It’s that time of year again - Kona time. Whether you race sprint- or iron-distance triathlons, you’ve likely heard of “the Big One,” the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
The island is filled with epic moments like Julie Moss’ famed crawl across the finish line in 1982, or Dave Scott becoming the first-ever six-time winner of Kona in 1987. The special grit that age groupers bring to the course is something else. Suffice it to say, Kona is one of the places where triathlon magic happens.
There are a few ways one can find herself on the start line of the Ironman World Championships. Winning a Kona slot in another Ironman race, submitting your entry into the Ironman Legacy Program, and raising money for charity are the more publicized options.
But what about when you don’t qualify for Kona?
Yep, that’s right. We’re talking about all of us who aren’t going to be on the island, who hold the wounds of working towards a goal that didn’t pan out (this time), who maybe kinda sorta wish they could cleanse their feed of any and all things Kona.
It’s okay. I hear you. I am with you.
Each year for the past four years, I’ve chanced my luck at an Ironman or two. And each year, I’ve been one or two spots short of a Kona slot. As much as I try to say “it doesn’t matter,” there is part of me that knows that, deep down, it does.
Kona matters to me. There, I said it.
When October rolls around each year, I’m met with mixed emotions. The bubbling up of excitement for my friends and training partners who will be competing, and the shameful feelings of jealousy, frustration, and anger that I am not there - that despite my work ethic, my good attitude, my relentless training, I was not good enough.
Anyone else ever feel like this? Just me? No? Ok.
Whether you qualify for Kona or not, you’ve trained countless hours, you’ve set a million alarms for ungodly times, you’ve sacrificed multiple date nights and kids’ events, you’ve put your mind and body through hell.
And yet, maybe your qualifying goal didn’t come true this year.
Maybe you’d rather not watch the live stream of everyone mashing their pedals on the Queen K.
What I’ve noticed this year is that there is actually part of me that is happy to not be in Kona.
“Kristin, aren’t you being hypocritical? You just said you want to qualify.”
Yeah, yeah, bear with me, though.
There is a blossoming part of me that is pleased to be in my own lane, focused on my own growth areas, heading to another race in October that is not Kona. The “Kona hype” is both very real and very fake. The oodles of photos permeating my social media feeds are of the uber-fit, uber-fast, uber-competitive Kona-bound folks who all seem to have a point to prove. They seem to have not a problem in the world except getting an Umeke bowl. They all seem to have endless financial means and endless wells of support to draw from.
Let me promise you, though, very few of them do. And that is the crux of the Kona hype. Most folks heading to Kona have up days and down days, some have credit card debt, some argue with their spouses and kids - but you’d never know it. That Kona hype? It’s not what you think it is.
In my opinion, what the true “Kona hype” is, are the genuine stories that come from Kona - the mom who overcame cancer, the war veteran who races for his fallen buddies, the young woman who left an abusive relationship and rose above it all.
We don’t hear about this Kona culture very often because it is covered up by the fancy acai bowls, the actions shots in the lava fields, and the dazzling views of Dig Me Beach. But it’s there.
Triny Willerton recovered from being hit by a car and raced Kona in 2018
The grit that is the foundation of the Kona hype is held together by the grandmother who didn’t do her first Ironman until 60, the wheelchair-assisted pair who don’t take “no” for an answer, the son who lost his brother.
So this year, I’m coaxing the authenticity and compassion out of the deep recesses of my brain, and reminding myself that there’s nothing wrong with me for not racing in Kona - and I’m finding contentment in knowing that there are incredible, “regular” people like me who have found their way to the Island in a manner that spoke to them. It reminds me that we all have “our time,” and that perhaps mine just hasn’t come around yet - good things come to those who wait (and work really, really hard!).
I’ll admit, I’ll probably track my age group in Kona on October 12th and let out a scoff, declaring “I could’ve swam faster than that!” Again, yikes, but this is the side of the Kona hype to which most don’t admit.
But then I’ll dip into authentic well of strength, of happiness for my super strong friends who are racing in Kona, of yearning for the day when the Queen K calls my name, and I’ll nod to myself in vindication, and get on with heading over to Waterfront Park to drop off my bike and transition bags.
After all, I’ve got Ironman Louisville to focus on the next day. And that’s pretty damn great!