I was in Kona last week to watch the Ironman World Championship, cheer, work, soak in the sun and the salt. I, like 10,000 or so others, flocked to the Big Island for the Superbowl of triathlon. 2,500 were racing, and of these: about 50 male pros, about 35 female pros, about 2000 athletes that won a slot by topping their age group at another Ironman, maybe 300 or 400 athletes that won a slot in a lottery or through the legacy program. Then the island is filled with family, friends, triathlon groupies, industry employees, Ironman staff, regular islanders, regular tourists that somehow didn’t get the memo, retired pros, people who have done the race, people who want to do the race. It’s a great collection and all of these people play their part in a fun and fascinating show.
Here is a brief post. These are some of the encounters and the mini-stories of the People of Kona.
I don’t know anything about Bob, except that he has been doing race week ‘Breakfast with Bob’ for years. Every morning of race week, from 8 AM until noon, he chats it up with current and former professional triathletes in back-to-back-to-back 15 to 30 minute interviews. Bob is old. I was in Huggo’s at 730am the first morning of interviews, doing some finance work, when an old fella with huge side-burns and wearing a Hawaiian button-up said to me, ‘Hey. What’s your name!? I’m Bob.’
‘I’m Luke. Great meeting you Bob.’
‘Same, just great. What are you doing here, Luke?’
‘Well, Bob, I guess I’m here to watch you!’
Sebastian Kienle is among the best of long-course triathletes, and that's not just my opinion - he won Kona in 2014 and won the 70.3 World Championship in 2012 and 2013. He’s always in the hunt, consistently making the podium in world class events. Kienle has a brain, and he realizes that his mind limits his performance. His humor and willingness to be vulnerable make him easy to like. From his ‘Breakfast with Bob’ interview:
Kienle on ‘The Island’:
“Ja, I do like it here. Wake up every morning, have breakfast, see the dolphin show.. It’s great. I think you have to like it to do well here. If you get off the airplane and 'ugh!! The heat, the humidity!', and every time you go out on the morning run and you say, 'oh the heart rate is 10 beats higher, and the paces aren’t there'.. I think you have to embrace the challenges and the nature of the island to do well here. So I am at least telling myself that I like it here.”
Kienle on the discomfort of racing fast and on Sanders:
“It’s so hard, it’s such suffering. If you’re in 3rd, you’re not thinking about the guy in 2nd. You are just thinking about the guy in 4th, hoping that he’s not going to make a go at it, because you don’t want to suffer and more, you don’t want it any more intense, you just want to finish the race. So, a guy like Lionel Sanders, a guy that wants to suffer - that’s a difficult guy to beat.”
Lionel Sanders is a ‘work hard, no play’ triathlete from Canada. He does nearly all of riding on the trainer in his basement and all of his swimming in an ‘endless pool’ at home. He has good humor but is no-nonsense and he uses his addictively-inclined mind to push his body beyond anything reasonable. His 2017 2nd place performance at Kona was the most awe-inspiring thing I saw that day – he was at mile 24, 99% finished with the race, and he was wrecked, swinging and dragging one foot along, zero rhythm or symphony left in his body, just a mind saying that he must push harder, use more force, keep going.
Sanders at ‘Breakfast with Bob’: “IT starts when the moment comes and your body and mind are saying ‘STOP. WALK. It’s time to walk.’ That came for me starting around mile 10 of the run last year.”
The crowds of super athletes
There are super athletes everywhere. Like, the most fit lean strong person you see at the gym. Round up that person from every gym, in the country and around the world, and that’s what you’ve got. 2,500 of those. And really even more than 2,500, because there are thousands more not racing, but just as lean and fit, on the island to get some jollies from watching the scene and doing their own sweating under the sun.
Katie is a Boulderite. Well, recently anyway, she's lived in Boulder. Katie understands the miracle of being alive-and-well with greater clarity than most people, and she embodies the attitude that we are all so fortunate to be able to breathe, sweat, pound the pavement. Katie is an age grouper. If she wants to, she could race as a professional. I trained with Katie every day (before my June retirement), and I can say that she is an exceptionally good triathlete, tough through and through. She was smiling on race day. Probably close to tears at the pain of racing fast. But still smiling and calling out to friends.
Lady at the hostel
I stayed at a great hostel. Way fun. Fast friends.
One of the ladies staying there was watching a friend race. This ‘lady at the hostel’ is a triathlete and looks fit. I’m sure she is fit and a reasonably proficient triathlete. She is on the most controlled and intentional plan I’ve ever heard – she’s 6 or 7 years into a plan to: Race short course sprint triathlon only, for 3 years. Race a couple more years with some Olympic distance in there. Race 2 or 3, or maybe 4 more years, at the half ironman distance. Then she’ll consider a full. Her patience is commendable and her lack of swing-for-the-fences swagger disappointing. It’s her life. But gee, turn up the heat, burn that candle a little faster, we’re not here forever!
Volunteer and Racer Jim
Jim is from England. He’s not from London, and I have no idea what the other places in England are, so I can’t say where exactly this pleasant gent is from. I can say, though, that this guy is a solid sender. He’s an age-grouper, about 55 years old. I met him while he was volunteering a couple days before the race. Turns out he was volunteering and racing. Atta boy. He visited Boulder 2 years ago and loved it, came last year to race Ironman Boulder, won his age group and a Kona slot, and while he was at it, he signed up for the Leadville 100 run for next year. Just a cool and polite fellow, living his dreams, his wife (also an ultrarunner) along to cheer and volunteer.
Nicole is a Boulderite, originally hailing from Paraguay. Impressive triathlete, 24 years old, I’m sure she could race as a pro if that is something she wanted. Nicole works for Skratch Labs, a sports nutrition company in Boulder, and she worked the Skratch Labs tent every day during race week, getting cooked by the heat and sun all day. This probably didn’t help race day performance. But she gets it. She’s not a straight-laced-German-triathlete-robot, there to grimace, scowl and shave every possible second off the race time. She’s there to go fast, faster than almost anyone in the world can, but she can live an arms-wide-open, full experience at the same time. She’s a hard training, fun loving and big living Paraguayan, grateful for the opportunity to celebrate the day and the life, to send it hard, to thrive in Kona.
Dave from Long Island
Dave raced Kona 15 years ago. Dave doesn’t move as well as he did then, his knees and back have come apart, but he had an opportunity and took it, to come back and see the race ‘from the other side’.
Dave was staying at the same hostel as me and we had lots of chances to chat. We talked a lot about triathletes. About the characteristics and lifestyles of triathletes, what ‘they are’, what ‘we are’, and what ‘we were’. Dave walked away from Triathlon after his Kona, 15 years ago, largely because he did not like what he was becoming as a person. One of the things we talked about was the all-encompassing nature of the sport, that it asks everything of you – your time, money, energy, relationships. I said to him, “Dave. If I was training, if I was racing, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, we wouldn’t be enjoying each other’s company.” He responded with a statement that stuck with me, “Yeah. It’s the perfect sport for someone with intimacy issues.. Like, hey, nice to meet you, but I can’t stay! Gotta go, gotta train!”
TO is among the best in the world at swim, bike run. Tim put together a fantastic year and capped it off with a heroic effort at Kona. He ran 26 miles right next to a few of the other front runners, and he hung in there so strong. There were points that it looked like he was going to come apart. The guy next to him looked to be running a minute per mile faster. But Tim somehow worked through the tough bits, he rode the ups and downs and stayed in the game. And then he broke away from the field at mile 24, gave an unfathomable effort that created and maintained a gap, earning him a 4th place finish at the biggest race of them all.
TO is also probably the most real human of all professional triathletes. I’ve trained with Tim. He lives in Boulder. You can find him out after dark. He eats ice cream and drinks wine. This dude is relatable. The way he can swim, bike, run and endure - that is difficult to relate to, difficult to understand. But outside of that, he is a regular, solid, light-hearted fellow and an icon of the sport. He makes it feel achievable. Some people, like Jan Frodeno and Daniella Ryf - they make you wonder, ‘Why bother? I’m not that.’ Tim, on the other hand, is so affable and relatable, it almost makes you think you can and should do it, too. Few in the world actually can do triathlon like Tim, but I am sure that his example has brought thousands into triathlon.
Julie Dibens was my triathlon coach and is a great friend. She had a bunch of athletes in the race this year, including the above mentioned Katie Kyme and Tim O’Donnell. Julie has myriad reasons to be on the Island for the big show – she’s worked with her athletes all year, preparing them. She has competed in the highest levels of the race, all the way up front. She knows everyone racing. She is a great fan of the sport and can get a front row seat to the show. The list goes on.
Julie and I kept finding ourselves in the same place on race day. Pre-swim, at the start of the ride, at the start of the run. Then both of us focused in on Tim O’Donnell. Tim was having a race, and we wanted to watch and scream for him. You can’t ride alongside a runner, but you can leapfrog them, so that’s what we did. Ride up a couple hundred yards in front of Tim, wait for him to get to us, yell encouragement and splits to him. Repeat. When Tim was able to break away at mile 24 to solidly take 4th place... I almost cried it was so awesome. I’m sure Julie did, too.
Oddly, we were some of the only people actively cheering and coaching a specific person on the Queen K. It seems to me like everyone would do that, but it’s just not the case, and it’s just Julie being an all-star human and triathlon coach.
Dennis from Australia
I was out on the Queen K for a big chunk of the day, spectating, cheering and feeling the same powerful sunrays that were cooking the athletes. I stayed out on the Queen K into the night. It’s a difficult part of the journey, and I wanted to be there to feel it and to help if I could.
Mostly I was around the 24 mile mark – only 2.2 miles left to run. 10 minutes if you’re really fast. 40 minutes if you walk a decent pace. Almost 99% of the 140.6 miles are done, it’s just a hop, skip and jump to Ali’I drive and the screaming crowds at the finish chute. But, from experience, it’s an eternity for those last miles. Training run, 2 miles to go? Simple. Ironman World Championship, 11pm? It’s one-step-at-a-time and you are out there alone. I was out there giving cheering and encouragement, but I was it, and these guys and girls were so smashed, most of them probably don’t remember it. I doubt this fellow, Dennis, remembers me.
This guy, Dennis from Australia, comes walking over the top of the hill, 200 yards away, his glow necklace giving away his otherwise ninja-like approach down the unlit black pavement. A couple other athletes walk and trot past me, I encourage them to “keep it moving, just like that, great work.” This guy gets to me and I realize he’s not moving very well - it’s looks kind of like the exaggerated effort required for any movement when you have the flu. A little hunched, every move drawn out. “What time is it?” “1040pm man, you’ve got plenty of time, keep it moving along just like you are!” He soaks in my comment, his dehydrated and half-cooked brain trying to process, then he looks at me and says, “I think I’ll lay down. Take a rest for a minute.”
So this guy, Dennis, lies down. Fine. Take a rest. It’s been a long day. A minute later I’m a little worried. A car rolls by, “Is that guy okay?” “Yup, he’s just taking a little rest, all good, thanks!” The car drives off, I say to this guy – “Hey man, you are okay, yea?” Thumbs up.
Five more minutes of no movement, save a scarcely moving chest, it’s make-or-break time. Either dude needs to get up or I need to grab some medical attention. “Alright Dennis! What do you say!? Time to rock and roll buddy. What do you say walk to the next aid station, just around the corner.” Thumbs up, sits up, one hand, one foot, two feet, standing. Looks at me, “Was I snoring?”
Australia Dennis figured out how to make those last couple miles happen and he finished – 16 hours, 34 minutes.
The day was incredible. Race week was fascinating. The dichotomies and the stories were everywhere. The people of Kona - the pros, the joes, the volunteers, the fans, the islanders - the far-ranging variety of people, all there for their own reasons - that's what made Kona for me this year.
I might have a bit more to say, in one more post. I have a lot of conflicting thoughts on this race in particular and high-level long-course triathlon in general. The beauty and the stupidity, the bravery and meaninglessness, the hyperfit and the shattered bodies, the excitement of the finish chute and the lonliness of the Queen K. It’s great, horrible, joyful, selfish, selfless, repulsive, attractive all at once. I have a few more images, videos and ideas I want to share, to relate the experience of Ironman on the Big Island, Kona.