How a Week in Kona Taught me the Raw Truth of IRONMAN
A first-timer’s raw experience as a spectator of the world’s biggest triathlon and what it taught him
photography by Nils Nilsen
I should come right out and say that until very recently I knew almost nothing about IRONMAN. I’m not from the triathlon world and I had never witnessed a race. I didn’t know the athletes, the venues, or the brands. And I had no idea how to be a spectator on a course that covers more than 150 miles. My knowledge was limited to the order of things: swimming, biking, then running.
When I touched down on Oahu after an 11-hour flight from New York in early October, it was my first time setting foot on a Hawaiian island. Basically, I was the least qualified person to be representing the media at the IRONMAN World Championship in Kona—which I soon realized is a really big deal.
That said, as a guest of sponsoring brand ROKA, I was set. I even got a media card with my photo on it and an IRONMAN lanyard that granted me access everywhere. I wore a camera over top of my performance athletic gear and mingled poolside with industry people each evening. I fit right in.
As you might have gathered, the IRONMAN event was an entirely new experience for me. I come from a background in action sports, where there’s a lot of ego and passive competitiveness. And when you step outside of the niche communities of such sports, the general public is basically unaware and indifferent. The IRONMAN community is drastically different. It’s fueled by passion and open rivalry between the competition and oneself. There’s also an incredible amount of support and empowerment in the culture, and it garners global attention. These races are hugely important to many, and an unbelievable amount of production goes into them. Thousands of volunteers devote their time and energy towards the logistics and intricacies of working with local communities to organize the event, course, and crowds.
The crowds are worth mentioning twice. A massive amount of gratitude should be awarded to the local Hawaiian community for allowing this event to span over a week, overflow their local towns with tourists, and shut down their streets, making it a challenge for people to continue with their daily lives. Not everyone supports the race, but they still put up with it, so for someone like myself to be able to join the haole influx and be there, it was special.
The Kona race is notorious for being the most physically and mentally challenging course of the IRONMAN network. The leeward side of Hawaii’s Big Island is a largely barren desert of lava fields, subject to strong winds, extreme heat, and drastic inclines between coastline and volcanos. The lush tropical rainforest of Hawaiian stereotype does not live here, and the world’s best endurance athletes are constantly humbled in the harsh environment. All competitors are well aware of the demands they face and you can feel their concern for days leading up to the main event.
The atmosphere in town underwent an ominous change on the eve of raceday. People were panic training in the early morning darkness, others paced with their heads down through the day. You could feel how tense it was as silence consumed the evening. The following morning, the streets were full at 4:30 A.M. ahead of the starting gun as the sun appeared over the island’s rugged, volcanic landscape. Thanks to that press pass around my neck, I found myself front and center of the competitors’ starting line.
The legendary race has long been dominated by industry giants, brands at home in most every household. Yet in recent years a new brand emerged and swiftly took over. And it all started in 2013 when founders Rob Canales and Kurt Spenser stomped their footprint in the industry by redesigning a wetsuit with the fit model’s arms extended above the head—how the body is positioned when swimming. Makes sense, right?
Before the brand, Canales and Spenser were competitive swimmers, and good friends. Though inexperienced in the triathlon world at the start, the two understood the importance of, and market for, good design. And surrounding themselves with top talent—from Oakley to Apple, Canales and Spenser quickly built up an impressive list of industry veterans. As Spenser explained to me, “ROKA is a performance design company.” And as such, their objective is to make the best products on the market and make sure they look good. This is great news for endurance athletes who’ve grown tired of Terminator 2-style speed shades and neon rainbow-printed Lycra suits. Can’t somebody make matte black performance attire and sunglasses you can also wear for going slow? For the first time, the answer is yes.
The brand’s team of athletes are also the R&D department. They’re a mix of track and marathon runners, Olympians, and IRONMAN triathletes who have full input on the product design. “This year, our female athletes won gold and bronze in Rio, and five of the top six at the World Championships were our athletes,” Canales said. In Kona Jesse Thomas finished 16th (he won an IRONMAN in the Canary Islands earlier this year), cycling and running in his signature Phantom sunglasses, a replica of Maverick’s aviator shades from Top Gun, but updated with a Carl Zeiss lens and titanium frame.
Thomas’ wife, track and field superhero Lauren Fleshman, is also a ROKA athlete. We met at my hotel the day before the race to go for a run. I asked her to keep it at gentlemen’s pace on my behalf, but we still went six miles in the blazing heat. At least she told me I had good form. Formerly a Nike athlete, Fleshman now plays a big role in the ROKA product design. She’s a person with a million side projects and is at the point in her career where she’s focused on advocating equal rights for professional athletes instead of winning medals. “I want to help make positive changes in our industry,” she said as I struggled to follow her up a long hill. “—changes surrounding the perception of women’s bodies and efforts to empower athletes of color.”
Like Fleshman, most involved in the brand come from sporting backgrounds and hold specialized skillsets. The product packaging designer came from Apple and is an avid cyclist, for example. Every bit of the brand seems purposeful. And they do some cool, unconventional stuff—a custom, full-body wetsuit was made for an Islamic female competitor at this race.
Back at the race I tagged along with several people who’d attended past events, as to see different parts of the race at key times and locations. The best action was, obviously, at the finish line, where the pro men started to come in a few minutes after the eight-hour mark. Covering the distances of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile cycle, and 26.2-mile marathon run in that amount of time means they’re essentially sprinting for eight hours straight. Most collapsed at the finish line and were dragged off to the medic area to hydrate, but Switzerland’s Daniela Ryf, who won the women’s pro category by more than 20 minutes, cruised over the finish line and spent an hour walking around, greeting fans, and giving interviews like she barely broke a sweat. It was incredible to see, to say the least.
It was one of the most raw and real human sentiments I’ve ever seen.
The highlight of the entire week for me came after another eight hours though, back at the finish line—after I’d had lunch, dinner, an ocean swim, and a Mai Tai with some new friends. In order to officially earn IRONMAN status, one must complete the race in under 17 hours. With the race starting at sunrise, the cut off strikes at midnight. This is the main event, where all the fans and racers who’ve already crossed gather at the finish line to cheer in the remaining runners. In my opinion, these competitors are more gnarly than the pros because they’ve been out on the course for twice the amount of time, pushing themselves to their absolute maximum physical capabilities. Going just as hard as the leaders, yet they end their race running alone in the dark for hours on end.
The finish line is a party. Euro pop music pounds out of giant speakers as IRONMAN host and personality Mike Reilly commands the mic as the crowd hype-man. He announces each finisher by name and lets them know they’re an IRONMAN, often causing the depleted athletes to weep and collapse as the crowd erupts.
While each final finisher offered something to grab ahold of, a select few stories stood above the rest, bringing the magnitude of what was unfolding in front of me to another level. The eldest competitor, Hiromu Inada of Japan, 83, came in after 16 hours. The racers were spread out by minutes by that point, but this old legend cruised into the corral with two other older gentleman—both in their seventies. Somewhere out there on the course, they found each other, made a pact, and stuck together until they all finished, as IRONMEN.
Another guy from New Jersey had missed the 17-hour mark by minutes the year before. I’d heard the story days earlier and it sounded heartbreaking. This year, he came in 15 minutes before the cut off, stumbling deliriously over the finish line, seemingly having no idea of the timeline he was flirting with. And when Reilly got the crowd to scream, in unison, “YOU. ARE. AN IRONMAN!” the embattled man freaked the fuck out and completely broke down. It was one of the most raw and real human sentiments I’ve ever seen.
When I finally walked home after the race was complete, high on emotion in the middle of the night, I decided I wanted to become an IRONMAN. Not next year, or even in the next five years, but at some point I wanted to be a part of the experience and earn that feeling of ultimate reward that all those people had felt today. Lost in thought, I passed a guy crumpled on the side of the road. He was alone and still wearing his running Tri Suit. I figured he had collapsed during the race and course officials hadn’t noticed him, but when I helped him to his feet, I realized he was blind drunk and had wandered from the bar across the street to puke in the sea. I helped him walk back to join his fellow Australians in celebration. That poor guy must’ve woke up with the worst hangover in history the next day—across the finish line of the world’s most challenging IRONMAN race and straight to the pub. Respect.
Reflecting on the odd week spent immersed in the athletically intense and competitive community yielded one lesson above all—great things come to those open and willing to try anything. These were “yes” people, in a sense. And it had begun to rub off. Want to get up at 4 A.M. to see the starting area in the dark? Sure. Want to go jump some cliffs? Yep. Swim with manta rays at night? Of course. Run with a track and field champion? Drink Mai Tais at lunch? Drive up a volcano? Yes to everything.