2023 Ironman World Championship in Kona: Everything You Need to Know

One of the great sporting events in Hawaii—one of the great sporting events anywhere, in fact—returns to Kailua-Kona this fall: the VinFast IRONMAN World Championship. 

An incredible achievement for all participants, this high-profile triathlon also marks a major spectating event. It doesn’t get much more exciting than cheering on the competitors as they swim, bike, and run their way to the finish line amid the beauty of the Big Island!

2023 VinFast IRONMAN World Championship in Kailua-Kona: The Basics

Kailua-Kona’s VinFast IRONMAN World Championship this year takes place on Saturday, October 14, 2023. 

This will be the women’s race, which, beginning this year and running through 2026, will be rotating annually in concert with the men’s event between the traditional Kailua-Kona venue and a course in Nice, France. The men’s 2023 IRONMAN World Championship took place in Nice this year on September 10th; next year, it’ll be in Kailua-Kona.

Triathletes competing in the 140.6-mile KONA® race (as IRONMAN also refers to its Hawaii-based World Championship) begin with a 2.4-mile swim in Kailua Bay, then tackle a 112-mile bike course, and finish things off with a 26.2-mile run to the finish line on Alii Drive back in Kailua-Kona. 

The IRONMAN World Championship marks the crowning contest of dozens of IRONMAN triathlons held around the globe, which offer the chance to qualify for the World Championship.

The Course

From the cheering throngs in the heart of Kailua-Kona to windy lava expanses, the IRONMAN World Championship KONA race gives its hardy participants plenty of atmospheric variety and scenery. 

The race begins with the thrilling swim portion, with contestants taking to Kailua Bay at 6:25 AM against the ravishing beauty of a Hualalai sunrise. Fast on the heels of this clockwise, out-and-back swim, triathletes transition to bicycles and flash away from Kailua Pier, following a course that takes them down and back up the Kuakini Highway and then north on the Queen Kaahumanu and Akoni Pule highways to the turnaround at far-flung Hawi. This 112-mile bike ride involves more than 5,800 feet of total elevation gain.

Returning to Kailua-Kona, the IRONMAN triathletes then ditch their bicycles and embark on the final leg of the KONA race: the big-finish running portion, which covers Alii Drive, Palani Road, and the Queen Kaahumanu Highway with a turnaround point at the National Energy Laboratory Hawaii Authority’s HOST Park. Then it’s back to Kailua-Kona for an ultimate stretch down Alii Drive to the finish line.   

History of the IRONMAN World Championship in Hawaii

Hawaii lays claim to being the birthplace of IRONMAN, which is now a worldwide phenomenon. Judy and John Collins, who participated in what’s regarded as the first modern triathlon, San Diego’s Mission Bay Triathlon, in 1974 and moved to Hawaii the next year—are credited with first conceiving of the idea.

In 1977, the Collinses proposed linking together several existing competitions on Oahu—the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the Honolulu Marathon, and, in a slightly modified version, a local bike club’s Around-Oahu Bike Race—into an Around the Island Triathlon. It was John Collins who said, “Whoever finishes first, we’ll call him the Iron Man.”

The result? The very first IRONMAN competition, launched out of Waikiki Beach in Oahu on February 18th, 1978. Gordon Haller won that IRONMAN I (with a time of 11 hours, 46 minutes, and 58 seconds), which went on to inspire the worldwide phenomenon. The Oahu IRONMAN triathlon quickly brewed up big-time media coverage for worldwide exposure, not least via a widely read Sports Illustrated piece on the 1979 event and ABC’s Wide World of Sports filming the 1980 edition.

In 1981, the IRONMAN World Championship moved from Oahu to Kailua-Kona on the Big Island, where it’s mainly been ever since.

Last year’s men’s and women’s KONA races marked a return of sorts after a two-year hiatus related to the COVID-19 pandemic: The 2020 IRONMAN World Championship was outright canceled due to the pandemic, and continued COVID-19 complications caused organizers to shift the 2021 edition to St. George, Utah—the first time the event had been held outside of Hawaii.

Some IRONMAN World Championship Stats & Notable Achievements

The current record holders for the IRONMAN World Championship are, on the men’s side, Gustav Iden of Norway, who finished in seven hours, 40 minutes, and 24 sections at the 2022 race; and, among the women, Daniela Ryf of Switzerland, with a 2018 time of eight hours, 26 minutes, and 18 seconds. 

Paula Newby-Fraser, meanwhile, is celebrated as the “Queen of Kona” on account of her winning the IRONMAN World Championship a whopping eight times (the first in 1986, the last in 1996). 

John MacLean of Australia became the first competitor in the Physically Challenged Athletes category to make an official finish at the IRONMAN World Championship using a handcycle and a wheelchair.

Viewing the IRONMAN World Championship as a Spectator

The 2022 editions of the IRONMAN World Championship in Kailua-Kona drew better than 20,000 spectators, and this October’s women’s race is sure to be a well-attended one. While the event is televised live, it’s a special experience to watch it unfold on-site—and a great excuse for a Big Island getaway!

Strategizing is the key to landing front-row seats to the thrilling KONA race, depending on how much or what components of the triathlon you’re keen on viewing. You’ll want to arrive for the beginning of the race at the Kailua Pier early, well in advance of the sunrise start. Palani and Walua roads offer convenient parking for the race kickoff, with great viewing of the swim from the Kailua-Kona seawall.

The Kailua Pier transition point, Palani Road, the Kuakini Highway, and the Queen Kaahumanu Highway provide good viewing of the biking portion of the race, which you could also watch at the turnaround point by driving to Hawi.

Lock down a spot early—by 2 PM or so—along Alii Drive if you want to watch the early professional finishes. Keep in mind that runners and wheelchair racers continue to trickle into the IRONMAN finish line into the evening, and these can be wonderful and inspiring finishes to observe as well, to say the least!