The Lure of Kona
By Cathy Tibbetts
Cathly Tibbetts, an renowned Ironwoman, approached Endurance Sports and Fitness Magazine about writing about athletes who compete at Kona. Tibbetts, who’s competed at Kona and many other endurance triathlon events, worked with a number of athletes from around the country to bring their perspectives on the United States’ signature triathlon. Cathy has completed in numerous Konas including a run of 12 consecutive Konas, with next year being thirteen.
Only the top 1% of triathletes who compete in Ironman-distance races qualify for Kona. What is Kona you ask? It’s an annual Ironman-distance triathlon event held every October in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii – and is the equivalent in many ways to the Boston Marathon; an internationally-recognized marathon where qualifying times are required. In 2016, 260,000 athletes representing 155 countries and territories athletes ranging from age 19 to 83 vied to be a top finisher in one of more than 40 qualifying events worldwide to earn a spot in the Kona Ironman. Of these those athletes, only 2,300 qualified…and of those, only 100 slots are awarded worldwide each year to those who have completed 12 Ironmans.
Rocky Ursino, a triathlon coach with Vo2Multisport dreamt of someday competing at the Hawaii Ironman World Championship. The 47-year-old from Bellevue, Wa. has competed in Ironman triathlons since 2005 and in 2016, after completing 13 grueling 140.6-mile races he got a spot in Kona. He bought a new bicycle to celebrate.
“It was a BMC timemachine with full top-of-the-line components and Enve 6.7 PowerTap wheels,” Ursino said.
And then it was stolen a month before the race.
The following Saturday, I was racing a local triathlon for training and used my old bike; after the race, I rode it back to my car with my transition bag dangling from the handlebars. It got tangled up with my front wheel, and I went over. Thankfully I wasn’t going fast and was okay, so I put the bike on top of my car and went home and pulled into the garage with my bike on top of the car.”
Despite the bike mishap, Ursino’s experience at Kona was amazing.
“The Hawaii Ironman World Championship takes triathlon to a whole new level of competition,” Ursino said. “After doing 13 Ironmans, I felt qualified to compete with the best in the world. I was starting to get tired, but this has totally re-energized my passion for triathlon. When it comes to the start, I will be in the best shape of my life.”
Ursino will tell you the Hawaii Ironman World Championship takes triathlon to a whole new level of competition.
“After doing 13 Ironmans, I felt qualified to compete with the best in the world. I was starting to get tired, but this has totally re-energized my passion for triathlon. When it comes to the start, I will be in the best shape of my life.”
Darryl Lehtola, a specialty running store manager from Brandon, Miss., said, “It is the Super bowl, the Boston Marathon of triathlon! It is where it all started. You can’t just pay your way and go. You have to pay your dues to get there, either by doing a lot of Ironmans or being a top finisher.”
Lehtola, 53, has done 20 Ironmans since 2000 and got in on his third application to the Legacy Program.
“I was going to race Kona in 1984, when you could just sign up and go. But I was 21 and had some self-doubts, and didn’t do it. The next year you had to qualify, and I have been kicking myself ever since!” he exclaimed.
Lehtola, not letting anything get is his way, persevered in his efforts to reach Kona.
“I even did a marathon in Kona one year because it was on the legendary Queen K Highway and as close to the Hawaii Ironman as I thought I’d ever get. I am not going to believe this is happening until I actually get my feet in the water!”
Tim Laird of Appleton, Wisc., began his quest for a Kona slot in 1999.
“I have always been top ten in my age division and kept missing the slot. At the 2012 Ironman Wisconsin, I missed it by 45 seconds. At Ironman Florida I once missed it by two minutes. And at another race I had to go to work and missed the roll-down where my name was called.”
A roll-down is when a top finisher doesn’t want to go to Kona, giving the next-place finisher the option of the slot. An athlete must be present to claim their slot; slots roll down until they reach a taker in each age division.
“Kona is the Indy 500, the epitome all endurance events,” Laird continued. “If you say you do Ironmans, everybody asks if you have done Kona. It’s one of those iconic races. Completing it is a sense of accomplishment knowing you have done everything you can to be in the top 1 percent around the planet. The spot is earned. People there have put the time in, and you have to have serious results to get there.”
Alicia Schultz qualified for Kona at her third Ironman, having missed it by four minutes the year before. She won her age group at Ironman Florida – despite a bike crash at mile 107 that left her bloody and bruised. “ ‘Nothing is broken’,” the 50-year-old teacher from Jupiter, Fla., told herself. “ ‘Get yourself up and keep going. You can deal with the injuries later.’ ”
Not only was Schultz first in her age group, she finished 6th overall female.
“What I am most excited about is the opportunity to be lining up with the best athletes, the same as me or better. Kona is the ultimate. Triathletes all say ‘Wow, you’re doing Kona!’Not many people make it there,” she said.
Schultz is the ultimate definition of a dedicated athlete and loves to show up to work at her school post workout.
“I show up at work every morning with wet hair and no makeup and the kids and parents just love that. The kids always want to know how much I swim, bike or run every day. My students love to hear my stories – and I hope to bring back some good ones from Kona!”
Barry Lewis returned to Kona for the fifth time in 2016, and competing against the world’s top triathletes has not lost its excitement. “It really is the pinnacle of the sport,” said the 57-year-old from Philadelphia. “A selective process ensures that the top athletes from around the world are there, and the bar is raised. You find a little more in yourself; you’ve got to bring your A-game.”
“The other appeal is that it is such a special place and atmosphere. People talk about the spirituality of the Hawaiian islands, and it is there. I love the whole experience: the beautiful water, the landscape, people from other races and places around the world. It’s a different level than anywhere else. I am blown away that I have ever been there, and can’t believe I’m back for the fifth time. I never expected this to happen.”
Cris Howard, a 46-year-old bio-pharmaceutical researcher from Reston, Va., said this about Kona:
“Kona is the triathlete’s version of the Olympics. To be shoulder to shoulder in the arena with the best of the best of the best will be such a thrill! I have never been an athlete; to be able to do this has changed my perception of myself, and has given me a new identity for sure. When I first started triathlon, I was dead last; I was the one walking the whole race. I had to have the courage to be faster and let go of the phrase, ‘I am slow’.”
Howard, who was in the 14.5- to 15-hour range for many years, qualified for Kona at her 10th Ironman at the 2015 Ironman Maryland with a time of 11:04.
“I didn’t know I was second until I crossed the finish line. It just all came together. I never thought I would qualify,” she said.
Getting to Kona was as emotional as the experience.
“I got here when I started saying, ‘I am an athlete’,” Cris Howard said just before the race. “I think it will be a pivotal moment in my life,” she said
Editor’s note: I want to personally thank Cathy for bringing me her ideas and working hard to get permission to cover the race as a correspondent. I was so proud of Cathy for first, harassing me into submission to get her race credentials completed, and then second, for profiling such interesting people. Great job Cathy, you will always have a job here at ES&F!
Read more about Cathy Tibbetts coming soon to this site!
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