It may have been the woman who’d overcome pancreatic cancer, or the Afghanistan war veteran who’d lost both legs to an IED and was competing on a hand cycle,or the oldest athlete, an 82 year old grandfather, a competitor with 29 Ironmans to his credit, who walked across the line with fourteen minutes to spare, or, quite possibly, it was 77 year old Harriet Anderson who stumbled across the Ironman World Championship Kona finish line with a scant 41 seconds until the 17 hour cut off. But, try as I might to keep them bottled up, the well spring of tears that had been building all day, tears of respect and empathy I’d been holding back while watching thousands of Ironman athletes cross the finish line, began to flow. If you’d told me a week ago I’d be as moved as I was by watching runner after exhausted runner come across the finish line, I wouldn’t have believed you. But I am a believer now.
Ironman World Championships embodies everything that is beautiful about sports: athletes sacrificing, training, and pushing themselves past their physical limits, accomplishing what they may have thought impossible, and, in many cases, overcoming life obstacles that would stop most in their tracks. That Ironman World Championships is a transformative, life changing experience for the athletes, is a foregone conclusion. And, at least in my case, for spectators, too.
My Ironman World Championship experience began in darkness. At 5:00 a.m. the GUEnergyLabs gang of support staff piled into our vehicle and rushed off to catch the start of the swim. The humid island air at the pier crackled with a nervous energy that was palpable and alive. Thousands of suited athletes buzzed around the start line making final preparations for the difficult journey that lay in front of them: 2.4 mile swim. 112 mile bike, and a 26.2 mile run. When the cannon blasted to signify the start of the pro men, the clear Kona water became a roiling, frothy sea of kicking legs and wind milling arms. And it stayed that way for the next two hours as thousands of swimmers stroked their way towards the distant red buoy that signified the turn around.
Ali’i Drive was a traffic jam, a panoply of friends, family, fans and race crew-the ever so important support groups for all the athletes- nervously swarming through the street. I dodged my way from the pier to the “hot corner”, the course nexus where riders were coming out of T1 and doubling back again as they began their 112 mile bike leg out the Queen K Hwy. I shouted encouragement for soaking wet rider after rider that blasted by, saving my loudest cheers for our own husband and wife duo, Reid and Eileen Swanson, two age group athletes both competing in their first Ironman.
There’s no way that Ironman Kona would happen without the tireless efforts of the over 5,000 volunteers [most of whom are locals] that staff positions ranging from water giver to finish line catcher, and every job imaginable in between. What impressed me most, besides the ethnic diversity of the volunteers, was their unbridled enthusiasm for their water or GU hand up to athletes. One particularly excited volunteer, who was the “pit boss” of the Palani St. row of aid stations, screamed like he’d just won the lottery when Pete Jacobs, who eventually went on to be the new Ironman World champion, took his two Dixie cups of water.
The unbridled excitement I’d witnessed at the aid station was turned to eleven when I went to the finish line on Ali’i Dr., where at least a thousand fans, most of them armed with thunder sticks (noise makers), stood four and five deep. They lined both sides of the 100 yard long finishing chute, stoked into a frenzy by the rabid announcer and deafening club music.With the jumbotron flashing images of the various battles being waged out on the black rock of the Queen K Hwy; the finish line was buzzing with anticipatory excitement.
A cacophonous wall of noise engulfed every athlete, filling them with a renewed sense of energy, reminding each that they had just accomplished something truly remarkable, and, most importantly, that the triathlete family, their ‘ohana, was there supporting them. You could, literally, watch wrung out, hollow runners, buoyed by the supportive energy that greeted them, nearly carried the final steps to their resting place: the Ironman World Championship finish line. Most of the runners crossed the line with a wide-eyed, pained euphoria, a mix of elation and exhaustion, that very often lead to tears as they collapsed into the waiting arms of the support crew that greeted them with a lei and a towel. All were then carried away to medical control.
As impressive and awe inspiring as the pros’ finishes were, it was the age groupers, many of whom finished in darkness, many of whom had toiled on course for nearly seventeen hours, that left an indelible emotional mark on me. The most heart wrenching finish, one missed by nearly everyone, was the athlete with a prosthetic leg who finished 25 minutes outside the time cut-off, who had to stumble down the finishing chute as it was being dismantled. For his effort, though, he was personally greeted by newly crowned Ironman World Champion, Pete Jacobs, and World Triathlon CEO, Andrew Messick.
I am a believer now that I’ve witnessed the human spectacle that is Ironman. I am a believer that the mind is often more powerful than the body and that it can will people to heights they never imagined possible. I am a believer in the Ironman triathlete family, one which dares, challenges, inspires, supports and encourages its members to do something completely spectacular.