Improved Qualifying Path for Pros in Kona but No Equal Spots for Women

Qualifying for IRONMAN Hawaii and the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships is a major goal for triathletes, amateur and professional alike. For professionals qualifying to race in Kona, in particular, it’s not just a personal goal – it can have significant economic consequences as key sponsors want to see the athletes they support racing on, arguably, the sport’s biggest stage.

This past December, the process for qualifying as a professional was turned upside down as the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) announced it would eliminate the Kona Points Ranking (KPR) system that has been in existence for the past eight years. Starting with the 2019 season, the qualifying process will return to the “first past the post” in an IRONMAN or IRONMAN 70.3 race that was in place before the introduction of the KPR in 2010. Rather than accrue points across races throughout the 12-month qualifying period, the new system for professional athletes mirrors the process for age-groupers, with qualifying slots allocated to each IRONMAN and IRONMAN 70.3 race. Athletes will now be able to qualify by virtue of winning a single IRONMAN or IRONMAN 70.3 race. In addition, certain races, including the five Regional Championship events and several other races to be designated throughout the season, will have additional slots available.

Benefits of the new process

The new process clearly addresses some of the key weaknesses of the current system whereby athletes accrue points across all of their IRONMAN and IRONMAN 70.3 races in a season with the combined score of their best four races. The new process has a significant impact on qualifying for Hawaii for professionals, so we’re breaking down some of the advantages and challenges of the new system for Kona qualification.

Reduce over-racing

  • The KPR incentivises athletes to race a lot more IRONMANs in any given season than had historically been the case. Many athletes would race three or even four full distance races just to accrue the required points to earn a place on the start line in Kona. With so many ‘races in the legs’, the KPR has potentially contributed to weaker performances in Kona as many athletes do not arrive as fresh as they might otherwise be, after a long season of racing. By no longer requiring athletes to chase points, we could see athletes race fewer iron distance races throughout the year and be better recovered and poised for a peak performance in Hawaii. This bodes well for closer racing, faster times and falling records in the professional ranks in 2019 and beyond.
  • This concept of enhanced ‘freshness’ does not just apply to the current racing season, rather it could have long-term positive consequences to the health and longevity of long-distance triathletes.

Broadens race options

  • Of course, athletes are not just racing for points since prize money and sponsor bonuses are also critical inducements for athletes to race frequently. The new system offers athletes the freedom to broaden their horizons from a race selection perspective. Race series’ such as the Challenge Series of races as well as local events are likely to benefit from WTC’s decision to eliminate the points chase.

LONG SLOG: Rachel Joyce at last year’s Ironman World Championship 2017.

 

Return from a racing break (e.g. maternity leave or injury)

  • In 2017, Rachel Joyce of Great Britain became the poster child for how hard it can be for a pro to qualify for Hawaii after taking time away from the sport. The Brit had been on the podium in 2015, but after taking off the 2016 season to give birth to son Archie, she started the 2017 season with zero points. She won IRONMAN Boulder and placed fourth at IRONMAN Canada, but still lacked enough points to qualify. She elected to race a third time, winning IRONMAN Mont-Tremblant to earn the Kona start. She finished a disappointing 20th in Kona, and many speculate she was likely over-tired from racing four IRONMANs in quick succession. The new system requires just a single great performance to earn a slot to Kona.
  • Austria’s Eva Wutti was in a similar position in 2017, returning to racing after maternity leave to win IRONMAN Austria and place second at IRONMAN Hamburg, but still, missed out on Kona qualification.

Downplays IRONMAN 70.3 performances

  • The current system allows athletes to accrue points from two IRONMAN 70.3 races. While these races generally offer lower points, an athlete that scores well at IRONMAN 70.3 Worlds (3,000 points for a win) or a Regional Championship 70.3 race (1,500 points for a win) can earn a substantial portion of their KPR points from racing these shorter distance events. With the switch to qualifying for Kona only from IRONMAN distance races, the new system levels the playing field with all athletes needing strong performances in a single IRONMAN race to secure qualification.

Earlier qualification confirmation

  • The new system will remove some of the guessing games around qualification for professional athletes. They will receive confirmation of a Kona slot soon after a given race, just like age-groupers. Under the KPR system, athletes only received confirmation of qualification on two specified cut-off dates during July and August preceding the Hawaii race in October. Granted, many could guesstimate whether they would qualify based on their points, but it was never guaranteed and was always subject to the racing and performance of other athletes.

PODIUM PLACERS: Kona Top Three finishers will get an invite for next year, subject to terms and conditions.

 

Potential challenges of the new system

With any new system of rules, there are bound to be growing pains as athletes familiarise themselves with the new process and adjust their training and racing plans to target qualification to IRONMAN Hawaii. Here are a few things professionals need to bear in mind.

Race selection will be critical

  • For the large majority of races, there will just be a single slot available for each of the male and female professional racers. Winning a race and earning an IRONMAN title will be the surefire way to get to Kona. Athletes could have a spectacular performance, battling for the win, but a great second place could leave the athlete empty-handed from a Kona perspective.
  • Athletes will be eager to understand the competition when selecting races under the new system and while WTC already publishes professional race entry lists; the information cannot always be trusted. Athletes are able to sign up for multiple races at once, and there’s no penalty for withdrawing late from a race.
  • Regional Championships will offer at least two slots each for male and female professionals and with higher prize purses; they will continue to attract strong fields. All Regional Championships, as well as select other races (e.g. IRONMAN Arizona and IRONMAN Western Australia in 2018), will also offer ‘floating’ slots that will be allocated to professionals based on start numbers. Given historical data and the larger number of professional men competing, if nothing changes then these additional slots are likely to be awarded to male professionals.
  • Just as with the age-group system, slots allocated to a race will roll down if the winner has already qualified or elects to decline the slot.
  • Kona Champions from the past five years and Kona podium (top three) finishers from the prior year will receive an automatic invite, subject to completing at least one IRONMAN race during the season.

Still no equal slots for male and female professionals

  • WTC is estimating that approximately 100 slots will be allocated to the professional field under the new slot mechanism, with ~72 slots considered as ‘base slots’ for each gender. This total is derived from the past Kona champions and the preceding year podium qualifiers, additional slots for Regional Championship, along with the single slot for male and female pros at the non-Championship IRONMAN races with a professional field (23 races in 2017)
  • The additional slots at Regional Championships and select other races are always allocated on the number of starters in the respective male and female fields, much the same way it happens in the age-group slot allocation process. The larger men’s fields mean that most of these slots will go to male professionals. Indeed, had this system been in place in 2017, 21 of these slots would likely have gone to male professionals and just three to females.2

The upshot of the new system?

Offering outright Kona qualification for professionals from a single race performance certainly represents a positive step forward by the WTC. It reduces the need to race multiple IRONMANs in short succession and offers athletes greater flexibility in planning their seasons. However, the glaring omission from the new process is the opportunity to equalise the numbers of professional men and women on the start line in Kona. While the WTC might argue that the new system offers a ‘mechanism’ to achieve equal slots, it’s unlikely that we will see this happen in the near-term. The IRONMAN Hawaii World Championships is the epitome of long distance racing in triathlon from a media attention and business perspective. To deny professional women equal slots in the race, and the corresponding equal media and business opportunity is misguided and antiquated.

 

 

1 “2019 to bring changes to Pro qualifying”, Ironman.com

2 “Estimating the Gender Distribution for Kona Pro Race in 2019”, Thorsten Radde

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jordan Blanco

Jordan competed in her first triathlon in 2001 as a once in a lifetime challenge with several of her Stanford Business School classmates. Fast forward 15 years and Jordan has competed in over 100 triathlons, including 11 Iron distance races. She is a 5x Kona qualifier and has won her age-group at both Ironman Arizona and Ironman St. George. She shares her triathlon passion with her husband who is also a multiple Kona qualifier. Outside of triathlon, Jordan is a business owner and strategy consultant based in San Francisco, California.

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