IRONMAN World Championship Behind the Scenes
A raw and real look at the ultra-triathlon proving ground on Hawaii’s Big Island
Kodak T-Max 400 + Portra 400
The point of an IRONMAN race is to push the human body to its furthest physical capabilities. What started in 1978 as a friendly(ish) competition between 15 swimmers, cyclists, and runners to settle the score of what discipline fosters the most fit athletes, the Ironman has grown to be dominated by a culture of athletic crazy people who devote their lives to training for and competing in these races, which now occur all over the world. The format is set at a 2.4 mile open ocean swim, followed by a 112 mile bicycle ride, and culminating with a full 26.2 mile marathon.
Every year, the IRONMAN race season concludes on the Big Island of Hawaii, where the World Championship race goes down on what is collectively agreed to be the most challenging race course that exists. Thousands of spectators come from all over the world to watch thousands of competitors suffer—physically and mentally—as they put themselves through hell for up to 17 hours.
"...without a doubt the most intense and emotional sporting event that I’ve ever witnessed"
Thanks to event sponsor ROKA, I was able to fly out from NYC earlier this month to witness the series ending championship in all its glory. As a first-timer in Hawaii, the Big Island is not the lush tropical rainforest I expected from a lifetime of viewing postcards and surf magazine imagery. The Kona side of the Big Island is almost entirely desert-like lava fields. Strong winds are sucked off the Pacific and gust up the steep hillsides of volcanoes. Heat radiates off black asphalt and the sun is brutal. The environment is harsh on the best of days. Now, gather a few thousand and force them into an open-ocean swim, a cross-island bike ride (remember that scorching asphalt?), and a marathon run that lasts an entire day, and you see some unbelievable achievements and even more epic meltdowns.
It’s cruel and unusual, and without a doubt the most intense and emotional sporting event that I’ve ever witnessed. Even for a spectator an IRONMAN ultra-triathlon is demanding, making for a 17-hour journey of complete engagement through an ongoing climax. Finding a few minutes to break away from the sidelines to explore the island and jump some cliffs offered just the reprieve we needed to survive the event.