Being an Ironman
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    The Ford Ironman World Championship on the Big Island of Hawai‘i is a spectacle among sports. Instead of home run hitters or quarterbacks, it stars people like you and me who brave a grueling racecourse: a 2.4-mile ocean swim, a 112-mile bike across a windy, lava-lined coastline and a 26.2-mile run. 
     Sure, the event pits professional athletes in the superbowl of all triathlons—this year’s race on October 11 had a field of 164 pros. But the rest of the pack is comprised of people from all walks of life and maybe somebody you know: a dentist, an accountant, a carpenter, a landscaper, a mom.
     A total of 1,770 participants competed in this year’s 31st race, representing more than 48 countries and all 50 states. They ranged in age from 20 to 80 years old—that’s right, there are octogenarians who can claim to be “ironmen.”
     Keeping the triathletes replenished at a string of aid stations are over 4,000 volunteers. While some are Hawai‘i visitors who plan their vacation to witness Ironman, most are Big Isle residents. Some work at resorts, others are schoolteachers or make up organizations like canoe clubs and non-profits. Ask any volunteer why he or she helps at Ironman and they will often reply, “because I love it.” Some claim they “feed on the energy” while others just like to be part of a world-class event.
     These tireless iron-helpers hand out icy sponges, Gatorade, sliced fruit, PowerBars and chicken broth, not to mention cheers of support and plenty of smiles. They work long and hard to pull off the logistics for the 140.6-mile racecourse. Easily identified by their Kokua Crew t-shirts, these Iron-volunteers make the race happen; some report for duty at 4 a.m. on race day, others man the “sweep” trucks long after triathletes are snug in their beds. 
     I’ve witnessed this spectacle of sports in Kona countless times, often as a media member and most recently as co-captain, photographer and reporter for Aid Station Run #5. Sponsored by the Keauhou Resort, the curbside station is located at mile six of the marathon and positioned in front of tiny St. Peter’s Church. It’s a scenic, oceanside spot that enjoys cooling on-shore breezes and is frequented by spectators and visitors. It’s a great spot to be in no matter how you’re involved with Ironman.
      This year’s race didn’t disappoint as it staged plenty of drama. Hawai‘i’s own John Flanagan led out the swim with only a three-second lead over Andy Potts of Colorado Springs. The two battled it out on the bike through mile 16 until newcomer Philip Graves, 20, of Great Britain took the lead. However, the pedal power of Chris Lieto of Danville, Calif. prevailed and he plunged ahead and stayed in the lead to arrive first at Aid Station Run #5. 
     Accompanied by a bevy of media in motion—film crews on motorcycles, jogging cameramen and a hovering helicopter overhead—Lieto arrived about 10 minutes after the ETA of 12:30 p.m. Amid all the commotion, he was gone in a blink and we were astonished that nobody was in sight to pursue him for several minutes. Via the radio, I later learned Lieto had an impressive 12-minute lead off the bike.
     That scenario soon changed as the runners headed away from palm-fringed Ali‘i Drive to the searing and barren, lava-lined road at the Natural Energy Laboratory. Leito was eventually overtaken at mile 21 of the marathon by eventual winner and defending champion Craig Alexander of Australia; he finished in 8:20:21. 
     Chrissie Wellington of Great Britain dominated the women’s race and held the lead by a whopping 15 minutes throughout the course. Her overall time of 8:54.02 broke the course record set in 1992 by Ironman icon Paula Newby-Fraser. The Brit ranked 22nd in the professional field of male and female athletes. Wellington came to our aid station confident and smiling and waved to volunteers when we shouted her name. This ironwoman made it look like a piece of cake.
     It was another story; however, for other competitors. They found out that training, qualifying and starting Kona’s Ironman doesn’t mean crossing the finish line. Matt Hoover, who won TV’s “Biggest Loser” by dropping 171 pounds, was three minutes late in finishing the race by the 17-hour, cutoff time of midnight. Though he has the satisfaction of going the distance, it’s got to be heartbreaking that he isn’t listed as an “official” finisher.
      Rudy Garcia-Tolson, an award-winning Paralympic and double-amputee, aspired to be the first bilateral, above-knee amputee to finish Kona’s Ironman. The 21-year-old had a great swim but just missed the bike cutoff so he wasn’t able to literally put on his running legs to continue. Imagine using your gluteal muscles, instead of hamstrings or quadriceps, to move along on a standard bike for 112 miles—it’s mind-boggling! It’s no surprise that Garcia-Tolson’s motto is “A brave heart is a powerful weapon.”
     These triathletes and others are an inspiration for us to reach for our personal best…to try as hard as we can—no matter what the obstacle—no matter what the challenge.
     And that’s what being an Ironman is all about. 
     Check out NBC Sports’ Emmy Award-winning coverage of the Ford Ironman World Championship 4:30-6 p.m. EST Dec. 19. Race day coverage and results are available at 
Fern Gavelek