On March 1 Ironman New Zealand, the oldest international Ironman event, will have it’s 30th running. The race has been held in the lakeside town of Taupo since 1999, and has been one of the most sought-after Ironman events on the calendar because of its beautiful lake swim, scenic but challenging bike course and storied history. Two legends of this race (and of the sport), Ken Glah and Scott Molina, have raced Ironman New Zealand almost 20 times between them, with Molina taking home the race’s first title in 1985, and Glah taking home two titles, along with the closest finish in Ironman history against Finland’s Pauli Kiuru in 1990 (Glah was outsprinted in the final 5 yards before the finish line). LAVA sat down with the two old friends as they prepare to compete in the event for it’s 30th anniversary. A lot has changed in this race since they competed here professionally, and even more has changed for Ironman racing on a global level. We asked them about how their Kona performances stack up to those of today’s champions, as well as why Ironman New Zealand remains such a bucket list event for triathletes all over the world.
LAVA: Ken you still race Kona as an age grouper every year, and Scott you’re still involved in the endurance scene here in New Zealand but are doing an Ironman for the first time in several years on Saturday. What do you think about today’s Ironman World Championship performances compared to those of your time? Do you think that the men’s race has really become faster, or do they maybe just have nicer equipment? How different is it out there?
Ken Glah: Yeah I’m really ready to talk about this. If you were to take a reasonable weather day in Hawaii 20 years ago and a reasonable weather day in Hawaii today, the times really aren’t all that different. The difference is on a reasonable weather day 15 years ago—
Scott Molina: Five guys ripped it. Now 40 guys rip it.
Ken Glah: Yeah, well kind of, actually the first four or five times are very similar but once you get to the 8:30 mark or so that is when you start to see a big change. 20 years ago, if you were on line for an 8:30 and you fell apart and went 8:35, you would still only lose about two places, if you are in line for 8:30 now and you fall apart, you lose 10 or 12 places. It’s not right up at the front that they are faster, but the density, once you get past fourth or fifth place is insane now. They are coming in within 30 seconds of each other.
LAVA: What about the female field in Kona? Has it seen the same changes or has it been different?
Ken Glah: I think that the women’s race has seen faster times all the way through the field.
Scott Molina: I think that it has escalated a lot. Although I think it’s fair to say that it took Chrissie [Wellington] a few cracks to actually break Paula [Newby Fraser’s] record, and once she did, Rinny [Carfrae] was able to top that. But Paula was an outlier, Natascha [Badmann] was an outlier, and Erin [Baker] was an outlier. Now, you’re starting to see more and more women who can really move. There are more and more women coming in at the 9:10-9:30 range. However, the top women, the top three women continue to be heads above the rest. Chrissie, I think, still remains up above everyone. But that might change.
LAVA: This year’s race marks the 30th edition of Ironman New Zealand. It’s the longest international Ironman, and it has an incredibly diverse field of athletes from all over the world. What makes Taupo such a one-of-a-kind event?
Scott Molina: Ken I think that is a good question for you because you travel here every year with a group of athletes. I think this race has more international interest than any other Ironman aside from Kona. But why is that? It’s not easy to get to, no matter where you are coming from—Europe, North America or Asia—and no matter what you are going to spend a lot of money getting here, and you are probably also training through your winter to get ready for it. Honestly, I’m dumbfounded by it the expense and the difficulty that people get through to do this race.
Ken Glah: Well I think you also have to take into account all the additional races around here that have been added in the season as well, it’s continued to make this race a popular one. People come here because it’s New Zealand. A lot of the people who coming here are not just coming for the race. Very few of my clients go home right after the race. They have a nice vacation afterward, whereas at other races, only about 50 percent of my clients stick around for more than maybe a day or two. People come here for the race, but they also come to experience the country. That’s how the justify the expense.
LAVA: Is there anything special about the course that has made this race so legendary?
Ken Glah: Well now that it’s been around for 30 years, there’s certainly a history attached to it. And it’s not been in Taupo for 30 years, it’s only been here since 1999, but still this race has existed for 30 years so it’s a special course for sure. The race location, this town, is the type of town that Ironman, and triathlon, needs. We all think triathlon is so big, but if you go into a town with a music festival, you have 200,000 people coming in for a week. And they don’t block the roads or shut down use of a lake or whatever. That is a huge economic impact. You bring 3,000-4,000 people in for an Ironman, they are there maybe for five days, which has an impact, but not nearly on the same scale and your also an inconvenience for the locals with traffic closures, etc. You need a particular type of town who is the right size and also one with a passion for the sport and what it brings to the community in order for it to work.
Scott Molina: I think there are a few towns in the U.S. who kind of have the right formula down: Lake Placid and Coeur d’Alene for example. Those are the races that thrive.
Ken Glah: They tend to be tourism-based economies. And more often than not, it’s not during the high-season that they put on the race, although in Taupo that is not the case because February is their high season. And Taupo, it truly is the event capital of the country. You have something like 40 major events here every year. So you can’t overlook the fact that this town has made this race legendary.