Triathlon's Toughest Day. Here's What Makes Kona So Hard.
After a few miles on the bike course along the legendary Queen K highway, everything seemed to be going according to plan for four-time and reigning Kona World Champion Daniela Ryf. Her chief rival, Lucy Charles-Barclay, the best swimmer in the field and the woman who had finished in second place behind Ryf for the previous two years, had once again followed expectations and emerged first out of the water after the swim leg. Unlike the previous year when Ryf was stung by a jellyfish in Kailua Bay and emerged a full ten minutes behind Charles-Barclay only to score an epic, come-from-behind win, this year the Swiss superstar was only five minutes behind the Briton. Race pundits and fans all expected Ryf to once again reel in Charles-Barclay on the bike and finish the event with a characteristically strong run to earn her fifth consecutive Kona title. After all, that’s what Ryf has done at nearly every race for the past five seasons—grit her teeth and get the job done.
But as the miles ticked by, Ryf’s deficit behind Charles-Barclay and other leading competitors began not to shrink, but, shockingly, to grow. By the end of the bike split, Ryf was nearly 13 minutes behind Charles-Barclay. Surely, thought many, Ryf would claw her way back into contention on the run course. But again, hopes were dashed and jaws dropped as it became apparent that something was wrong with Ryf’s body. After years of utter domination, not only at Kona but countless triathlons across the world, Ryf looked less like the superhuman endurance machine who has left fans awestruck and more like, well, like the rest of us would during such a brutal race. Tired. Uncomfortable. Struggling. Charles-Barclay would eventually go on to finish in second place yet again, this time ceding victory to German Anne Haug who produced the performance of her life en route to an inspiring and well-deserved maiden Kona title. And Ryf? She ran the marathon in 3:20:36, a respectable time for most any athlete but well off the mark based on her own towering expectations, and finished the day in 13th place overall. Her total time of 9:14:26 paled in comparison to her course record time of 8:26:18 from the previous year.
Like so much in life, a triathlon result cannot always be analyzed by numbers alone, nor can value be prescribed only to competitive placings. The beauty of sport lies not in its inherent ability to pit us against our fellow human beings, but in uniting us in a shared experience. Of the approximately 2,500 people who make the pilgrimage to triathlon’s holiest venue, only a handful of them entertain dreams of finishing on the podium be it in the pro or age-group divisions. No, the thousands of men and women of various ages and backgrounds who depart their homes from across the globe and converge on a tiny bit of volcanic rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean do so to place themselves directly in front of adversity and challenge their individual resolve to exhibit enough fortitude to endure, outlast, and conquer it.
Daniela Ryf during a training ride in the days before the 2019 Kona World Championship race.
This is why the finish line at Kona is such a magical place. We witness the fittest athletes on earth push their bodies beyond the limits of what we think is possible and marvel when one man and one woman each hoist the celebratory finish line banner above their heads. It inspires us to dare and to dream. So, as the light fades from an exhaustingly long day in paradise, we cheer on the age-groupers who are completing their own individual journeys towards health, pride, and accomplishment. And as midnight approaches and the stars twinkle above like beacons of hope in the darkness, we scream at the top of our lungs and, with all of our might, will as many athletes to cross that finish line before the cutoff time, we band together. Why? It’s because we all know, even those of us who have never completed a triathlon, how hard the journey is, how much resolve it takes to toe the start line, and how much grit and determination it takes to carry your body to the finish line. Whether you finish in eight hours or seventeen, the distance is the same, and it’s one we all traverse.
Kona, Hawaii, is unlike any place on earth, and its signature triathlon event is unlike any experience in which humans can revel. Its prestige, topography, heat, and humidity combine to create the most difficult environment to maximize one’s athletic prowess. It makes the past accomplishments of top competitors such as Mirinda "Rinny" Carfrae and Daniela Ryf, and the most recent exploits of Anne Haug, all the more incredible. But it also takes its toll on the body of even the most experienced racers. This year, Carfrae arrived at Kona just a few weeks after breaking her arm, yet she was still determined to compete. After a heroic swim and an inspiring start to her bike split, Carfrae experienced something that came out of nowhere: a problem with her SI joint, essentially causing her left leg to lock up. She had to abandon the race shortly after. Yet, her Kona experience for this year didn’t end there. While she undoubtedly wanted to be in the thick of the podium fight (such is the tenacious spirit of the three-time champion), Carfrae was able to be present at the finish line with her young daughter as the two of them cheered in her husband Tim O’Donnell, who finished a career-best second place in the pro men’s division. Speaking of her husband, Carfrae said, “You opened your heart and ran. I’m so proud of you.” While it wasn’t the way she would have wanted her performance to go, Carfrae's and her family's collective experience nevertheless showed us what Kona can mean.
Three-time Kona World Champion Mirinda "Rinny" Carfrae may not have had the race she would have wanted in 2019, but her Kona experience was special nevertheless.
For the third successive year, Australian Josh Amberger was the very first competitor out of the water, leading the pro men’s division into the first transition. This year, sporting a stellar mustache across his chiseled face, Josh was the spitting image of speed, confidence, and grace under pressure as the fastest men in triathlon eventually emerged from Kailua Bay, eager to chase him down. After mounting his IA Disc race bike, Josh rode away cleanly and was with a select group of other top competitors. But as the day wore on, the heat and humidity of Kona claimed another victim. Josh felt his energy dropping after starting off a strong run split at a 2:50 marathon pace. In his own words, Josh reported to his social media followers at day’s end: “Breaking 3 becomes breaking 2+2=4. Any longer & they will be bringing me glowsticks. Contemplate SAG home. Guts in severe pain.” But Josh stuck it out, just like hundreds and hundreds of other Kona participants, determined to make it to the end of the course, and he crossed the finish line to the roar of an adoring crowd. Josh’s talent is prodigious, and it’s only a matter of time before his dominance in the water transitions to the Queen K highway and Ali’i Drive.
Josh Amberger on a training ride in the days leading up to Kona.
Success at Kona is fickle, but some athletes have a propensity for unearthing it on a regular basis. Kaisa Sali burst onto the triathlon scene a few years ago, and has been a remarkably consistent competitor at Kona for several years. This year, the Finnish star secured a time of 8:55:33, good enough for sixth place. She also scored the second-fastest run time of any competitor in the pro women's division. The only athlete to run faster? The eventual race winner, Anne Haug.
Kaisa Sali of Finland scored an impressive 6th place overall at the 2019 Kona World Championship.
And what of Daniela Ryf, the four-time champion and course record-holder? It turns out, Ryf had been suffering a stomach bug in the week leading up to race day and during the race itself. As any athlete who has experienced such a challenge in the heat of competition knows, any issue involving the stomach will stop most people dead in their tracks. So, the fact that Ryf was able to push aside the pain and continue to crank out world-class bike and run splits, especially with the knowledge that the eyes of the world were upon her, is truly remarkable. It’s these performances that inspire us to compete and to push our own bodies in pursuit of that oh-so-special sensation of speed, control, and accomplishment. It’s why racing matters. It's why Kona is so special.
Daniela Ryf has already etched her name into the pantheon of all-time greats, having won everything in the sport of triathlon throughout her illustrious career. Now, she’ll experience something that we imagine that she hasn’t in quite some time: a renewed sense of unfinished business. The Kona course better look out next year. She’ll be coming back with a vengeance.