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Big Max, Lava and the Long Run Home

Even before the 12th Man immortalised Big Max, Mike Gibson, Chappelli, and a previously little known gymnast called Rick Disnek with his memorable debut album in the late 1980s, Channel 9’s Wide World of Sports was an integral part of Australia’s weekend social fabric. Most of us probably have fond childhood memories of long Saturday afternoon sessions on the couch taking in Ian (Bear) Maurice’s intellect-free sports updates and innumerable reminders about the Memorable Moments Competition, in between segments about real sport that were always punctuated by enough frustrating ad breaks to keep you watching for the full six hours.

One story every year stood out more than most on WWOS however, and like the caricatures of the presenters offered by Billy Birmingham, became synonymous with the show itself. Each year, a few weeks after the event was run and won on the Saturday closest to the October full moon, a whole weekend would be devoted to coverage of the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon. More often than not, the stories of ordinary people competing alongside the world’s top triathletes in the world’s longest and hardest one-day sporting competition made compelling and emotional viewing. Images of the swim start in the pre-dawn light, the shimmering heat across the barren lava fields on the cycle course, and the lonely moonlit marathon run culminating eventually, suddenly, in a triumphant passage through the packed crowds remaining at the finish until midnight, seemed to invite questions about whether we, too, had what it took to participate in perhaps the ultimate personal sporting experience.

The Ironman is now both an international institution and a massive corporate entity. With the 1500 starting places many times oversubscribed each year, and 20 other Ironman and half-Ironman races around the world serving as qualifying events, it requires at least a two year training commitment and a semi-elite performance in another Ironman race just to reach the start line. In many ways, the race day itself has become the easy part for the average athlete who dreams of finishing in Hawaii.

I haven’t made it there yet, but in working towards a place in the Ironman for 2003, I decided to travel to the spiritual home of the sport in Kailua-Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii, to compete in the 2002 half-Ironman event. The 2km swim, 90km cycle, and 21km half marathon run are held on the same course as the main event in October. From the swim start in Kailua Bay, the familiar cycle across the windswept volcanic wasteland, and the run down Alii Drive to the finish in 40 degree heat, it’s an authentic Ironman experience and for this reason alone, well worth the effort to be there.

This particular lead up race is not especially well known outside the USA, and I turned out unexpectedly to be the only Aussie in the field – as an average suburban athlete to have the chance to represent Australia in some minor way (and be the first Australian across the line…) was a nice bonus. At Saturday’s race briefing, the 20 or so non-USA competitors were introduced individually, and even though it was a prime example of over enthusiastic American hype, it felt pretty good to receive a big cheer from the assembled athletes and spectators.

So, stretching apprehensively as the sun rose over the historic Kona pier at 6am Sunday 26th May, temporary Aussie flag tattoos sitting proudly above the thick black numbers on my arms, I looked out over that body of water so familiar from the pictures on Wide World of Sports all those years ago. After a quick warm up in the tropical water, the gun sounds and 869 competitors begin churning - a triathlon swim start feels a lot like drowning at the bottom of a rugby ruck, but eventually the pack of thrashing limbs dissolves and a rhythm is established. Having done little swim training beyond the odd surf session, and setting what I felt was a steady but conservative pace, I was happy to emerge from the water just over half an hour later in a respectable 180th place and feeling strong.

The race really begins here however, the aquatic prelude will always be little more than an inconvenience compared to the terrestrial bike and run disciplines which follow. I had calculated that the cycle would be the key to a good overall time, but was a bit concerned by sluggish recent form in training around the undulating Noosa hinterland. The reflected heat from the immense igneous expanses is intense in Hawaii, no doubt, but of more concern was how strongly the prevailing wind would factor, and to a lesser extent some of the long hills I’d encountered whilst driving the course the day before. As it turned out though, I was to have the best possible day - with only moderate winds, silky smooth tarmac, 8 litres of Gatorade, and my trusting flatmate’s $4000 race wheels it all came together for a PB time of 2:46.02 over the 90km. Coming off the bike I had given myself a shot at a nearly unimaginable sub-5 hour race and all felt good…for now.

My best-case scenario was in play, but as in any triathlon, the run holds special pain and almost always determines the final result. The course on this day started in brutal fashion – as the sun really began to beat down, 1.5 miles straight uphill off the bike, a descent to turn around at an evil dead end lava cul-de-sac know infamously as “the Pit”, and the painful climb back out to a flatter part of the coastline. This section of the course had been previously part of the full Ironman in October but was recently deleted to everyone’s general approval. Coming out of cycle-run transition and still feeling pretty strong, any possibility of a sub-5 hour time nevertheless slowly slipped away as the Pit - and probably the solid pace on the bike - took its toll. The mile-markers passed one by one at demoralisingly infrequent intervals to anyone accustomed to training in kilometres. All the crowd encouragement – and there were plenty of citizens happy to spend their morning sitting by the road cheering on strangers – though appreciated, goes barely un-noticed. While the swim and cycle legs can be relatively enjoyable and tactical segments of the race, running invariably becomes an uncomfortable grind - all reserves of focus are summoned to combat the pain and heat, and to maintain form just putting one foot in front of the other. The Ironman proper with its full marathon run can be nothing short of an immense personal achievement.

But that’s a challenge for another day. A very flat looking ferret carcass on the road breaks the visual monotony of the tarmac, the roadside crowds start to get a bit thicker and more enthusiastic, and then suddenly, anticlimactically almost, the finish line appears the race is over. With a final time of 5:17.55 and an overall placing of 159th, I’ve finished in the top 20 percent of the field, and though slightly disappointed with the time, I’m pretty much stoked at how far I’ve come after five years of exercise-free world travel, London living, and a full complement of Fanatics party weekends.

The Hawaii Ironman proper is still countless training hours and at least 18 months away, but right now its time for a free massage and a quiet beer or two at that bar that we passed 9 miles into the run. You just know that life won’t be complete though, the childhood dream will go unfulfilled, until that distant day of arrival at this special place to swim, cycle, and run twice as far….

Sun 09/06/2002 Luke Bennett 70 views

3 Comments about this article

  • Fantastic effort and great read. Looking forward to the other stories over a beer or 3.. Nifty

    Posted by Nifty Neville fowler Mon Jun 10, 2002 06:23pm AEST
  • I always knew you were completely nuts, but well done my friend. You deserve more than a few beers.

    Posted by Melissa Gan Fri Jun 14, 2002 06:17pm AEST
  • Fantastic detailed, funny and more importantly, readable, column Luke. Great to see you put in the effort to express yourself so well. I was buggered just reading it mate. Have you any plans to write professionally like I plan to?

    Well done, Tony Good

    Posted by Tony Goodwin Thu Mar 20, 2003 03:34am AEST

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