Characters of Kona: The Returning Champ

 The Big Island is unkind to first-time winners of the Hawaii Ironman.

Photo: Oliver Baker

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There have been 18 different winners of the Hawaii Ironman World Championship women’s race. There have been 22 different winners of the Hawaii Ironman World Championships men’s race. And yet only four men and four women have ever repeated the feat after their first championship win.

This is not an obscure baseball-level stat for the tri nerds. This is actually an important thing to know about racing in Kona: It’s very hard to win, but it’s incredibly hard to win twice in a row. And yet this flies in the face of every piece of Kona-veteran advice.

Racing in Kona takes experience to do well. Just ask Ken Glah. Or think back to Chris McCormack’s first IMWC appearance in 2002: McCormack was one of the best short-course triathletes in the world at the time, and he stated his intentions when he finally appeared on the Big Island. He proudly proclaimed, “I’m here to win” to anyone with a microphone or a pen in their hand, and he proceeded to race hard from the gun, stay in contention for the win, and then fade on the run and drop out. McCormack may have been asking the lava gods for a well-deserved comeuppance, but it’s more likely that Macca just hadn’t figured out the way this island goes.

Mirinda Carfrae is a recent world champion who struggled to repeat the following year. She won in 2010, but then didn’t win again for three years—and then won her third in 2014. For Rinny, a lot changed: There was “media momentum”; there were requests. But it also left her hungry for more—hence becoming a three-time world champion. It was harder coming back as the reigning champ, she admits. You’re no longer flying under the radar.

This is the case for the current men’s reigning champ. (The women’s champ, Daniela Ryf, is one of those rare four who successfully defended on her first try). Things are different for Patrick Lange in 2018 than they were in 2017. Sure, he came out of a veritable nowhere to place third in his Kona debut in 2016, but to win the race in 2017—with a course record, no less—was a complete game changer for the soft-spoken German.

Nowadays, Patrick Lange gets recognized without his shirt on. He gets cheered on when he’s out training. He leans on his schedule and his planning. He makes time to rest. He worries about Javier, and he seems to be glad that Jan is out of the race. And everyone knows these things because everyone asks him about them. German, American, Brazilian, Japanese—fans of triathlon feel the need to talk to Lange to glean some insight, in an attempt to understand what makes him (the fastest Hawaii Ironman ever) so fast and them (everyone else) so slow.

But in Kona nothing is written before it’s done. History has shown that it’ll be incredibly hard for Lange to repeat—in fact, the numbers prefer his competitors. Statistically speaking, he had a better chance of winning last year than he does this year: 10 men in Ironman history have gone from second in one year to first the next; as said before, less than half have repeated a first-time victory.

Numbers don’t mean a whole lot on the Big Island when it comes to Ironman, however. We use them as a way to try to predict the unpredictable—a way to feel comfortable with what is inherently uncomfortable. The island doesn’t care who won last year or who didn’t. But we do. The point is not to meet or exceed or crumble under expectations, the point is to meet the challenge presented on that day, and of course to make sure the struggle was worth it. To the current returning first-time champ, a former one—Mirinda Carfrae—has advice that anyone could heed: “Soak it up and enjoy the moments…Share it. Cherish it.”

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