I Do Not Understand the Kona Obsession

Since Wisconsin the number one thing people have been saying to me is: “Does that mean you qualified for Kona?” (Or some variation.)

Yes, when you’re the second woman overall, it kind of guarantees that you’ll get a qualification spot to Kona. And yes, I handed over my credit card on the spot and signed up for next year. I’ve never been before and so, of course, I’m interested and I want to see what it’s like and I want to race the World Championships — even though I totally agree with the assessment that when you have the world championships in the same location every year it doesn’t so much decide who is the best Ironman athlete period, as it actually decides who is the best in those very specific conditions, but whatever.

So, yes, I bought into the Kona hype. But I have to say, I don’t understand the hype.

Maybe I’ll change my mind after I go. Maybe it truly is the most important and only worthwhile goal in triathlon. But I doubt it.

It seems to me like people chasing Kona qualification, trying to find the races that’ll be easiest to qualify, signing up for another and another and another, focusing only on that one thing as some kind of measure of their worth are missing the whole point of why they’re doing triathlon. They’ve lost the reason that they made Kona qualification a goal in the first place. It’s like none of these triathletes have ever read Moby Dick.

My goal at Wisconsin was to have a killer race. This was loosely defined time- and place-wise in my head, but rarely did that loose definition focus on how I would stack up in my age group. There was a point when I was running as the third woman overall and I was pretty sure I was third in my age group too (though it turned out one of the women ahead was actually in the 35-39). And that would have been fine, annoying but fine, because I’d rather have done a sub-10:30 and come in third overall than worry about winning my age group.

And that fundamentally is the part of the Kona qualification obsession that is weird to me: Who cares how old the people ahead of you and behind you are?? It doesn’t change how well you did.

If I had been six months younger I’d have won my age group at Wisconsin by over 30 minutes. If the woman ahead of me was three years younger, then the woman who was third overall wouldn’t have qualified for Kona. Does that change what we did in any way? Does it change how good or bad we should feel about our performances?

I’m a big believer in you race who shows up on race day and that’s that. Sure, I 100% get that the 60-year-old woman isn’t really competing with the 25-year-old, but the lines between 34 and 35 or between 28 and 32 are arbitrary. And we’ve let the weird structure of triathlon convince us that they’re not, that they mean something. We let Ironman lie to us that it somehow makes us more or less deserving of being at a world championships. We lie to ourselves.

Steve won Tahoe 70.3 last weekend. It was a big deal, and his first half-Ironman ever. And when I told people he won, every triathlete asked if I meant his age group or overall. I will probably never say that someone won something unless I mean that they fucking won. He WON, as in he was the first to cross the line, went the fastest, no one else went faster. Period.

The other thing people kept asking me about his race was if that meant he qualified for Kona too. Because, you know, that’s the only thing that matters.

19 thoughts on “I Do Not Understand the Kona Obsession

  1. #fastpeopleproblems
    KIDDING. (I mean, sort of not kidding, but mostly.)

    This part is definitely true: “We let Ironman lie to us that it somehow makes us more or less deserving of being at a world championships.” — and it’s not only more deserving but possible, period. Like, “deserve” actually doesn’t have anything to do with the rules, but the rules are what determine the reward, so then you feel like if you aren’t “winning” within the structure of the rules, you aren’t deserving, when they are two fundamentally different benchmarks.

    In a way it’s kind of cool that triathlon has a path for people to compete at something like a world championships even when they’re out of prime race-WINNING-winning years, though. Like, I think being the fastest 70-year-old in the world at something would be rad. (I guess a lot of sports have that — there are world senior games, right? — but I only really know it in the triathlon context.)

    1. Yeah, they have Masters and Super Masters races in almost every sport, which is cool and the same basic idea. You can see people running around here into their 80s. I actually routinely get my ass kicked by the really fast 55-year-old women.

      Honestly, I have no problem with having age group divisions, but the mentality that percolates everything in triathlon suggests that that’s the only thing that matters, which is just so arbitrary.

  2. Everyone talks about Kona as being an amazing experience outside of the race itself. Its on my bucket list to attend (since I have no hope of qualifying).

    The placing obsession is a funny thing about triathlon. When I was in the Midwest and ran a sleepy little sprint race, we’d get people who complained about the lack of place titles on our “trophies” (trinkets like bottle openers and train whistles with the race’s name on them). We sussed out that people were looking for races just to get “first place” in.

  3. I am enjoying the #fastpeopleproblems hashtag as am never going to even need to worry about people asking me if I qualified for Kona! I completely agree with your point though – I definitely do triathlon for ME, to beat my time, to improve myself and don’t really care about the people around me. But that may be because I don’t really have a chance at anything else! And I agree with the poster above who said about it being cool that older people can compete at triathlon – my mum is nearing 60 and hoping to represent GB at the worlds next year (Olympic distance). In her age group of course – but it’s awesome that she’s able to have that as a goal!

    1. Hah, well I would think that the whole ‘KONA IS THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS’ is more like a #notfastpeopleproblem since it creates this false belief that if you’re not fast enough, per some arbitrary definition, then your accomplishments aren’t worthwhile. Which is stupid.

      There’s totally a world champs for Masters in running and they have a Senior Olympics and all kinds of cool stuff! Good luck to your mom 🙂

  4. I was watching at Wisconsin and wish I’d tracked on the fact that you were racing. Sorry, like all blog readers I come in and out. But you are obviously a talented athlete and deserve whatever fucking spots you get. Ha ha. Great job. Watch out for jellyfish.

  5. Wow you two are a sickenly talented / fast couple. Well done on Wisconsin and to Steve on Tahoe. Honestly, it makes me so happy that an “iron-virgin” won the race! Am currently in Mallorca now having watched Gav (my boyfriend) in Saturday’s Ironman. Not sure how well attended slot allocation usually is but there were plenty of Kona obsessives here… or maybe athletes like mere mortals really can be lured by free beer!

  6. Awesome for Steve! AS for Kona, it’s the same for me with Boston… I don’t get the hype. It’s just another marathon but with an outrageous price tag.

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