Ironman Kona Racing Advice: What to Expect on Race Day

Ironman Kona, Hawaii: What to Expect on Race Day

The Kona Ironman morning routine will be much like your other pre-race experiences, but this one will have a couple of differences. First. you will have to line-up to get formally body-marked – it’s a real process — and the line does not move quickly. It you are the kind that needs plenty of extra time in the transition area to feel relaxed, get to body-marking very early.

Second, there will be television camera crews surrounding the athletes, focusing specifically on the pros and a few pre-selected age groupers. It’s the beginning of everything you’ve seen on the television broadcasts of the race. There’s Chrissie Wellington . . . there’s Chris McCormack . . . It will strike you at that moment: This is Real, I am Here. The fun begins.

There’s only one thing to worry about: getting in the water before the cannon fires at 7am. The very narrow stair entrance to the ocean at Dig Me Beach means that it’s a single-file process. The line can extend even farther than the bodymarking line did. If you need to be in the water comfortably a few minutes before the race starts, get there early.


There is no Ironman swim that is as enjoyable as the one in Kailua-Kona Bay. Unless rough water conditions have churned up the sandy bottom, as happened in 2002, the water is clear and the views are spectacular.

When you’re in the water before the start, just look around. It’s an amazing moment. You are really there. It’s everything you expected it would be. Then . . . boom! And cheers. Off you go.

As you work your way into a good rhythm in the water, you’ll start to notice that you’re among a good, even polite, group of swimmers. Maybe this is more true for the slower swimmers, like me. In other Ironman races, with up to 2500 people in the water at the same time, the congestion can be unreal, the constant contact frustrating.

But in Kona, you only seem to be around good swimmers, ones who know where they are going, who don’t bang into you. You’ll find the swim experience enjoyable because you’re really swimming with a group of swimmers like you. It’s like a group run, you’ll enjoy the company of others around you. It will be a new experience.

And make sure you look down often to take in the scenery. It can be wonderful, and even distracting. But worth it. That’s the part of the swim you’ll remember most.

Others who know better tell me that the Kona swim is typically breezy out to the turnaround, followed by a tougher return. The return to shore has been likened to a ‘water treadmill’; you don’t move forward as fast as you think. No matter, you’re there for the experience. Enjoy it.


One of the things I looked most forward to was the 112 mile ride through the lava fields. It looked like a spiritual experience as I watched it on television broadcasts, and it was exactly like that when I got there in person. But first, you have to get there.

I break the Kona bike course into five parts: warmup, fast and fun, legendary climb, screaming downhill, headwinds going home.

Warm up

The first several miles of the bike course, in and around the town of Kona, seem to be designed to break up the pack somewhat. There are small climbs and descents that basically give cyclists the opportunity to warm up without going crazy. The first miles are such that you won’t see a lot of passing, and you’ll realize it’s best to just hold your position and get into a comfortable cycling rhythm.

Fast and Fun: to Waikoloa

When you get onto the Queen K highway, the best part of the bike course is ahead of you. The highway is nicely paved, the undulations are friendly and not too challenging. You’re fresh and you’ll feel like picking up the pace a little. Go ahead.  Just keep it in check; tougher miles are ahead.

Look right, left and forward. All you will see is dried lava. You’re out in the middle of nowhere, and it’ll be nearly silent, except for the sound of cyclists pedaling. Mile-after-mile through fields that feel like an endless moonscape. Where else will you ever have an experience like that? It’s where you were meant to be.

Your bike computer will say are fast, having a great ride. And that will be a true impression for the first hour or two. But when you reach the intersection for Waikoloa Village, it’s time for some serious work.

Legendary Climb ‘The Road to Hawi . . .’

After Waikoloa, the course will toss some sharp drops and climbs in the next few miles. And then you will take a left turn toward the west side of the island, for the climb to Hawi.

Check it out on the course map, there’s a point where the climb clearly begins, 12 miles before the top. Mile markers on the road will measure your progress. But they will creep toward you, not as fast as you might want them to. You start the climb thinking: 12 miles, that’s not too bad. And yes, it could be worse, but it’s not easy. Take this time to eat and hydrate if you can.

The last five miles to Hawi are more exposed to wind, and you may have to battle that additional resistance. Gravity and wind. Not fun. But soon you’ll be in Hawi, an unremarkable town but for the role it plays in the Ironman. Then you’re heading downhill.

Screaming Downhill: into the Wind

What goes up, must come down. And after Hawi, you will retrace the course back downhill. It’s a manageable downhill, not so fast that you have to concentrate closely on staying in control. But it’s fast enough to help you gain back some of that speed you lost on the earlier climb.

The bad news is that it’s only 12 miles or so downhill. Then things get a little challenging on the next 13 miles heading back toward Waikoloa. The wind may be getting stronger, and it’s all but certain to be blowing right at you.

Headwinds Going Home

You’ll reach the Waikoloa intersection feeling pretty good, and your bike computer might reveal that you’re having a good ride, speed and time. Each time I got there, I was thinking: hold this pace, and you’ll finish near a bike PR!

No such luck in any of those cases. While the last 25 miles are relatively flat, it’s the pummeling headwinds that will all but kill those dreams. I remember riding 12 to 15 miles per hour, and just not being able to pick up the pace.

The winds are maddening. And the mile markers are there, again, constantly reminding you how far you have not gone. Just hang in there. Everyone is dealing with the same conditions. Everyone will tell the same story when the race is over: the winds were everything you heard they would be. Rough.


In 2004, I remember emerging from bike-to-run transition into a blast furnace of the most powerful heat I’d ever experienced on a race course. By the time you start running, the sun will be high in the sky, the humidity will feel like 100%, and the asphalt will be radiating even more heat.

It takes time to acclimate to that kind of heat after swimming 2.4 miles and riding 112. The good news is that first half of the course provides many opportunities to run in the shade, while soaking yourself with ice and sponges at well-stocked aid stations.

After heading east out of town on Alii Drive, the course takes you to an oceanfront turnaround near the 6 mile point. You’ll do a 180 degree turn and head back toward town. The run course is mostly flat for the first 12 miles or so. Then you’re back in town, facing Palani Drive.

A friend and consistent top age-group finisher in Kona tells me: the race begins at Palani Drive. For him, he’s been running the first half of the marathon smartly. He turns it up a notch or two after he runs the 200 yards up Palani, then heads west on the Queen K.

If you want to be competitive in Kona, he is indeed right. The last 13.1 miles in Kona are where the best crack wide open. You are completely exposed to the sun. There are long inclines to wear you down. And yes, for some reason, the several miles into and out of the Energy Lab can suck the life out of you. The competitive racers will use those challenges to their advantage.

The rest of us – I race Kona for fun – can expect to run more conservatively, trying to maintain pace. The Energy Lab may not seem as rough as it does in Ironman broadcasts; it is survivable. Once you’re past that, 21 miles complete, just 5 miles to town, and you’re an Ironman.

The next four miles have never been easy for me. They seem to be constantly uphill, and they go by so slowly. But when you reach Palani Drive, and make that right hand turn after the 25 mile marker, your best moments are ahead.


Savor that last mile. You will have trained and raced thousands of miles over the years to get there, For the first 1000 meters of it, you will probably be alone. Most of the spectators are at the finish line. In that relative solitude, reflect on all you’ve done to get to that point.

Two right turns later, and you’re on Alii Drive. Sacred Ground. At first you won’t see the finish line, but you’ll hear it. You keep going. Then you see the bright lights, you hear Mike Reilly welcoming home the athletes ahead of you.

Then it’s your turn. The best 100 yards in endurance sports. Slow down. High five spectators., cross the line with your favorite gesture as Mike Reilly says it:

You are An Ironman.

You'll never be the same. Welcome to the Club.