Last month, the triathlon world descended on St. George, Utah for the first Ironman World Championships event since 2019.
Top athletes arrived from more than 80 countries to compete in the Half-Ironman, also known as 70.3 for the number of miles required: swimming 1.2 miles, biking 56 miles, and running a half marathon at 13.1 miles.
The race was competitive and the local excitement was electric. Ironman chief executive Andrew Messick envisioned this type of incident as the coronavirus pandemic essentially shutting down his game and threatening the Ironman brand.
“It’s been a very challenging 18 months for us,” Messik said. “We’ve had to learn a whole bunch of things on the fly that we didn’t know we needed to know.”
Ironman has successfully held 119 events in 26 countries so far in 2021, a rebound this year after 96 were canceled or postponed and a fraction of their scheduled races held in 2020. Ironman’s year was going well enough that by August, Messick and his staff were set to host their signature full-distance world championship event in Kona, Hawaii, on the second weekend of October, as every year since 1982. it happens.
It’s a cinematic, brutal race that begins with a 2.4-mile swim in the Pacific Ocean, followed by a 112-mile bike ride and marathon through sun-blasted lava fields that merge many competitors. Is.
That race, first held in Oahu with 15 participants in 1978 before moving to the Kona Coast in 1982, helped start an entire sport. The venue is held in such high esteem that it has become synonymous with the world title. You don’t win the world championship. You win the corner.
But this summer, the Delta version hit the Kona hard, and in August, Ironman moved the October race to February 2022. Each athlete traveling to Hawaii brings in three others. This translates to an average of 10,000 visitors on packed sidewalks in a county with just nine ICU beds. Members of the local community privately urged Ironman to cancel the race. On the eve of the Half Ironman Championship in Utah, Messick indicated that he was considering moving the signature Kona race from his longtime home for the first time since relocating from Oahu.
He made it official on 23 September. The 2021 Ironman World Championships will be held in St. George, Utah in May 2022, and the 2022 Championships will be held five months later in Kona.
“I don’t think it’s healthy for the sport to cancel the world championships again,” said Kristian Blumenfeldt. Blumenfeldt, a 26-year-old Norwegian, won gold in short-format running at the Tokyo Games this summer, and is eyeing both championship events in 2022. “We need to find a solution.”
Utah is a triathlon-crazy state with easy access to medical care and lax COVID restrictions. But it’s not Hawaii. Still, pro triathletes are happy to run for the 2021 Championship Anywhere, plus a share of the $750,000 purse. The winners of the men’s and women’s fields 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 would feel inspired to win in Utah in May as he won each fall. Have felt it in Hawaii.
“I think I would struggle to put the same kind of heart and soul into it,” Frodeno said. “Sure, it’s a world championship, but it doesn’t have the same prestige and the same experience and the conditions aren’t as prestigious. You know, that heat, the wind and all those things that really make or break an athlete.”
He would know. In 2017, then two-time defending champion, Frodeno took the lead in the race when conditions got better than him. He had to run a marathon.
That big island mystery is even bigger for amateur triathletes, the sport’s economic engine. Several 2019 qualifiers planned to race in Kona in 2020 and thousands of additional amateurs made qualifying slots in 2021. When given a choice at events, most signed up for Kona – not St. George.
As a result, there are too many qualified athletes to fit into the transition zone at Kona Ghat in one day. Ironman’s solution is to hold a two-day race next October that could result in a doubling of about 5,000 athletes in the field. That’s a healthy boost in cash flow: Hobbyists each pay $1,500 for the privilege of being victimized in a corner.
Women will run on Thursday and men will run on Saturday. Instead of one live broadcast there will be two.
“If they put the same coverage and media as the men in the women’s race, it can only be a good thing,” said Lucie Charles-Barkley, the rising English star who won the 70.3 or half-Ironman World Championships this year. and has been second in Kona three times. “I hope that if we get the coverage we deserve it will get a lot more attention in the women’s game.”
But given that women will run mid-week, this advantage may be limited. Especially in Europe, where triathlon is more popular than in North America.
Hovering over this whole conversation there is an assumption that these changes may not be temporary. “We will have an opportunity, which clearly none of us were anticipating, to see what the Ironman World Championship looks like outside of Hawaii,” Messick said.
Moving the race to the championship every other year can be revealing. The different conditions will provide the world’s top endurance athletes with a rotating series of challenges. It can also expand reach.
Frodeno has heard all those arguments and suggestions before and remains a traditionalist. “Kona is the golden egg of Ironman as a brand and a sport,” he said. “The thing that really made Ironman stand out over the years is the World Championships in Hawaii.”