El IRONMAN World Championship 2023 in Kona is already around the corner, and this year comes with a novelty since for the first time only women will compete in the event. The men already did it in Nice, France last September.
The Kailua-Kona scene
Kailua-Kona offers a unique setting, with its crystal clear waters and lava fields, that provides a real challenge for triathletes.
The average air temperature is 27°C and the water temperature is 28°C, which adds another element to the challenge. In addition, humidity and wind are factors that athletes must take into account.
The Swimming Circuit
Swimming at the Kailua-Kona IRONMAN is a unique challenge that begins in Dig Me Beach, a small beach located next to the famous Kailua-Kona Pier.
This place is known for being the meeting point for athletes before the test, where the tension and emotion are palpable.
The swim course is a clockwise round trip circuit covering a distance of 2.4 miles (approximately 3.8 km).
Athletes dive into the crystal clear waters of Kailua Bay and swim in a straight line toward a pair of large boats marking the turnaround point.
Although the route itself is not technically complicated, the water conditions can be a determining factor and due to the water temperature you will swim without neoprene.
The Cycling Circuit
The cycling segment at IRONMAN Kailua-Kona is, without a doubt, one of the most challenging and exciting in the world of triathlon.
With a length of 112 miles (approximately 180.2 km), this circuit is a true test of endurance, skill and strategy.
Palani Hill and Hot Corner
The segment begins with a short but steep climb up Palani Hill.
This initial stretch may seem insignificant compared to the total distance, but it is crucial to get into the rhythm and prepare for the challenges that follow.
After cresting the hill, the athletes face the Hot corner, a sharp turn to the left located about 300 meters from the finish line.
This point is especially important because it allows athletes to measure the distances with their competitors and adjust their strategy accordingly.
After the Hot Corner, the athletes enter the Kuakini Highway, a section approximately 5 km long and slightly uphill.
Here, cyclists who are not as strong in swimming have the opportunity to make up time.
It is a section that requires constant but controlled effort, since spending too much energy here could cost you dearly later.
Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway
The most iconic stage of the circuit is the Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway, known as Queen K.
This stretch is a long and lonely road that stretches for more than 50 kilometers.
Here, athletes face several challenges: scorching heat, lack of shade, and crosswinds that can be extremely strong.
The Queen K is also where the aid stations are located, which are vital for hydration and nutrition during the race.
The Return in Hawaii
The return point in How marks the middle of the cycling segment and offers a momentary respite before the return trip.
It is known for its strong winds and rising terrain. Athletes must manage their energy efficiently to face the challenges that still await them upon their return to Kailua-Kona.
This stretch is especially crucial because it is where many athletes begin to feel the wear and tear of the race. Additionally, the wind is often against you on the way back, which adds an extra layer of difficulty.
Upon arriving at Category, athletes face a reasonably steep climb that may be the breaking point for many.
This is where the wind usually dies down, but the slope makes climbing a challenge.
It is a critical point where many athletes decide if they are going to conserve energy for the run or if they are going to give it their all in the last leg of the bike.
Arrival at Queen K
Finally, the athletes return to the Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway for the last leg to Kailua-Kona.
This segment is known as the “final test” before transitioning to running.
The last 50 kilometers can be grueling, and this is where you see many athletes fighting not only against their competitors, but also against themselves.
The Running Segment
The final stage of the Kailua-Kona IRONMAN is a 26.2-mile (42.2 km) marathon that tests each athlete's endurance, will and strategy.
This segment is where races are won or lost, and every mile counts.
The Beginning: Ali'i Drive and Pahoehoe Beach
The foot race begins with a short loop around downtown Kailua-Kona before taking athletes to Ali'i Drive.
This initial stretch is relatively flat but comes with a series of small hills that can affect your pace.
The return point in this segment since 2018 is in Pahoehoe Beach, which means athletes will have to manage these hills both on the way out and back.
The Palani Hill Climb
After completing the section on Ali'i Drive, athletes face the dreaded climb of Palani Hill.
This 400 to 500 meter stretch with a 6% incline is brutal, especially after you've completed the swim and bike ride. Many athletes choose to walk this stretch to conserve energy and reduce body temperature.
The Solitude of the Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway
Once the athletes overcome Palani Hill, they again enter the Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway, but this time on foot.
This stage is known as a “test of mental toughness” due to the lack of spectators and harsh weather conditions.
The Natural Energy Laboratory (NELHA)
The southernmost point of the route is Natural Energy Laboratory Hawai'i Authority (NELHA)-
This stretch is especially challenging due to the hot conditions and lack of shade. It is a turning point for many athletes and often determines who will make the podium and who will not.
Return to Kailua-Kona
The final leg of the race takes athletes back to Kailua-Kona. Here, the crowd gets thicker and the energy of the crowd can provide a much-needed boost.
The last 400 meters on Ali'i Drive are exhilarating, culminating in crossing the finish line, where each athlete experiences the joy and relief of having completed one of the toughest triathlons in the world.