The IRONMAN World Championship course has gone through a few changes over its lifetime. For sure the biggest change was moving the race from Oahu to Hawaii.
That happened in 1981. Since then there have been a few features added and subtracted that have shaped the entire strategy of how to best race the event. Two of those key impactful changes were the addition of The Pit and The Energy Lab. Both were changes to the run course. Both were added in 1990. And both changed the dynamic of the marathon.
To have perspective on what each of those segments meant, I first have to explain how the marathon went before The Pit and The Energy Lab were added.
Originally on the Big Island the marathon started in the parking lot of what is now the Sheraton Hotel just over six miles south of the swim start on Ali’i Drive. That meant two transition areas. The Sheraton sits at near ocean level. The run out of transition to Ali’i Drive from there was up an extremely steep hill that started from the first step of the marathon. Back then you had no chance of easing into the marathon. From the first steps it was anaerobic.
From there you would turn left onto Ali’i Drive and cover the 10km through town. Palani Hill then took you up and out onto the Queen K Hwy just like today’s course. The catch is that prior to the Energy Lab and The Pit being added, the run turnaround was almost 2-miles past the airport, which is almost 4-miles further than where you now turn into the Energy Lab. It felt like you were running out toward the edge of the earth! And the turnaround marker was a huge inflatable Bud Light can. You could see that thing for miles. It was a goal that never seemed to get closer until the moment when you were at it.
The Pit and The Energy Lab took that element out of the marathon equation.
The Pit meant a right turn at the very top of the hill out of transition. That led to a long sloping downhill into The Pit. At the bottom you turned back around and then had to climb back up the downhill you just descended. The net was two more quad pounding hills added into the first miles of the marathon that already had two dramatic up and down segments. By the time you got to the first 5k your quads were done!
A guy who has done every course on the Big Island is 34-Time IRONMAN World Championship finisher Ken Glah. Here is what he had to say about The Pit:
“The addition of The Pit was a big mental as well as physical challenge. But I thought it was great. It was about a mile out and back. So it was an extra chance to see people in front and behind.”
“Being able to gauge how people looked early in the run was a great addition to the competitiveness of the race. Physically it was usually pretty nasty, though. There was never any wind and there was always sun. So running up the hill out of The Pit was one of the most excruciatingly hot stretches in the marathon.”
Six Time IRONMAN World Champ Dave Scott had a slightly different read on what that addition meant:
“To be honest I didn’t really see it as anything significant. The hill in and out was not nearly as steep as the hill coming out of transition. The main thing was just spending more time on Ali’i Drive, which tended to be more humid than out on the Queen K Hwy.”
I personally think The Pit was a huge game changer. It was for sure a 40-Greatest Moments at IRONMAN. It added more physicality to the marathon right at the beginning. There was no hiding. You had to be strong and then be able to recover for the remaining 35km of the run. It has since been removed from the course. So you’ll have to take my word for it that it was a spectacularly demanding segment in the marathon.
Then there was, and still is, The Energy Lab. The Energy Lab curtailed the huge segment that went way out beyond the airport. No longer did you feel like you were running out to the edge of the earth. Mentally this was easier…by far!
However, nothing is for free. The price that was paid came in this way. The entry into The Energy Lab is a long gradual descending downhill. It then turns right along the ocean and you have a monotonously flat stretch to the turnaround at the very end of The Energy Lab.
But the key feature is the long climb back out. It is always with a tailwind that is moving just about the same speed that you are running. In the daytime with the sun screaming down from above your core temperature reaches extremely critical levels. Those two elements, the deathly flat stretch at the bottom of The Energy Lab and the scorching tailwind coming out, make this a Top 40-Greatest Moment At IRONMAN.
Ken Glah loved having this section put into the course in exchange for the long run out past the airport. He commented:
“The addition of the Energy Lab was actually a welcome change from my perspective. It decreased the distance on the Queen K Hwy and provided a new challenge with some different scenery. It has obviously also become a focal point of the marathon for many.”
That is indeed true. Many victories have been sealed inside this rarely seen section called the Energy Lab. It’s late in the marathon. Once you come out there are only 10km left to the finish. That too is a long stretch, but the physical demand is less. The wind is always to the side, which cools you somewhat. That is very different than the horrendous climb out of The Energy Lab. There are more people cheering once you are out. The Energy Lab has very restricted access and about the only cheers you will get are at the aid stations, which at that point seem very few and far between.
Going into the Lab there is so much uncertainty. But once you make the exit you’re like the horse sensing the stable. It’s still what can seem an insurmountable 10km until you are done. But you also grasp how close you are to being welcomed across the finish line. Mike Riley get ready to call out my name!
To learn more about what Ken Glah is up to today click Here.
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I am the Founder and CEO at Mark Allen Coaching. I am proud to have been voted in an ESPN global poll "The Greatest Endurance Athlete Of All Time." During my multi-sport career I won the Ironman Triathlon World Championship six time, the inaugural Triathlon World Championship at the Olympic Distance in Avignon, France, and at one point in my career I won 21 straight races across every derivation and distance. It was a great career, but that's all it would ever be unless I was able to share all of the experience and methodology we invented long before smart watches, power meters, and flashy uniforms. That's why I started Mark Allen Coaching, as a way to return to others at least the part of the gifts I received.