At the awards banquet dinner for the Ironman World Championships we were sitting next to some British athletes and their families. I was surprised to overhear in their conversation how much easier it is to qualify for Kona in the United States. I certainly had never considered this, and wondered if it could be true. I had looked over race results to see if there are races that might be a little easier to qualify, basically having good number of qualifying spots without as many high caliber athletes racing. I had thought that some of the races is Asia looked like they might be a little easier, but apparently the races in Europe are very competitive. This makes some sense because at the US races there are a lot of Europeans racing and qualifying for Kona.

During the pre-race banquet dinner they reviewed the statistics of the race. Of the 1850 competitors, about 850 were from the US. I don’t remember the exact number, but it was around 850. There was definitely fewer than ½ of the podium finishers (top 5 each division, top 10 pro) that were from the US. Besides individuals that qualify, there is a lottery for 200 spots. These spots have been divided so that 150 go to the US, and the remaining 50 go to US and international, so at least 150 of the lottery spots go to the US. Also, Ironman has some spots that they provide the US military, special invitation, charity fundraising, challenged athletes, and I’ll estimate that about 100 of those go to US athletes. So, there are probably about 600 athletes in the US that qualify, and about 900 or so international athletes. (These are just my estimates, and I welcome any comments with better guesses)

Of the top 200 finishers, only 50 represented the US. So, although the US represents about 46% of all competitors, about 40% of all qualified competitors, they are only making up about 20-25% of the top competitors. (The US made up 22 of the top 100 finishers)

I the British triathletes we were sitting with might have been correct. The Ironman is changing even more though. There are more qualifying races, so there will be fewer spots available at each race. Also, the lottery will no longer favor athletes from the US. There will be 200 spots still, and each spot will be given to the entire lottery pool. The few spots that have been given to military athletes may be going away. There used to be more spots provided, and the last 2 years they have cut it down to one male and one female spot for each branch of service. This generosity is likely to be going away too as the demand for a spot at Kona keeps rising. The other special invitation spots that the race organizers provide to some fortunate athletes will also likely become fewer as the organization continues to expand and have to provide qualifying spots at their races.

I do feel very fortunate to have been able to go to Kona finally. When I was there I realized that many of the people racing there had been there previously. I don’t know the statistics on this, but I think that first time qualifiers are becoming pretty rare.

So, will I go back? Hard to say. I am glad that I have Kona behind me, because there are so many other great events out there that I would like to do, and now I feel a bit freed up to move on. I don’t plan on shopping for a race that I feel like I could qualify at, but if I happen to do a race that is a qualifier, and raced well enough to get a spot I don’t think I’d let it go. WTC continues to expand their Ironman business, and many of us that have been doing triathlons for a while see the atmosphere of triathlon changing. The big productions are nice sometimes, but many of us just want to get out there, push ourselves to new limits, and try to chase someone down in a good old fashioned race. There could be 50 people or 2000 people in the race, but when you are out there racing it is you against the guy next to you.

Ironman presents a challenge in that the distances are long enough to make you wonder if you can do it. Running a marathon alone is tough, but can you run a marathon on exhausted legs? The one thing that would have made Kona much better for me is if it was the first Ironman I had done. My first was my slowest, but it brought so much satisfaction in just knowing that I had done it.