Ironman World Championships in Kona: course and tactics

November 12, 2020 0 By JohnValbyNation

Kona: The Course

Of all the competition each athlete will face at October’s Ironman World Championships, none will be so utterly indefatigable as the island itself. There’s a reason the World Championship remains on the shores where Ironman moved to in 1981 [the first three events took place in Oahu, Hawaii].


With its brutal heat, pummelling winds and gruelling hills, Kona is a place where anything can happen – and usually does. From Julie Moss to Paula Newby-Fraser and Normann Stadler, many an athlete has been forced into a crawl or a DNF on the course, giving rise to unexpected shake-ups in the top ranks.

There’s still no distinct landmark that ‘tells the tale’ better than the finish line itself. But there are key landmarks you can look at for progress along the way…  

The swim and T1

There may be more riding on the swim than ever before. After Normann Stadler won with a crushing cycling performance in 2004, the prevailing strategy was to establish a lead in the lava fields and then ‘hold on’ through the marathon. But the trend in recent years has shown the über-bikers having to overcome gaps incurred on the swim before creating their lead for the run.

As close as the men’s race portends to be, the amount of time taken in transition could make a crucial difference in the early positions on the bike.

Bike Course

© Michael Rauschendorfer

Most people look at the elevation profile of the course and think that the 19km climb up to the turnaround point is the make-or-break point. But looks are deceiving, and the actual determinant is an invisible enemy.

By the time the competitors are well on their way to T2, they’ll be pedalling against those pesky headwinds. Out on the highway, with the sun nearing its peak and not a drop of shade to be found, disaster lurks behind every lava rock. From flat tyres to dehydration and digestive issues, this is where it all goes wrong for even the most prepared athlete.  

Six times Kona winner Dave Scott said: “I think the biggest issue isn’t that the men aren’t going too hard on the bike, it’s that the train of athletes are producing these super surges where they’re producing high VO2 and muscle acidity and end up burning muscle glycogen at a furious rate. 

“This is conjecture, but I think a number of the athletes don’t do strength training year-round, and Hawaii really is a strength sport. So for the athletes that are chasing Kienle, I’d say stick to your plan and don’t linger in that higher VO2 range for longer than 20secs. Otherwise you’re going to get spat out the back.”

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Transition 2

Again, with the difference measured in minutes, seconds will count getting off the bike and onto the pavement. We’ll know a lot by the time the athletes exit this point and begin the run. 

Run course

From 22-30km on the run is where we’ll probably start getting our clearest indications of the finish.