Last month, the triathlon world descended on St. George, Utah, for the first Ironman world championship since 2019.
Top athletes came from more than 80 countries to compete in a half Ironman, also known as a 70.3 for miles required: swim 1.2 miles, bike 56 miles, and run a half marathon at 13.1 miles.
The race was competitive and the local enthusiasm was electric. It was the kind of event that Ironman CEO Andrew Messick 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 had to learn a lot of things on the spot that we didn’t know we needed to know.”
Ironman has so far successfully held 119 events in 26 countries in 2021, an uptick after canceling or postponing 96 this year and holding a fraction of its scheduled races in 2020. Ironman’s year went well enough that Messick and In August, its staff prepared to host their signature full-distance World Championship on the second weekend of October in Kona, Hawaii, as they have done every year since 1982.
It’s a cinematic, relentless race that begins with a 2.4-mile plunge into the Pacific Ocean, followed by a windy 180-mile bike ride and marathon through sun-drenched lava fields that wither many competitors.
That race, first held in Oahu in 1978 with 15 entrants before moving to the Kona coast in 1982, helped launch an entire sport. The location is so highly valued that it has 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 race from October to February 2022. Each athlete who makes the trip to Hawaii will bring three other people. That equates to an average of 10,000 visitors on crowded sidewalks in a province with only nine IC beds. Members of the local community personally urged Ironman to cancel the race. On the eve of the half-Ironman Championship in Utah, Messick hinted that he was considering moving the landmark Kona race out of its old home for the first time since its move from Oahu.
On September 23, he made it official. The 2021 Ironman World Championships were to be held in May 2022 in St. George, Utah, 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,” said Kristian Blummenfelt. Blummenfelt, a 26-year-old Norwegian, won gold in the shorter race at the Tokyo Games this summer and is looking forward to both championships in 2022. “We had to find a solution.”
Utah is a triathlon-mad state with easy access to medical care and relaxed Covid restrictions. But it’s not Hawaii. Still, pro triathletes are happy to race everywhere for a championship in 2021 and a slice of the $750,000 purse. The winners of the men’s and women’s field will win $125,000.
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 will feel as driven to win in Utah in May as he did. he felt in Hawaii every fall.
“I think I’m going to 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 feel and the conditions aren’t that iconic. You know, that heat, the wind and all those things that really make or break athletes.”
He would know. In 2017, Frodeno, then two-time defending champion, led the race in the race when conditions got the better of him. He had to run the marathon.
That Big Island mystique looms even greater 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 qualifier slots in 2021. When given a choice of events, most signed up for Kona — not St. George.
As a result, there are too many qualified athletes to fit in the transition area at Kona Pier in one day. Ironman’s solution is to hold a two-day race in October, which can double the field to about 5,000 athletes. That’s a healthy boost to cash flow: Amateurs pay $1,500 each for the privilege of suffering in Kona.
The women race on Thursday and the men race on Saturday. Instead of one live broadcast, there will be two.
“If they put the same level of coverage and media in 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 been runner-up three times in Kona. “I’m hopeful that if we get the attention we deserve it will only draw a lot more attention to women’s sport.”
But since the women will be racing during the week, that advantage may be limited. Especially in Europe, where triathlon is more popular than in North America.
If you hover over this entire conversation, the idea is that these changes may not be temporary. “We’re getting a chance, which none of us honestly anticipated, to see what an Ironman World Championship outside of Hawaii looks like,” Messick said.
It can be revealing to move the championship race every two years. Different conditions would present a varying set of challenges for the world’s best endurance athletes. It could also extend access.
Having heard all those arguments and suggestions before, Frodeno remains a traditionalist. “Kona is Ironman’s golden egg as a brand and as a sport,” he said. “What has really made Ironman over the years is having a world championship in Hawaii.”