Ultimate spectator guide to Kona Ironman World Championship triathlon

14 Oct 2017 | Ultimate spectator guide to Kona Ironman World Championship triathlon |

Finally made it to see Ironman World Champs Live! Here’s the guide to best spots to watch, when and where to be , recommended camera/video gear to use, and how to enjoy the day and capture the event.  Vacationing in Hawaii on the Big Island I always wanted to see the Ironman Triathlon live and in-person, and this is the year we decided to do  it..

So here’s my spectator Guide to watching and enjoying the  Ironman Wold Championships live and in-person . Surprisingly for such a big race it’s pretty spectator friendly, in a nutshell basically anywhere besides the swim start, will offer plenty of  unobstructed views of the athletes competing.

Race week in Khaulia-Kona (pre-race)

First the excitement and athletes arrive usually a week of two before the race.  Usually held on the second  Saturday  in  October, The week before the race, is your opportunity to see all the athletes in their last little bit of preparation.

If you know the pro’s you’ll likely run into them throughout downtown Kona , Ali’i Drive and various other venues as many times, they are at sponsor events in the Ironman village. The main road where the race center’s around is Ali’i Drive. This is where the finish line is and also most of the race activity takes place. The week before the race you’ll find this street a buzz with triathletes getting there last bits of training and race prep in, supporters and tourists visiting the numerous roadside restaurants and bars , and everyone just enjoying the sunny Kona weather.

The main hub and the official race hotel venue  King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel . This hotel serves as the principal staging area and main meeting venue for most of the official race activities (athlete meetings, press room, volunteer organization, sponsor events etc.).

Right outside the hotels backdoor is the the Kailu Pier which will be transformed into the transition area on race day. Here’s also the start of the swim venue. You can actually go and swim part of the course as there are buoys laid out to give competing athletes  chance to  fine tune their swim in Kona’s water.

Alongside Ali Drive about a quarter mile before the finish, is the Ironman village, this is the official race expo venue. Here’s where you’l find all the big corporate brands representing a host of triathlon related gear, from high tech race bikes, running gear and swimming apparel, to tons of nutrition products, recovery products and performance and more race related apparel and gadgets. The village is usually opened the week before the race and throughout race weekend.

Spectator Race Map

Ironman Run Course map – near Transition

Race Morning (rise and shine):

Race morning starts around 4:30 (When Transition opens to athletes), if you get there early you can hang out by the entry to T1 and watch as various pro’s arrive and begin their setup.  You can’t totally see their bikes as transiiton area at the pier is pretty well cordoned off.

Swim (starts about 6:20 for pro men)

Ironman 2017 – race start sea-wall watching swim start – Get there EARY

This is arguably the toughest part to watch. For a couple of reasons, most of the area around the pier where the athletes assemble and enter the water are cordoned off. Only athletes, race officials and  credentialed media and some VIP’s get up-close access, everyone else is relegated to the sea wall lining the pier. Also because of terror concerns extra precautions are taken by police and security to block off sensitive areas.

Most folks perch themselves of the seawall lining Kailua Bay along the Kailua Pier.  You need to arrive early to get a spot on the sea-wall which, gets pretty crowded, 3-deep in a 4′ section of the wall as the race start approaches.

Ironman 2017 – men’s age group swim start

You’ll know the race is starting as more and more folks , many  family and friends of age group athletes, start piling up on the wall. This is why watching the swim start is the least spectator friendly part of the race. Primarily because its an in-water start about 50 yards from the pier .

If you want to watch from the wall , you need to get there EARLY (at least by 5am) and sit and reserve a spot, even then you’ll just see the back of the swimmers, it’s virtually impossible to spot a particular athlete unless you coordinate ahead of time. But nonetheless with all the helicopters buzzing overhead and the excitement of the crowd you’ll be able to soak in the start.  The age group mass start doesn’t look as impressive from the back, as it does from overhead as you typically see in the NBC footage. All you see is a big foam wave during first few seconds, then everyone starts to spread out.

As of 2017 there are four wave starts: Pro men, Pro-women (5 minutes afterwards), Age Group men (20-30min after) , and Age Group women  (last)..

Ironman 2017 – Jumbo-tron showing swim coverage

In addition, you can also watch the race unfold on the big Jumbo-tron, positioned behind the finish line. So while you can’t see the entire 2.4 mile course you can catch the progress of the race just watching the screen near the finish, as well as listen to the announcer update you on the progress.

Bike Course (pro men usually leave T1 about 7:20a)

Ironman 2017 – Josh Amberger men’s leader on bike out of T1

If you want to catch the pro’s early on the bike after the swim, begin making your way to the hot corner about 10-minutes before the lead men exit the water.  The most spectator friendly area for the bike during the early bike miles is Pilani Drive right near  and around the hot corner, this is a nice concentrated area, where you can catch cyclist 3 times.

Ironman 2017 – the hot corner  , athletes come flying past, listen for whistle and stay out of the way…

First as the athletes come barreling out of T1 towards the hot corner and turn left  under the inflatable arch (Oakley sponsored this year) onto Kuakini Hwy.  Within about 3-5 minutes they’re back , just turn around and and walk towards the hot corner  then carefully (listen for whistle to warn of incoming riders), go onto the downside of Pilani just above hot corner, on the descent part of Pilani Drive where the cyclists come screaming down and turn left on to Kuakini Hwy.

Ironman 2017 – Jan Fradeno early miles heading up Pilani Drive

Within another 5-10 minutes they are back one more time,   on the same road and cross to the other side the road and cheer the cyclists as  they climb up Pilani road , as they head out to the Queen Ka’ahumanu highway (aka the Queen K highway) . They stay on this highway about 50+ miles all the way to the turn-around town of Hawi. It’s not practical to try and follow them out there since you’re talking about  100+ mile journey trying to keep up at 30mph.

Now you have about 4 hours or so  before the first of the pro men starting streaming back into T2. If you’re following an age grouper, check out the live Ironman Tracker and keep an eye out for their arrival.

Ironman 2017 – Sebi rides past mile 111 on Kuakini  Hwy towards T2

If you’re really into photography more than just the area near transition, get yourself a bike (or a moped) and head out into portions of the Queen K. You can head down the Queen K which is mostly closed to vehicular traffic and catch some of the riders in the early miles or on the returning side as they head back into town.

Another good spot for photos that doesn’t have too many folks , but it close to transition is a short half mile walk on Kuakini Hwy, just make a left at the hot corner and head down Kuakini a few hundred yards (across from the public pool) and sit  under the shade of a few trees. Or you can just wait near the hot corner again (but it gets pretty crowded) and watch them come in.

Run Course (pro men usually leave T2 about 11:40a)

Ironman 2017 – Age groupers stream out of T2

Depending on which athletes your most interested in following you can head back towards Kuakini Hwy  past Pilani road and walk along the sidewalks as the athletes begin to stream out of T2, and onto Kuakini  hwy for a short stint and then the turn right  down Hualali  to onto Ali Drive and head out to the turnaround in Keauhou.

This will be about lunch time and plenty of folks will be lining Ali’i Drive , so you can take a few minutes to grab a bite and enjoy the action up-close (right on Ali’i drive) or from the comfort of the many eateries lining Ali’i drive..

Daniela Ryf early miles onto Ali’i Drive

It’s here on Ali’i drive where you can catch most of miles 1-10.  And because of the  turn-around you can easily catch a view of the athletes twice.

If you’re feeling adventurous and really want to see the suffering grab your bike (moped) and head on out to the Energy lab turn around (about 8 miles) , during close races it’s usually during this section where moves are made.

Ironman 2017 – L. Sanders on Ali’i drive leading near mile 10 heading to Queen Q.

Of course you can just sit back on Ali ‘i Drive, viewing the race unfold on the Jumbo-tron, that’s what I did.

Finish Line (pro men around 2:30p)

Ironman 2017 – Patrick Lange men’s winner on Ali’i drive before finish chute.

The best spot to watch the run finish up close  is along Ali ‘i Drive near the finish line, there are stands there in front of the finish line , where you can sit, but all along Ali Drive near before the barricades and the finish chute, there are plenty of places to watch and cheer as the athletes make their way down Pilani and one final turn onto Ali ‘i Drive. You’ll know the race winner is approaching as you’ll hear the helicopter as well as see the race progress on the big screen.

Finish Line Party (till midnight 17hr mark)

Ironman 2017 – Finish chute  age grouper

Even if you just go to watch the pro’s or a family / friend compete and they finish in the late afternoon, make it a point to come back for the closing hours of the race. Starting around 10:30pm, as the last of the athletes make their way to the finish, excitement builds thanks to a literal finish line party.

Race organizers pump

Ironman 2017 – Finish line for Age groupers

plenty of dance music coupled with give away plus Mike Riley (voice of Ironman and others) encourage the crowd to bring home those last few finishers before the 17hr cut-off. Its a pretty inspirational experience , you can feel the emotion as folks that labored for better part of a day are reaching their objective and will be rewarded with the sweet greeting of “… YOU ARE AN Ironman!!” as they finish..

Photographic Gear, Cameras and Drones….

If you’re into photography and want to really capture the days events, you’re best best is to bring a DSLR or  high-end mirror less camera with a fast lens. Like any sporting event, the action is fast (especially on the bike), so a nice fast lens like an f/2.8 is nice to have, but thanks to predictably sunny weather you can get away with slower zoom lens. Also consider an ND-filter as much of the pro’s race takes place during middle of the day, when the sun casts some harsh light.

Most of the photos on this page where taken with a Sony a6000 & a G18mm-105mm f/4 lens. I also snapped a few quick photos of with my smart phone (mostly during the evening finish line), So between a good quality smartphone and decent DSLR or a mirror-less camera  with good lenses, you should have plenty of photographic firepower to catch the days events. Also don’t forget to bring a few extra batteries or chargers, its  along day, and I went through two full-charged batteries on my Sony before the end of the day..

Ironman 2017- DJI Inspire drone above water during pro start

Can I bring my drone?  this is an interesting question, I surprising saw quite a few drones (DJI inspire, mavic’s buzzing around) right over the water during the start. I’m not sure, but I suspect with all the helicopter traffic in the area, you’re most certainty violating FAA rules by flying drones in close proximity to other aircraft. Use sound judgement, and abide by FAA rules not to fly over people or with aircraft in the area. Save your drone footage for the week before the race.

What to wear…

Wear your usual casual clothes, but cargo shorts with pockets and a backpack (if you’re bringing photo gear) is a must. Other than that perhaps just a water bottle or cash will suit you just fine. Do plan some breaks through the moring expecially after about 9:30 when its mostly quiet while the majority of pro’s and age groupers are out on the bike course.

Consider Volunteering

Ironman 2017- finish line volunteers

If you’re not necessarily there just for photos or cheering and want to contribute to everyone’s experience consider volunteering and being part of the race. There are various volunteer shifts for all sorts of activities, finish line, transition, medical, security etc, head over to the volunteer application section of Ironman’s web site.

Overall watching the big race live in person that  you see on TV , you won’t be disappointed. There’s a lot of emotion and excitement as most of the crowd there knows someone taking part or is an avid fan of the sport, so if you’re into triathlon come see what for yourself what the big show is like!

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