Unofficial Kona: The man who 'raced' the IM World Champs without qualifying

By Chris Knight | 4 Minute Read

Qualifying to race the Ironman World Championships can take years of preparation, training and commitment, but there's another way of getting a taste of the full course if you don't manage to qualify for Kona...

Just ask 220 Triathlon journalist Matt Baird, who attempted to 'race' the course on his own and a day earlier than everyone else...  

Far from the hullabaloo of the main event on the Saturday in Hawaii, Matt headed out onto the course on the Friday with the intention of replicating what the professionals and age-groupers would experience.

It's fair to say that his solo challenge didn't go completely to plan as Matt endured a malfunction on the bike and some pretty extreme weather conditions...


So, Matt, how did your 'Unofficial Kona' go? Should Jan Frodeno be worried that his course record could be under threat next year?  

Definitely not.

After a fairly serene swim in the warm waters of Kailua Bay (complete with dolphins), the Kona bike course was much tougher than I ever imagined. Whilst I’ll never know what I might have achieved if I hadn't messed up my fuelling system, the unpredictable winds and savage heat were like nothing I’ve ever encountered.

The scenery was barren and dramatic (but far from pretty), adding to the sense of inhospitable racing, while the Queen K’s tarmac and the fields of lava seemed to amplify the heat.

In the end I completed the swim course in 1 hour & 40 minutes, rode 120km (I stopped at Hapuna Beach after 60km of riding and dived into the sea) in close to 7 hours and then, under a tropical rain storm, shuffled along 11km of the run course, sadly not making it to the Energy Lab.

My total time was 10 hours and it proved that you can’t cheat Hawaii. I know my preparation and fitness levels have to improve if I want to take on such a challenge again.


The lack of aid stations on the Friday would have been a disadvantage I imagine. How did you manage that aspect? 

I had my travelling companion Tomos waiting with my bike when I exited the 3.8km swim in Kailua Bay, and he gave me my backpack full of Precision Hydration tablets, gels and tools.

I also spoke to Andy beforehand and the personalised hydration strategy he helped me put together was great. It was easy to follow and remember and I ensured that I put a little extra salt in my food and stayed hydrated in the days before the race.

I had a gel 30 minutes before my swim and a bottle of PH 1500 on the way to the swim start. I felt good coming out of the water and had a hydration system on my Ventum beam bike ready with 1.5 litres of PH 1000 for the first two hours of the ride, until I could refuel it with water at a petrol station.


Matt Baird Kona Bike
Image courtesy of Matt Baird ©


Even the best laid plans can go awry and we understand that you had a bit of a malfunction during the bike leg? 

I waited until 20 minutes into the ride before I started drinking and the straw of the hydration system was a little slow in delivering liquid. I gave it a bigger suck and pulled it up a bit, when the magnet that held the straw popped out. The long straw then fell into my front wheel and jammed in the brake, forcing me into a quick halt on the Queen K’s shoulder.

The straw was broken and promptly refused to suck up any liquid, meaning I couldn’t access any liquid from my hydration system. It was human error but I think the straw could have had a tougher magnet in place to stop this happening.

The result was that I had to ride the best part of two hours without hydrating in furnace-like heat and humidity, on energy gels alone as I desperately searched for a petrol station. I eventually made it to the Islands Gourmet Deli where I bought two litres of water and a can of Mountain Dew. By then I think the damage was done, I had a headache and was incredibly thirsty.


Sounds brutal! Any regrets or pearls of wisdom that athletes hoping to qualify for Kona can learn from your experience? 

I took a lot away from the experience and my three pearls of wisdom would be to stay hydrated, try the ribs at Huggo’s and watch the final finishers on race-day! 

Ultimately, I’m glad I attempted my challenge as I’ll never qualify for Hawaii (my own Ironman PB is over 15 hours), but it was a chastening experience in terms of my fitness and the truly tough conditions – relentless heat, winds from every direction, a surprisingly undulating course – that athletes face in Kona. I have even more respect for those who compete at Kona after this.


Matt Baird Kona Run
Image courtesy of Matt Baird ©


How did the atmosphere for the Ironman World Championships compare to others you've been to? 

I’ve been to Challenge Roth and experienced the Solarberg as a spectator in a crowd of 100,000 people, but Kona race day came close to that in terms of the atmosphere.

I’ve been invited to Kona a few times in the past and I’ve (yes, strangely) always said no due to the flight times, cost, jetlag and impact on my childcare in the UK. But with my kids both at school and Ali Brownlee racing at last, I couldn’t turn it down again.

And from the moment we walked through the outdoor airport after joining a connecting flight full of triathletes, it was everything I’d hoped it would be and more.

The pre-race start was busy from 5am, the town was packed around Ali’i Drive from 9am until midnight, and the hovering helicopters and huge amount of media covering the race gave it a big event feel.

My own Kona challenge on the other hand was solitary and lonely, and I really missed having aid stations, supporters and marshalls for motivation. I had the Beautiful South stuck in my head for the six-hour ride as well, which added to the pain!


Ouch. Good effort for 'grizzing' it out for 10 hours despite the mechanical and enjoy your recovery Matt...

Matt Baird Kona Recovery
Image courtesy of Matt Baird ©

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