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Preview: Women’s Ironman World Championship, Kona


, by Micah Ling

Photography by: Donald Miralle / IRONMAN

The Ironman World Championships has entered a new era. For the first time in the history of the race, the men and women are competing in separate races on separate continents. Last month, Sam Laidlow won the inaugural men's Ironman World Championship in Nice. This weekend it's the women's turn, as they compete in the spiritual home of Ironman: Kona.

Why is the Kona World Championship just women?

Traditionally — for over 40 years — the men’s and women’s Ironman World Championships have been held over one October weekend in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. But this year, for the first time, the men and women have their own events, in different locations. The men raced in Nice, France in September, and the women will race in Kona on October 14. Next year they will swap locations, and this rotation will continue through 2026, with Nice and Kona sharing the premier triathlon event. 

Many still feel like Kona is the real Ironman World Championship location, but anyone who was in Nice in September can say for sure that it is an iconic venue. It's also much easier in terms of traveling for any European athlete, and even for some athletes in the U.S. Still, Kona will always be the spiritual home of Ironman triathlon.  

The course

The mighty Mauna Kea looms behind all things on the island of Hawaiʻi, reminding everyone that this island is daunting to say the least. And if you’ve never biked from the sea — literally zero feet elevation — up to the summit of the inactive volcano at 13,803 feet, put that on your bucket list.

The other thing all around, besides humidity, is lava. A history of volcanic activity. But also a feature that, whether you’re on the bike or on the run, makes you feel like you’re baking. Because you are. Kona’s 140.6-mile journey is truly a test.

Athletes training ahead of this weekend's World Championships. Photography by: Donald Miralle / IRONMAN

The Swim

Like most things on this course, the 2.4 mile (3.8km) ROKA Swim is a giant out-and-back. Which can legitimately be intimidating. When athletes launch into the crystal clear water at sunrise, they can barely see the final buoy / boat that they turn at. The water will be warm, likely in the low-80s, and it’s usually fairly calm, so if athletes can find their rhythm this swim can actually be enjoyable. And the roar of the crowds at transition will be enough to forget even a less-than-perfect swim.

The Bike

This renowned 112 mile (180.2km) bike course travels from Kailua-Kona to the Hawi turnaround and back on the iconic Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway. The total elevation gain is 5,814 feet (1,772m), about 3,000 feet less than the Nice course. But none of it will be easy. One thing you can count on, is that Kona will be humid. The bike is truly a game of hydrating and fueling. If transition is the fourth discipline in triathlon, fueling is the fifth. 

Did we mention crosswinds? While the steady Kona breeze can be nice to break up the heavy air, sometimes winds can gust to 40 mph making an already tough job even tougher. And don’t forget that riders are surrounded by black lava for much of the course. 

The Run

Kona has a reputation for being crushingly difficult because of the heat, the humidity, and the terrain. At no point in this race are you “home free.” Or at least not until you can see that finish line. The marathon — 26.2 mile (42.2km) — out-and-back run starts by taking athletes past the crowds on Ali`i Drive. Then up Palani Road to the Queen Ka`ahumanu Highway. The course leads runners to HOST Park at the Natural Energy Laboratory Hawai`i Authority (NELHA). There are rolling hills, including some legitimately steep climbs, and a return back to the highway. The grand finale includes a lap through Kona with fans going nuts, and finally, finally a finish line with all the traditions.

Athletes to watch

With Kat Matthews and Lucy Charles-Barclay both without much racing this year, it could go either way for them: fresh and ready to rock, or out of practice. Anne Haug has had exceptional PTO results, and seems hungry for another win. Daniela Ryf never seems to perform to her full potential when Taylor Knibb is around, but it also seems like she might have one more Kona win in her. It’s certainly going to be a fight, here are seven athletes to keep an eye on:

The Women’s 2023 IRONMAN World Championships will take place on October 14 in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.