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.
Qualifying at an IRONMAN Race1 of 7
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.
Qualifying at a 70.3 Race2 of 7
There's also a chance to qualify for Kona with a strong showing at select IRONMAN 70.3 races. While most 70.3 races do not have Kona slots to give away, a few do.
In 2017, the qualifying 70.3 races were:
• IRONMAN 70.3 Liuzhou (30 spots)
• IRONMAN 70.3 Qujing (30 spots)
• IRONMAN 70.3 Hawaii (10 spots): Thanks to the Island of Hawai'i Visitor's Bureau, a handful of spots were offered to those who registered for IRONMAN 70.3 Hawaii by a certain date.
Lottery3 of 7
IRONMAN saves 200 entries, about 10 percent, for its lottery program.
Of those, 100 go to legacy lottery winners. To qualify for the Legacy lottery, an athlete has to meet all four of these requirements:
• Has never raced in Kona
• Has completed at least 12 full-distance IRONMAN races
• Has completed an IRONMAN race in each of the last two years
• Is registered for an IRONMAN race for the year they are trying to gain Kona entry.
The other 100 lottery slots do not have such restrictions. Anyone can sign up for the general lottery one time per year, though an athlete who's a member of Ironman's Passport Club can get a second entry. In addition, if you've signed up for the lottery multiple years in a row, your chances of getting selected will increase.
One more note: Anyone selected in the lottery must complete an IRONMAN or IRONMAN 70.3 event within one year of Kona to validate their slot.
Keep in mind: The general lottery is a longshot. In the past, IRONMAN has disclosed that more than 7,000 athletes apply for the IRONMAN lottery each year. So about 98 percent won't get picked.
Charitable Bid4 of 7
Got money? You've got a shot at an entry.
Each year, IRONMAN auctions off four entries on eBay with proceeds benefiting the IRONMAN Foundation. In the past, the entries have been gobbled up for a price tag of more than $40,000.
Women For Tri5 of 7
One additional spot is allocated for a female who "embodies the spirit of Women For Tri through a compelling personal story that motivates and inspires other women to 'Tri' and raises or contributes at least $25,000 to the Women For Tri charitable, tax-deductible effort." The woman is selected via an application process.
Other Ways6 of 7
A handful of entries are left over for sponsor's exemptions and IRONMAN's new Kona Inspired program, a contest that rewards two triathletes with entries based on a two-minute video submission explaining why they should be given a slot.
Also, all age group winners at the previous year's IRONMAN World Championship qualify for the next year's race.