Characters of Kona: The Lava Fields

It’s the first thing you notice as you approach the Big Island of Hawaii from the air: big, black fields of hardened lava.

Photo: Oliver Baker

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In this series, we feature one of the Characters of Kona—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. 

It’s the first thing you notice as you approach the Big Island of Hawaii from the air: big, black fields of hardened lava taking up most of the western coastline. It’s as if the lush green paradise most people picture had been paved over for mall parking. The area around Kailua-Kona on the Big Island, where the Hawaii Ironman has been held since 1981, does not resemble the idyllic landscape of its far older cousins like Kaua’i or O’ahu. The Big Island is the youngest, and most strikingly barren family member of the Hawaiian Island chain.

In fact, one of the most barren parts of this upstart atoll is located along much of the bike and run course for the Ironman World Championship. As the Queen K Highway leads racers away from transition in downtown Kona toward Hawi, athletes ride and eventually run alongside the lava flow from the Hualālai volcano. This desolate, impenetrable landscape is a major reason—aside from the wind and the heat—that the Hawaii Ironman is so incredibly difficult. Psychologically, it gives the sense that you’re never really making any progress; the scenery barely changes, the inviting ocean looks miles away across the jagged fields, and you feel like you’re simply riding on top of lava.

This turns out to be the case, as the Kailua-Kona airport is actually built upon the Hualālai volcano lava flow. The Queen K Highway between Kona and the bike turnaround in Hawi is also paved directly atop lava flow from three different active volcanoes: Hualālai, Mauna Kea, and Kohala. This unprotected geography explains the heavy winds that can gust up to 40mph on race day. If that’s not enough, the sun around the bike and run course on Queen K is so strong that it’s considered some of the highest levels of insolation (the strength of solar radiation) in the coastal U.S.

Aside from the psychic and physical drain of the lava fields, legend has it that these sharp black rocks also carry a spiritual force. According to the curse, Madame Pele, the goddess of fire, will bring bad luck to anyone who removes a lava rock from the island. Each year, hundreds of rocks taken from the island are later mailed back to the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, often accompanied by an apology letter and a detailed description of the spot where the rock was taken from.

In his book, 25 Years of The Hawaii Ironman, author Bob Babbitt recounts a story about how Mark Allen famously struggled to win in Kona, despite being one of the most otherwise accomplished triathletes of the 1980s. Reasons for his poor results ranged from freak mechanical mishaps in 1982 and 1988 to internal bleeding in 1987. The story goes that Mark Allen’s stepmother removed a rock from the island years before—paying no attention to the curse. She returned it shortly before his race in 1989, the year he finally took his first title during the epic Iron War with Dave Scott.

Curse or no, the lava fields are an unavoidable part of the Kona experience. They can be a harsh and lonely place: In 2005, Normann Stadler famously threw his bike into Hualālai’s outflow after two flats caused him to have his own mental eruption. The lava fields of Queen K have seen more massive meltdowns than probably any other spot in the sport, and anyone who has raced at IMWC knows that it is one of the most unforgiving places in the world. Born of molten rock spewed up from the under the Earth’s surface, the lava fields are one of the most daunting and unique features in this legendary event.

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