Triathletes signing up this week for next spring’s Ironman 70.3 Hawaii – better known locally as Honu – got a bit of a shock.
The half Ironman race, which takes place on the Kohala Coast, will no longer serve as an age group qualifier for the Ironman World Championship held each fall in Kailua-Kona.
“It’s a bit disheartening to hear the news,” said Rani Henderson, a Kailua-Kona triathlete who also serves as a columnist for West Hawaii Today. “I think people will feel differently about it. Some will be for it and some maybe against it.”
Henderson was one of a handful of Big Island residents who earned a spot in the world championship in the spring Honu, but she turned it down. Most of the 28 age-group qualifiers have come from outside of Hawaii.
“There aren’t very many, but there are quite a few each year that obtain international slots,” Henderson said. “There are some that get slots through Honu.”
Diana Bertsch, event director for Honu, pointed out that the race will serve as a qualifier for a world championship – just not the one in Kona.
“The thing is, it actually it is (a qualifier) for the 70.3 world championship,” she said, referring to the 2015 race that will be held in Austria. “We have a complete series around our 70.3. That series has grown tremendously over the past few years.”
The company is making more of a distinction between the half Ironman and Ironman distances and working to keep the qualifying events separate, Bertsch said.
Hawaii residents still will have an opportunity to qualify for the Kona Ironman through the lottery system. Triathletes who meet residency requirements and finish the Honu race can be entered into a lottery – one for the state and one for the Big Island – to ensure that there is still a Hawaii contingent in the world championship. The Big Island gets 24 slots while the rest of the state gets 20.
Bertsch said that most Hawaii competitors that she heard from just wanted to make sure that the lottery system would remain intact.
The Ironman 70.3 Kraichgau in Germany will be the only race of that distance to qualify age group athletes for the 2015 Kona Ironman. Bertsch said the German event already has an agreement to provide 30 slots for Kona next year, but she was unsure how the long the agreement will continue.
“The 70.3 distance really is its own specialty. The Ironman distance is a different race, it’s a different strategy,” Bertsch said. “It’s a vision that has changed, and we’re addressing that as a company and the demand for the sport.”
James Resor, a Big Island age-group triathlete, said he wasn’t upset by the change.
“More indifferent,” he said. “Personally, I look at how difficult it is to get in under an age group (qualifying time). It’s a select group of athletes. That’s why it is the world championship. They are age group studs. They are ex-collegiate or professional swimmers, high school track stars. They are the 1 percent of the 1 percent.”
Henderson said that it could frustrate triathletes from Hawaii, however, as they now must rely on the luck of the draw to get into the Kona event as opposed to qualifying on their own abilities.
“When you think about it, it will now truly depend on one’s luck with the lottery or having the financial means to travel elsewhere, which is hard,” she said. “Here we are surrounded by water. You can’t just jump in a car and drive to a qualifier.”
Bertsch said that 590 athletes had registered as of Wednesday afternoon. That was up was 32 percent from the second day of registration in 2013. She also said that about 24 percent of the applicants were international.
Henderson worries that the move will have a negative impact on the quality of the Honu field, not the quantity.
“It always attracted a highly competitive field, locally and internationally, because it was a qualifier,” she said. “I think Honu will remain a popular event. The numbers won’t drop because of where it is, training on the Ironman course, similar conditions, but for those at that level that were hoping to get a slot, I think it will affect those kind of age groupers coming over.”