After a 2-year hiatus, the Ironman World Championships return to Kailua-Kona, Hawaii this October. Qualifying to race on the Big Island is a bucket list goal for many triathletes. But with intense heat, blustering cross winds and some of the world’s best athletes to contend with, heading out to Kona for the first time can feel as intimidating as it does exciting.
Friend of Stolen Goat Ophelie Saussus, who will be racing at the world championships in Kona for the third time, shares her top tips for making the most of your time on the island and enjoying the race…
Before the race
Start your days with a swim at the pier – and keep an eye out for the dolphins!
You’ll find that you wake up early in Kona, and going for a swim at the pier every morning is a really nice way to start your day. It’s a great way to get a bit of movement without getting too tired, and you’ll get to see lots of other people who are there for the race, including the professionals.
You’ll also get to see dolphins if you look for them! So if you notice someone near you in the water has stopped swimming, look under the water because they’ve probably spotted a dolphin. This is one of the special things about Kona: you’re just going for a swim and you get to see turtles, dolphins and all these other amazing things.
Take part in the Parade of Nations
The Parade of Nations is a must if it’s your first year. Everyone is so excited and it just helps to get you even more excited for race day. The parade also finishes at the Ironman Village, so you can check that out straight after and save energy by not having to walk down there on another day. It’s so hot in Kona, so you want to minimise the amount of time you’re walking around in the sun.
It’s not just about the race. Take some time to explore the Island
Remember that it’s not just about the race. You’re getting to go to Hawaii, which is pretty special for most of us! Explore the island, because you don’t know if you’re going to come back. Go up to the volcano and you’ll see plenty of other triathletes up there. If it’s before the race, you probably don’t want to be hiking trails or anything, but hire a car and explore. Make sure you see the island.
Manage your expectations of the race: know that it’s going to be tough!
One thing I wish I’d known before my first time at Kona was that it doesn’t matter how well you prepare: physically and mentally it is going to be hard. It’s amazing, but you also have to be prepared to suffer. Everyone tells you how hard it is, particularly on the run. You know the energy lab is going to be hard and it’s going to be hot – but it’s so much more than that. Manage your expectations: you think you’re going to run a certain pace but once you get out on to the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway, it’s so hot and it’s very difficult for things to go to plan. Even the professionals say: whatever you’re prepared for, it’s always going to feel 10 x harder. If you go into the race knowing this, you’ll be able to enjoy it a lot more. I’ve always raced without expectations, and I’ve done quite well because of this.
Top tips for race day
Everyone will warn you about the heat, but until you get to Kona and experience the humidity – you just can’t be prepared for what it feels like. The bike actually feels hotter than the run because you don’t have that many aid stations. The sweat can’t evaporate from your face and the sun is beating down on your back. So hydrate a lot. It’s so important and it will make your race so much more enjoyable.
How to manage the wind conditions on the bike
Kona is renowned for intense cross winds. I was really scared about that the first year I qualified, so I went and did a training camp in Lanzarote which really helped me to get used to it. Obviously it’s a bit late now if you’re heading out for this year’s race, but that’s definitely something for future years which is really good to do in advance.
On race day, you can avoid being taken by surprise by the cross winds by paying attention to people ahead of you. If you see someone out in front of you is moving around in the wind, you can prepare yourself in advance and put more weight on your front wheel so that you’re not caught by surprise. The wind is hard, but if you’re concentrating the whole time and you’re confident on your aero bars, it’s not as much of a problem. It’s hard to concentrate for 180km, though! So really just try to look at the people riding in front of you – especially coming down from Hawi – because you can judge in advance where you’re going to experience a cross wind.
Don’t overcook the bike!
The first 10km of the bike course is really hard. It goes through the town, and there’s a lot of elevation. Everyone is always really excited after the swim and there’s a lot of supporters. Try to make yourself slow down here and don’t go too hard in all the excitement – it won’t feel hard at the time, because it’s only the beginning of your ride, but it will soon catch up with your legs. If you push too much in the first 10km through town, you’ll break yourself before the race has even really started.
The same goes for once you get on to the Queen K highway on the way out of town. Normally you have a tail wind here. So you’re excited, and you feel like you’re riding super-fast. Just remember that once you get to the turnaround and have to come back, you’ll still have 85km to go and you’ll be faced with a very strong head wind. So take it easy for the first half to make sure you have some energy left for the way back.
Make the most of the energy on Ali’i Drive on the run course
Once you get out on to the run course, Ali’i Drive is amazing with all the supporters. But that’s only 12km of the course. After that it can get really lonely, especially on the Queen K and when it gets dark. Take up all the energy you can on Ali’i Drive. Don’t run too fast here, but just try to enjoy it and soak up all the positive vibes that you can, because it will get hard once you hit the Queen K. It’s a long road and it looks never ending. The energy on Ali’i Drive is so amazing, so try to keep that in your mind when it gets tough.
Again, the run is going to be really hard so take it easy. I don’t think I’ve been at an Ironman where I’ve seen more people walking the marathon than at Kona. Bearing in mind it’s the world championships, and these are the best 1% of triathletes in the world – the fact that so many people end up walking really means something. It’s just so warm, and it can be easy not to be prepared for what’s to come on the run.
Beat the heat: carry your own hydration
On the course map, the aid stations on the run course look like they’re really close together. They’re about 1.5 miles apart – for a normal Ironman, that would be pretty good. But this is Kona, and they’re not close enough! It’s so hot, that you’ll find just 200m after an aid station you’ll already be thirsty again. I would recommend carrying your own hydration on the run course, for example with hand bottles. I usually carry 1 litre of water, and then at the special needs aid station (where you can place a bag with your own items that you might want during the run) I’ll have another litre waiting for me.
Keep your head cool
At the aid stations, they have these huge barrels of water and ice. The year that Jan Frodeno won Kona, I saw him about 10km in to the run stick his head into one of these barrels. When I was out on the course, I was thinking about that and thinking about how hot my head was feeling. I thought “I need to do something”. So at every other aid station, I did what Jan did and put my head in the barrel! The volunteers were giving me strange looks, but it helped me to stay really cool. Even if you just put ice blocks in your cap, keeping your head cool is really important for managing the heat.
Enjoy every moment, be proud and remember how hard you’ve worked to be here.
For most people, it’s a dream to go to Kona. When things get tough, take a moment to think to yourself: “you’re really here, you’re on the course and it’s amazing!” Be proud of yourself during the whole race. Enjoy it as much as you can because you’ve worked so hard for it. You have nothing to prove anymore: you’re at the world championship. Be happy to be there and enjoy every moment because it’s actually a pretty short day and before you know it, it’s over. Slow down, soak it up and enjoy every second – even if it’s not going to plan. If you’re 30th or 40th in your age group, who cares? For the majority of us, it’s better to be 10 minutes slower and to truly enjoy the day. If you do that, you’ll have the best memories of the race. Putting pressure on yourself, going for a result which in time won’t really mean anything… you won’t have the best memories to take home from the race. Having experienced it myself, it really is better to just focus on enjoying it.
The best spot for post-race celebrations
Make the most of the finish line – it’s more than just your average finish line, it’s the world championships! I think I’m going to walk it this year, because I haven’t really enjoyed it properly in previous years so I really want to take it in. And then, once you’ve finished the race head to Quinn’s just across from the finish. It’s a really nice place to go and get something to eat and drink with friends after the race!
The Ironman World Championship returns to Kailua-Kona, Hawaii for the first time since 2019 with the women’s race on Thursday 6th October and the men’s race on Saturday 8th October.