Ironman: The most grueling race in the world
where a lifetime training often is not enough
by Karen Lethlean
According to Ironman triathlon mythology Germans are most enthusiastic; but no matter where we come from all these fit bodies wearing minimal lycra flounce about, stretch, chat, and swim waters off Dig Me. Our state of undress is slightly offensive to locals who tend to be very modest, often wearing mu-mu dresses of flowing fabric or bright shirts and long pants. But these cultural differences don’t eradicate pranced embodiments of – how good do I look! Athletes stand about or perform various pre-swim warm up routines. Sure, I’ll agree we ARE posers when on Dig Me beach.
There is a beach adjacent Kailua-Kona pier on Hawaii’s big island. This curved stretch of sand between the pier and old Government house has a nickname. A secret code location known to all triathletes – this stretch of sand is Dig Me beach. I feel confident not an official moniker, but rather a reaction to actions of athletes who make annual pilgrimages to these shores. By parading about on the pier I embodied similar actions of my predecessors and fellow members of a unique fellowship.
On this particular day I was doing double time dig-me stakes wearing a brilliant emerald green one piece swimming costume blazoned with Australia sideways across my small athletic proportioned breast. Hell my country’s title is right from shoulder to hip, in large letters. Can’t remember where I got this ‘cossie’, except I was rather taken with the thing and took every opportunity to sashay around wearing it. I figure it pays to advertise your nationality here in Kona.
A rotund gentleman who spoke to me was probably just as proud of his baggy bib and brace denim “farmer Joe” overalls.
‘Oh my gawd are you a ‘hassie..?’ He drawled.
I can’t resist a look down my left side, and sarcastic retort of, ‘I guess so.’
‘Purrhaps yawl cud answer me a question?”
“Lookin round, ‘nd there’s awl these peo-urple har, is there sum-um goo’in on?”
Surrounding us is a post card perfect view complete with palm tree lined, white sand beach. Trickling waves form from a gentle swell tumbling onto the shore. But sometimes waves do splash up over beach walls, serving as reminders of natural power which will be encountered on our Ironman race day. Those aqueous undulations can hit Dig Me’s beach front ledge hard enough to send a spray far into the air, providing sport and entertainment, especially for kids playing chicken. Water drenches people too close to the wall, then falls back languidly, with drops sifting through shards of Hawaiian sunlight.
This tiny patch of sand, reputedly imported from Australia, has pristine white granules alien in this vicinity because on big island’s shores, pebbly rock is more common. Or ledges of ancient lava solidified after flowing right down to the water. We all know that out there behind this village clinging to land’s edge is a sea of rock. Dotted with boulders tossed out by Pele from the volcano – Kilauea. Molten lava still continues to build this island.
Kaiua Bay – Dig Me beach’s official name. But wait, Kaiua is probably the northern bay. Ironman triathlon’s swim course is south of the pier. One side taken up with all sorts of water adventure activities or sports like stand-up paddling, sailing, kayaks and fishing – Kaiua Bay is a real hub of water play options, compared to Dig Me’s serious Ironman swim status. Currently all sorts of tourists from a nearby cruise ship, including my curious farmer figure, mingle with more athletic specimens.
He bites his lip waiting for my response so I tell him, ‘Ironman triathlon, world championships actually.’
By his confused look, I assume this information is totally alien. I have, by his expression, begun to speak another language so I need to make a conversion, telling him distances in miles so numbers make sense. Easy, even to someone with a childhood deep in metric measurements, because miles emblazon most merchandise and marketing posters. So I run through three disciplines: racing 2.4 mile (3.8km) swim, 112 miles (180km) bike, and 26.2 mile (42.2km) marathon run.
From where we are standing it is possible to view, hopefully calm, waters several kilometres out from Dig Me beach, where in a few days’ time, mass migration of triathletes will occur. Looking like a giant mullet run, all arms, legs, full of thrashing until we reach exits to jump onto our bikes, lined up in the very space, where we currently stand. To pedal 180K out there into those desolate, empty, lava fields. Using only leg-power against oven-hot furnace born air, all the way to Hawi village, fighting trade winds at every pedal push. Then, by mid-afternoon, when we have left those bikes at the bottom of a hill known as ‘the pit’, we must run out up onto the highway. Running through humid air sullied with volcanic fumes known as Vog; my fellow triathletes and I tackle landmarks with names like ‘piss and moan hill’. To make our way out into that oven again, along Queen K highway. Down into scorching hot regions where solar energy is harvested for local power – The Energy Labs. By which time darkness might be settling. Our progress lit only by a full moon, and reflector belts of other runners. Eventually we get back to Ironman finish line along A’ali drive. But all this is a frightening quest hovering off in the near distance. Nervously preparing for our Everest, Super Bowl, Royal Ascot, Flushing Meadows, or even Mecca.
On Dig Me beach, no seagulls steal food; apparently they haven’t made it to Hawaii yet. So we strut about safe from their scavenging habits. No such menace robs greasy hamburgers, French fries, fish tacos, California sushi hand-rolls, waffles, pancakes or even Bubba Gump’s all you can eat shrimp buffet. If I ate like this without Ironman triathlete I would quickly gain dimensions similar to my gob-smacked Farmer Joe character. But with endless training to prepare triathletes for the Ironman event it’s possible to eat almost whatever you like. Pool hours, 5:30 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. three times a week, ticking off five- or six-hour bike rides every few days and running into triple figure kilometres on any given week can negate weight gains. Still culinary gluttony is rare in this athletic group. We are careful in lots of ways.
“Say, whaaat? Tell me that again,” he asks.
“2.4 mile (3.8 km) swim.”
“112 miles on the bike (180km).”
“Lawdy I dant drive my tractor that fur.”
“Then 26.2 miles (42.2km) running.”
At the same time I run through those familiar distances, a little memory pops into my head of when I corrected a work pal once by saying, “and yes, the women do run the same distance marathon.”
While my companion is still tackling distances, I haven’t told him of the many dangers. Beginning with something lurking in Dig Me shallows — sea urchins. Step on one, even by brushing up against a spine enough to become embedded in your foot ends your chance to race the single longest one-day endurance event on the planet. You did months of preparatory training, made all those commitments (including a qualifying race) maxed out your credit card to get there, and one wrong footfall ends everything before you even hear the start cannon! We all know the rule – don’t put your feet down until you can catch sand in your fingers.
Swimming at Dig Me Beach might mean encountering spinner dolphins, the ocean’s acrobatic clowns, or watching turtles feed from rocks, or seeing tiny bright tropical fish flutter below, but unlike my disbelieving friend we aren’t here for leisurely observations of Hawaiian sea-life.
Buoys demarcating Kona Ironman World Ironman Triathlon Championship’s swim course are left out semi-permanently even if you can’t get any locals to pronounce “buoy” in a manner that isn’t giggle-worthy. It’s usually turned into two exaggerated syllables, “Boo-oi.” But no-one is really laughing as we push out race-pace sets between these orange markers. As a way to deal with nervous anticipation.
“Over how lanng?” my farmer Joe asks, “Ya’ll got days, weeks, raight?”
“All in one day. Start 7 a.m., we must be finished by midnight to be called an Ironman.”
“If’n I did thaat I’d be in a whole arghther state,” he drawls.
I didn’t have the inclination to say while it’s not a different geographical location, after an Ironman finish many participants are in a whole other state. I am finding his attitude a refreshing contrast from my students whose only focus is, “Do you win, miss?”
It’s water off a duck’s back when I try to explain winning the event is not why you do Ironman triathlons. Or address their other area of interest – once they realize that everything must occur within the space of daylight into evening hours – a range of personal questions about toilet facilities.
Farmer Joe’s questions also provide a refreshing break from pre-race-hype. I can understand his interest. I am parading around in bathers, with a dig-me swagger; mark me down as being as guilty as the next triathlete. My justification for this attitude – I look great, jumping out of my skin, muscles on muscles, ready to race an Ironman triathlon body. No doubt my companion has never spoken to an Aussie before, let alone one about to represent their country in an Ironman Triathlon World Championships.
“Who in the good lawd’s name thaught this up?” asks my American buddy.
“Some of your countrymen devised this torture so we can be called an IRONMAN.”
I know I am here because of three military pals who argued on night, debating who is the fittest sportsman. Then in 1978 a guy by the name of John Collins made a decision to test their conclusion by putting together three of the longest events held in Hawaii. Firing a starter’s gun at 7 a.m. and calling anyone who could meet individual cut-off times for each discipline, and finish before midnight, an Ironman.
Age group champions have come from 40 different countries, at least. As well as high profile professionals and recognizable Ironman celebrities like the Flying Fin – Pauli Kiuru who won four consecutive Australian Ironman Championships. Now working for a large Scandinavian media company. You can chat with professionals. I had a chance to wish Michellie Jones good luck, and she went on to be the first Australian female to wear a winner’s laurel for the Ironman Triathlon World Championship. I also spoke to Belinda Granger, who’s always happy to speak to fellow Aussies. We shared moments and Ironman reminiscences only a few days ago. Discussing things like how being an Australian meant keeping up long training hours right through winter, and fronting up on Kona well before any triathlon races back home, often our summer season’s first race. Nonetheless Australian’s have been successful at Kona. Forging a reputation for producing Ironman winners through both genders, age groupers and professionals, strugglers and noteworthy able-bodied and AWAD representatives.
Ironman legend and Hall of fame inductee Dave Scott runs a stall for his training group, readily stopping for a photograph with my husband and keen to hear we had a poster in our hall. The Man’s salute of victory motivated me through rainy, cold winter’s days when I rode an indoor bicycle wind trainer to supplement long bike rides. At least the winter in Sydney doesn’t include snow. But I am here now. Those solitary hours can be forgotten.
You can see Norman Stadler at a local coffee shop. A drop-dead gorgeous German, I thought for a time, might have a romantic interest in my daughter. Empty fantasy, I know. I do remember that infamous response he made when asked, “What have you come to Australia to do?”
“I coome to vin…”
Ironman fellowship negates any barriers between professionals, amateurs, even countries. You can have a few words with Chris McCormack, winner of five consecutive Australian Ironman titles, as well as twice being crowned World Champion. Once by outpacing Stadler in A’ali Drive finish chute. Easy for me, because Chris’s dad, a long-time friend, is virtually my neighbour back home. Our first Australian world champions, Greg Welsh, now zips about on a motorbike doing commentary, or making documentaries for Ironmanlive.com. Even the equally good-looking male model clone Craig “Crowie” Alexander, another Australian resident from the same Shire, back home. Ever humble in spite of completing three-pee wins at Ironman’s World Championships. In spite of these feats he will receive less media coverage than a drunk NRL player or philandering cricketer.
Fellow members of this elite Ironman group could all don a people don’t know how famous I am image. Looking like alien life forms, or at least another genus evolved from sedentary desk jockeys, or couch surfers who years ago saw an unconquerable challenge. We share a desire to embody dig-me principles and wear evidence of our sport. One of the stand-out T shirts (and there were many) that particular year declares:
At home I am a freak
When I come to Kona
I am NORMAL
True, we are guilty of possessing an elite group mentality. Heralded by listening to Mike Reilly’s infamous cry “…You aare an Irr-on-man!..”
So much prestige can be gained from shuffling, running, crawling or walking down a narrow strip of blue carpet. Even though any accolades are culminations of more than just race day – if you could bottle this and sell Ironman finish line’s sensations, such an essence would become a best seller. Not that Ironman finishers look pleasant. My own daughter spent many hours as a finish line volunteer, and afterwards had one question, “Why?”
Aside from cheering crowds, other Ironman finishers and those handing out medals, there are “catchers” to help bundle away casualties, to clean up spillages and to assure family and supporters their loved one, and inductee into the Ironman Kona club should probably be OK, soon.
“So thaat is what you’all win?” asks the farmer Joe.
“Pretty much. A T-shirt, towel and medal, that’s what we get.”
His disbelief is demonstrated with lots of head shaking.
Digging Ironman triathlon definitely has a nut-case edge. We are not ashamed to flaunt Ironman status. Participants wear sport-branded clothing, put stickers on cars, bikes, shave the symbol into their hair, and brandish body art tattoos. I once dated a man who inked ticks and crosses depending on success or did-not-finish Ironman races. When en-masse like near the first full moon in October, on Dig Me beach, Kona these are good looking athletes. Often attended to by perve-worthy partners or family members. Members of this entourage can be titled “bike bloke” or “bottle-bitch”. Worn with pride and devoid of any implied negative connotations, these are badges of honour. Iron-family members are recognizable by their fitness. They’re the ones jogging around with space-capsule prams or taking turns to mind kids while significant other enjoys a swim around Dig Me buoys off Dig Me. Frequently in tears because they did not earn an Ironman World Championship qualifying slot.
You know you’re ready for an Ironman distance triathlon when your mum says, “You look a bit sick, are you OK?” Many share this same gaunt, semi-starved look. I doubt if there is more than 12%, well perhaps 15% body fat amongst 3,000 here to do this race. We are on that patch of Dig Me sand, with a facade of invincibility.
Different challenges permeate devotion to this sport including the number of times I have had to settle down PC brigades by telling them, “Ironman has nothing to do with gender. Men and women, amateurs and professionals do the same race, start the same time, with the same cut off times. We all race the same course. Ironman is a brand name, not a gender.”
Or – “No you’re thinking of the Surf Ironman competition, paddle, swim, ski-paddle board and run format. This is a swim-bike-run triathlon event, but over inhuman distances.”
We know what it means to be part of this dream, this lifestyle, and this sport. Often crossing semi-visible lines marking off crazy people. Another T-Shirt slogan – If you have to ask why, you don’t understand.
My Farmer Joe friend is here on the pier because 2006 Ironman World Championships involved a slight date change to allow for his Island-hopping cruise liner to dock and disgorge mostly American tourists at Kona. So Dig Me pier is full of cross-purpose users. Swimmers, supporters, Ironman triathletes and tourists all in their distinct clusters. The latter attracting a flotilla of tour buses touting for customers, as well as being provided with lovely little marquees as shelter from a tropical sun.
Island Gods did not react favourably to this alteration. Evidence of said annoyance arrived in the form of a 6.2 Richter scale earthquake, a week before race day. This shaking threw all training and Ironman preparation activities into disarray. Not to mention throwing razor sharp volcanic rock grit amongst scrub bush’s thorns on road shoulders increasing incidents of flats.
The Goddess Pele, already miffed by tendencies, by Ironman supporters to take home souvenirs. Many persist in picking up volcanic pebbles in remembrance of this epic sporting apex. When it comes to natural disasters, who can identify a spirit’s reasoning?
Legacy of earth’s rumbling, a souvenir T shirt. One with 6.2 added to other horrific distances. Complete with a recognizable M-dot symbol a-shaking.
Triathletes were just beginning to feel steady on our feet again. Talk shifted away from evacuations, damage, or what you were doing right when the Earthquake hit. Chatter mellowed into race readiness. Chief discussion topics centre around never really being ready for an Ironman Triathlon. Digging, do the best you can mantra. Be prepared to alter your race plan at any stage. A voice from my past; triathlon coach and fitness trainer used to say, “…most average fit, capable, prepared triathletes can finish an Ironman distance race, but problems arrive with an anticipated finish time.” Now I am ready to dispute his views.
In an Ironman quest we follow months, years even, of getting ready, and arrive in Kona for final variant preparations. Those with enough money spend months acclimatising to heat and wind. Most of us have some tapering including early morning swims around the buoys off Dig Me beach.
‘We can’t just come here and enter…,” I begin to tell Farmer Joe.
“Waait, you paay for this?”
I giggle, “Yes, we don’t get all this for free.”
He has no idea how this event might be paid for in unique ways, by each and every competitor. Entry fees do include having volunteers hand us food and water all day. In my last race I felt sorry for aid-station crews. On a coolish night, everyone wanted me to take iced water, as if on special. But I craved warmth. My first sip of Ironman Kona’s famous chicken soup during marathon’s closing stages provided a heavenly uplift.
Competitors do get medical facilities too, especially on the finish line. In return Ironman athletes are a captive audience for all sorts of medical tests; one year research was being done by University of Iowa as to why some people can make use of Vitamin C better than others. Students doing doctorates into all sorts of muscular, medicinal or health problems, can conduct questionnaires, with race organizer’s permission.
Race organizers used to insist on entry fees in green-back American dollars. Hand over cash right at the point of accepting a world championship qualification slot. Making this fact known didn’t always negate frantic currency negotiations in hotel lobbies, or fast trips to a nearby airport currency exchange booths. Who wants to miss a hallowed slot just because they didn’t have dollars? Now credit cards are happily accepted.
“But it’s not just pay your money and do this,” I reassure my pal from the mainland States. “Everyone has to qualify to do this race by winning a slot at another Ironman race.”
I don’t mean to brag so will spare him information about most of us needing to win our five-year age group to have a snowball’s chance in hell of qualifying. Or hope like the be-Jesus that those faster either can’t afford to take up the slot, or have already gained qualified status via another race. So sweaty palmed, dry mouthed individuals wait with bated breath, anticipating, anxious to see if their name comes up in a tense Ironman slot roll-down ceremony happening a day after an Ironman World Championship qualifying event. Besides I can see my friend already struggling with qualifier concepts.
“Waait, yar’all have doune one, aaalready?”
Better not to confuse him by outlining how I have already been an exception to that rule. Securing my first Kona qualification, while working as an expat in Singapore, by doing what a “local” race in Phuket, Thailand. A measly 1.8 km swim, 55 km bike, and 15 km run, winning my age group and thus qualifying to do my first Ironman triathlon at Kona World Championships. Being blessed with ignorance, about impending torment turned out to be a good thing. I did however have a supporting community of Swiss, British and Canadian expat triathlete friends who kept me informed if not nervous. One spoke about, ‘…a hill which goes up for 25 miles.’ Being born and growing up in a city perched on the edge of an ancient sea bed I thought he was joking. Perth – a flat, sandy place that rose up from oceans millennia ago. I responded to such a claim as being preposterous, with something like, ‘You can’t be serious!’
Such an incline so far beyond my imagination, once I settled into Kona I went looking for said hill. Riding my bike out past airport runways onto lava fields to be confronted by asteroid like vistas. I stopped on a patch of slightly higher ground beside a ‘Beware donkeys’ crossing sign where an empty highway vanished into a heat-hazed endless horizon. Nothing but scrubby dry trees, acres of solidified lava permanently frozen into wave like patterns. These sights sent me scampering back to town, trembling in fear. I was still some 50 km from the base of the climb up to Hawi. Race day included riding the 25 miles up hill; my Swiss friend hadn’t lied. I also encountered ferocious trade winds, my bike shifting sideways under me as I tried to get food from my cycle top back pocket. Most years Kona reports surface winds, citing, “worst winds ever!” Yes, a high percentage of triathletes milling about Dig Me beach have completed an Ironman triathlon before, but Kona isn’t the same.
“Yep, we all have to qualify, unless you managed to win a lottery slot,” I tell him.
There is another moment of jaw-swinging, stunned silence
So I continue my explanation, “You can go on-line and buy a lottery ticket, they draw out 250.”
“Whaaat, and this is the prize?!”
(NB. Due to complaints and legal challenge, the Ironman slot lottery no longer exits.)
= = =
Sources: 25 Years of Ironman World Championships, Bob Babbit, Oxford: Meyer und Meyer, UK Ltd., 2003.
30 Years of Ironman World Championships, Bob Babbit, Meyer and Meyer Sport (UK) Ltd., 2008.
About the author:
Karen Lethlean’s stories and writing have appeared in such magazines as Pendulum Papers, Barbaric Yawp and Lowerview.com. A piece about a transgender triathlete featured on South Coast writers website. In another life Karen is a triathlete who has raced for Australia as well as completing the World Championship Ironman triathlon in Hawaii, twice!