Just over 50 miles away from the loud, pumping heart of Ali’i Drive in Kailua-Kona there sits the small historic sugar plantation town of Hawi.
In order to give readers a unique perspective of this year’s Hawaii Ironman, we’re going to look at some of the essential pieces that make this event special — be it a person, a group of people, or even a place—that makes the Ironman World Championship completely different from every other triathlon in the world. These are the parts of Hawaii Ironman that make it insanely difficult, incredibly inspiring and totally singular.
Kona is electric. Kona is a circus. Kona is the Hawaii Ironman. This is all true about the tiny town of Kailua-Kona—a place that transforms a mid-level tourist stop to the capital of the triathlon world for roughly seven days each year. Ever since the Hawaii Ironman World Championship was moved to Kona in 1991, Kona has been the mecca for multisporters.
But outside the glow of the fancy industry assemblies and the proudly self-aggrandizing events, there is an outpost far beyond Kona’s lava fields, out on triathlon’s frontier. There is a place where the fans cheer almost as loudly as Ali’i, but without any of the commercial impetus encouraging their enthusiasm or timetables dictating their movements. Just over 50 miles away from the loud, pumping heart of Ali’i Drive in Kailua-Kona there sits the small historic sugar plantation town of Hawi. It takes about an hour to drive there from Kona if you don’t get stuck behind a slow truck; it takes no less than two hours by pro bike.
On the bike course from Kona to Hawi, the terrain is abusive and alien. The lava fields are a weird place where people definitely do not belong. Only near the Mauna Kea Golf Club does it start to get a little green, a little less surface-of-the-moony. The rolling ground is coated by brown grass, replacing the jagged piles of black that cover the lava fields. After making a right bend just after mile 57 of the course, the scenery really begins to look like Hawaii™—the Hawaii in postcards with swaying trees and small ranch houses with tin roofs and green grass.
The people who live out in Hawi cheer because the spectacle of the racers is simply there. They don’t cheer because they necessarily have friends or family racing in the Hawaii Ironman. There’s very little commercial hype. Due to the geography of the area, it would be very difficult for a fan to watch the start, get to Hawi and back, so the mostly local fans in Hawi cheer because this big, gnarly race comes through their small, lovely town.
Tim O’Donnell knows the energy of this place very well. On years when he’s hurting, like in 2014, Hawi’s faces are just a blur—like white noise serving as a background to the self-doubt and pangs of pain. But when O’Donnell is on, the people of Hawi act like a tailwind, filling his sails and flinging him forward.
In 2015, O’Donnell was the first athlete on race day to ride into Hawi. He had pulled into the lead before the turnaround and was met by the pent-up energy of people who had been waiting for him all morning. It gave him goosebumps and a big boost. Looking back on his podium finish last year, O’Donnell still remembers the fans firing on all cylinders. From O’Donnell’s perspective, the people of Hawi were like one collective little kid, super excited for Christmas morning.
Joy Vanderwal was one of the people watching him last year. Vanderwal has lived in Hawi on and off since 2006 and in 2015 was living in a house on the bike course on Akoni Pule Highway as O’Donnell and the rest of the race literally rode right past her front door. For Vanderwal and the rest of the town, the Hawaii Ironman doesn’t necessarily glue them to their TVs for hours—it comes by throughout the day and in typical Hawaiian fashion they just go and check it out as it comes. It’s more like a very long parade than what TV viewers experience in aerial Tour de France shots of small towns, waiting for the peloton to arrive.
Heading back from Hawi toward Kona, the slideshow runs in reverse: The green fades into brown and then back into black. The shade and scenery that graces the far-off town gives way to the stark barrenness of Kona. The fans go from homegrown-Hawi to non-existent and back to the fully crazed United Nations of Triathlon. It’s unlikely that the people in Hawi get to see the grueling shuffle of the marathon winding through The Natural Energy Lab or hear Mike Reilly tell the crowd who is now an Ironman, but for a brief moment, the world’s best Ironmen and Ironwomen ride into this idyllic town, just to quickly turn around and go right back the way they came.