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The Global Ambassadors – Ironman World Championship

#6 Ironman World Championship: October 2019

Much like how our bucket list requires extensive training, discipline, and endurance, so too does the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Held annually, this championship consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26.2-mile marathon, raced in that order and without a break.

The inaugural race was organized by Judy and John Collins and took place in Waikiki in 1978. The couple was determined to combine the three toughest endurance races in Hawaii — the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the Around Oahu Bike Race, and the Honolulu Marathon — into one grueling (sadistic?) event.

Three years later the race was moved to Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii where it has remained ever since. This year, 2,374 athletes from 75 countries representing six continents were supported by nearly twice that many volunteers as they embarked on the 140.6-mile race.  Quite accurately, the race claims to, “Present the ultimate test of body, mind, and spirit to earn the title of Ironman.” To put this in perspective, and although there are numerous ways to qualify, industry estimates suggest that in excess of 80,000 triathletes from around the world vie for the annual available slots in Kona. Truly, the intersection of perspiration and inspiration as qualifying triathletes remind themselves of the mantra that “Anything is possible.”

In addition to our desire to witness fellow world class athletes in action, we believed the setting to be an ideal one for bringing our significant others. After all, certain locales are truly conducive for such getaways and there are likely few better than the Royal Kona Resort.

With a year-round population of about 12,000, Kailua-Kona sees that number swell to close to 30,000 during race week. From the moment we arrived the upbeat hustle and bustle was evident, with world class athletes and their supporters making last minute refinements to their training regimens and race day strategies, while the rest of us marveled at both their dedication and the amazing backdrop that is the west Kona shoreline.

Following the requisite luau the first night, I somehow found myself running in the 22nd annual, 1.5 mile “Underpants Run” the next morning while our other ‘group members’ chose to sleep in rather than don their tighty-whities for charity (the inaugural event was a protest against wearing Speedos in inappropriate places such as stores, restaurants, etc.).

All of us then headed off to Heavenly Hawaiian Farms, one of approximately 1,000 coffee farms in Kona cumulatively covering about 5,000 acres throughout the region. In addition to its forty acres and 20,000 trees, each of

which yields about one pound of coffee per year, Heavenly Hawaiian provided sweeping views of the coast enjoyed, of course, with a cup of the freshest brewed coffee imaginable in hand.

Highlighted by a snorkeling excursion for some and volunteer training for others, the day before the race offered an even more upbeat and positive vibe. With athletes completing their to-do lists by dropping off their bikes and transition bags at the pier throughout the afternoon, the serene setting took on a “calm before the storm” feel even as intermit afternoon rain doused athletes, volunteers, and support crews alike.

On race day, athletes began checking in for the swim at 4:30 AM. With their final preparations complete, including their body markings provided by us as part of our volunteering, the elite men entered the water at 6:25 AM, with the elite women joining five minutes later. Within the hour the remaining nine groups had entered the water.

The opportunity to have participated in the pre-race body marking process, despite requiring us to be at the pier at 4:00 AM, was more than worth it as it provided the chance to not only meet so many extraordinary athletes, but also to feel as if we were literally leaving our mark on the event in some small way. Having personally met, chatted with, and marked athletes from the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and even Papua New Guinea who had its first-ever qualifier, as well as numerous Americans from coast-to-coast, a unique bond of sorts was established that would last throughout the day.

The palpable intensity and evident emotion as the initial horn sounded sending the elite men on their way was met with equal parts pageantry and the beauty that is Kona as the sun rises over the mountains.

Given our morning volunteer status, we were very fortunate to be able to watch the first stage from the pier, a coveted vantage point with unobstructed views that allowed us to watch up-close not only the swim, but also the transition from the ocean to the cycling portion of the race. Intense, controlled chaos best describes this process as athletes change into their riding gear and navigate the thousands of bicycles to locate theirs.

We were then met with a challenge of our own; how best to quickly get from inside the perimeter of the pier to our second volunteering commitment at the mile 11 bike aid station, a location about 4 miles from the pier.  Fortunately, and sensing our dilemma as well as our commitment, one of the sheriffs working the race said that he would personally drive us to the aid station. So, in we climbed and watched as he navigated the various closed streets and highways to personally deliver us to the intersection of Hina Lani Street and the Queen K Highway. Side note: It felt nice to be in the back of a sheriff’s SUV cruiser sans constraints and an alibi!

After assisting the athletes by providing them water and Gatorade we made our way back to the pier to watch the conclusion of the race. Shortly before the conclusion of the race our other group members found themselves volunteering alongside a children’s church group, which afforded them the remarkable opportunity to assist both the eventual male and female winners with hydration down the stretch.

Hordes had gathered as 38-year-old German Jan Frodeno won his third Ironman World Championship triathlon in a course record time of 7:51:13.

Frodeno’s split times were an extraordinary 47:31 for the swim (over 3mph); 4:16:03 for the cycling portion (26 mph) and 2:42:43 for the marathon (6:15 avg. mile). He was later joined by fellow German Anne Haug, 36, who traversed the course in 8:40:10 to capture the women’s title.

The event ran well into the night as triathletes, including an 80-year-old man and a bilateral amputee competing on prosthetic legs, completed the race within the seventeen-hour time limit. When it was all said and done 2,266, an astounding 95.5%, finished the race.  As impressive as that percentage is, it pales in comparison to the 100% of our group that completed our grueling and exhausting event!

On to Bucket List event #7, whenever and wherever that was to be was anybody’s guess in the era of COVID-19, and the social distancing, travel restrictions, and fan-less events we were forced to reckon with in the pandemic’s wake.

Unable or unwilling to attend the patron-less 2020 Masters, which was moved from April to November, and following the near miss of a World Series Game 7 between the Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays due to a Dodgers Game 6 WS-clinching victory (October), as well as a deferral in our attending the Iron Bowl (November), off we went to Louisville to experience the “Run for the Roses.”

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