Characters of Kona: The Collector

Like triathlon, David Knox’s quest to acquire every original Kona poster and signature from every world champion may seem quixotic, but it’s actually all about what you get along the way.

Photo: Oliver Baker

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To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Triathletes are no stranger to the oft-misquoted aphorism, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” No matter how long the race, the actual time spent competing is just a small percentage of the total time spent training for that big day. While there’s something to be said for achieving a goal and running through the finish line, often the most valuable lessons happen in the hours spent preparing for that moment.

Dave Knox knows a thing or two about long journeys: Knox was a part of that early ragtag group of 326 competitors who competed in the relatively unknown Hawaii Ironman—held for the first time ever on the Big Island in 1981. He raced again in ‘82, ‘83, and ‘84. But he doesn’t talk about those early races all that much. He will tell you that he did his last Ironman at Wisconsin in 2005—a year that saw temperatures rise above 95 degrees. He’ll tell you it was one of the hardest things he’s ever done. But Knox doesn’t spend too much time talking about crossing those finish lines, he’s more interested in journeys.

Eight years ago, Knox began an unusual endurance challenge, one with all of the classic markings of a multisport quest: It takes a long time, it costs a lot of money, it requires incredible persistence, and it’s likely that almost no one will understand it. Since 2010, David Knox has spent a great amount of time and money with the goal of collecting not only every Ironman poster, but also the signature of every champion. But here’s the thing: Knox likes triathlon, but he loves hunting down the former Kona winners.

Of course Knox knows the names of the Ironman Hawaii winners, but he doesn’t show off a deep pool of trivial minutiae like other iron savants. In fact, he talks far less about the races each winner won and far more about the adventure involved in getting each champion’s signature. He’s no superfan, and he’s no vault of Kona trivia. He talks a little bit about OCD playing a role, and obviously he’s a completist, but he’d rather tell you about why the Puntous sisters apparently have a grudge against Ironman for a penalty and post-race disqualification over 30 years ago.

He’d rather tell you about how he was locked in a battle of wills and weird negotiations with two-time Kona winner and fellow nostalgist Scott Tinley. (In some chapters on this quest, Tinley acts Knox’s savior, in others his nemesis, and in others sounds like an addict’s enabler.) The unusual bartering resulted in Knox locating a rare Hodaka Wombat motorcycle in a barn somewhere in rural Iowa which he traded for super rare 1981 and February 1982 Kona posters. For both men, it was more about the story than what they walked away with in the end.

Knox is 65 now, but he loves to share his collection and his stories. He visibly brightens when he tells you about the time he was recognized by Freddie Van Lierde at a taping of “Breakfast with Bob” on the Big Island. He spins another one about how he rode his motorcycle eight hours from his home in Spirit Lake, Iowa, to Kansas City just to catch a flight to Vegas and drive even more to St. George, Utah, to meet Sebastian Kienle in 2015. He nearly missed him because of an unexpected hour time change, but he still got his signature (and his story). After Knox pauses for effect, he says that when Kienle saw him two years later in Hawaii, Kienle asked, “Did you ride your motorcycle here?”

Not all of the stories end in glory, like the one about him traveling to Grand Canaria island off the coast of Spain to get Natascha Badmann’s signature only to later find out that she decided to come to Kona the same week he’d be there. But that’s just it when it comes to David Knox and triathlon and the Hawaii Ironman: It’s usually more about the story that unfolds while you’re trying to hit that seemingly arbitrary goal than the goal itself. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s bad. Sure you commemorate crossing the finish line or getting that signature, but it’s the journey that matters; it’s the adventure that means something.

Jan Frodeno Reflects on His Final Ironman World Championship

Immediately after finishing 24th place at his final Ironman World Championships, the Olympic medalist (and three-time IMWC winner) explains what his race in Nice meant to him.