Every sport has its Holy Grail event. American football has the Super Bowl. Cycling? The Tour de France. Basketball has its NBA Finals, soccer the World Cup.
Triathlon? We all know this one. It’s the granddaddy of them all: the Hawaii Ironman, affectionately referred to as "Kona."
From starry-eyed age group dreamers to, well, starry-eyed pros, it’s the crucible. It’s where athletes go to test themselves against. It’s where you learn that Madame Pele is not to be trifled with. Just having the opportunity to walk down those steps into Kailua Bay on a Saturday in October, it’s the dream, years in the making for pros and age groupers alike.
For Kelly Fillnow, call it a decade with regard to that dream. And Justin Metzler, nearly eight years. But this year, both American pros will line up with the best of the best—for their first time in the pro field—at the Hawaii World Championships.
“It’s been way too long!” says Fillnow, in the understatement of, well, the decade. Well, at least her decade. “It’s taken me literally 10 years!”
Fillnow comes from a family of triathletes. Her twin sister, Meghan, has been her constant partner in crime, from kids playing in their hometown of Charlotte, N.C. to both taking part in triathlon around the world as ardent (and fast) age groupers. Kelly did in fact race the Hawaii Ironman as an age grouper, and found success fast, finishing on the podium in that first attempt at Kona, just two years into the sport. She made the decision then to step up to the pro ranks, but knew making it back to the Ironman World Championship, where qualifications are even harder to come by, would be a tall ask.
“Things came quickly as an amateur,” she recalls. “That last race in Kona, I remember thinking, ‘this might be the last time I’m running down Ali’i.” She returned to Kona to support her sister Meghan’s racing, and it was always a bittersweet affair. “It’s hard to be watching your competitors racing,” she recalls. “I feel like I’m mentally tough, and to see people dropping out and walking, it’s just hard.”
That feeling was compounded in 2019, when she tore her ACL and meniscus. “I started back and it took 10 minutes for my leg to make a full revolution of the crank—I didn’t even know if it was going to be possible to race again.”
After a long, hard rehab, Fillnow indeed made it back to racing. Still, that Kona itch continued. “Being back to Kona with Meghan a bunch of times for training camps enabled me to keep that Kona goal,” she said. “but it’s been a big, audacious goal.”
Then came Ironman Coeur d’Alene this past June. It was a hot day, and true to her toughness, she battled. And as the heat saw others wilt, Fillnow soldiered on. “I was excited with my swim in the top 10, and felt strong the entire bike,” she says. “On the run, I wasn’t sure where I was, but I know I was picking off people.” She finished fifth and, thinking she’d missed a Kona spot by one place, didn’t think much of it—until she was told that indeed, she had one waiting for her with that result.
Finally, after 10 years, Fillnow will be back in Kailua Bay, with the rest of the pro field. A bonus: her sister Meghan will be racing on course with her this October, taking part in the age group field. “It’s going to the first time we race together—it’s gonna be awesome racing with Meghan. After all that work—and 10 years—it’s doesn’t seem real, she says with a tint of appreciation in her voice. “It’s pretty cool.”
In contrast to Fillnow, Metzler will be making his Kona racing debut having never raced on the island as an age grouper. But even after seven years of racing as a pro that’s been by design. With former top pro Julie Dibens as her coach, she’s kept the reins on Metzler, slowing building her young Boulder Colo.-based charge over the past few years with a diet of 70.3 racing. Build speed first, then strength over distance.
“Kona has been the thing for me, the motivating factor, but I have wise people in my corner ensuring I was patient and don’t burn out too soon,” he says. “I had to pay my dues in 70.3 and in six years, I’ve won four times and had a bunch of podiums—but I never really felt like I had a home there.”
It wasn’t until 2019 that the leash was cut off and Metzler was free to start exploring the full Ironman distance. It was last month’s Ironman Coeur d’Alene—his fifth full-distance event— where he saw the fruits of his labor begin to show. Kona wasn’t in the plan, but then when temps are over 100 degrees F, finishing becomes the priority.
Leading the swim, Metzler started the bike in the lead, and after a while was passed by early favorite Lionel Sanders and Sam Long. Still—in third place headed onto the run, and in full control? Not a bad place to be. “It was only those two guys in front of me, but I backed my run—but I also said, ‘don’t mess this up!’”
At just a five-minute deficit to the two leaders, the pace stayed steady throughout the marathon, while the two leaders slowed. For Sanders, the slowing came to a crawl, and Metzler easily passed him for second place. While Long was slowing, it wasn’t enough to allow Metzler to catch him. Still, second place was enough to earn him his first ever start in Kona.
For Metzler, a self-avowed student of the sport, punching his Kona ticket is a dream come true, in every way.
“I know that race more than any other in the world, and if I can replicate what I did in Coeur d’Alene, it’ll go well,” he says. “I’ve been there to support my wife Jeannie when she raced there in 2019, and when I was there, I was training—I did the Energy Lab, I rode up to Hawi and back, ran on Alii… it was all a great learning experience. I now know that what I do is no longer a question; I can just go there, learn. It’s fulfilling a dream I’ve head for 15 years, but I plan on setting the tone for what will be an assault on Kona for many years to come.”
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