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“You can observe a lot just by watching.” -Yogi Berra
For twenty-one years I’ve gone to Kona in October as an Ironman racer.
Following last year’s race, I officially “retired” from Ironman racing. But when October rolls around, I find that I’m drawn to the Big Island once again, and this year, as a spectator, I had the opportunity to view the event somewhat differently.
Here are a few thoughts about the day – from the sidelines:
There’s no denying it – this is an endurance event. But they make it look like an Olympic distance triathlon. Standing close enough to touch Jan Frodeno as he pulled away from Sabastian Kienle for the lead, I could “feel” Jan’s strength as he powered up Palani Hill and out onto the Queen K Highway. And seeing Miranda Carfrae come out of T2, with fire in her eyes as she began her quest to run down the women in front of her, made me glad I was watching from the sidelines rather than running in front of her waiting to get mowed down.
These guys are good!
Even the amateurs look pretty good while still on two wheels. All these racers have ridden multiple 100-mile rides in training. Granted, few have ridden in Kona-like conditions, but the smart ones are pacing themselves and managing their nutrition for the run yet to come. That said, there’s always the danger of strong bikers overextending themselves and these guys (Yes, it’s usually guys) can easily be identified in the early miles of the run. When they should be getting into their running pace and looking strong, they’re instead doing the baby-step routine, trying to pull it together, only now realizing their mistake on the bike.
It’s hard to describe why the run in Kona is so difficult. It’s got hills, but nothing is extreme. What makes it uniquely tough is the elements: It’s hot and it’s muggy, both of which can make running pretty uncomfortable. And running 26 miles after swimming and biking long in these conditions…..well, there’s gonna be some serious suffering!
For racers who will be on the course longer than about 11 hours, there’s another issue to be dealt with: It gets pitch black out on the lava fields. This is not a spectator-friendly course where friends and family can position themselves to see you multiple times. You’re out there alone, in the dark, with only your thoughts for company. The description of the Kona run that I think is most appropriate is: They send you out and hope you come home.
You need a very strong mind to power your body through this run course.
Isn’t every IM finish line the best place in the world? Of course, it is. It’s the grand, final step in a courageous journey for the racer and a proud moment for the racer’s supporters. But, I believe that the finish line in Kona is unique.
The race is over and the finish line is officially closed at midnight. Between 10 o’clock and midnight, the racers come down Ali’i Drive and into the finish line in ones and twos rather than in big packs. Racers’ names are unknown to the crowds, which are as large as the crowds who brought in the pros hours before, but the cheering for every racer is deafeningly loud. Supporters are standing elbow to elbow with folks they’ve never met – often with people who speak a different language. A smile and a high five for a racer they don’t know is the best kind of communication.
Every racer who comes across the line has a story. There’s Shirin Gerami, Iran’s first female triathlete. Regardless of where you come from or what your beliefs, you had to be inspired by what this young woman accomplished above and beyond covering the 140.6 miles. Christina Hopper, the first African-American female fighter pilot to see combat in a major war, had already proved that anything is possible long before she ran down Ali’i Drive to the finish line. Jeff Agar, a young man with cerebral palsy racing with his father, Johnny, didn’t make the bike cut-off and their race was over. But they’ll be successful another year. After all, they know it can be done. Rick and Dick Hoyt proved that in past years. Johnny and Jeff were at the finish line at midnight, cheering loudly for racers who did make the cut-off times and finished the race.
As midnight drew near, I took a moment to look around and reflect. For twenty-one years I came to this line as a racer, to be met by these crowds. This year, I had time to really soak it all in. And I firmly believe that, in this small little patch of land, on the Big Island of Hawaii, in the town of Kailua-Kona, every October, we see the very best of humanity. You see people of all ages, all sizes, different colors of skin, different languages, different backgrounds, and beliefs. Yet there are no divisions, no conflicts, no walls. Everyone -racers, families, supporters, volunteers, Mike “Voice of Ironman” Reilly, and the race organization – has one common goal: To get everyone to the finish line before the clock counts down to midnight. And the energy that goes into that is unique to the Kona finish line.
Midnight inevitably comes and the 2016 Ironman World Championships in Kona is in the books. For some, it was a great race. For others, it was not quite the race they’d planned. But for everyone, it was the experience of a lifetime.
And for me? It was a bit emotional, not being in the arena, where I’d been so many times. But, you can bet I’ll be back next year, again as a spectator. Where else would I be in October other than in this special little patch of land, on the big island of Hawaii, in the town of Kailua-Kona?
See you at the finish line.
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