#3: Time for new Kona myths
From the halls of the King Kam.
issue 3: Oct. 5, 2022
I’ve written this newsletter throughout the day from various spots around Kona. A corner of the King Kam hotel after the press conference, a patio outside Lava Java, a condo in Mauna Lani—all while dripping sweat and still counting an ocean swim as my post-run shower. Just to make you feel like you’re getting the real Kona experience.
A scheduling note: I’m going to try to turn out two shorter special edition post-race newsletters Friday and Sunday, with any on-the-ground stuff from the races (to test it out as a service for you). And then we’ll be back to our regular Wednesday morning weekly schedule.
Also: Don’t forget to enter the predictions contest *before* the start of the women’s race to win super very cool swag. And a lot of you in Kona have asked this week how you can support Triathlonish. Please, just tell your friends to subscribe!
We won’t talk about Kona forever, lord knows, but for now: we gotta get the goss.
Mindfully seek wonder
The first time I ever rolled into Kona, in 2016, I parked in front of the Baskin Robbins, rode out a country highway full of big trucks that created a wind turbulence I learned to brace myself for, ate a mediocre burrito sitting in my car, and thought: ‘This is what all the fuss is about?’
At that point, I had been a triathlete for 11 years without ever visiting Kona (or Boulder)—and without ever much caring about that fact. It hadn’t affected my enjoyment or knowledge of the sport. It was not actually the basis for my understanding of tri; it was not the first thing I ever knew or heard about triathlon. (That would be my boyfriend in college competing on the club team, and then watching Kirsten Sweetland faint on TV in the Olympic qualifying race.) Kona was simply a thing, among many things, that existed.
It’s nice to be back this year, though. It’s nice to see everyone, to go for a ride on an empty road and get passed by a friend who lives far away, to spot the celebrities of our sport running around our condo complex, to feel like here in this one spot triathlon is the most important thing in the world. It’s extra nice to be in Kona and not be racing or working too much. Highly recommend. I had never actually noticed the fish when swimming here before. I had never actually enjoyed the Queen K before.
But it’s still just a place.
We’ll save the questions about what happens next and if this year is a success until after it’s over. Let’s talk, instead, about what’s happened here before.
If you hit all the tri high points in Kona—Dig Me Beach and the pier, Ali’i Drive, the Energy Lab, Hawi, Huggo’s—you’ll be smacked in the face over and over again by the history of the place. That’s what Kona is about: history. These are the things you have to do, the places you must honor. You go down Ali’i and there are banners and markers. Here is where Julie Moss crawled. This is where Mark Allen won #6. There the Iron War was fought.
A friend messaged me earlier today that she was jealous of all the IG #Konaspam, that she had no desire to ever do another Ironman but wanted to be back racing in Kona. She joked something must be wrong with her.
But, of course, there’s nothing wrong with her. It’s all working exactly right. Kona is about the Kona FOMO as much as it’s about the Kona dream. You’re buying what you’ve been sold; it’s hard not to. The very real emotion being commodified is real.
As non-cynically and factually as possible: Kona is a myth that is packaged for TV and sold as a dream primarily to age-groupers. It’s good to have a dream, and there’s nothing wrong with being in the dream business—but it is a business. Kona is almost always the first thing people, at least Americans, see or know about triathlon. It must, then, sell them on the dream—and keep selling them. It is, absolutely, fundamentally, the golden goose of Ironman. The reason you do Ironman brand races instead of Challenge is most simply because of the lure of Kona slots. That’s neither good nor bad, it just is. Kona is The Masters or Yankee Stadium or the Olympics or something football important that I don’t care about. Those things also require a mythology. This is how sports capitalism works.
The problem is not that people chase that dream or that they love the thrill of living it out next to the greats of their sport. The problem is right now Kona’s mythology is deeply—too deeply—entrenched in the past.
Mark Allen and Dave Scott are amazing athletes, but was the Iron War truly the greatest race ever? What about when Chris McCormack and Andreas Raelert battled in 2010? Or when Mirinda Carfrae ran down 14 minutes in 2014? The 1997 crawl battle for the final podium spot was pretty amazing. What about the 2018 men’s race at 70.3 Worlds in South Africa? That race was so so good. What about the sprint for second at St. George back in the spring? Or the sprint for Olympic gold in 2012 or 2008? Or Kristian Blummenfelt’s Tokyo win or Flora Duffy’s?
Maybe a race that happened in 1989 really truly was the pinnacle of our sport. Maybe. Or maybe it was just a good book that created a story and the marketing took it from there. Maybe that’s true for quite a bit of this history we’re so weighed down by.
There are a lot of “rookie” Kona pros this year. Rookies who could definitely win. And so it’s come up a lot, the mythology of the island. And I have to tell you: I don’t think the new generation is clinging to the past as much as our sport traditionally has. They know about it, they’re students of it, but it doesn’t mean more than it does. They weren’t alive when Julie Moss crawled our sport into the mainstream. I love Julie and that clip always makes me cry, but it doesn’t mean anything visceral to this next generation. They had their break-throughs during three years without Kona. There were three years without Kona and the sport survived. At least on some level, they also know there’s money to be made other places now, too. Other dreams. The island suddenly looks like just an island.
One thing someone said to me last week, when I was asking about how they’d deal with their first year in Kona, with the Energy Lab, was: “Those are just made-up words.” The Energy Lab? It doesn’t mean anything other than what we’ve made it mean.
Triathlon’s been around for a bit over 40 years. It’s grown exponentially in those decades, on the back of the Kona mythology. The athletes that shaped that history were amazing athletes and remain huge figures in the sport. Of course.
But it’s time now—if we want to grow beyond what we’ve been—to move forward. It’s time for new stories, for new history, for new legends. Whether or not the race stays in Kona, stays two days, changes or doesn’t (and you can be sure we’ll talk about that once we see how it goes), it’s got to grow from its past into its future.
The Kona goss
But we’re here, we’re having fun, we love fast & hard & deep racing and we’ll definitely see fast & hard & deep racing tomorrow and Saturday. And being in Kona (or worrying about not being in Kona) is 100% about feeling like someone else is doing something cooler. And so I am here for you, getting all the good on-the-ground goss.
A few Kona tidbits:
It is no secret I love the Norwegians. They’ve made it fun to follow them. And you should definitely follow them on Strava. (I’ve been informed that this lactate photo on Blu’s Strava post is really a bit of a flex.) I did see them during the 2.5-hour “taper” run of their’s. They were running hard outside our condo one direction; I went to the store and came back an hour later and they were still running hard the other direction. At first, I also thought this was crazy, but then I thought: I dunno, they have the training to support it, they monitor that line pretty closely to make sure they don’t go over it, and really a 2.5-hour race pace workout a week before an Ironman isn’t that weird. Maybe they’ll implode, but man, I hope not.
Yes, they also launched their tech company thing, whatever it is. I don’t even totally understand it and I’m like ‘here, just take my money.’ Which is what I told their coach when I chatted briefly with him about it. (I do actually sort of understand it; there are basically four or five products—a core body temperature monitor, a lactate testing system, etc—that they were already developing and working with.)
I have also come to fully appreciate Lionel Sanders’ appeal. I went to his press event—yes, it is a trend for all the big names to do their own individual press conferences apparently—and he really does just 100% answer your questions as honestly as possible. He told a story about sitting down on the side of the road in his St. George build-up and crying about the Norwegians training too hard, and his wife told him he was fine, get up. So he did and he ran a 32-minute 10K off a hard bike. And, honestly, ‘try harder’ is pretty good advice for 90% of people.
When I said last week that Kat Matthews was definitely not in Kona, it should have been: is definitely not racing in Kona. Kat got on her flight to Hawaii, because she had the flight, why not recover here instead of Texas. And today she did a Breakfast with Bob that I’ve been told was the most popular Bob yet.
As has been discussed at length, this year will be women (plus some age-group men) on Thursday and the rest of the men on Saturday. Everyone pretty much agrees, including the dudes, it’s good for it to be as it should be and give the pro women their own clean race—though the first AG women’s wave (30-34) starts only five minutes back from the pros, so do the math on that. I also think, having raced this as an AG woman, the bigger clean race difference will be for those front age-groupers who won’t be stuck in packs of men anymore.
The main thing everyone’s worried about for Thursday is the lack of volunteers and the impact on the community. This might be the most both sides story I’ve ever read, but it highlights the concerns of the community here.
And as Ironman CEO Andrew Messick said in the full version of this interview, if they lose the community from too much traffic and too much headache on Thursday that’ll be the big *big* problem for them.
My concern (and the one I’ve talked to some of the other athletes about is): With that lack of volunteers and fewer aid stations and a lane for traffic out of town, please please be careful. It’s ripe for a bad accident. Please race heads up. The headline at the top of the newsletter (“seek mindful wonder”) came from an Ironman press release urging athletes to Live Aloha. Mahalo!
Update on coffee boat drama: As was reported before, Blueseventy lost their coffee boat sponsorship, stating that it had been bought out from under them. The boat is definitely still there and they are definitely serving coffee and taking pictures. I went out to it. Those pictures appear to be sponsored by Ironman, with the Live Aloha theme, and are available for free on FinisherPix, which is the official Ironman photo provider here. Read into that what you will.
The only really big gear drop in Kona has been the new Hed wheel (the new “insane” Trimtex suit is maybe the other). Talking to brands it’s a COVID, supply chain, jacked up production schedules thing. It should be back to normal launch announcements in 2023.
How to watch the race!
I made my picks and preview of the women’s race last week—and you can see the full start list (except Rachel Zilinkas isn’t starting anymore) here. I’ll also be doing a women’s preview live for Feisty at 2 p.m. HT/8 p.m. ET tomorrow. Weather report: It’s been notably humid and hot yes, but not as hot as it has been some years; it’ll probably be super humid tomorrow and likely rain some, which could make the swim choppy and murky (it was similar yesterday).
To watch in the U.S.—and other countries too except with Peacock:
Streaming live coverage starts on Facebook and Youtube at 4:30 a.m. HT/10:30 a.m. ET
It starts on Peacock at 6 a.m. HT/noon ET
Actual race tomorrow begins at 6:25 a.m. HT for the women.
P.S. That was too many things already, so we’re going to skip the round-up of other fun links around the no balls sports this week and be back with that next week!
Thanks Kelly. Great stuff. Watching the race now. Great to see the women racing; great to see 52 pro women crushing it with a clear race course.