My first Ironman race was at the end of 2010 in Cozumel – a beautiful Island off the coast of Mexico, which my then fiancée (now husband) Mark suggested it as our honeymoon. Anyway, the point is that our first Ironman was not planned for long, came shortly after we got married, and I went there just to finish.
I did pretty well in that race all things considered, and I loved it. We told ourselves it would be a one off, and that there was no way we wanted to go all the way to Hawaii to race in this “Kona thing” that everyone talked of.
Six years on and that has all changed. Now racing as a professional on the Ironman and 70.3 circuit, my focus this season is to try and qualify for the race that founded our sport and continues to inspire thousands and create legends year after year. I qualified as an age grouper in 2014 and raced to an AG third place finish on the Big Island; the experience of racing there was incredible.
When I turned professional at the start of last year my eyes were not turned towards Kona at all, as qualifying as a professional is a whole different story, however I came very close, and it is that which I want to give an insight into now.
How professionals qualify for the Ironman World Championships
The World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) who organise the Ironman World Championships allocate 50 places on the start line at Kona for the professional men each year, and 35 for the professional women.
I find this inequality totally disgusting and it is sometimes hard to believe that it is actually true. Much has been written about why the WTC believe it is fair to discriminate and I don’t want to get into the arguments for and against- that would be one hell of a rant!
50 Women to Kona tackles ‘a very visible show of inequality’
Instead I want to give a flavour of what that number 35 actually means to me, and how a newbie PRO goes about trying to qualify.
To qualify to race as a professional at Kona you currently have to score points on the Kona Pro Ranking system – or KPR. This KPR is constantly updated as races are completed throughout the year and all athletes are ranked continuously depending on the points they have gathered. Athletes have up to five races to count but can race as many times as they like.
The tally of five can be up to three 70.3 races and up to three full Ironman races but athletes have to complete at least one full distance Ironman (outside of Kona). Races are allocated different points, but the majority of full Ironman races have 2000 points for the winner. The exception to this is the regional championships, of which there are five, which are 4000 points for the winner. Kona is an 8000 point race and points gathered there count towards the following year. 70.3 races carry much lower points, typically 500 or 750 for the winner. Sound complicated? That’s not even half of it. Previous winners of Kona from the past 5 years can qualify automatically by completing one full distance race, and those who win a regional championship also get an automatic slot.
Ok that’s enough of the confusion. Here are some facts about the PRO ladies which might help paint a picture:
In 2015 19 of the women who lined up had scored points at Kona the year before – and 12 of the top 15 from 2014 returned to race again. That means about 180 PRO ladies were competing for the other 15-20 slots (some of the above get an automatic place). So qualifying as a PRO rookie is really not easy. Kona is the “Olympics” of long distance triathlon so everyone wants to be there.
The ladies who are new to racing Kona are finishing an average of three full distance races in the qualifying year. Things go wrong during racing– so to get three good finishes probably requires lining up to start far more often.
This year the number of points needed to qualify as a female PRO will sit at about 4,500 for the July cut off where most of the places are allocated. Two Ironman podiums would give you about 3,000 points if you are lucky. So to qualify a female athlete would still need a third Ironman race and a couple of good 70.3 finishes. By contrast the July male PRO cut off was 3600 in 2015 and is likely to be 3500 in 2016.
In 2015 I actually came very close without realising until the last minute. I know now that qualifying for Kona requires a strategy. In 2015 I didn’t have one, mainly because I considered it to be out of my league. It is safe to say that my results last year were beyond my expectations.
Despite hard training and big improvements I had not in my wildest dreams thought that two full distance podium spots were possible. So after Ironman UK (where I gained my second podium spot) it was with mild incredulity that I realised I was in with a shout for Kona qualification. I “just” had to complete one final race.
Unfortunately my body (and mind) had other ideas. Despite going to Wiesbaden European 70.3 Championships with the very best of intentions, looking back I was masking a strong desire to just call it a day and hit off season with gusto. The race was a struggle from start to finish, and I didn’t get the top seven finish I hoped for. I was labelled one of the “missing 15” – ladies who would have qualified in 2015 had the number of places for men and women been equal. In fact I was only four places away from a slot in the rankings. I suspect there were many other ladies in similar positions when the final count was done – great results all year – just not great enough.
I enter the 2016 qualifying year with a plan. I will have to race four full distance Ironman races at the very least to be in with a shout. In 2015 I raced a total of eight 70.3 and Ironman races in just over eight months. As anyone will tell you – that number of races in one year is not good for the body and long term health. I hear people saying that “the PRO’s are used to racing a lot”.
Maybe these people believe we are superhuman recovery machines. The fact is I work full time, I squeeze racing into long weekends of unpaid leave, and I “recover” while eating porridge at my desk after an early-morning training session before a full day at work followed by another training session in the evening.
Recovering from an Ironman race does not get easier just because you buy a PRO licence. Yes – I know some PROs are full time athletes – but many are not. Most have second jobs to make ends meet or are studying/training for another profession so they have an income when they retire from sport.
Racing a lot is hard, it’s painful, and it’s riddled with periods of injury and exhaustion. By limiting our spots to just 35 the WTC are forcing the PRO ladies to race more, take more risks and compromise our bodies in the process.
I have already started my campaign for 2016 (the qualifying year started in September 2015) and have about 1100 points racked up having started three races.
So I face having to complete another three full Ironman races in the next few months. I will start with Lanzarote and make plans for the rest of the season after that. I have Ironman Nice in the calendar and Frankfurt too, but I am also not going to risk everything just for a spot in Kona.
However I also know that I am making demands of my body, which are not sustainable and probably not sane and I realise how truly difficult qualification is. I will have to have, for me anyway, exceptional races.
However this year finishes I know I won’t regret trying. If I hadn’t been so desperate to enjoy a holiday/honeymoon while I was baking in dusty Afghanistan I may have never completed one of these extreme races. But fear of failure is never a good excuse. Hell – we only get one chance at life what’s the point in playing it safe.
Caroline on the podium at Ironman UK Bolton in 2015 where she was 2nd.