In a sport where all roads seem to lead to the Big Island, it feels a bit strange to be talking about how to get to Kona in a year when I did not qualify. But they say you learn more from your failures than from your successes—not that I entirely view missing out on Kona as a failure; this year, I think it was a good thing. Think of the following as a guide for what to do next year.
In the last few years, there have been some changes in how professional athletes qualify. Until 2010, they qualified in the same way age-groupers did, via “slots.” Place high enough at a given race and you were in. Some races had more slots (like the always competitive Ironman Frankfurt, now the European Championship) and some had fewer (like the no-longer-in-existence Ironman Malaysia), but it was a simple enough process. You knew on Monday (or occasionally Sunday) if that particular race had qualified you for Kona. That changed for professional athletes in 2011 with the introduction of the KPR, or Kona Points Ranking. Now, each race (including 70.3 races) earns points according to your finishing position, and your best five races are scored. There are two cutoff dates (the end of July and the end of the August) when qualifiers for Kona are selected. About 80 percent are selected at the end of July, with the remaining 20 percent selected at the end of August. In August the rankings typically reshuffle as athletes who race well in August jump up in the standings. In 2012 I jumped from being outside the top 75 to being ranked seventh after my win at the Iron-man U.S. Championship in New York. The 80/20 breakdown doesn’t represent the best 80 percent and then the next 20 percent; the remaining 20 percent of slots are distributed to the top-ranked athletes who have not already qualified. (My reason for giving percentages instead of numbers is that the number of slots available to pros may change, but the percentages will stay the same.)
For a variety of reasons, both business and athlete-related, there were too many pros in Kona, and the KPR helped address this. The foremost benefit was that it freed up room on the Kona pier. The size of the transition area in Kona is constrained by the size of the pier, and if Ironman was going to continue to grow and open new races, congestion on the pier was a serious issue. Transferring slots from pros to age-groupers meant a whole bunch of new races could have age-group Kona slots without taking up any more space. Before 2011 there were close to 150 pros, and now there are about 85.
Reducing the size of the pro field also helped address congestion on the course. With close to 100 pro men, ensuring a fair bike ride out to Hawi was extremely difficult. Furthermore, with a mass pro start, fast-swimming pro women could easily catch up with the pro men, riding with them as long as they could and then getting a boost as slower-swimming pro men caught up to them on the bike. The KPR is by no means a perfect system, but it continues to improve (a process I feel fortunate to have been a part of).
So given that the KPR exists, how does a pro get to Kona? This process will become simpler, but not necessarily easier, this upcoming year as the number of pro races has been reduced. Ironman Lake Tahoe 2014 will have a pro race; Ironman Lake Tahoe 2015 will not. Given some mathematical realities, you can figure out about how many points you’ll need to qualify. In the past, that number was about 4,000 for a male athlete. This past year that number fell to about 3,500 to put a male athlete in the top 80 percent at the end of July. Interestingly, this year it worked out to be exactly 3,500 for Boris Stein, the last athlete to make the July cutoff (just ahead of yours truly). So if you are well clear of that you can relax. Likewise, those who finish high enough in Kona (roughly the top seven) pretty much just have to finish another race. It’s the athletes closer to the cutoff who get nervous during the shuffle of points in July. New for this year, though, is that slots make a small return. Winners of the regional championship races (there will now be five, all before the end of July) will get guaranteed entry.
So starting in the fall of the previous year—when the Kona qualifying cycle starts—you need to be racing. Since Kona itself has an overwhelming number of points, if you aren’t racing in Kona, you need to be racing somewhere else. The worst possible situation for qualifying for the next year is to have a poor Kona finish. If you race Kona and don’t score a lot of points, you’re in a tough spot, especially if you are a North American athlete. If you’re an Oceania-based athlete, there a bunch of high-point 70.3s in the middle of the Oceania summer (the North American winter). But if you don’t want to travel down under, there’s almost no chance to earn points until the North American season gets going in the spring.
Next year, I’ll try to capitalize on both the slot at Ironman Texas (next year’s North American champs), and starting 2015 with a good bunch of points already by racing two 70.3s, including the point-heavy 70.3 World Championship, as well as Ironman Arizona before the end of the year. Ideally, I’d like to have my Kona spot pretty much guaranteed by the end of May. That would give me the summer to race and train without worrying about my Kona spot, which would mean I could choose races based on convenience, competitiveness, the chance to practice a non-wetsuit swim and other important race skills. It also means that if I need to take a longer break before starting the Kona build, I can do that. From a physiological standpoint, you can be at your best in Kona even with a top Ironman finish as late as mid-July. But waiting until then gives you less flexibility if something goes wrong.
Despite all this talk of points and Kona, I want to emphasize that I (and I think most other pros) choose my races for a lot of the same reasons as age-group athletes. I do races because I like the course; because travel is easy; because my parents (who come to many of my races) can spectate easily; because it’s in the same time zone; or because I have friends that I can stay with. I do Ironman Arizona every year because I love the race. The season is too long and training is too difficult for my season to be all about Kona and nothing else. My best years have happened when I’ve focused on each race and on the year as a whole and avoided a myopic focus on Kona. It is the world championship, and for long-course athletes, the biggest race in our sport, but it’s not the only race. If the road to Kona becomes only about the destination and not about the journey, I think you end up shortchanging yourself.
In 2012, I had a good but not great finish in Kona in a year when it was basically an afterthought for me. With just a bit more focus, I think I could have had a great race. In 2013, when I focused almost exclusively on Kona, I did not finish. Certainly, every athlete is different. For some, the lure of Kona inspires greatness. But the most recent Kona winners have had other big wins the year they won Kona. Last year’s winner, Frederik Van Lierde, started 2013 with a win in Abu Dhabi and set a course record at Ironman France in June.
Racing is a skill, and like any skill, you need to keep it sharp by racing. Winning is also a skill, and it’s also best kept sharp by winning. I think age-group athletes may shortchange themselves through trying to be at their best in Kona. Many athletes train themselves into the ground all year trying to squeeze out a remarkable performance in Kona. But Peter Reid used to put a red “X” on his calendar only eight weeks out from Kona because that’s when the training got really serious. Paula Newby-Fraser said that after a summer of racing, she needed only six weeks to prepare for Kona. Her advice to me when I was thinking about how to approach this summer was, “You’re an athlete; you need to race.” And I think that’s true of both pros and age-groupers. But racing isn’t the same as chasing points (or for age-groupers, chasing a Kona slot). Racing requires a focus on the immediate task at hand. If you go into a race thinking of Kona, it’s hard to have the sort of race you want. You can’t have one foot in the race you’re in and one foot in Kona.
I’d be lying if I said I had all the answers (or even any answers) about how to do well in Kona. After two trips to the Big Island, the only thing I’m sure of now is that I know two different ways to have a bad race there. The first is to not respect the difficulty of the race. This is a race where you cannot make mistakes and have a good finish. You cannot, for example, give up nine minutes in the water and expect to do well. The second is to think about Kona and nothing else. If you aren’t racing well during the year, it’s hard to suddenly flip a switch and pull off a good performance in Kona.
Ultimately though, I think Kona is just like any other Ironman—the biggest part of doing well is not beating yourself up. Only after you take care of that, both in preparing for the race in training and in executing your race on the day itself, can you start thinking about anything else. As with everything about endurance sport, it’s about the next stroke, the next step or the next mile. See you on the road.
Jordan Rapp received his BSE in Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering from Princeton University in 2002. As a professional triathlete, he is able to work as a true field engineer for the product development teams at Specialized and Zipp, among other companies. When he’s not training, he can be found behind his laptop fulfilling his duties as Chief Technology Officer for Slowtwitch.com. He also has an insatiable appetite for bacon.