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Feature Articles

Eyes on the Ironman

How to watch the annual world championship in Hawaii

September 10, 2004

The Dallas Morning News

By Karen Kefauver

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii - Year-round, visitors flock to the turquoise waters, white beaches and crimson sunsets framed by black lava that make Kailua-Kona a slice of tropical paradise. For one week every October, adventurous souls will encounter something very different in this town on the western side of Hawaii's Big Island.

Kailua-Kona's natural beauty is offset by a sea of shimmering muscles, shores filled with chiseled abdominals and lava fields crowded with hammering hamstrings. Hard bodies (with tough minds to match) from across the United States and 50 countries will converge to compete in the islands' biggest event and one of the world's most grueling endurance races, the Ironman Triathlon World Championship. The event, celebrating its 26th year, will be Oct. 16 in Kailua-Kona. Competitors will have up to 17 hours to complete the 2.4-mile ocean swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run.

The popularity of the Ironman, like the sport of triathlon, has grown tremendously. Only 15 competitors tackled the first Hawaii Ironman in 1978 after Honolulu-based Navy officers challenged fitness-fanatic friends and fellow officers to compete at these distances.

Now, 2,000 athletes ages 18 to 80 gather from the far corners of the globe for the privilege of pushing themselves to their limits in this grueling race. They're cheered along the 140.6-mile course and greeted at the finish by throngs of fans. The professional triathletes vie for a $430,000 prize purse.

A visitor passing through town could spend an hour, or a week, watching the buildup to the notoriously difficult race. Seeing even a bit of the race will provide a memorable experience in a tropical vacation. The excitement surrounding the Ironman is contagious, even for couch potatoes.

"People give so much to make it special. Competitors come here from all over the world and participate in a unique event," said Ironman director Diana Bertsch, a Kailua-Kona resident who has competed in the race.

The first consideration in preparing to watch the race is that everyone is subject to the whims of the weather. Temperatures range from 82 to 95 degrees, with humidity hovering around 90 percent. On the highway, headwinds of up to 60 mph have created some brutal conditions in the past for athletes and spectators alike.

The second consideration: The average competitor takes nearly 12 hours to complete the course, which can make for a long day. Last year, two Canadians, Lori Bowden and Peter Reid, scooped up the top prizes. (He finished in under 8 ½ hours; she, in just over nine.) The last official finishers straggle in at midnight. (The race date fluctuates annually, according to which Saturday in October falls closest to the full moon.)

The third important consideration is to position yourself ahead of time at key locations for action you don't want to miss, such as the 7 a.m. race start when all 2,000 athletes charge the waters at once at the Kailua-Kona pier.

"It's a fun race to watch," said Santa Cruz, Calif., resident Cathy Erwin, who has attended the competition several times to cheer for her husband, Kevin Gallagher. "My favorite part is watching the swim start. It's very early, and it's just pandemonium."

Observing the race can make for a memorable trip, but spectators should take some basic precautions. Watchers should carry water and replenish electrolytes throughout the day with a drink such as Gatorade. They also should slather on sunscreen and seek shade.

"It's a long day," said Ms. Erwin. "I feel like I'm doing an Ironman as a spectator! I am exhausted by the end. Have a baby jogger, or some way to cart your child. Make sure you are both fed!"

The Ironman offers an opportunity to mingle with athletes from all over the world. The majority of competitors qualified to enter the Hawaii Ironman by placing well in a designated international event. An annual lottery awards 150 slots to U.S. competitors and 50 internationally.

"Volunteering is one of the best ways to participate," said Terri Schnieder, an Eco Challenge adventure racer and a professional triathlete for a decade. "You experience the guts of the race and really get to see the mix of what's happening," she said of the volunteer force that's 7,000 strong this year. Volunteering does necessitate planning, since applications to help are required.

"The race has a special feel about it," said Ms. Schneider, who placed among the top five women three times at the world championships. "It's hard to explain. The energy of the islands, the tropical atmosphere. It's a huge event, really well run, and a big celebration. They make the athletes feel like they are No. 1."

Some of the best vantage points for spectators are at the swim start and at the finish line. The swim begins and ends at the pier in Kailua-Kona. A small army of beefy volunteers helps hoist tired swimmers onto land. The swimmers then sprint to the roped-off transition area to collect their bikes for the ride north on the Kona Coast to their turnaround point. The marathon course goes through Kailua-Kona and onto the same highways used for the bike race. Contestants run back to Kailua-Kona, finishing on Alii Drive. They cross the finish line at the front of the pier before a cheering crowd of more than 25,000.

History unfolds at the finish line as athletes run, walk and crawl to make the official midnight deadline.

"It's very inspirational to be applauding every type of competitor as they struggle to cross the finish line," said Craig Calfee, who first attended the event in 1989.

"Cruise along Alii Drive or stay in town. It's a constant flow of action - a big party," said Ms. Schneider. "It starts when the winner comes in, and it doesn't stop until midnight. I have never seen anything like it before... If you do nothing else, go to the finish line at 11 p.m. or 11:30 p.m... Even if I raced, I am wasted and I can't walk, I go down there because it is one of the highlights."

Former race director Sharron Ackles watched her first Ironman in Kailua-Kona in 1983. "It grabs your soul," she said. "I have such a passion for this event. It's very special because spectators, volunteers and athletes experience such an elation... Only a small part is about competition. It's about a family of people helping."

Visitors become part of that triathlon family. The best part is, unlike the athletes, you can also have time to snorkel, visit Hilo's black-sand beaches and climb the island's highest peak, the 13,677-foot volcano Mauna Loa.

Karen Kefauver is a freelance writer and triathlete in California.

When You Go
The 26th Ironman Triathlon World Championship will be from 7 a.m. to midnight Oct. 16 at Kailua-Kona on the Big Island. Free to spectators.

The race: www.ironmanlive.com.

Hawaii Visitor and Convention Bureau: www.gohawaii.com; 1-800-464-2924.

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