Quite a bit of time has passed since I took my first steps onto the Big Island. Is has allowed the dizzy high of the experience to subside, and reflection to take place. Part of me still feels the Kona buzz, with the other half thinking it could only have been a figment of my imagination. To paint a bit of a picture, Kona was my seventh Ironman. Why is this relevant? Well, it means that since I first started doing this crazy sport, every October for the last eight years, I’ve sat up all night watching the World Championship of Ironman coverage. So even before I set foot on the island, it felt as if I knew it like the back of my hand. And this worried me.
Kona sits on a pedestal. From the moment Paul Kaye asked if I wanted my Kona slot, the significance of the achievement hit home. Whoops, high-fives, applause and hugs. Seconds later, Paula Newby-Fraser (8-Time Ironman Triathlon World Champion) placed a lei around my neck. Suddenly I was standing on that very same pedestal.
Fast forward several months. I nervously approached a ‘built-like-a-brick-shithouse’ US Customs official in Seattle. Seeing my bike box, he asked, “Are you goin’ to Kona?” “Um, yes sir, I am.” Out stretched his hand, with a look of respect in his eyes and a booming voice, “Congratulations man, that’s awesome! Please come this way.” I felt like royalty. Sat on the plane, the Captain welcomed and congratulated all the Ironman athletes. I didn’t need a plane, I could have floated across the Pacific Ocean on my own cloud.
Like any destination, there’s a list of tick box attractions. Where Kona differs, is that most of them mean nothing to a non-Ironman. I can’t imagine a honeymoon couple jumping around excitedly in their seats, as they fly low over a huge set of industrial solar panels. Hello the Natural Energy Lab. Hallowed ground. Pack hire car, three left turns, one right – fucking hell I’m on the Queen K! It’s a motorway FFS, yet I’m staring at it in wonder, as if it’s the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. God save the Queen K, and its adjoining lava fields (thanks Rich). And so it continues, crossing over Palani Road, marvelling at how steep it is in the flesh. Unpack car, drive into town for a swim…only along bloody Ali’i Drive (AKA Witness the Fitness Drive). The biggest ‘pinch me’ moment however, is reserved for those first footsteps on Dig Me Beach. How they even came to giving a five metre section of white sand a name, I have no idea. Yet there I was, warm water lapping at my ankles, grinning wider than the adjacent pier – home to the most viewed triathlon transition area in the world.
Ironman races would not be possible without the amazing dedication of the countless volunteers. Add ‘Merican, and a world championship event into the mix, and the enthusiasm and helpfulness levels sky rocket. Nothing is too much trouble. It feels like you’ve got two personal assistants at all times. They’re knowledgeable, engaging and ever-smiling, regardless of the scorching heat and energy-sapping humidity. I worshipped a few that handed me ice during the race. They truly go above and beyond. Just ask Paul Burton.
Who doesn’t like free shit! Nearly every single triathlon brand is represented at the expo. They must bring container loads of swag. Having a cap fetish, I was in heaven. I came home with more nutrition than when I left. I could clothe a small army with the tees I collected. Admittedly, these weren’t all free, but the quality and variety of cool stuff was staggering. Kid in a toy shop comes to mind.
It was said to me that the Kona experience is not complete without participation in the Underpants Run. Now I know why. Aside from ogling all the extremely fit bodies wearing virtually nothing, it’s a chance for competitors and their support crews to jog/walk around the streets of Kona together. All in the name of charity. It’s simply a vibe. Strangers take photos together. People wear customised underwear (we made sure we didn’t feel left out on this accord). There’s even an oath recited before the start.
2,500 of the world’s fittest individuals in a 10km radius can be a little overwhelming. Too much at times. Drive 11km and you’ve got an island paradise all to yourself. Palm trees, crystal clear waters, turtles and dolphins. This is where you really get to soak in the laidback, Hawaiian lifestyle. It’s easy to forget you’ve still got an Ironman to complete at the end of the week. Hawaii is a bucket list holiday destination. Everyone’s chilled and happy. You feel this energy.
Believe the Hype
We live in a world of hype. Searching for the next best thing. My biggest worry was that the hype wouldn’t live up to the expectation. I get overexcited easily and place huge expectations on life events. What if all the time, money, sacrifice, sweat and tears wasn’t worth it? Well, I’m pleased to say I was being silly. Kona blew me away. Thankfully not literally, as Madam Pele is known to do at times. It superseded my dreams.
If you’re close to qualifying, don’t stop trying. It can take a while. And it should. And maybe it’ll only happen later in your life. For many, Kona starts as a dream. A bar set by individuals who want to see what their minds and bodies are capable of. Nowhere is this more tangible than standing under the massive banyan tree on Ali’i Drive, 50m from the finish line. Last finisher, 61 year old Sharman Parr comes staggering down the red carpet with 16 hours and 49 minutes on the clock. 11 minutes before the cut-off. I get gooseflesh just thinking back to the roar of the crowd, with Mike Riley saying those famous words……
YOU! ARE! AN! IRONMAN!
Shit, I forgot about MY race…