How to Qualify for Kona

The finish line at Kona
Image credit Ironman

The Ironman Hawaii in Kailua-Kona catches the imagination of thousands across the world every year. Many will see some of the fittest athletes in the world racing across the lava fields and vow that they’re going to go race there themselves. A few minutes on google however teaches us that we can’t simply pay for £100 for an entry and hop on a plane to go race, we first need to qualify. Which brings us to the question, how do I qualify for Kona?

My name is Simon Olney, I’m a British Triathlon High Performing Coach who has helped athletes qualify for various world championship events, including Kona, and wanted to share some insights and tips to help you achieve your dream of racing on the big island.

Prerequisites

Qualifying for Kona is hard, really hard. There are a few things you probably need in place before you can start to think seriously about qualifying in most cases. You don’t need to hit every single one of these as we all have our weaknesses, but if you don’t hit at least a few of these points, you may want to reassess whether this is the right time for you to think about qualifying for Kona.

A few Ironman finishes under your belt

These don’t have to be official Ironman events, but it’s extremely rare that someone turns up to their first Ironman and punches their ticket to Kona. It happens, but if you are an Ironman virgin you should focus instead on enjoying your first race and soaking up the moment. Most athletes who qualify for Kona have around 3-5 iron distance finishes under their belts, although there are always outliers.

The ability to swim 3800M in around an hour without exhaustion
Kona Swim Start. Image copyright US Navy

Some athletes will want to be looking at closer to 55 minutes, while some female and older athletes can afford to be close to 1:05, but for the most part you can’t afford to be swimming much slower than 1:10 in good conditions. To qualify for Kona you need to be a well rounded triathlete, you can’t really afford to hand your rivals 10-15 minutes in the first hour.

As wetsuits are banned at Kona you also need to be able to swim 3800M confidently in the sea without a wetsuit. You don’t need to be able to swim a particular speed in these conditions, but if the thought fills you with dread you may want to reconsider your objectives.

A good quality bike

I’m not sure how many people have qualified for Kona on a road bike with clip on aero bars and stock wheels over the years, but I don’t think it’s many. If you want to race in Hawaii, you need to invest some cash on your rig. This isn’t to say that you need to drop £10,000 on the latest superbike, but a £1500 TT bike and around £1000 on wheels are probably a good starting point. You can buy speed in triathlon, especially on the bike, so you may want to put some money aside here if you’re serious about qualifying. Money spend on a bike fit, aero helmet and fast tyres is also money well spent.

You of course need to be able to ride the bike very fast, but it’s generally easier to improve cycling speed than swimming or running speed, so I’m not giving any time/fitness benchmarks here.

The ability to run a good for age marathon time and no injuries

Good for age (or GFA) is a time used by some larger marathons to guarantee entrants a place. For a male under 40 this is usually around the three hour mark to give you a ballpark idea. While you don’t need to hit this time exactly, if you are unable to come close to this time you’ll need a really special swim and bike ride to put yourself in contention.

Athletes don’t generally run GFA times during Ironman marathons, and you don’t even need to run that time in training (I’d actively discourage it in the run-up to a qualifying event), but knowing that kind of time is technically achievable by you is important. For example, if a 30 something athlete run a 3:10 a few years ago, and a 1:20 half marathon last year, they know that a 3 hour marathon is probably in their wheelhouse, which will suffice.

Additionally, you want to make sure you aren’t starting your training with any notable injuries. As we get older we will likely be managing a minor chronic issue of some sort which flares up if we’re not on top of the stretching and strength work, but you can’t afford to start your training without being able to run a half marathon pain free.

At least 10 hours a week to train

Time is the currency we all wish we had more of, and this is definitely true of athletes. I’m not suggesting you need to train 10 hours every single week, and you will want to be training much more on some weeks (closer to 15-16 hours), but if you look at your schedule and can’t see a way of fitting in 10 hours in a standard week due to other commitments, you’d need to be very genetically gifted to qualify for Kona.

Disposable Income
Gustav Iden passes Sam Ludlow for the win in 2022. Image credit Ironman

Qualifying and racing for Kona is eye wateringly expensive. For the qualifying event you’re likely looking at around £1000 minimum including accommodation and travel, then you’ll need to shell out the best part of another grand for your Kona slot, which must be paid for the day after the race. Once you qualify for Kona you then need to book your accommodation which can run into the thousands, especially if you qualify with only a few months until race day when there isn’t much left. Add onto this flights, expensive food (Hawaii is not a cheap place at the best of times) and the like, suddenly you’re looking at a very large bill. This isn’t to deter you, but I’d hate for someone to put a year of hard work into qualifying, only to realise closer to the time they can’t afford to go.

Choosing a Race

One of the most important choices to make in your Kona journey is picking the race you want to qualify at. This needs to be a race that suits your physiology more than your current ability. For example if you are a very lightweight athlete, it doesn’t matter how good you are on hilly courses currently, you’re unlikely be able to put out the raw power on a flat course to be competitive, so you’ll need to learn to get better on the hills if you want to make the most of your physiological advantage.

Here are a number of factors and considerations you may want to look at when choosing/booking a race.

Swim

Are you an athlete who thrives in difficult swim conditions? You may want to choose a late season sea swim to exploit this advantage, in the hope that conditions are sufficiently challenging to give you an advantage over your rivals. Are you a weaker swimmer? In that case a lake swim outside of high summer (to reduce the chance of a non wetsuit swim) is probably a safer bet for you.

Additionally, if you are a stronger swimmer you’ll want to do your research and see if the swim at an event you’re considering has a history of being shortened or even cancelled. I can think of a couple of races which to my knowledge have always had the swim modified in some way, which would be giving away your advantage. Equally, if you swim like a brick, this kind of race might be higher up your list.

Bike

The bike course is the biggest variable at any Ironman. A very slow bike course can add up to an hour relative to a fast course. This is primarily due to elevation, but the road surface, technicality and weather conditions also play a large part.

Rather than picking a bike course which is fast and will get you onto the run faster, focus instead on a course which will allow you to put in the most time on your rivals. If you excel at short punchy climbs, the longer you’re on the bike, the bigger buffer you can start the run with. Equally, if you used to prop up a rugby scrum in years gone by, you’re unlikely to excel on the mountains of Nice, so would need to look at a flatter course, regardless of how easy Nice is to get to or connections you have with the area.

Run

The run really doesn’t change too much between events, but if you are a pocket rocket, a hilly run course could help you make the most of your advantage.

Location

Choosing the right location of your race is pivotal if you want to qualify for Kona. Beyond the course itself you need to think of logistics. How familiar you will be with the local cuisine and the competition you can expect. If you want to qualify in Europe you’ll need to be able to ride a bike well over challenging terrain. If you want to qualify in the US the quality of swimming will generally be higher, and you’ll want to get very used to sitting in aero for hours at a time on their long, straight roads. You will also want to make sure you’re familiar with the local language and culture to avoid finding yourself in a sticky situation, whether this is none of your payment methods being accepted by locals or being dragged down the local police station for indecency after going for a sea swim. Enough can go wrong over the course of an Ironman weekend without additional stress.

A turtle swimming in front of swimmers a the Kona swim start
The start of the Kona swim 2019. Image copyright Ironman
Climate

What’s the average temperature like? Chance of rain? Humidity? Elevation? Wind? While there is never any guarantee that conditions on the day will hit the average for that time of year, there are normally some givens. Such as Vichy being very hot, Weymouth being wet, Wales being windy and Bahrain being non wetsuit. While wind will slow everyone down, if you’re very aero it may give you an advantage. If you are riding on the coast where gusts are more common however, the crosswinds may run the risk of blowing you off the bike if you are a lighter athlete with deep wheels. There are dozens of factor to consider, which I can’t cover in detail here.

Kona is always going to be hot, but many see the world championship itself as a victory lap as much as a race. If you’re not great in the heat, you may want to choose a cooler climate to qualify in to avoid overheating on the run. If you are used to training in the European winter, a tougher race like Ironman UK may suit you, where the high chance of rain and poor quality roads won’t throw you as much as the newer or fair weather cyclists.

Time of Year

The Kona qualification cycle generally runs until late summer each year. Any races before this point (which changes from year to year) will help you qualify for this year’s event, while anyone who qualifies after this date will qualify for the next year’s event. If you target an early season event such as Lanzarote you may find the competition much stiffer as everyone wants to qualify for Kona nice and early so they can take a break, then focus on getting fit for Kona itself. The closer you race to Kona itself, the easier you’ll generally find qualification.

The handful of events between this cutoff and Kona itself are particularly fertile hunting ground, as anyone racing Kona that year will be starting their taper, so you’re less likely to be jostling with the fittest in your age group.

Setting Targets

Anne Haug wins in Kona 2019
Anne Haug wins in 2019. Image credit Ironman

If you want to qualify for Kona, you need to forget about the roll down. Yes slots may traditionally roll down into the top 10 at your target event, but you can’t afford to rely on this if everyone ahead of you decides they want their slot. It’s impossible to know how many slots will be made available for each age group when you sign up as it depends on a number of factors, however races with a larger field will have more slots, and races designated as Women for Tri events will have more slots for female competitors. There are also slots available for executive challenge events, and a few other routes, however for the purposes of this article, we’re going to assume you’re looking at the traditional route.

As a general rule, the most popular age groups will have up to 5 slots, while the least popular age groups may only have one. Try to find out how many slots were available the year before, and look at the times the athletes finishing in those positions. If there were 5 slots available in your age group last year, look at the times the athlete who finished in 5th put in.

While overall time is more important than the individual splits, you also need to be realistic. If nobody in the top 5 swam anything over 58 minutes, and nobody in the top 10 swam anything over an hour, you need to get your swim to this level. They may have had a current on the day or the course may have been a bit short due to wandering swim buoys, but you probably can’t afford to swim a 1:15 and expect to be in with a chance. Many athletes tell themselves “It’s just the swim, it doesn’t really matter”, but can you imagine coming out of the water and standing at the swim exit for 15 minutes watching your rivals run past you? It would probably be the longest 15 minutes of your life.

To find your estimated bike time, I recommend heading over to bestbikesplit.com where you can create an account, put in some details on your bike, upload a GPX of the course you’re targeting, input your target power, and see what the model comes out with. You can play around with the sliders to see how much you would need to improve your drag coefficient or target power to hit the times required to qualify for Kona.

A best bike split plan for an athlete who qualified for Kona
Example of a Best Bike Split Race Plan from a Kona qualifier I coached

The saying in professional triathlon is “bike for show, run for dough”. It doesn’t matter how fast you can ride your bike if you can’t put in a solid marathon. As mentioned above, you don’t need to run a good for age time on the day, but you need to be able to run the vast majority of the course at a solid pace. The heat, elevation and wind will affect run times, so do a bit of research on the weather conditions of last year’s race before you get too confident. The winner of your age group may have run slower than your Ironman marathon PB last year, but if it was 40 degrees on the run course, that doesn’t mean you’d necessarily have been able to beat them.

At this point you should be able to put together what your ideal day might like. You may be looking at a 1 hour swim, 5:40 bike and 3:05 run. This gives you a total of 9:45. The winner of your age group last year completed the course in 9:42 and 5th place finished in 9:52. Game on. You don’t need to be able to run these times now, you should have at least nine months between these calculations and race day, but these numbers should at least feel within your reach. If they don’t, have a look at other events, do the same calculations, and see what they come out with.

The slots may well roll down, but by setting ourselves these high targets we are helping ourselves in two ways. Firstly, we may well not hit our target fitness. We may end up with covid a month out, have time off of running with a niggle or not have access to our bike for a fortnight during a warranty claim. Secondly, we may end up with a puncture on race day, another cyclist may crash into us, or you may miss a vital aid station. By setting ourselves targets based on the best case scenario from previous years times, we’re giving ourselves a buffer.

Training

I’m not going to go into detail about training here, as it’s far too wide a subject to condense into a few paragraphs, however there are a few mistakes I recommend you avoid.

Firstly, Ironman is about building an aerobic engine. If you raced last year and did well, this doesn’t mean you should jump straight in with loads of big tempo rides and mile repeats to get faster for Kona qualification. There is absolutely a time and place for these sessions, but putting in lots of Z1/2 work will make you faster on its own without generating too much fatigue.

On the subject of starting too fast too soon, be mindful of how soon you start your training proper. If you are nine months out and start putting in 15 hour weeks in a fit of enthusiasm, your chances of maintaining that for the next nine months is… limited. Build into your volume sensibly, I recommend only dropping the hammer with 6-7 months to go in most cases. Until then strength work and easier sessions are your friend.

Focus on getting your nutrition as dialled in as you can. The athlete’s gut is a fickle beast and can malfunction on us with very little warning so there’s only so well you can safeguard yourself, but you can’t afford to just grab the nutrition on course and hope for the best. Work with a nutritionist or coach to help create a plan, and practice it in training.

Above all, stay consistent with your training. It sounds easy, but consistency is the hardest part. Make sure those in your support circle are on board, as you’re going to need them.

Race Day

The swim start in 2018
The swim start at Kona 2018. Image credit Ironman

This is one of the few situations in triathlon where you will be directly racing those around you. Once the start list is finalised you may want to do some research on your competitors. Stick their names into google to see what comes up, or search the results list from previous events to see if their names come up. This will take a bit of time, but if you can identify those you will likely be racing against, this can be a big help.

Once you have their names and numbers, find their bikes in T1 so you can see what they look like. If you can find out what the athlete themselves look like, all the better. While I’m not suggesting you necessarily react to what they’re doing out on the bike course (they could be surging like an idiot, and may not even be looking to go to Kona), you can get an idea of where you are in the race, and more importantly get a look at them in their race suit ahead of the marathon. If you spot that athlete ahead of you in the last 5K of the run you know you’re racing them, and this could be the incentive to put in that extra surge to chase them down. Of course, unless your race or age group was a mass start the athlete up the road from you may technically be behind you, which leads me nicely onto my next point.

The best thing an athlete looking to qualify for Kona can have is a dedicated spectator with access to the app. They can use this to keep track of the race within your age group and let you know where you are, which is especially important coming out of the swim when you’ll have no idea of who’s where in relation to you. This is less useful on the bike where you’ll likely be riding to a power target and with limited chances to see your spectator, but on the marathon it can be a huge help. If they can share with you the fact you’re in 3rd place, currently the fastest in your age group on course and the leader is only ten minutes ahead of you, you know to keep doing what you’re doing without pushing any harder and risking blowing up. Equally if you’re slowly dropping down the order on the run, you may want to know this in case you decide it’s better to pull the plug to save your legs, and try again in a couple of months.

Something else you familiarise yourself with is the competition rules. One athlete at Ironman UK qualified for Kona, but was disqualified after the race simply for handing his wetsuit to his wife on his way into T1. The draft busters are also more vigilant at the sharper end of the race, so make sure you familiarise yourself with the letter of the rules.

The Ceremony

Jan Frodeno at Kona 2019
Jan Frodeno at Kona 2019. Image credit Ironman

I cannot emphasis this enough. If you want to go to Kona, you need to be at the ceremony the next day. I saw a story on social media of an athlete who qualified by default (no roll down needed) but his partner went into labour the next morning which meant he couldn’t attend. Ironman refused him a place, even when he used the birth certificate as evidence.

If your name is read out, you need to decide there and then whether you want to go or not. If you take your slot you will be required to make a payment for your entry fee there and then (card only I believe) to secure your slot. You can then focus on eating your bodyweight in whatever you can get your hands on, and putting your feet up for a well earned rest.

Having not raced Kona personally I don’t feel I’m in a position to give you insights and advice on the race itself. I understand it’s an experience like no other, but make sure you soak it all in and focus on enjoying the experience. You may only end up going once, so make the most of it, and soak it all up.

Finally, a quick disclaimer that the 2023 World Championship is currently due to follow the format of 2022 and be held over two days. This means there will be more slots available, however I have stuck to the number of slots available for the one day event to future proof this article in case the format reverts back to a one day event.

Conclusion

Qualifying for Kona is brutal and cutthroat, it’s one of the most demanding experiences an athlete can have. While I believe the vast majority of athletes can qualify if they have the resources to, it’s not something you can expect to fall into your lap, or you should feel entitled to.

Feeling fired up and determined to qualify for Kona? I can help. The following services may be of interest to you:

Custom Training Plan (£10 per week)

After a detailed conversation I can write for you a training plan based on your strengths, weaknesses, availability and physiology to help put you in a strong position to qualify.

Bespoke Online Coaching (£50 per week)

If you want daily communication with me, full data analysis and the plan written on a week by week basis, our bespoke programme will put you in the strongest position possible

Triathlon Training Consultation (£75)

Unsure if you’re in a position to qualify? Need help choosing a race? Looking for general help structuring your training? We can organise a 90 minute consultation to help set you up for success

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