It’s 7:05 a.m., partly cloudy with temperatures in the 70s. The water is calm. Conditions are perfect. A group of 1,500 or so men line up on the dock of Kailua Bay, arms tattooed with race numbers, heads adorned with skin-tight swim caps. Spectators are already out in full force along Ali’i Drive to watch one of the greatest competitions across all sports. There’s a nervous energy in the air.
The gun goes off, and these 1,500 men begin their journey–some with upwards of 17 hours of work ahead of them, many with time goals and podium finishes on their minds, others hoping merely to finish.
It’s impossible to count the hours of hard work, sacrifice and pure pain that go into reaching this point. And it’s certainly not easy. Not one of those men will even think that phrase, let alone say it. So why do it? Why put their body through so much turmoil? For what?
For Eric Koenigs, global account manager at ACTIVE Network, the journey to the IRONMAN World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, started when he was a young boy in Wisconsin, coming in from a long day of shoveling snow with his brothers and sitting down in front of the TV to watch Dave Scott and Mark Allen battle it out for 140.6 miles on the swim-bike-run.
Koenig would later go on to race the famous IRONMAN himself in 2001 and again 17 years later, in 2018, thanks to receiving a spot allocated to ACTIVE because of its partnership with IRONMAN and the World Triathlon Corporation.
“It was a childhood dream,” Koenigs says. “For four years since I joined ACTIVE, I’ve had a burning desire to toe the line again at Kona.”
IRONMAN is a global brand, with 84 countries represented at the world championship this year and athletes ranging from 18 to 89 years old. But what makes this race in particular special—not just to Koenig, but to the masses that attempt to qualify every year?
“There’s just a status quo of excellence and perfection,” Erin Swiatek, technical account manager at ACTIVE Network, says. “There’s a certain amount of structure and expectation.”
While many use the IRONMAN moniker to indicate any 140.6-distance race, an IRONMAN is unique unto itself. The M-dot branded races set themselves apart in more ways than one, making them aspirational not just for race directors of other full-distance triathlons but directors of any race at all. This distinction is what made Swiatek, who had her own unique journey to Kona, choose the IRONMAN path as opposed to another series of full-distance triathlons or any physically demanding athletic feat.
Hip surgery in college forced Swiatek to take a step back from the sport, but after seeing a number of co-workers gearing up to tackle a half IRONMAN last October, she caught the bug once again.
Starting 2018 with the goal of merely completing a 140.6, Swiatek performed better than expected, finishing fourth in her age group. The possibility of Kona inched its way into the back of her head.
So she took on another IRONMAN with the intention of qualifying for the world championship. Three and a half months later, after many more hours of training, early mornings and missed happy hours, she did just that, not only winning her age group at IRONMAN Mount Tremblant but also earning a coveted qualifying spot at the starting line in Hawaii. Then, just 55 days later, she put on her tri suit and prepared for her third IRONMAN in six months—something few pros even dare tackle.
Why did she put herself through it all? Why not wait until next year? Give herself a break?
IRONMAN sets itself apart thanks to collaboration, communication and consistency. The volunteers keep the race operating like a well-oiled machine–each one is trained to know exactly what to do, where to go and how to handle any issues that might arise, leaving no question in the athletes’ minds about, well, anything. At other races, many volunteers show up, receive their free T-shirt and sit through a 15-minute briefing before being sent on their way.
“There’s no walking around wondering what you’re supposed to do,” Swiatek says about IRONMAN. “There’s an expectation that the volunteers are going to perform at a certain level and then preparing them to be able to perform at that level. That makes a very big difference.”
Swiatek also notes a difference in communication from IRONMAN. “[At other races], you normally sign up, and then you’re pretty much disengaged until you go to packet pickup,” she says. “IRONMAN doesn’t spam you with emails, but they do keep you updated and reach out with things you might need to be thinking about. You usually even get a welcome letter from the mayor of the town.”
The final, and perhaps most important factor for athletes, is the consistency not just across IRONMAN races but within a single race as well. One seemingly inconsequential example Swiatek notes is the consistent order of the aid stations throughout the course.
Athletes can experience a wide range of difficulties when it comes to refueling during a race—whether that means completely missing the aid station because it’s poorly marked or having “WATER!” shouted at you only to pick up a cup filled to the brim with Gatorade. But at an IRONMAN, “you know you’re going to come up on water, Gatorade, bananas, gels, Gatorade, water,” Swiatek says. “The more you can set the standard and expectations, the better experience participants are going to have.”
IRONMAN is the pinnacle of endurance sports, and Kona is the pinnacle of IRONMAN. That’s why all these athletes strive for the near-impossible year in and year out of constant training just for a chance to toe the line on the dock of Kailua Bay, arms tattooed with race numbers, heads adorned with skin-tight swim caps.
“Some people get really driven by the pursuit of what’s possible,” Swiatek says. “And that just lights me on fire.”