Opinion: What is happening to the IRONMAN World Championship?

By Khem Suthiwan

IRONMAN announced in early June the 2019 Vega IRONMAN World Championship would feature a new swim start protocol utilizing waves that separates the field into 11 groups. Their reason: to reduce athlete density on the bike course.

As a four-time IRONMAN finisher, to include Kona, I’m not sure what I think about this. Three of my IM finishes were mass starts. The year I raced Kona it was the first time the men and women age groupers had separate mass starts. When I trained for my first one (IRONMAN Canada-Penticton), the allure of the mass start and its spectacle was one of the things that drew me to the race. Now one by one, primarily in North America, races have implemented rolling swim starts and the mass start is about close to extinct.

Khem at the
2015 IRONMAN World Championship Swim Start

While I understand the need to improve the safety for competitors, especially at races that typically draw novice athletes and take place in urban areas (nevermind when you sign up for an IRONMAN you should know what you’re getting yourself into), but at the IRONMAN World Championship? By the time most athletes get to the start line in Kona, they will have raced and trained thousands of hours and miles. Is there really a need? And the reason of reducing athlete density on the bike course, the Queen K Highway is completely closed off to vehicular traffic AND it’s up to the athletes to follow the rules of the bike course (no drafting, blocking, etc.).

So, my question to the universe and all the triathletes that care, is Kona slowly losing its luster? The midnight finish isn’t really midnight in most cases. What’s next? Splitting the women’s and men’s race to two separate days? Rolling swim starts? Who knows, but whatever new protocol that ends up getting implemented next, in my opinion will most likely chip away pieces of the original Kona IRONMAN spirit and excitement.

3 thoughts on “Opinion: What is happening to the IRONMAN World Championship?

  1. Avoiding mass starts is a great way to reduce drafting since the more you separate people, the less likely it is to occur. It also reduces congestion on the swim. There’s really no legitimate reason not to do it.

  2. When I first raced in Kona in 2001 there were about 1400 starters. The swim exit up the stone steps were rather congested around 1:05 into the race. It got worse and for a year or more we came up the boat ramp on the other side of the pier. Then we went back to the Dig me Beach side but with temporary larger steps. I suspect the last few years when the starters went over 2000 the congestion was back. One of the given reasons for separating the men and women was that congestion. If my count is correct there are 2330 on the bib list this year. While the congestion at the swim exit is not given as a reason for this years changes it must have been a factor. I loved the old mass start but am OK with the wave start, it will still be quite a spectacle in the early morning of Oct 12.

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