What to do in Kona, Hawaii if you don’t get the Ironman Championship Spot?

Kona in the State of Hawai´i is synonymous for sports for many folks, specifically the Ironman triathlon. This race was originally created on these islands. In fact, the first Ironman was first held on Oahu but a short three years later it moved to the Big Island and has since stayed in the City of Kona where the championship for the full distance triathlon is now held annually. For over forty years (since 1981) this championship of the Ironman brand which totals 140.6 miles between the three sports it includes; 2.4 miles (3.8k) swimming, 112 miles (180k) biking and a full 26.2 (42k) marathon run all with very little breaks in between, has been taking place in Kona, Hawaii.

Upon arriving to town you notice there are many stores just dedicated to Ironman race memorabilia or one of the three sports involved. Simply being in town for a day you realize the amount of running, biking and swimming taking place all around you at all hours of the day. It isn´t just the weeks leading up to the actual race but in reality it is all year round! This environment for someone who enjoys any of these sports is like heaven. The water is clear, warm, open to all with some challenge from currents at times and full of life below you; then, the cycling brings flat, hills, wind and heat with a rare rain; and the run is extensive with gorgeous views of the ocean and lava fields.

Some Ironman Kona World Champions

So to get a spot to this famous Ironman race you first need to run an actual full distance Ironman race. You also need to be one of the fastest in your age group to qualify for a spot to the Kona championship. Meaning you must be fast overall but also hope there is a spot in your age group that you can grab. Sometimes there are a few but sometimes just one is offered; it all depends on the race, your age group and who is competing for the spot along with you. In addition, if you are one of these lucky people who get the spot you then need to pay over $500 USD right then to guarantee your spot. Oh and then continue training injury free to do the actual race in October.

So what can you do if you don´t or may never get that spot. Well you can still go and do all of the sports easily in as crazy of a way as you wish because literally there is always plenty of people training and it is still just as exciting to be there. Who knows you may even run into some professionals preparing for their races there. Below you will find information on how and where to practice these sports and even more to do while on vacation or training in Kona.

SWIM

Right in town you can swim easily in Kealakekua Bay from The Pier. This also happens to be the swim course for the Ironman championship so if this is your thing you will totally love this. There are bouys set out year round that go all the way out so you can literally do the whole IM course should you be ready and able or you can just do a chunk like I did. Most swimmers go in the am and do this because conditions are generally calmer before noon plus who else likes to start their day with a dip in the ocean and see what appears below the surface. I was hoping for an octopus or turtle but had no luck.

Be mindful that this swim spot can get crowded! I luckily got in before a huge group did so only on the return did I start having to avoid other swimmers. It is almost like a mini race some days as there are maybe up to 60 swimmers churning the water along the bouys (stay to the mountain side). They have some grey racks to put your stuff while you swim and there is a shower and bathrooms. Free parking is also available nearby.

This is the easiest access to swim in town besides the pool (Kona Community Aquatic Center which is free and huge) but I was recommended to swim from Magics beach to Keauhou Bay although here you are more exposed. Also for open water swimming in Kona it is suggested to use fins and a personal buoy. I had my orange buoy but not the fins (know that you can rent fins nearby at snorkel shops). If you are swimming off The Pier you are probably fine unless it is later in the day when rip currents are more prevalent and you are not a strong swimmer. You see swimmers with and without fins or buoy here. For the Magics to Keauhou swim you should definitely use fins since it is a more exposed route.

More information here.

BIKE

Bring your bike with you on the plane…

Most airlines like Alaska or Delta that fly here charge the same as a checked bag for the oversized item (about $30). Double check the baggage fees before choosing your airline as some will have high costs!

Or rent one…

Bike Works or Kona Sports Center both have all types of bikes available, yes even triathlon bikes. You can reserve online for Bike Works or Kona Sports Center. Know that Bike Works is in town whereas Kona Sports Center is out by the airport (on the into town) but tends to have more availability. Both will make you do it online even if you come in the store. I went in the store to make sure the size was correct but called ahead to see if they had availability and I still had to do it online in the store. They both rent bikes by 24 hours; as long as no one has the bike the next day in the morning you can take it any time and return it 24 hours later. If you only need it for 24 hours but rent it mid day you will have to reserve online for 2 days. It will show the cost for 2 days but in reality it only takes a deposit and you will pay later when you return the bike so don´t stress if the cost is much higher when you book a bike online.

Most cyclists will probably do the Ironman course but I actually avoided that route since it is all along the highway…a chunk is four lanes across until just past the KOA airport. The shoulder is wide most of the course but cars go fast and it is very noisy. The IM route goes all the way to Hawi (pronounced Havi) via the Queen Ka´ahumanu Hwy (referred to as the Queen K) before turning around. You will see bike tour companies shuttling rider out to Hawi for a more relaxed ride over here. I avoided this route because it isn´t appealing to me to bike along a highway. Though I will say that this route is really pretty, as I later drove out to Hawi, so if you do it you will not be disappointed. It will be rolling hills, likely hot as there is mostly lava and no trees, and there is high potential for raging winds (the winds locally known as ho’omumuku) off the coast. It would be a worthy experience and good prep but I decided to save that ride for another day…perhaps in the future I´ll win a spot for the championship and have the road all closed for me…well and another 1000 or more riders lol.

Instead I choose the Kona loop which heads South along Ali´i Drive (the main road in town along the coast) and went to Captain Cook and then took the smaller Mamalahoa highway up above the city and looped back to the KOA airport basically completing it by returning to town. This route really gave a feel for the island over those 50kms. It was hilly a bit but showed the coast, went past cute towns and coffee farms. You looked out to the Pacific Ocean a good chunk of the way, you could hear the birds, there were pretty trees, fun windy curves and fewer cars. Plus the drop coming off the highway toward the airport was ridiculous. If you head South to start this loop then on the return you will take Hina Lani Street back down into town and it is quite the rush to fly down. You can take it all the way back to the main highway or take a left before it at Anekeohokalole Hwy and it will have a bike path or less trafficked road for your choosing. I took this route…because I simply wanted to avoid the Queen K Hwy!

If not try one of these routes (or a part of it) plus more here (got Kona loop off this nicely detailed site).

You could also join one of the many group rides that seem to be pretty much daily with the Hawaii Cycling Club or the more laidback group of Coffee Talk Riders who go on Saturdays from Target.

RUN

Running is the best because you can literally just step out your door and go but there are some spots I will recommend as better places to run. Many seem to run along the Main road of town, Ali’i drive which I enjoyed a lot (you can go left at the Y (Walua Road) for some incline but otherwise just go straight until you are happy. There is a paved path up along Anekeohokalole Hwy that seemed descent for running…it does lack some shade but it is tucked nicely away from cars for a few miles. The IM course does run along Ali´i but mostly it goes out along the Queen K highway to the start of the KOA airport then returns. Again you could do this but again it is a highway with plenty of cars and noise and heat. Otherwise maybe drive out and run trail at Pine Trees Beach or just explore. Kona is small, not all roads have sidewalks or dedicated paths but there are plenty of miles/kms to be had here still and be aware that if you head toward the mountain there are some very steep hills.

I will suggest not running around rush hour as there is at least a 3 mile long back up in or out of town at those times (around 8 am and around 5 pm) and running along with these fumes can be avoided. You might also avoid running in the heat of the day unless you really are here to train because it gets very hot.

One last place to swing into is the running store called Big Island Running Company which is near the beach volleyball court in Kona. They have a great slogan, local merchandise and everything a runner needs, including stickers for their water bottle :P.

OTHER RACE OPTIONS

If you want a feel for a race on the Big Island know that there are plenty of other options besides the Kona Ironman. You can sign up for other races in Hawaii or even Kona to test yourself and get a feel for the island of sport. Try signing up for these events or planning a trip around one of these to get some sport endurance while in the state or on the Big Island.

IM 70.3 Hawaii is a great option since it is on the same island but is the shorter version of the race. It doesn´t need qualifying for, you can just sign up but be aware that it sells out fast and is not the same route as the full Ironman course though you do touch some of the championship bike course! This is in June. Another option is Lavaman or Xterra Hawaii Island.

As for local marathons – both Kona and Hilo (the opposite side of the island) are potentials. Although the more well known and famous marathon in the state would be the Honolulu Marathon which is on the Island of Oahu. You might also check out the Mac-a-thon also as Kona´s oldest 10k/5k race.

Swimming events on the island seem to mainly use the term rough water so some popular one to look forward to are the following mostly 1 mile swim races: Hapuna Rough Water Swim, Kings Swim in Kailua-Kona, Richardson´s Beach Rough Water Swim, Cinco de Mayo Splash at Anaeho´omalu Bay and Kuki´o Blue Water Swim at Kua Bay. The longest one is the Ali´i Challange which is a 10k swim and the Ho´ala IM Training Swim which is 2.4 miles. You can find some more information on these and other island swims here.

Cycling events happen here and there. It might be best to contact the Hawaii Cycling Club (HCC) or Bike Works for event information. HCC has lots of rides and even has a series of riding events they host throughout the year like the Sea to Stars or the Hammerhead Gran Fondo. Other islands offer rides too like the Pedal Imua Gran Fondo in Maui or the century rides (up to 100 miles) on the Island of Oahu such as the Honolulu or Haleiwa Metric.

If you do make it here with a spot in the Kona Ironman Championship just know the energy here is probably second to none and that the whole community is basically out cheering for you…mainly because the roads are all closed…ha no, but it is one good reason.

Kayaking out to the Captain Cook Monument

OTHER SPORTS

Again this island is full of sports but there are other options that are not as extreme and are highly rewarding which generally involve water that you might want to add to your visit.

Snorkeling or diving is highly popular here as the sea life is abundant and unique. You don´t have to go far to see it but some of the best sports are: Captain Cook´s Kealakekua Bay, at the park South of Magics Beach (Kahalu’u Beach) or just in the Bay from The Pier in town. On the Hilo side try Richardson´s Beach with it´s calm big tidepools.

Rent a kayak or stand up paddle board (SUP) and go paddle for a bit on the water. It provides a different perspective and some freedom to visit other bays on the island, plus you exercise. Check the water first to make sure it is calm enough for you and if you feel less confident alone grab a friend and double up. On the SUP you can switch between one sitting and one standing and well kayaks are cheaper if they aren´t double. You can get kayaks in town or head out to Captain Cook and head down to the bay where you can rent from a couple of outfitters at end of Napo´opo´o Road. The journey across the bay takes less than 30 minutes to cross and is a great outing. I feel this is a way better plan than hiking down to the monument! Only setback kayaking is that you can´t dock on the other side but you can jump in to snorkel or swim :D.

Surfing is another option and best at Kohanaiki Beach Park (Pine Trees) and Kahaluu Beach in Keauhou has rentals and is the best spot for newbies wanting to learn.

For hikes check this site that a local recommended my last day.

EXPERIENCES

  • Sea turtles or honu as the Hawaiians call them are easy to see at Honokohau Beach (the Alula part) near the KOA airport
  • Mauna Kea summit for sunset (drive up with 4×4 and more than half tank of gas or go on tour) is cold (13803 ft. elevation) but so unique with all the observatories and it´s incredible landscape views and with potentially some snow surrounding you as the sun goes below the clouds or ocean! I should mention that Mauna Kea is technically one of the highest mountain in the world…yes, when measured from the ocean floor where it rose from to create part of the Big Island of Hawaii. You can also do a day hike up to the summit which takes 7-10 hours covering over 12 miles. Hike info here.
  • Volcanos National Park (NP) if the lava is flowing or maybe just anytime (2 hour drive from Kona). If you are lucky and there is lava the best option is to go at night and hike to it. The NP let´s you get close to the lava but does close roads and ropes off areas. Check the website for updated information before you go! There is a fee to enter the NP.
  • Birth site and burial ground of King Kamehameha out near Hawi airport called Mo´okini Heiau. He is the king that unified the 8 islands of Hawaii into one big nation or state and is the one if not the most important figure in the island´s history. More history about him here. The site is sacred and likely the most important historical site in Hawaii so please be respectful and know that not many tourists go because you need 4×4 to reach the sites or need to walk over in the heat. To reach here you take the road leading to Upolu Airport (now used as a skydiving only airport) then turn and drive along the coast until you arrive.
  • Great beaches worth a moment: I recommend either Punaluʻu, the black sand beach, near Hilo or Hapuna (with a walk over via the Ala Kahakai Trail (15 minute walk) to the even prettier Kauna´oa (Mauna Kea) Beach (both with shallow waters) North of Kona. Makalawena also North of Kona is supposed to be awesome too and less visited. I guess the most popular one though is the Green Sand Beach (Papakolea, which I didn´t go to because it is way far South. Need more beaches?
  • Food/drinks: Try dining in Kona at Umekes Fish Market, Ola Brewing or Journey´s Cafe (plant based food but delish). Maybe you are like me and always in search of smoothies or acai bowls?…maybe not, but if so try Basik Acai in Kona or Makani´s Magic Pineapple Shack in Hilo. Some fresh local Poke (raw tuna generally) or fish is always a good plan if that is your thing (maybe try Da Poke Shack out by Magics or Poke Market in Hilo; both looked very good; didn´t try). Plus macadamia nuts and Kona coffee (claimed to be some of the best beans worldwide.). We went to an 120 year old coffee farm called Sacred Grounds…although I´m not a coffee person it was still a fun experience. You may also want to try the most Hawaiian cocktail the Mai Tai at least once and while here and beer from Kona Brewing Company (although not my favorite beers). I´m just going to say that overall I thought food in Hilo was way better.

TRANSPORTATION

Yes, renting a car is a good plan but know that if you are just staying in Kona there are buses that run every hour and go from the airport to town and farther South, North and over to Hilo. In 2022 public transit is free. From the airport you catch the bus on the platform next to the ride share platform in the middle of the lanes and bus 202 or 90 take you into Kona. Just maybe ask the driver first if they go to the Target or in the direction of Kona before boarding. There is also an open air Trolley bus that goes from the Target to the center of town and down along the beaches as well as to the Kona Brewery every hour as well. They aren´t too frequent but if you are relaxed on time and call (808-961-8343 or 808-731-3239) them to see how soon one might arrive then the wait is likely worth it. Ubers are about $20 outside of rush hour. Neither option is horrible.

There is also a bikeshare option in town called HIBikes (love the name ha ha) which has drop off pick up spots in most places you would want to go while chilling in Kona. Otherwise besides this and actual bike rentals a car is the best option for seeing and doing stuff on the Big Island. We rented for a few days and for a few days we walked and biked around town (also hitchhiked and Uber too). Rental cars are a bit expensive and in high demand (short supply) so if this is your plan it is best to reserve before you even arrive!

Bus schedule and more (best is to call)

Another great sports resource in case the above wasn´t enough, click here.

2 thoughts on “What to do in Kona, Hawaii if you don’t get the Ironman Championship Spot?

  1. Teresa desimone says:

    Excited to watch a coming Iron Man championship.

    Road closed for you if In I’m championship

    Photo of Mauna Kea summit and its shadow. Great pic

    Like

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