Every year in Kona there are two winners but only one last finisher. We explore Kona’s unique, emotional tradition.
It’s midnight on one of the most important days in the sport of triathlon. Though the crowd at the finish line has been waiting or racing for at least 16 hours, they show no sign of fatigue. This is the magic hour in Kona. A virtual United Nations of the best long course triathletes in the world have descended onto Ali’i Drive, a small oceanfront road that would be entirely unremarkable on any other day. The same Ali’i Drive that has seen dozens of the best international athletes break the tape and be whisked away to triathlon fame and relative fortune. Though those faces of the past will go on to grace the covers of magazines and TV programs and advertisements, the people here around midnight are not here to see the sport’s champions, they’re here for someone else.
This moment happens for only one person, every year here in Kona. The final finisher is the last athlete to come across the line before the hard cutoff of 17 hours after they begin. And for the last 28 years, Ironman announcer Mike Reilly has been there to bring each one home. “You’ve got everybody there,” Reilly says, “the executives, the workers, and the volunteers. They’re in work mode, but at that moment, everybody becomes a fan, screaming like kids.”
The last finishers are the people who have huge backstories. When you see the look on their faces of ‘unbelievableness’ because of what they just did, you know it’s because they’ve come through some tough times.”
In Reilly’s many years of Kona cutoff finishes and memorable moments, one quickly comes to mind. “It was a guy named George Yoda from Long Beach, California,” Reilly remembers. “We could see him coming down the road, but the seconds seemed to be going by so fast, and he seemed to be going so slow.” The crowd was going crazy as he made his way, but time was running out.
“He makes it up to the ramp and steps on the mat, but the clock above me read 17:00, past the cutoff. I looked at the timer, and he says to me, ‘16:59:59.’” He had made the cutoff with only 4/100ths of a second to spare.
After finishing the 1980 version of the Hawaii Ironman almost 40 years ago, Bob Babbitt has become something of an Iron-sage. He hosts a daily video program on race week called Breakfast With Bob and has authored a few books chronicling his Iron-knowledge. With his depth of understanding of this event’s history, he offers a wider perspective on the importance of someone like George Yoda.
“The final finisher epitomizes what this event is all about,” Babbitt says. “This is what (founders of the original Ironman) John and Judy Collins originally intended. They wanted to be sure this wasn’t just an elite thing. The Collins’ simply wanted to see if people could do the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the Around-Oahu bike race, and then the Honolulu Marathon. It was set up for everybody.”
“That’s what separates our sport from other sports,” Babbitt says and cites cyclists never being able to race along the same course as their Tour de France heroes. “An age grouper can sit down post-race with Jan Frodeno and talk about the race conditions over a beer.”
But back on Ali’i on Oct. 8, 2016, the crowd still waits for this year’s everyman hero. Reilly has gotten the call that there are a few athletes in range, and he knows that only one can be the last—after that, the finishers’ medals disappear for another year. A few miles outside of town, Jennifer Tait shuffles along the through patches of pitch black.
By all conventional wisdom, Jennifer Tait shouldn’t even be in Kona, running down the Queen K Highway in the darkness. The odds said so. In 2015, Tait was awarded a slot only by virtue of the lottery entry system—that same year she missed the bike cutoff in Kona and was unable to even put on her running shoes. The next year, she was able to toe the Kona start line again due to the help of a charity. In fact, as she took a right hand turn into Kona that night, Tait had only previously finished one iron-distance triathlon: Ironman Austria in 16:55.
As Tait made her way into town, the streets of Kona were eerily quiet. (She had finished other races before where everyone had gone home, so it wasn’t a new feeling.) But as she made the final turn of the day onto Ali’i Drive, Tait saw her friends, her family, and her supporters; she was overwhelmed by the feeling. Everyone there—not just those close to her—had been waiting, just for her.
She crossed the timing mat in 16:57:52, making her the last official finisher of the 2016 Hawaii Ironman Championships. She had never been considered fit before, and at her level of athleticism she says it was statistically impossible for her to finish an Ironman, but something special occurred there in Kona that night—buoyed by the crowd and the history and the sport itself. “Something magical happens in Kona, and I found a level determination that I hadn’t expected. Even now, a year on, there is rarely a day when I don’t think about some aspect of Ironman or Kona,” she says. “My life hasn’t been the same.”