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People ask how someone qualifies for Kona. I usually answer that it’s complicated. They persist.

“Do you have to get a certain time?” they ask.

I explain that a certain number of Kona slots are allocated to each race, that the winner of each age group automatically qualifies so long as that person finishes in under 17 hours. The rest of a race’s slots are allocated on a pro rata basis according to the number of starters in that age group.

I illustrate with reference to my qualification: Of Ironman Wisconsin’s 70 slots last year, four slots were allocated on a pro rata basis to my age group, men 50 to 54. So, to qualify for Kona, I needed to be one of the first four of 193 finishers in my age group. In larger age groups, like men 35 to 39, there might be eight or more slots out of nearly 400 finishers. In smaller age groups like women 60 to 64, there would only be one slot because perhaps only a handful of women that age would finish. If no one qualifies in a particular age group, that slot goes back into the pool and is allocated on a pro rata basis with all of the other slots. With this explanation, the person who asks seems satisfied, if not exasperated. But I’m not done.

More explanation is required. Sometimes a finisher who qualifies for Kona does not accept the slot and that slot “rolls down” to the next finisher in the age group who has not qualified. That next participant must attend “roll down” the morning following the race. Roll down is a tense gathering of very stiff, limping people hoping that one or more qualifiers in their age group will decline their Kona slot. Before qualifying at Ironman Wisconsin in 2011, I attended several roll downs. I came within one slot in 2005 and two slots in 2010.

In October, about 1,850 people will race Kona. A substantial portion of the participants will not have qualified by racing. 100 qualify by entering a lottery, the proceeds of which go to charity. Another 100 come from a “legacy lottery” for participants who have run a certain number of Ironmans but never qualified. A lottery for Hawaii residents acconts for another 44 slots; Ironman wants to keep good relations with the host communities. Five slots go to high rollers who bid on a Kona slot on Ebay, proceeds going to charity. The opening bid is $10,000 and winning bids in the recent past have been around $60,000. Then there are 49 other slots that go to people with compelling personal circumstances, often disabled war veterans, cancer survivors and others who have overcome really extraordinary challenges just to be alive. So about 300 of 1,850 slots go to people who didn’t qualify by racing an Ironman event.

Pros, both men and women, account for 84 slots. They qualify by a points system that is hopelessly obscure. (And you thought my explanation for qualifying as an age group amateur was complicated. Think again.) Racing a combination of Ironmans and Ironman 70.3 (half Ironmans put on by the Ironman company, World Triathlon Corporation or “WTC”) with sufficiently good results gives them the point totals necessary to race Kona.

Six Ironman 70.3 events have slots. Most of those 70.3’s have 30 slots, one has 20. That means that 170 people qualify without having to run a full Ironman. 30 slots is a relative few and 70.3 participants are many. Those who qualify this way are mighty bad hombres.

So, a rough 700 slots are allocated by lotteries, discretion, pro qualification and 70.3 performance. That leaves about 1,150 for the Ironman finishers to fight over. (When I say “Ironman,” I mean the 140.6 mile triathlon event.) Most of the 31 Ironmans held throughout the world during 2012 had 50 slots for age groupers (non professionals). Most Ironmans have about 2,500 participants. Those 2,500 are chasing 50 slots in each race. That means that the top two percent in any particular race qualify. Across all Ironman-qualifier races, 80,000 people, pros and amateurs, compete for 1,800 slots, meaning that about 2.25% of all competitors qualify. The other 98% get to hear Mike Reilly call them an “Ironman” and receive a tee shirt, hat, medal and as many IV’s as needed in the medical tent. For your $650 entry fee, it’s not exactly a screaming deal – until you need the IV’s, that is.

After racing 12 Ironmans prior to IMW 2011, a reasonable person would have given up trying to qualify for Kona. The odds seemed stacked against me. I had come close but I had missed very consistently – and I had a reasonable sample size. In my mind, I knew that my chances were very slim. Even so, I looked at the process as stochastic. A certain amount of random chance was at work. I needed to control what I could, to train hard, race hard and finish as fast as I could. But I knew that I needed the right day when I raced particularly well and when my age group was not too deep with talent. It was as much about who didn’t show up as it was how well I raced; there is almost always someone faster than you who didn’t race that day. Qualifying for Kona is a matter of showing up when someone else faster doesn’t.

Once one knows the numbers, what do those numbers mean? Numbers have an objective quality. I hoped that by studying these numbers, perhaps I could know something about myself, something concrete and not subject to dispute – something quantifiable, verifiable and objective. Of course, I hoped that it would be something good.

Speaking generally, what does a Kona slot mean? First, WTC does not mean to make Kona a total meritocracy. It isn’t the exclusive province of hard bodies who are the fastest triathletes in the world. It’s a race for people who qualify only by the luck of a lottery. It’s for people who pay a ton of money to charity for the privilege to enter. It’s for locals. It’s for people who have compelling personal stories that provide the cinematic, tear-jerking stories that NBC tells so touchingly every year during its highly cinematic broadcast. (Tell me that you have watched one of these broadcasts in its entirety and not cried. No can do.) Sure, the pros, 70.3 and Ironman qualifiers have done what is required under the rules to qualify. Winnowing down 80,000 participants to 1,400 who qualify by racing makes Kona a tough “in.” So, Kona represents a balance engineered by WTC. Kona is a mixture intended to showcase inspiration, talent, persistence and luck. WTC, a for-profit corporation, stages a show packaged for a television audience and calculated to produce a profit.

This idea of luck nagged me. The first year I ran an Ironman, I entered the lottery, figuring that I was already going to be in shape so why not run Kona if I won the lottery? Once I had finished my first Ironman, though, I soured on the lottery. To me, Kona stood as a mark of distinction for only the very best triathletes. Racing Kona should not be about luck, at least not for me. Others could get in by luck or lucre, but to me there was only one honorable way in: to qualify. But what does it mean to qualify for one of those approximately 1,150 slots for Ironman qualifiers?

If I know that 1,150 of the people who enter Kailua Bay with me have qualified by running an Ironman, does counting myself among that peerage say anything about me that is both important and beyond reasonable dispute? I don’t think so.  First, a certain number of qualifiers turned down their slots. Count four-time champion Chrissie Wellington as one of those. Some of the most capable Ironman athletes simply find better things to do with five, six, seven or eight hours of their Saturdays. Second, it was really hard for me to qualify. If it took me 13 tries, do I really deserve to be there? Was this just a fluke? If it took the proper celestial alignment, a process of chance and absence of stronger competitors, was it me or the stars? Remember, most of the time, I didn’t qualify. I don’t think that it was all luck that qualified me for Kona; I worked hard for a decade. Even so,  this frame of analysis gave me sympathy for the lottery participants. I was lucky, too. Third, what if I don’t qualify again? Does that prove that this qualification was a random occurrence or does it testify to the increasing difficulty of qualifying? Ironman slots are now fewer per race than they were when I began. Likewise, as I grow older, slots allocated to my age group grow fewer while those who keep racing into their old age have enjoyed success up until then. Strangely, sometimes the older age groups are as competitive or more competitive than younger, more populous age groups. It’s survival of the fittest in the golden years.

Maybe to understand what my race at Kona means, I need to differentiate my performance and qualification from others. What about the 98% who race an Ironman but don’t qualify? What does that say about them? From everyone I know who has completed an Ironman, they feel just fine, thank you. Crossing the finish line is a feeling of exultation that I can’t describe. And it doesn’t wear off for a long time. In my case, for years.

How about the people who compete in Kona but either don’t qualify at all, winning their slots by lotteries or by bidding high on Ebay? Is their Kona finish tainted? The course is just as long, just as hot, for them as for anyone else. Perhaps their finish is even more meaningful without the extreme athletic pedigree. It’s certainly a storyline that NBC loves.

The numbers don’t really support my conclusion – or maybe any conclusion – but I think that participating at Kona can only truly come down to luck. Even the winners, the world champions, have gotten to the finish line on luck. If you think that hard training and determination are the sole determinants of finish place, think again. The winners made one fundamentally good decision: They picked the right parents. Without a genetic predisposition, the winners could have worked harder than anyone else and to no avail. The best athletes are lucky to have the genetic framework but they need to put in the time and effort to make that luck pay. More generally, luck rules for everyone at Kona, whether one has survived cancer against long odds, won the race or just qualified.

To conclude that racing Kona is about luck is unsatisfactory. It does not reinforce the great American myth of pluck and desire, hard work and industry being the sole determinants of success. We like to say that everyone in America can grow up to be president if he or she really wants it and works hard enough. Luck seems an unjust, random, even capricious basis upon which to get into the World Championship. Sorry, but to degrees more and less, everyone entering Kailua Bay on October 13th will have their luck to thank.

Kona is not really about numbers, it is about a vision, imperfect and incomplete, that matches one’s spirit against the ocean, lava fields and the inevitable things that go wrong when you let 1,850 inmates out of the asylum, put them in swim suits and goggles, give them bikes and running shoes, and send them all in the same direction at the same time. Kona is something personal and special to everyone who qualifies, tries to qualify, competes or wins. It’s unquantifiable and the numbers, while not random, do not say much that is both important and indisputable. It’s not one thing to everyone; it’s significance differs from person to person. In the end it really may be about a tee shirt, hat, medal and hearing Mike Reilly say it out loud: “You are an Ironman.”

For my part, I like to think about Rocky the night before he fought Apollo Creed in the first movie. Rocky said, “If I’m still standing at the end, I’ll know I’m not just another bum from the neighborhood.”

I hope that I’ll be that lucky.


One Comment

  1. Seriously, Scott. It’s *maybe* 2% luck. The other 98% is hard work, discipline, and perserverance. I’ve always admired and envied your ability to get up, dig in, and crank it out. OK, this is a big one, but you are still standing after 13 rounds.

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