They say it is arguably the hardest single-day event in all of sport. The Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, is the ultimate test of body, mind and spirit and is considered the pinnacle of triathlon.
Every athlete that competes in Ironman races dreams of making it to Kona, which has hosted the World Championship since 1981 and provides the setting for the most gruelling course and conditions a triathlete can possibly experience.
Notoriously tough but equally majestic, triathletes have to complete a 2.4-mile (3.86km) swim in the turquoise waters of Kailua Bay, a 112-mile (180.2km) bicycle ride that features several climbs with a total elevation gain of 1772m (5814ft), and a full marathon 26.22-mile (42.2km) run that includes intermittent steep stretches around Kona. You have to complete each leg within a certain cut-off time to stay in the race.
The total race distance is 140.6 miles (226.3km) and the island’s incredible landscape provides stunning views, from the ocean to lava fields and everything in between.
The Ironman is one of the few sporting events in the world that has men and women, pros and amateurs, all lining up together for the same race on the same day.
But this year is different. Driven by an overwhelming demand for qualification spots and wanting to capitalise on the exponential rise in popularity of the sport, organisers announced early this year they will be splitting the men’s and women’s World Championship races.
The men’s Ironman World Championship took place in September in Nice, France, while for the first time in the event’s history, a stand-alone women’s Ironman World Championship will be held in Kona on Saturday, October 14 (the men’s and women’s races will alternate cities every year moving forward).
Also for the first time in history, an Egyptian woman will compete in the prestigious race this weekend – make that three Egyptian women in fact.
Yasmin Halawa, Rawiah Ismail and Neena Hwaidak have all qualified for the World Championship in Kona, marking a special milestone for their personal journeys in Ironman, and for Egypt in the sport.
All three of them have competed in the 70.3 World Championship before, which is half the distance of a full Ironman, but this will be their first experience in Kona, where the concept of the race originated back in the mid-1970s and where some 2,000 women will line up on Saturday to take on the full 140.6-mile distance.
Halawa, a 35-year-old UK-born Egyptian who has competed in five 70.3 World Championships, qualified for Kona by finishing first in her age group at the full Ironman in Barcelona last October.
Speaking to The National from Kona on the eve of the race, Halawa says making it to the Ironman World Championship is “incredible” but she admits she has mixed feelings now that the event has changed and no longer features men and women together.
While she acknowledges that having the stage solely for female triathletes will shed more light on the women’s side of the sport, she feels the essence of Ironman, and especially Kona, has been changed.
“They say that this is the toughest race in the toughest place, because it’s not a flat course and it’s very hot and very humid and you’re going among lava fields and crazy things like that,” she said on Friday.
“The ultimate apex of the triathlon and Ironman is coming to this race, the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, where it has been for like 40-plus years.
“But I really liked the sport because it was the one sport where men and women race equally together, you could be racing with a partner, you could be racing with a coach, you could have teammates, all on the same course, at the same time, in the same conditions.
“And every single Ironman race, except for the World Championships now, you race shoulder to shoulder with the other gender, with friends, it doesn’t make a difference. And I like it, because when it was just one event, you had to be one of the top competitors to qualify.”
The change in format meant that more women could race at the World Championship, which translated into more qualifying spots available at Ironman races throughout the year.
When Halawa qualified 12 months ago in Barcelona, she had to be top of her age group to punch her ticket to Kona. But when organisers announced there would be separate stand-alone races for men and women, more qualifying slots opened up at each race, which some feel has diluted the strength of the field at the World Championship.
“It’s just taken away the essence of having to be against the best, in a way,” said Halawa.
Halawa was introduced to Ironman by fellow Egyptian Ahmad Iraky and together they founded a team called Tenacity, which offers triathlon and endurance online coaching.
Halawa and Iraky competed at many events together and the plan was for them to both qualify for Kona and race the World Championship together. But when news broke that the men’s and women’s races were going to be split, Iraky felt less inclined to go to Nice and Halawa was reconsidering going to Hawaii.
“I personally was a bit deflated, I was like, I don’t really want to go to Kona now, it’s not the same as it was, and I won’t get to experience it like it was. But now that I’m here, after seeing it, it still has a buzz about it. At the end of the day, it is the World Championship destination. It’s still amazing,” she explained.
Born in Plymouth, England, to an Egyptian father and British mother, Halawa played many sports growing up including field hockey and netball, and also did swimming and athletics at school. She went to university in Exeter before moving to Cairo when she was 22 years old.
“When I moved to Egypt, I couldn’t really get into a team sport because I wasn’t part of a club. And I didn’t know anyone and people didn’t know me within the sporting field and stuff and the sports I played in England were completely different. So when I got into triathlon I found there’s a community,” she recalls.
She liked how individual triathlon was, where amateurs race against the clock more than anything else and strive to break their own personal bests rather than compete against others in the field.
“It’s very individual but also when you do it as a team you get the essence of having a team bond and you’re doing it with everybody who gets you. You can sit there with these people in particular and they do the same as you,” she added.
“So the essence of actually finding a team was fun. And also I get very inspired by the people that race these races. Like you sit there and you hear these age groups, 65 to 69, 70 to 74, 75 to 79, and you’re like, ‘Wow, you just raced the same race as me’. And some of them might have raced it in a faster time than me, and you’re just like, ‘How are you capable of doing this?’ And it’s just sort of, you’re actually capable of doing anything you put your mind to, whatever it might be.”
Halawa did her first triathlon in 2014 at a local event organised by Train for Aim – now TriFactory – in the Red Sea resort town of El Gouna. She placed second and says her interest in the sport was officially piqued.
The following year, she signed up for a 70.3 Ironman in Barcelona with a group she was training with but she did not finish the race because her bike broke 15 kilometres into the cycling part of the event.
“I was disqualified from the race. It was very gutting. Especially because I was one of the stronger competitors and obviously their rules and restrictions are quite harsh.
“They have to show you the red card, they have to take your chip from you. And I had two choices, to stand where I was for the next four to five hours until they’ve opened up the roads and a car can come and take me. Or I can walk back the 15km. So I decided to walk back the 15km,” she said.
In her next event, another local triathlon that featured the much shorter Olympic distance, Halawa collapsed in the final 100 metres.
“That one was a very embarrassing event,” she says with a chuckle. “It was a combination of dehydration and not good nutrition. We were very inexperienced and not very aware of what the needs are and stuff. It was always like trial and error.”
After two bad experiences, Halawa started to feel the sport was not for her but she had already signed up for the next 70.3 Ironman in Barcelona in 2016 and decided to go anyway.
“I was a bit stubborn and I was like, I’m going to go back there, I’m going to do the race and I’m going to finish,” she said.
Halawa didn’t just finish the 70.3 Ironman in Barcelona, she went back to Spain five months later and successfully completed the full Ironman. So what changed? She started getting personalised coaching from Iraky instead of just training with a group and eventually founded a team with him.
“Now we’ve really expanded it and developed it. I’ve partnered up with Iraky and we made our team Tenacity and there’s so many local teams in Egypt now and lots of personalised training going on, which is really great,” she said.
“The sport has developed so much within just nine years. The number of participants is insane, and the number of the teams, and the races that TriFactory are now organising, they’ve expanded outside of triathlon to half marathons as well. The actual essence of sport and the impact of sport on people’s lifestyles in Egypt has developed so much within the last 10 years.”
Lifestyle is a key part of being a triathlete. On most days, Halawa wakes up at 3.30 in the morning to start training by 3.45 or 4.00am. She trains for about 90 minutes before heading to Tenacity’s base in Sodic, where she gives coaching sessions from 5.45am. She then heads to her day job at El Alsson School, where she is the head of Early Learning, at 7.00am. She works until 16.00pm then potentially has another training session before finally going home around 19.00pm. She sleeps no later than 22.00pm. On Fridays, she and her teammates cycle outdoors from sunrise.
Her strict regimen means she sometimes only sees her husband when she is waking up and he is going to bed.
She started off by doing two Ironman races a year but there have been times when that number has gone up to five. Saturday’s World Championship will be her third event of 2023 having raced in Malaysia and Germany earlier this year.
Halawa recently injured both her Achilles and is keeping her expectations in check for Kona; she just wants to finish the race and see if she can run the marathon part of the championship without any physical problems.
“Would I like to do this for the rest of my life? Yes, probably,” she says.
“It’s such a fun environment and the people who are part of this environment, you don’t get any negative feelings. There’s no competition among one another, people are very friendly; you need so many things in the sport, you need bikes and gadgets, you need bike shoes and the helmet … and people are all so giving.
“People might be upgrading their bikes and they’ll be like, ‘Who wants to have my old bike?’ People are sharing nutrition, ‘I bought extra gels, who wants gels? I got this new watch, who wants this watch? I don’t know how to use this, OK let me show you, let me help you’.
“So it’s a very caring environment, which is what makes the sport so much fun.”