Running vacation: Train like an Ironman in Kona, Hawai’i

Where to swim, bike, run, race, and stay for runners and triathletes visiting Hawai’i, the Big Island. Photo: Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park-Phil Hospod

NEW YORK, November 16, 2013 — The GoPro Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawai’i will air Saturday, November 16 at 4:30 p.m. EST on NBC. Some of the athletes highlighted include NFL MVP Hines Ward, chef Gordon Ramsay, amputee Karen Aydelott and 78-year-old Harriet Anderson, who aims to lengthen her record as the oldest female finisher in the race’s 35-year history. More than 2,000 triathletes joined them on October 12 on the 140.6-mile course around Hawai’i, the Big Island.

But you don’t have to be an Ironman to swim, bike and run the iconic lava fields of Kona or elsewhere in Hawai’i. Here’s a guide to planning your own triathlon or running vacation on Hawai’i Island.

What To Race

To compete in the Ironman World Championship, athletes must earn a spot at a qualifying race, gain entry through a lottery or win a bib at a charitable auction. But there are many other ways to race on Hawai’i Island.

The Ironman 70.3 Hawai’i on May 31, 2014 is the only Ironman World Championship qualifier held on the island, with a start and finish on the Kohala Coast.

Or try the Lavaman Triathlon Series with Olympic distance races at Keauhou on November 24, 2013 and Waikoloa on March 30, 2014.

Just want to run? Tackle the Kona Marathon, Half Marathon, 10K or 5K on June 22, 2014, or the Big Island International Marathon, Half Marathon and 5K on March 16, 2014.

Swimming in the Ironman World Championship. (Photo: AP)

Where To Swim

The Ironman World Championship swim leaves from Kailua Pier in the waters of Kailua Bay. But if you want to escape the hustle and bustle of Kailua-Kona, head 20 minutes north to Kekaha Kai State Park, where you have your choice of three white sand beaches that are often safe for swimming.

On the Kohala Coast, the quarter-mile long, crescent shaped lagoon at Kauna’oa Beach can’t be beat. A reef makes the water ideal for swimming, keeping surf to a minimum. You don’t have to be a guest of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, which sits on the beach’s northern end, but it sure is nice if you are. On any given morning, a handful of swimmers and triathletes in training can be seen doing laps in the calm, clear water beside the fine, white sand beach.

The nearby Hapuna Beach State Park is another excellent white sand beach with often-calm water for swimming.

Biking Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway on Hawai’i Island. (Photo: Phil Hospod)

Where To Bike

Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway is the place to ride. A generously sized bike lane seems to have been built with triathletes in mind. You’ll see plenty pedaling beside cars and that iconic black lava rock. From the center of Kailua-Kona, it’s over 50 miles to the northern tip of the island in Hawi.

Where To Run

The famous Ali’i Drive is seven-miles long from start to finish with markers every mile. Winding through Kailua-Kona, the oceanfront road features prominently in most races in Kona, including the Ironman World Championship and Kona Marathon.

If you’re staying on the Kohala Coast, venture to Mana Road in Waimea. The largely dirt road winds for more than 40-miles around Mauna Kea, Hawai’i’s tallest peak.

Not to be missed is Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park on the island’s south end with 150 miles of trails and two active volcanoes, Kīlauea and Mauna Loa. Some trails are better suited than others for running, due to varied groundcover underfoot. For hiking in the park, consider a private tour with Native Guide Hawaii’s Warren Costa, a former ranger who knows all of the park’s 333,000 acres, history, geology, flora and fauna. 

The Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa at Keauhou Bay lobby. (Photo: Starwood Hotels)

Where To Stay

If you’re Kona or bust, the Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa at Keauhou Bay is perfectly situated for running Ali’i Drive. The entrance to the resort is just a quarter of a mile to the famous road. Alternately, the treadmills at the 24-hour fitness center face spectacular ocean views.

Refuel after a morning’s workout with a buffet breakfast on the terrace at Ainakai restaurant overlooking Keauhou Bay. Refresh with complimentary morning yoga on a bay view lawn or dip in the 14,100 sq. ft. pool tucked into oceanfront lava cliffs. Two whirlpools, waterfalls, lazy river and 200-foot-long waterslide make the hotel a family-friendly favorite.

The Sheraton Kona pool. (Photo: Starwood Hotels)

The Sheraton Kona underwent a $20 million renovation in 2012. Guest rooms have been updated with lovely furnishings and comfortable linens.

Vistas are on the menu throughout the hotel, with stunning views of Keauhou Bay and Manta Rays from Rays on the Bay restaurant.

The property is also the headquarter hotel and finish line for the Lavaman Keauhou Triathlon and Kona Marathon, Half Marathon, 10K and 5K.

The beach at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. (Photo: Phil Hospod)

Further north on the Kohala Coast, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel sits perched on arguably the loveliest stretch of beach on all of Hawai’i Island. Originally opened in 1965, this hotel is for the Don Drapers of the world, with its sleek mid-century modern design and world-class 1,600-piece Pacific and Asian art collection.

An extensive $150 million renovation finished in 2009 restored the hotel to a truly luxury experience. Unlike many hotels on the islands, guests still receive floral leis upon check-in, L’Occitane bath products adorn deep soaking tubs, and spacious oceanfront lanais encourage guests to spend more of their time outdoors than in. A full renovation of the 1968 beachfront wing concludes this month.

But if you came to swim, bike and run you won’t have to look much further than the Mauna Kea property itself. You’ll find swimmers doing laps in the crystalline water beside Kauna’oa Beach. Grab your bike and ride Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway just beyond the resort’s gates. Or drive 25 minutes to Mana Road in Waimea to run more than 40 miles of rolling hills. If you prefer to workout indoors, try the 2,500 sq. ft. fitness center, which also offers complimentary yoga on a beachfront lawn.

A guest room at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. (Photo: Mauna Kea Beach Hotel)

After you’re worked up an appetite, breakfast onsite at the Manta & Pavilion Wine Bar on standouts like homemade corned beef hash, Portuguese sweet bread French toast, or fresh Hawaiian fruit and banana bread.

If you like to refresh with a cocktail, be sure to try the hotel’s signature drink. The Fredrico is a rum and whiskey concoction with four fruit juices named for two guests of yore. And at night, watch Manta Rays swim along the hotel’s shore.

Ziplining with Kohala Zipline. (Photo: Phil Hospod)

Where To Play

Stop into the Big Island Running Company, a Kailua-Kona institution with the motto “Run Big.” The company puts on local races and sells running gear in two locations.

If you need to give your legs a rest, head to Kohala Zipline in North Kohala for an aerial tour of Hawai’i’s tree tops just 30 minutes north of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.

Or snorkel offshore waters and sail aboard a 58 ft. catamaran with Ocean Sports, where you might spot spinner dolphins and sea turtles.

Sunset at Lava Lave Beach Club in Hawai’i. (Photo: Phil Hospod)

Where To Eat

Da Poke Shack is the TripAdvisor top rated eatery in Kailua-Kona for a reason. The take-out counter serves up only the freshest poke, a traditional Hawaiian dish of cubed raw fish marinated in salt, seaweed and an array of other seasonings. 

Lava Lava Beach Club on Anaeho’omalu Bay in Waikoloa is the spot to take in a famous Hawaiian sunset over dinner on the beach.

And Café Ohi’a on the outskirts of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is a perfect stop to get provisions for a hike, along with otherworldly cookies and baked goods.

For more vacation ideas, visit, the official tourism site of the Hawaiian Islands.

Karla Bruning is host of On The Run, New York Road Runners’ show about running. Her work has been seen in Newsweek,,, ABC-TV in New York and over two dozen other outlets. She has finished seven marathons and four triathlons. Follow Karla at

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Karla Bruning

Karla Bruning is the host of On The Run, a TV and web show from New York Road Runners. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, American Athlete Magazine,,, The Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Orlando Sentinel, and two dozen other outlets including ESPN2, Universal Sports and ABC in New York. She and her work have also received mentions from The New York Times, Runner's World, Fox Sports, Canadian Running, The Baltimore Sun, and PBS among others. She also covered the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver for The Washington Times.


A former Newsweek reporter, Karla has won a Fulbright scholarship for American journalists and reporting grants from the Scripps Howard, Carnegie and Knight Foundations. Karla holds degrees from Amherst College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.


When not pounding the pavement as a reporter, Karla is pounding the pavement as a runner. She has completed seven marathons, four triathlons, trains with the New York Harriers and is a member of New York Road Runners. She is a writer, editor, and on-camera reporter dedicated to covering the sport of running from a runner’s perspective. Find Karla on, Twitter@KBruning, Facebook and Google+.

Contact Karla Bruning


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