you mention it to.
For Hawaii is the place where Ironman was born, where legends of the sport are formed and cemented, and where M-Dot immortality is established.
It’s a land of myths and legends, and securing a starting spot is inarguably the Holy Grail of the sport of triathlon. But how do you actually get your name onto that Kona start list and prepare to conquer the legendary feats of the Queen K highway, the Energy Lab, Ali’i Drive and more with the world’s fittest athletes in October?
The good news is that there are a wealth of events from now until August 2023 for you to qualify for the big one on the Big Island next year. And the bad? Qualifying is already under way, with September’s Ironman Wales, for example, already selecting its 55 qualifiers for the 2023 world champs.
Competition is also fierce, with approximately 100,000 triathletes annually trying to qualify for Kona and only around 3,000 triathletes ending up on that hallowed start line in Kailua Bay in October.
But all is not lost, as our seven steps to Kona qualifying highlights below. We’ll just leave the training and tapering, rest and recovery, fuelling and peaking to perfection that comes with being a top-draw Ironman athlete to you…
1. Race a 70.3
Sometimes Ironman offers a wealth of qualifying slots at its (usually new) half-distance Ironman 70.3 events (1.9km swim/90km bike/21.1km run).
This was witnessed when M-Dot was taken over by China’s Dalian Wanda Group in 2015, with middle-distance events in Xiamen and Hefei offering 15 places in 2016, seeing a surge of entries in athletes heading over to provincial cities that, let’s face it, quite likely wouldn’t have piqued their interest otherwise.
With Ironman no longer Chinese-owned, those races are absent from the Kona qualifying spots list, but worth noting is that 70.3s in Luxembourg and Lubbock in Texas, for example, are offering limited Kona slots in 2023.
Also of interest is Ironman 70.3 Hawaii, which has a bumper 56 slots for its bigger sibling (26 are for local residents) if you fancy an early June voyage to the mid-Pacific. And, let’s face it, who doesn’t?
New full Ironman events also regularly see an increase in qualifying slots for their first or second editions. 2022’s example of this is the debut Ironman Tiberias in Israel on 25 November, which has a bumper 75 slots available.
- Free Ironman 70.3 training plans
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- Can you race both a 70.3 and an Ironman triathlon in 6 weeks?
2. Stay young
‘Hey, stay young and invincible’. A barnstorming Oasis song and one we reckon was surely written by Noel with Kona qualification in mind. That’s because more qualifying spots are given to a race depending on age categories and registration numbers.
Typically, the 35-39 and 40-44 age groups are the most populated and offer the most qualifying spots, so you don’t have to win your age group to earn your ticket to Kona, although winning does secure your chances.
You’ll have better qualification chances if you’re in the lower or higher age-groups. If we look at the qualifiers from Ironman UK in 2022, for example, just three athletes were vying for the single slot in the Female 18-24 age-group (the winning time was 14:08:14).
Compare that to the F30-34 and F45-49 groups (winning times of 11:17:43 and 12:00:05, respectively), which had 35 athletes going for age-group glory and that single slot, and you can see how the opportunities narrow while the times also get considerably faster.
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3. Or live forever!
Cut to the F55-59 age-group in Bolton and again the size of the field reduced significantly, with three athletes aiming for that single spot and the winning time of 16:11:23 taking the honour.
Over to the men’s event in Greater Manchester and things are a little more evenly spread, with the M18-24 group having 48 athletes vying for two slots (the average time of the qualifiers was 10:13:32) and the age-groups generally offering a Kona spot for every 40 finishers.
Again, that changes over 50, with 182 athletes battling for the five M50-54 spaces and just six for the single M65-69 spot. The trick it seems is to start racing young and then hold fire on hanging up the tri-suit for a while longer yet!
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4. Take advantage of more women’s slots
This year sees Ironman’s new two-day format arrive in Kona for the first time, with the women set to race on the Thursday (6 October) and the men on the Saturday (8th).
This was put in place to include all of the qualifiers who missed out due to the pandemic-enforced cancellations, but Ironman CEO Andrew Messick has hinted that this will continue in 2023 and beyond.
The immediate upshot of this is that the Ironman World Championship will be able to accommodate more athletes, which has led to additional slot allocations at Ironman’s regional championships.
Overall, there’ll be an additional 1,200 women’s slots for the Ironman World Championship in 2023 in addition to the other increases at events around the world.
Ironman will increase the women’s Kona slots at 17 races designated as Women For Tri events, which include 2022 events in Chattanooga, Arizona, and Western Australia, and 2023 showdowns in New Zealand, South Africa, Hamburg, Cairns, Texas and Coeur d’Alene in the US, the UK in Bolton, Spain’s Vitoria-Gasteiz, Lake Placid and Mont-Tremblant in Canada, Sweden’s Kalmar, Ireland and Copenhagen in Denmark.
Of particular interest to European racers will be the 100 women’s slots available in Copenhagen and Kalmar, and the 50 apiece in Bolton and Cork in Ireland.
5. Keep an eye on the roll-downs
Performed the race of your life but edged to the top step of the age-group podium by the toebox of a Hoka Clifton shoe? Despair not, as the post-race roll down has long been a way to sneak that Kona spot without actually winning your age-group.
Why? Because Ironman stipulate that an athlete must accept and pay for their Kona spot at the qualifying race’s roll-down ceremony, and if that triathlete doesn’t take Ironman up on the place (i.e. they’ve been before or are targeting Challenge Roth instead), the place will become available to the next triathlete based on the final ranking.
So aim to place yourself as close to the front as you can and hope that the person who edged you has blown their tri budget on those new Enve wheels…
6. Time your qualification race to perfection
You’ll need to be quick in 2022, but picking a race that’s around the same time as Kona is a wise strategy. Absent on the startline will be all the athletes who have qualified for, and are racing, Kona, meaning some big hitters in the age-group ranks will be on a volcanic rock in the middle of the Pacific.
In 2022, Ironmans in Barcelona, Portugal and Waco all take place close to Kona in October, while early November’s Ironman Malaysia hasn’t sold out and had a relatively low 1,174 athletes vying for its 50 Kona spots in 2019.
Also aim to search for races that fit your triathlon skillset best, whether that’s swim, bike or run abilities; climbing skills; your prowess in the heat, cold or humidity; and when you usually athletically peak each year.
Scrutinise the race stats, weather charts, and the winning times and entrant numbers from previous years, before picking your Ironman event or two.
7. Consider alternative avenues
The Ironman Kona Lottery was ended after coming up against a formidable foe – the U.S. Department of Justice – in 2015, but Ironman still offer Kona slots not purely based on performances in the qualifying period.
The first is the Ironman Executive Challenge, which has again been allocated 25 slots for the 2023 race and sees executives willing (and able) to shell out thousands for entry into the XC club and qualify at designated Ironman races (all four are/were in America in 2022).
There’s also an Annual Kona Auction that bids off a select number of slots to the championships, with the minimum bidding price $10,000 and all proceeds going to the Ironman Foundation.
There are a handful of slots for available for athletes who enter the Physically Challenged Drawing.
Since its launch in 2012, the Legacy Program sees 100 athletes each year honoured for their loyalty to the M-Dot cause.
To be eligible, racers must have completed a minimum of 12 official Ironman races (not including any of that rival long-distance organiser beginning with C), have never started an Ironman World Championship, be registered for an Ironman in the current year, and have completed an Ironman in the last two years. Easy!
So, what are you waiting for? It’s time to dig out your tri-suit and credit card…
Top image credit: Sean M. Haffey/Staff/Getty Images North America