Changes planned for 2001 Kona course

Quiet rumors swirled around Kona last October that a course change was in the works, due to the closing down of the Kona Surf Hotel — the historic bike-to-run transition in the Hawaii Ironman.

Many of those course changes have in fact occurred, according to a press release just published by the owners of the Ironman race. It reads in part:

"The major changes include a new bike-to-run transition area at Kona's Old Airport Park. The modifications affect portions of the bike and run courses, but athletes will still come down storied Alii Drive to the finish line.

"The swim course is unchanged, and the swim-to-bike transition area will still be located on the Kailua Pier. Riders will see a difference in the new bike course right away, however.

"Instead of heading to the top of Pay 'N Save Hill on Palani Road and out on the Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway (Queen K), competitors will turn left on Kuakini Road less than a 1/4 mile out of the transition area, and head toward the Old Airport Park and out Makala Blvd. (Kmart Road). Riders will then head into town on the Queen K and navigate a descent on Palani Road, turning left onto Kuakini Highway at the bottom. This very spectator-friendly portion of the course on Kuakini Highway will ultimately take them back south to the Queen K Highway. From there, it is off through the lava fields and ho'mumuku winds to Hawi. The addition of the Kuakini Highway stretch will put athletes onto the northbound Queen K between 30 and 40 minutes later than in previous years.

"The new course will demand more use of riding skills earlier in the day, said Sharron Ackles, WTC race director. 'The addition of the Kuakini extension of the bike course will create greater climbing challenges earlier in the bike race as well.'

"Returning from Hawi, riders will exit the Queen K at Makala Blvd., and make their way down the hill to the new bike-to-run transition area at the Old Airport Park. This new bike course eliminates a heavily congested section on Alii Drive to the south, and gives spectators much better access to the race course and the competition as it unfolds.

"The run course begins with a one-mile loop at the Old Airport Park and then travels through town to the Pahoehoe Park turnaround (near Magic Sands beach). After completing the turnaround, the athletes head toward the Queen K Highway and onto Natural Energy Lab (NELH) Road. The remainder of the run follows the familiar path along the Queen K, down Palani Road and eventually onto Alii Drive, where they will be greeted by ovations from the crowd."

Impact of course changes

These are certainly the most sweeping changes ever to take place on the Ironman's historic Kona course. But there were a variety of additional changes considered, according to rumors heard at last years Ironman, including having the swimmers turn right past the pier, then swim around toward the harbor and old airport; and having the cyclists continue to ride past Hawi toward Waimea. The eventual changes that were adopted are sane and should be welcomed by all but hard-core traditionalists.

The course changes will make the course similar in difficulty to the old one, will preserve much of what is important about the historic course, and make the race more spectator-friendly in many respects.

Certainly, spectators will be able to see the racers much more often early in the bike ride. A strategically placed viewer — at the corner of Palani Road and the Queen K Highway — would see the racers twice on the bike on their way out to the lava fields. The part lost to spectators is the ride back through town on the way to the Kona Surf. Spectators would miss the riders altogether after they leave Kona Kailua proper unless they were to make their way to T2.

These changes also will allow a spectator to see both transitions and the race finish without having to make the trek six miles south to the Kona Surf for the traditional T2.

For the athletes competing, Kuakini Highway replaces the hill at the end of the bike ride, and then some. Kuakini steadily climbs up to Palani Road, and is probably a more difficult climb than the climb out of Keahou up to the plateau one mile from the end of the old bike course. But, the Kuakini climb is early, and can be negotiated with fresh legs.

The changes on the run should make the races ultimate leg slightly easier. Early, hot hills are replaced with a gentle run through town, where spectators can cheer the runners on their way south of town to Magic Sands beach and back north again. Look perhaps for slightly faster run splits with the new course.

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