Get the inside scoop on how Endurance Live Triathletes of the Year Craig Alexander and Chrissie Wellington conquered Kona.
This story was originally published in the January/February, 2012, issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
I had a revelation this year during pre-race week at the Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona. As in the “Hawaii Ironman.” It was about the pre-race nervous panic that seizes the place more than the infamous humidity that saturates it. If you have never been to the Hawaii Ironman and you imagine a serene village, with slack key guitar music floating on the sea air, rich with the scents of tropical flowers and freshly ground Kona coffee, exuding the spirit of aloha, then you are wildly and insanely mistaken. If you have been to the Hawaii Ironman, then you know what I mean and you’ve no doubt seen one of the deer-in-headlights-stricken tourists who doesn’t know a triathlon from a decathlon. They don’t know why in-town traffic is locked up, or why every other person walking or biking past them has been seared of all body fat. No, they just happened to book their trip the one week of the year they shouldn’t have.
For years I’ve observed this high-strung emotional energy and pegged it directly to, and only to, the 1,800 triathletes in the Hawaii Ironman field who had to dogfight their way to qualifying—to the amped feeling they get from their success, which was wrought from toll and sacrifice. Yes, this is part of it for sure—but just part. Intensifying this tension is the sport’s overall growth, the rapid increase in the number of Ironmans and spiraling Ironman tendrils (70.3s, 5150s) and the assorted corporate pressures to spur further growth and brand development that come with private equity and big business. Issues of profitability and growth, monetization, marketing and their ensuing bureaucracy collide with the red-blooded passion for triathlon that got its start, not long ago really, because of a bar bet between running buddies. This year the prize purse was $580,000. If you won in 1978 you received The Hole In the Head Trophy.
Consider just a handful of the things that have transpired in the recent history of Ironman: Acquired by Providence, a global private equity company that manages $23 billion in capital. The announcement of an Ironman Passport program, a $1,000 per year program that would give members the opportunity to register for popular events before the general public could. The retraction of the Passport program within a day of the announcement in the wake of an uproar. New Ironman races in Texas, Quebec and Wales. Growth and construction in Kona. The “Underpants Run” that started out as a prank some years ago by six or so guys making fun of Speedo-wrapped tri geeks and has grown to the point that they’re going to need to start closing streets. The move of the 70.3 world championship from Clearwater, Fla., to Las Vegas. A new points system for pros. A revamped lottery system.
I’m not knocking any of this but rather pointing out the change that is the inevitable byproduct of growth and financial success. Things change, grow or die. Full disclosure: Inside Triathlon is owned by Competitor Group, a private equity operation of its own, so I’ve seen this stuff from the inside.
My point is that we as endurance athletes got into this for the love of it, and for most of us it’s more than just a sport—it’s a way of life. We’re worried that this passion will be taken for granted, or worse, betrayed. Call it the Ford Ironman World Championship or call it the Hawaii Ironman, but the race is sacred and central to the mythology of triathlon.
Walking around Kona during race week, it seemed to me that the 1,800 triathletes competing and the other triathletes watching all brought in their collective psychic stress stewing in and around their love for the Ironman. People seem afraid that someone might go too far and mess it all up.
But then the race begins and we’re reminded why we fell in love with triathlon in the first place. It’s a world championship of a sport that routinely delivers heroic battles and a yearly apotheosis, and 2011 would not fail in this regard.