Last month, the triathlon world descended on St. George, Utah for the first Ironman World Championship since 2019.
Top athletes have arrived from over 80 countries to compete in a half Ironman, also known as 70.3 for the number of miles required: swim 1.2 miles, cycle 56 miles and run a 13.1 mile half marathon.
The race was competitive and the local enthusiasm was electric. It was the type of event that Andrew Messick, Ironman’s chief executive, had envisioned since the coronavirus pandemic essentially shut down his sport and threatened the Ironman brand.
“It has been a very difficult 18 months for us,” said Messick. “We had to learn a lot of things on the fly that we didn’t know we needed to know.”
Ironman has successfully hosted 119 events in 26 countries in 2021 so far, a rebound after canceling or postponing 96 this year and holding a fraction of its scheduled races in 2020. The Year of Ironman was going well enough that by August Messick and his team were ready to host their full distance world championship event on the second weekend of October in Kona, Hawaii, as they have done every year since 1982 .
It’s a cinematic, brutal race that begins with a 2.4 mile swim in the Pacific Ocean, followed by a windswept 112 mile bike ride and marathon through blown lava fields. by the sun that withers many competitors.
This race, first held in Oahu with 15 participants in 1978 before moving to the Kona Coast in 1982, helped start an entire sport. The location is held in such high regard 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 that makes the trip to Hawaii brings three more people. That translates to an average of 10,000 visitors on crowded sidewalks in a county with just nine intensive care beds. Members of the local community have privately urged Ironman to cancel the race. On the eve of the Ironman semi-championship in Utah, Messick has hinted that he plans to move Kona’s iconic race out of its long-time home for the first time since it was moved from Oahu.
On September 23, he made it official. The 2021 Ironman World Championships would be held in St. George, Utah, in May 2022, and the 2022 Championship will be held in Kona five months later.
“I don’t think it’s healthy for sport to cancel the world championship again,” said Kristian Blummenfelt. Blummenfelt, a 26-year-old Norwegian, won gold in the shorter format race at the Tokyo Games this summer, and is considering both championships in 2022. “We had to find a solution.”
Utah is a triathlon mad state with easy access to medical care and looser Covid restrictions. But it’s not Hawaii. Still, professional triathletes are happy to run for a 2021 championship anywhere, and a share of the $ 750,000 purse. The winners of the men’s and women’s events take home $ 125,000.
Jan Frodeno, a 40-year-old German who is the reigning Ironman champion and also won in 2015 and 2016, understands this logic, but wonders if he will feel as determined to win in May in Utah as he does. felt it every fall. in Hawaii.
“I think I’m going to have a hard time putting 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 as iconic. You know, that heat, the wind, and all these things that really make or break athletes. “
He would know. In 2017, then two-time defending champion, Frodeno led the race before the race when conditions prevailed. He must have walked the marathon.
This Big Island mystique is even greater for amateur triathletes, the economic engine of the sport. Many 2019 qualifiers planned to race in Kona in 2020 and thousands more fans scored qualifying spots in 2021. When given the choice in events, most registered in Kona – not St. George.
As a result, there are too many qualified athletes to fit in a single day in the Kona Pier transition zone. Ironman’s solution is to organize a two-day race next October, which could double the field to some 5,000 athletes. It’s a nice boost to cash flow: Fans pay $ 1,500 each for the privilege of suffering in Kona.
The women will run on Thursday and the men will run on Saturday. Instead of a live broadcast, there will be two.
“If they put the same level of coverage and media in the women’s race as in the men’s race, then that can only be a good thing,” said Lucy Charles-Barclay, the rising England star who won the 70.3 or half Ironman. world championships this year and has finished second in Kona three times. “I hope if we get the coverage we deserve it will just bring a lot more attention to women’s sport.”
But given that women will be running mid-week, this benefit might be limited. Especially in Europe, where triathlon is more popular than in North America.
Skimming through this whole conversation is the idea that these changes might not be temporary. “We’re going to have an opportunity, which none of us really anticipated, to see what an Ironman World Championship looks like outside of Hawaii,” said Messick.
Moving the championship race every two years could be revealing. Different conditions would provide a series of rotating challenges for the world’s best endurance athletes. It could also expand access.
Frodeno has heard all of these arguments and suggestions before and 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.”