Saturday, October 16, 2004


It feels SOOO good to wake up at 5:30 on an Ironman Day, and NOT eat oatmeal at 4:00 AM, NOT prep for the race, not hassle my gear to the shore, not worry about my tires, and my water, and my drinks and food and the weather and all the other athletes milling around, waiting for porta potties .... today, I just get to watch.

I get to wear this blue medical scrub shirt, emblazoned with a giant white cross on the back, and a little palm tree logo with “Ironman Kona 2004” on the front pocket. This, plus the red, white and blue “Kona All-Access” band on  my wrist (the athletes get to wear neon orange - real obvious who they are), along with the blue “MEDICAL” band next to it, get me into transition, and able to wander around anywhere I want. I ogle the pro’s bikes, and don’t learn much from them, except to note that Natascha’s on her Cheetah again. This is without a doubt the coolest bike in the world. Of course, the fact that this model has won the women’s race every year for the last six gives it even greater cachet. It’s made out of carbon fiber, shaped like a lazy “X”, sort of tilted forward, with the more horizontal arm being quite fat, and the shorter, more upright arm being narrower. No top tube, no seat stays, and the thing is HOLLOW, so Natascha fills it with water, with a short camelback-like tube coming out from the front, where she drinks. I notice that racer #214 also has this bike. The numbers in this race are: 1-160, basically pros; 160-200, challenged athletes, then starting with the oldest first, men then women by age within age group. So this guy is a 69 y/o from France. He looks kind of fat. What is HE doing with this bike - maybe he owns the company that made it?

Anyway, I head for the challenged athlete tent, where I need to quarter myself to do the five minutes worth of work to qualify for the cool access I get. The tent is directly in front of the dangling hoses which serve as showers at the swim exit. In other words, from our little gazebo, we have front row seats to see who’s coming out of the water. I meet up with Randy, the wheelchair athlete I’m helping, and Gordon, my partner for the day. Randy lives in Kona. He’s maybe late 30s, blond, long hair, and has done this race about 7 times, as well as “30” other races. He’s got a lady with him who hovers around, providing valet services.

There are three other wheelchair guys. One is Marc Herrmans. He placed 6th as a (non-challenged) pro at Kona in 2001, 20 minutes behind Tim DeBoom. He was young, Belgian, and looked ready to take over from Luc Van Lierde as that country’s top triathlete. Then, several months later, he got mowed down by a truck while biking. Paralyzed from the waist down, he started training in the spring of 2002 for that fall’s wheelchair division at Kona. He didn’t finish (the hand cycle did him in), but he came back last year and finished.

Another is Carlos Moleda. In 1989, he led a team of Navy Seals in the Panama excursion which nabbed that country’s drug lord/president, Manuel Noriega. They got ambushed. Four men died, and Moleda ended up with a bullet in his back. Eventually, he found triathlon, and set the wheelchair record at Kona in 10 hours 55 minutes (about an hour better than me, but then, he gets to roll along for the marathon). Wow, a couple of amazing stories.

Randy’s story is more prosaic and thus, actually more inspiring. In 1987, as a teenager, he went down on his motorcycle while biking under the influence. Most young men in this situation stay on the same path, but now with the added burden of wheels instead of legs, and all of the medical and mental dilemmas that go with it. Carlos and Marc were obviously highly motivated, highly fit when they were taken down. Randy was just a regular guy. Over the next ten years, he built himself into a marathoning machine, setting course records for both the Maui and Kona marathons. In 1999, at the first Ironman USA in Lake Placid, he entered, and hyped the wheelchair concept for the race, even pushing for prize money in the wheel chair division, saying that many wheelchair marathoners would enter if there was a reward. Anyway, he has persisted in his efforts, and now speaks regularly to high school and other groups, warning by example of the dangers of drinking and driving.

He’s finished a number of these things and so today hopes to win his division.

Gordon and I get his gear together, and go over the transition process. Randy’s triathlon life is even more complicated than the rest of ours. At Hawaii, no one gets to wear a wetsuit, although some folks do wear those knee-length swim suits you see at the Olympics over their tri-suit. And, a few older folks wear sleeveless suits, but don’t get to qualify for age group awards. Randy has plastic leg molds, cradling from thigh to ankle, to keep his lower limbs straight. Over those he wears a “mermaid” wetsuit, surrounding both legs from ankles to hips, zipping up the middle. He puts these items on while sitting on the Kailua Pier, with little help from us, except to do the final zipping. Goggles and cap complete his attire, along with the full sleeve white skin shirt he already has on. He flops into the bay, and immediately (of course) starts swimming away. He’s got an exaggerated longitudinal rotational roll, but very long and strong strokes. He swiftly moves away from us towards the Body Glove boat, where he will await the cannon.

We stay right there, to watch first the pro start, then, fifteen minutes later and about 20 meters closer to shore, the 7 AM age group start. A fair number of people hang off of the pier, one behind the other, while the rest either wait on shore, swim out towards the line, or wait behind kayakers for the gun to blast. There is no countdown, no “1 minute, 30 seconds, 15 seconds” like there is at all other big tris I’ve done. As a matter of fact, probably 1/3 of the field is still either on shore or swimming to the line when we see first the smoke, then hear the cannon.

Randy has said he wants to finish in 1 hour 15 minutes, which would be 10 minutes slower than previous years, so he can “save” his arms for the bike. I amble back to the PC tent, and await the pro’s exit. They should start coming out about 30 minutes after the AG start. During that wait, the tent starts to fill with oglers and would be photographers. But NBC has an exclusive contract, so they get to set up their tripod in the middle of our tent. This is a camera guy, his assistant girl friday (with a list of the “stars” and their race numbers), and a sound man. Security arrives, and shoos all non-essential personnel away. I set up camp right next to the NBC cam, figuring this will guarantee me an unobstructed view of the exit. Soon enough, Jan Silberstom, the perennial swim leader, runs up the ramp, grabs a quick hose shower, and zooms a u-turn right in front of us. I explain to Girl Friday who he is, and for the next ten minutes, we try to identify the leaders as they come out in little packs - Simon Lessing all by himself; a few minutes later, Peter Reid, Chris McCormack, Tim DeBoom a little later - we get to see them all. Monica Caplan as usual leads the ladies and gets remarks from inside the tent, “She doesn’t look like a triathlete!” (she’s kinda chubby - helps in the swim, but hinders elsewhere). Next is Nina Kraft - could this be her day? Then, several minutes later, Lori, Heather, Natascha, Lisa - they all come running thru, fit, ready and warmed up to start the day.

About an hour into the age groupers, Gordon and I make contact, and agree the time is right to get down in the water, and look for Randy. It might be a long wait, but within a minute of our arrival, someone shouts, “There’s a Gold Cap”, and we spot Randy’s white shirt. As we race into the water, we get some hassle from the catchers, but brush them aside with our insistence that we are here to drag a challenged athlete out of the water.

Randy motors in, and rolls over on his back as we rush down the ramp. He appears not to see us, and starts to sink. We throw our arms out, and drag him up onto our shoulders. We’re all shouting instructions to each other, but somehow get the three of us moving in unison up the ramp

“Wow, Randy, 1:05, man [ed. actual time 1:03 +] Way to go. Amazing!”

“Just get my arms on your shoulders!”

“Drop your leg for the chip, man!”

“Do you want a shower?”

“Yeah, just hold me under”

We plop him onto his standard chair while somehow he unzips himself, Gordon strips the leg molds off, and we roll over to the hand cycle. Steve Black, the PA in charge of the PC athlete support team, has joined us. We roll the cycle up to the sharp right turn in front the the pro’s bike (all gone now), and haul him into the seat.

“Pull my leggings down like a sock!’ Randy shouts as we fumble his cycle booties onto his feet. Gordon and Steve strap his legs in as I steady the cycle. Within three minutes total time, he’s out like a NASCAR driver after a quick tire change. The whole transition area sees him go by, and cheers and applause spring up. Mike Reilly gets the cue, and hypes the crowd for his exit onto Palani Road. Wow, intense, but fun. Now what do I do for the next seven hours?

For the next hour, the age groupers barrel through, at any one time up to ten taking quick showers. Everyone has a special method: some just run under, others get hair and face, others drink, and some make sure they spray the sand out of their suits, dropping the hose into their shorts, bra top, whatever. Finally, they peter out, and I spend the last half hour or so watching the bike racks of the over 55s, who seem to have an inordinate number still waiting. I lean over the fence, and ponder mountain biking on the Big Island with coach Cal. He’s tried going up up and away to the cloud forest past Palani road - pavement, but steep. I counter with the four treks I took on grass, rocks, beach lava, and mountain mist.

I told him how, a few days earlier, I had gone up north of the airport a bit on the Queen K, and found the road to Kekaha Kei State Park. This part of the shore is actually pure, unadulterated lava. There is a road carved over the black flows, but I wanted some bouncing simulation of the Xterra course, so I parked just off the highway. The air temperature in the shade may have been 87F, but the searing sun and its evil twin, the reflection beaming back from the black corrugated lava flows made it like being in a sauna, with heat lamps turned on. Once I got going on my bike, the wind flow lifted the worst of the blast furnace off my skin, and helped evaporate my sweat enough so I could pay attention to my riding, and not to the heat.

The road down to the actual shore was not bad, although parts of it I would not want to take a passenger car on - only a high clearance truck or SUV. But once I turned left, south, towards the airport, the surface became basically lava gravel over the flow. Lots of little ups and downs, rocks sized between pea gravel and baby heads, and no compromise on the smoothness (or lack thereof) of the surface. I turned down a few “trails” towards the ocean. These were marked with white coral rocks denoting a suggested route of travel, but in no way was this an improved surface. It was just the lava, as it had cooled. A lot like riding on slickrock, but a little less smooth, and certainly with no large playgrounds. And a lot darker than the rock around Moab.

The first one led to a black sand beach. This black sand was clearly not the result of stream deposition, like many beaches, but rather came from constant wave action cutting up ever finer chunks of lava into granular dust, and, eventually, taking it out to sea. Someone had driven a late model white Ford pickup nearly to the water’s edge, turned it around, and got stuck on a hillock of the stuff. The vehicle had been stripped, and seemed to serve now mainly as shade for surf fishermen, who’d left their lines and beer bottles as evidence. Probably a rental who had not gotten the extra insurance, and couldn’t pay for a tow?

The second led to a more conventional beach, with a lot of little coves hiding mini-clumps of sand, backed by a few scraggly trees which had taken hold in a patch of grass snared by a minature sand dune. Someone had set up camp there, with a tent and snorkeling gear. No vehicles were evident, nor people. I gave them a wide berth nonetheless, as they looked like they were there for the long haul; there was laundry on a line strung between the two trees, and a little kitchen made from lava rocks and driftwood.

Every five minutes or so, a plane would swoop down behind me, heading for the runway a half mile north. I reached the chain link fence protecting the tarmac from me or any other terrorist who might want to gain access across this desert. I wonder how they guarded the ingress from the sea? At night, it would be pitch black here (after the sliver of the moon had set), and anyone who wanted could snake over into the forbidden zone, and hang out to wreak mischief. Instead of trying to breach this outer defense, I headed back, hoping for a little relief from the sun once I got to my mini-van.

“Well, that sounds pretty cool,” Coach Cal said. He gave no indication he actually wanted to try such a ride, though, even when I told him it would bounce him around almost as much as the cattle road on Haleakala next week.

“You want to hear about a COOL ride, let me tell you about Mana Road.” I meant this literally, of course. It was in almost every way the opposite of my lava beach adventure.

Mana Road circles around the north and east side of Mauna Kea, the now dormant crown of the Big Island. It connects the Belt Road and the Saddle road, via 45 miles of Off Road. I came at it from the north, just past Waimea. The first 6-7 miles were tolerable gravel with only a bit of washboard, so I kept driving. I had to open/close one ranch fence to enter at about the 4,000 foot level, a green and overcast section of the Parker Ranch.

John Parker, an early visitor to the Big Island, apparently befriended one of the King Kamehamehas in the early-mid 19th century, who gave him a bit of land as a reward. John liked it so much, he married the King’s daughter, and fell into another 640 acres as a dowry. One thing led to another I guess, and by the time he was through, there were nearly 200,000 acres in the Parker Ranch spread over three sections. His heirs variously built up and squandered, then remade the ranch, which is basically a grass factory for feeding cows. In the old days, the paniolos would just drive the cows down off the mountain and into the sea, where they’d surround them with log booms and float them to a waiting ship. Now, I suppose the cows just go inside a container.

The final heir (the last scion?) died leaving money to his kin, but the land to a non-profit trust. Maybe it will all become a giant park someday, but for now, cattle still is king.

Soon past that first gate, the road got a lot choppier, and started to take some serious rises, so I pulled over to the side, and loaded up for what I hoped would be a 19 mile trek, to replicate the distance, if not the terrain and difficulty, of the Xterra. Clouds were starting to scud down from Kea’s shoulder; the air temp was 73F. I had no long pants, but I did have a windbreaker/bikejacket which I could fold up and wear as a fanny pack. Into that went my camera, phone, and some gel. The road did a lot of ups and downs, gaining a net total of 1000’. About half way in, I either rose up to meet the clouds, or they rose up to meet me. In any event, I got socked in and misted over, so much so that I had to take off my sunglasses to see - they kept getting so wet, it was like peering at the world mypoically without my glasses. (I had contacts in for the ride.) Just when things seemed the worst, I broke through to the sun somewhere due south of Hilo, but 5,000 feet above it. I could not see the ocean or the town below. I was one hour and twenty minutes, and nine miles plus into the ride, so I decided to turn back. How bad could it be? The temp in the cloud had been 66F, and was now again 75 in the sun. I forgot I had been going up most of the way - there were a lot of rollers at the end, with no net gain in elevation, but a lot of work nonetheless. Once I got thru those on the way back, it was a six mile plunge at speed with the temp dropping and the mist turning to outright rain - very small drops, just like at home, but rain nonetheless. I was definately ready to warm up by the time I got to the car. I congratulated myself for my foresight at bringing a long-sleeved polypro shirt, and cursed myself for having left it in the car to begin with.

“Now, that was weird - a combination of weather like the northwest, but terrain from Hawaii. There’s really nothing that can prepare you for the hellacious conditions of the Xterrra course - the heat, the dust, the constant up and down, the rocks, the gullies, the thorns, the sun - it’s unique, and can only be experienced one day each year. The rest of the time, THAT cattle ranch (Ulupalakua) is closed to bikers.”

By this time, Cal’s last client in the race, a hard biker, but sea sick 60 year old, wobbled up the ramp sometime after the 2 hour mark. He seemed oblivious to his coach’s encouragement, as he could barely stand, much less focus on instruction. Apparently, he easily got veritgo from the swells of an open water ocean swim.

With the bike racks now nearly empty, and the time standing at 9:20, I prepared to organize my afternoon until 3:30, when we expected Randy back at the ranch, to transfer from his hand cycle into his chair for the marathon. These are definitely two different machines. You’d wonder, well, he can’t use his legs, he’s got to be in a wheel chair, why not just use the same vehicle for both cycling and the marathon? Well, a triathlon is SWIM, BIKE, and RUN. Wheel chair marathoners have a relatively long history, regularly finishing the twenty-six miles in under two hours, much better than those of us who have to use our legs. They sit in specially designed racing chairs, sort of like the high-speed motorcycles you see out on the highway.  The physically challenged wheel chair marathoner is in a severe forward lean over the front of his machine, unlike the laid-back, hands-high posture adopted by a leather junkie on his chopper. It looks like a tricycle created by a low-rider. The wheel chair marathoner folds his legs in two, sharply flexing at both knee and hip, and rests the front of his ankles on little stands low near the ground. He’s got half-gloves on, of course, and gains motion by pushing forward on his racing wheels (actually, on the hand rims attached to the outside of the tires), which are canted inwards, each being angled towards the midline. If you’ve ever seen one of these guys race, it’s quite inpressive - their turnover rate (forward pushes per minute) is faster than a runner’s leg speed, because the arms are shorter, so they scoot along at speeds we can’t reach by running except for very short distances. This is why, in a marathon, they start a few minutes BEFORE everyone else, to avoid crushing a lot of toes. In an Ironman, of course, they have to maneuver their way past the masses doing the “Ironman Shuffle” which passes for running in the marathon for mid-packers. Their speed and energy level, to say nothing of their mere presence, invariably energizes the crowd, as well as the runners they inevitably pass.

For the bike, they use a hand-cycle, set close to the ground, with a single small wheel up front, which has a little side-to-side play for turns. The driver sits on a sling seat, much like a recumbent bicyclist, and operates “pedals” set in front of him, at about chin level. These rotate chainring gears which look a lot like those in the front of a standard bike. These drive, through further gearing, the rear wheels, which seem to be conventional “27 inch” bicyle wheels. Instead of alternate circles for each foot, as on a conventional bike, the hand-pedals are set up together, so both arms cycle at the same time. Because the arm and shoulder muscles together still don’t equal the mass of the legs and buttocks, hand-cyclists end up being slower than leg cyclists. So depsite Randy’s outstanding swim time, he would not finish his bike leg in less than seven and 1/2 hours, which is at the slow end of the Ironman bell-shaped curve for 112 miles at Kona.

The main action for a spectator at an Ironman is: watch the swim start, maybe hang around for the transition into the bike, then kill time for a few hours (4-7 depending on who you’re wanting to look at) until the bike-to-run transition, and then watch the pros finish. If you’ve got great stamina, you can hang out at the finish from 10 PM to midnight, and cheer in the REALLY slow people, those who are doing this on a personal dare, or who are too old, or too out of shape to actually bike with any speed, or run a marathon. Some Ironman courses are set up with mulitple loops and curlicues in both the bike and run, bringing the racers back to the same area multiple times. These are called “spectator friendly”, because you can stay in one spot, and catch a lot of action all day. Kona is old-school, with the bike ride being basically a single out and back “loop”, but they do have a few curlicues and a short out and back at the start, “downtown”. Between 10 and noon, there’s nothing to see, except the big screen TV where tri-geek announcers and old pros comment on the field reports from the front of the race, speculating on what it all means. They’ve added a bit of Tour de France technology, and now have some live shots coming in on the Jumbotron, but it’s only one camera on a motorcycle, and no swooping helicopter shots (those birds are EXPENSIVE, so they use them for the start, and the finish, and keep them grounded in between.) I got an update on the the race this way at about 80-90 miles. The Germans Normann Stadler and Nina Kraft looked likely to snatch the race by their courageously aggressive bike rides. Without going into the nuances of drafting rules and race tactics, suffice it to say that Stadler and Kraft both had what appeared to be insurmountable leads at this point.

I found a spot on Ali’i Drive, about a mile into the marathon, which seemed ideal for spectating. A low-slung lava rock (what else?) retaining wall curved under a large shady tree, almost at the edge of the surf, with a strong sea breeze funneled into this spot by the nearby buildings. My thermometer read 82F, which is about as good as it’s going to get in Kona. I leaned my bike against the wall, took out my camera and cow-bell, and waited for Normann.

The day was warm, of course, but not overpowering here on the coast. Word had filtered back that out on the Queen K, however, the weather had played more than its usual havoc. Normann had by far the fastest bike split, at 4:37, nearly 15 minutes slower than the fastest ever. Back in the pack, where most of the favorites had spent the morning, the times were quite a bit slower. Peter Reid, three time and defending champion, for instance, came in nearly 20 minutes behind the leader. This would put his bike split slower that several of the women’s fastest times from years past, including Natascha’s from 2001, when winds and heat were so strong that several age groupers (mostly little, old folks) were literally blown offf their bikes.

The Big Island is formed by five volcanoes, four of which lie at various distances and heights to the East of the bike course up the northwest coast of Hawai’i. These create various wind and cloud currrents, depending the general air flow over the Pacific that day. Usually trade winds come in from the northeast and hit the massive slopes of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. The air rises with the land, trying to squeeze up and through the Saddle between the two peaks, at over 5,000 feet. There, mist and clouds form, and often showers on the windward side (Hilo). What happens next is even more interesting. Down at sea level, the black lava fields are absorbing the sun, heating the air just above to triple digit levels. The temperature differential draws air in from the ocean, where it is “cooler”. This starts a “makai” wind during the mid-morning hours. This wind, however, is eventually beaten down by the air streaming in from above. As air moves down the saddle towards the ocean, it gets compressed, and compressed air gets hotter. With THIS heat, there is now a “mauka” wind, from the mountain. So as the ride goes first north to Hawi, and then back south along the coast to Kailua-Kona, the riders get baked and blown, both coming and going - the hot air from above, combining with the radiant oven like heat from the lava below. Each year, the wind pattern and heat levels are different, but each year without fail, the riders will get affected by the sauna-hell. This year, apparently was particularly bad not only in the 90+F temperatures, but also the quixotic winds, sometimes with, mostly across or against the riders. So everyone, save Normann Stadler, Torbjorn SIndballe from Denmark, and Faris Al-Sultan (who is German through and through) suffered, and lost ground to those leaders. Waiting for the first runners to come through was an exercise in patience and sympathtic humility.

On the women’s side, Nina Kraft seemed to understgand the situation much better than either Natascha Badmann or Lori Bowden, the other two pre-race favorites. Natascha usually murders everyone on the bike. In years past, she has seemed to fly effortlessly through the mauka monster, saying she just imagined herself a bird winging on the zephyr. That mental image must have lost its feathers this year, as her bike split was over 1/2 an hour slower than her best on the Kona course. She did manage to finish second, showing her mettle much better than Lori, who wallowed back in the pack, unable to run with her charactaristic speed; her marathon was one minute slower than Natascha.

So the pros, except for the winners, seemed to find the day devastating, the age groupers likewise. Nonetheless, I perched on my little sea wall for an hour, and tried to envisage just what it must be like to run at that speed, in that heat, after those bike conditions, for that distance. It’s imaginable, but I was very glad I wasn’t doing it.

After seeing the top men and women come by twice from out vantage point, I wandered back to hang out and wait for Randy (remember Randy?) We saw Carlos come screaming in around 4:15. Marc and Randy were still not in, presumably somewhere out on the course. Marc had an entire entourage with him, headed by his brother. They seemed to have a good guage on where Marc was at any one time, and were expecting him at just about the bike cut-off time, 5:30 PM. Rumors surfaced than Randy had abandoned the race; but checking at the desk which tracks such things proved fruitless.

While we waited, I spied on the penalty tent for a while. Computers have transformed this mundane little task. Marshalls on the course would identify a penalty, put a slash across the racer’s number, and phone in the information to the tent. There, someone would enter the name and number of the infractee. A chip sensing mat was placed below the computer, connected to it. When the poor soul with the penalty would come to the tent, they were urged to enter quickly, but told they could not go to the bathroom in the tent (they started adding this instruction after someone, noting the lack of a porty potty in the tent with 10 just outside the door, went over the corner and did a little puddle protest). Once across the mat, the computer would sense who it was, identify the minutes required in the “sin bin”, and start the count down. A spreadsheet would then tick off the minutes and seconds of those in the tent. This was monitored by a race marshall, who would give each person a countdown, and send them off after the requisite interval. No paper involved, although they did have a white board as back-up. Each penalty was identified by racer number; as they entered the tent, the number was erased from the board. One final touch: T2 bags were moved from the rack to the penalty tent, so that racers could pick them up at the end of their stay, and go directly to the change tent.

So that was loads of fun to watch that little backwater, with its own culture and the various responses of the sinners. Some were remorseful, some defiant, some confused, and some just plain spaced out. But the head marshall treated them all the same - like friends who just dropped by for a little rest.

After 4 PM, I switched my locale to the closest spot I could find to the T2 entrance. This was right next to the “dry clothes bag” tent, where people would pick up the bag with clothes to change into after the race. Crossing right in front of us was the exit from the finish line. Those done with the race were escorted across by two catchers, and re-united with the real world, moved towards food, or medical, or dry bag. We got to watch everyone come in, from Peter Reid on down (Stadler didn’t come by here - I think he was having trouble with producing a sample for drug testing.) Again, everyone had a uniquely personal approach towards this post-race comedown. Some (like Peter) were elated, all smiles; others were completely, totally drained; still others seemed disconnected from themselves and reality.

Our reality was to wait until 5:30, to see if Randy made it back, and help him transfer to his racing chair. Marc’s team got a phone report about 5:25 that he was this side of “Hana Alua Dr”, and wondered how long he would take - this was six miles out, but mostly down hill. He arrived at 5:31, and rushed into the chair, hoping the race officials would not notice the slight tardiness of his arrival. He came in 10 seconds after the cutoff, but apparently the rule applied to the end of the minute, not the beginning. So he snuck in by 50 seconds, and he went to finish third in the hand-cycle division, at 13:48. Carlos won at 11:18, and second was Pat Doal, a first-timer from Georgia.

When Randy hadn’t showed by 5:45, we assumed he had just gone on home, so we did too. I ate a quick dinner, then came back out to Ali’i drive about 6:45 PM, to cheer on home an hour’s worth of finishers. I decided I would cheer for “my people”, the ones who were finishing in the time I would hope to get, were I out there - 12-13 hours. In a little over an hour, 400 people came by. This was the last hour of the middle of the curve - 1100 people came in between 5 PM and 8. There were 100 before that and 400 after.

I stood just where the sea wall meets the road, the spot where the seaward sidewalk is often splashed by waves. At this point, the runners have been winding along Ali’i for about 4 minutes, and are just beginning to enter the zone of light and noise created by the finishing stands. Here, some would start to break into a smile, some would look grim, a few would resolutely walk, but most were still wasted, unwilling to realise that they were done. I told each and every one of them how good they looked, how well they’d done. Those 50 and over, I would give a special boost; people whose shirts were open I would remind to zip up for the photo. I knew full well as I was ringing my bell, and offering my support, that I was actually trying to convince myself that I, too, had raced along with them, in some small way, through the training I’d been doing for the past five years, the seven Ironman races I’d entered (and five I’d finished), the ones I’d walked, the ones I’d run. Yes, these were my people, here at the end of the middle of the pack on a hot night in Kona, third Saturday in October. At 8 PM, I turned back up Ali’i, the noise fading, the lights dimming, the feeling already becoming a memory.


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