Twenty-five hundred miles off the western coast of the United States lies a tropical paradise in the Pacific renowned for its endless resort destinations, lush landscapes, and rich history. The largest of the eight Hawaiian Islands is also home to triathlon’s grand finale. The battle for the prestigious title of “Kona World Champion” has been waged on The Big Island since 1981.
An international contingent of athletes, from professionals to age groupers to those with disabilities, compete in a variety of qualifying races throughout the year with the hope of one day realizing their dream of crossing the finish line on Ali’i Drive in Kailua-Kona. Once there, the athletes swim 2.4 miles in the beautiful teal, yet far from calm waters of Kailua Bay, endure a 112-mile gut wrenching bike ride through scorching lava fields and unforgiving trade winds on the notorious Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway, all topped-off by a full marathon across a variety of utterly treacherous conditions.
To the layperson, the idea of pushing your body to its physical limit seems irrational. Most would rather sit on the beach in Hawaii, sipping a Mai Tai and bronzing their skin. It is a mystery why any sane person would come to such a beautiful place to endure such brutal, self-inflicted pain, but for an elite endurance athlete, the World Championship is the pinnacle of sport. Marathons have become less esteemed; century rides a more common accomplishment. The human body is capable of so much more, so to test the limits of their physical and mental being, to say “I survived Kona,” is something only a small percentage of the population can claim as their own. For that reason alone, Kona has become the setting for one of the most inspiring and admired sporting events in the world. Oakley invites you to follow three of the sport’s greatest champions on a narrated journey through the World Championship course.
"You are in no uncertain terms the one that’s in control out there. The conditions and the island are in control and we’re just lucky to be there."
Craig Alexander 2008, 2009, 2011 Kona World Champion
Just before getting into the water, your butterflies are certainly moving and you’re having an out of body experience. – Greg Welch
As the sun rises over Kailua-Kona, athletes take to the roughly 75-80 degree water of Kailua Bay for a 2.4 mile out-and-back swim in some of the world’s most pristine, yet unforgiving waters. Without a doubt, one of the most iconic moments of the World Championship comes when the cannon goes off on the Kailua Pier sending thousands of arms and legs thrashing through the bay and steady stream of frenetic energy through the fans who have packed in like sardines to witness the start and share in the excitement.
Bike, shoes, helmet, glasses, sunscreen, nutrition, and more; all things waiting for competitors as they exit the water and enter transition one. It seems like an easy concept the day before the race: finding your equipment in the spot reserved for you. But when you’ve just swam your guts out in the rough Hawaiian seas along with two thousand other people who are now looking for their own bikes, T1 can be a mad house. Once the athletes do find their gear and suit up, it’s out to hot corner and onto their 112-mile journey.
"It’s a hard hill, it’s steep. It’s equivalent to a race you see on TV, like the Tour de France. With all the crowds around, three or four deep, cheering, screaming, horns, bells. It’s just crazy." – LEANDA CAVE
Named after Kamehameha the Great’s favorite wife, one of the most influential women in Hawaiian history, the Queen Kaahumanu Highway is currently Hawaii’s only multiplex. Competitors endure 112-miles of pure exertion out in the deserted, desolate lava fields of the Queen K along with some of the strongest (and scorching hot) trade winds in the world. Iconic images of athletes being blown straight off of their bikes have been captured out along this long, lonely stretch of highway.
Home to a small community of Hawaiians, Hawi is the northernmost point on the bike leg of the World Championship and the turnaround that sends competitors back into the town of Kailua-Kona. Once a busy commercial center with a major sugar plantation, Hawi is now a quiet residential area. It remains a key point in the race however, as it marks the first time athletes can see how much time they have put on their competition as they head in the opposite direction on the Queen K.
"Coming into T2, there’s nothing really in my legs that say ‘I want to run a marathon."
– LEANDA CAVE
Second only to the transition and finish area, hot corner is the most happening place in the entire World Championship course. Situated on the intersection of Palani Road and Kuakini Highway, hot corner can make any spectator dizzy trying to keep up with all of the action. With bikers and runners heading out onto the course on two sides and coming in from their long journey on the other two, hot corner is aptly named as it truly is a hotbed of high-speed action.
After an out-and-back along Ali’i Drive that turns around at the iconic St. Peters Church, competitors return to hot corner and shuffle up the daunting Palani Road. The road is short, but deceptive. You’ll rarely see an athlete not gritting his or her teeth as they run up the steep 14% grade of this dreaded street. Athletes should have no fear however, because once they top this beast, it’s nothing, but miles and miles of open road as they turn left back onto the Queen Kaahumanu Highway.
"When you’re running out there, you’re fuel is running out, your energy is running out. It gets quite lonely. You’re looking for someone to talk to and it’s just not there."
– GREG WELCH
Don’t be fooled – The Energy Lab is not a place where athletes can sit back, recharge their batteries and hammer it home to the finish. The Natural Energy Lab of Hawaii (NELHA) is a desolate place where spectators are not allowed, deep into the marathon. Just south of the airport, the NELHA is a small, secluded hub where scientists, researchers and others develop anything from solar power to environmentally friendly techniques, and where athletes sometimes loose their cool.
"When you run down Ali’i Drive and the fire dancers are there to greet you, it’s a special moment."
– CRAIG ALEXANDER
It’s a 140.6-mile journey to complete the World Championship course, but it's so much more than that. The countless hours of training, the miles and miles of travel, all the qualifying races and the moment has finally arrived; crossing the finish line in Kailua-Kona. Whether it is the race winner, or the struggling athlete who crosses the line after the cut-off time, completing that epic journey engrains a catalog of memories in the minds of all who bore witness, never to be forgotten. No one can ever take away the fact that you are one of a very select few to have conquered Kona.
"Congratulations, you are an Ironman!"– MIKE REILLY – FINISH LINE ANNOUNCER