Triathletes treat an entry to the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii like Charlie Bucket treated the golden ticket to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. The race is so esteemed, so famous, and the entries are so scarce.
The cannon fires each year with roughly 1,900 triathletes in the water. But without open registration, how did those athletes get the privilege of racing in triathlon's biggest event?
The process is extremely structured—mostly based on performance in other Ironman races, but opportunities to get in are there for lifelong triathletes and even those with a little bit of luck.
Here's a breakdown of how Kona competitors get their golden ticket:
Qualifying at an Ironman Race
About 80 percent of the participants at the Ironman World Championship get there by qualifying at another 140.6-mile race.
Qualifying is possible at each of Ironman's full-distance races around the world. The number of qualifying slots at each race varies, but it's usually somewhere between 40 and 100 slots. Most Ironman races have 50 slots.
So how do you get one? Ironman divides their race fields into age groups, and qualifying slots are handed out by placement within those age groups. Typical age groups at an Ironman race are:
For each gender, there is one slot reserved for each age group. After that, the qualifying slots are divided into the age groups with the most participants. For example, if 10 percent of the age-group applicants are females 45-49, then 10 percent of the open slots would go to that category.
So the easy answer is, win your age group at an Ironman race and you'll qualify for Kona. But the more complicated answer is, place high in your age group and you'll have a shot. That's because if an age-group winner declines the invitation (or has already qualified elsewhere), that slot "rolls down" the age group results until somebody claims it.