Letters From Kona: Wednesday, Oct. 6

Notes from the ground at in the buildup to the 2010 Hawaii Ironman.

Notes from the ground at in the buildup to the 2010 Hawaii Ironman.

Written by: T.J. Murphy

The K-Swiss athletes gathered at the Ironman Village.
The K-Swiss athletes gathered at the Ironman Village.

Flying to Kona is a relative thing. Belgian Rutger Beke, who has finished second in the Hawaii Ironman, told me that for him getting to Hawaii is a 30-hour ordeal. His wife is going to be here for this race, but they’re leaving their two kids behind because two 30-hour trips within the scope of a week or so would be a bit much. I could feel my eyes widen when I said, “I don’t think I could handle it myself.” When I flew to Hawaii from San Diego it was what? Five or six hours? I had a middle seat next to a former football tackle that had put on some serious pounds since his playing days, so yes, I was guilty of feeling sorry for myself. Rutger’s story is shared by the many who travel from distant countries to this chain of eight major islands in the Pacific. Said Rutger, “I read on Chris Lieto’s blog about how much trouble his flight of five hours caused him. I thought, ‘five? Hmmm…try a 30-hour trip.’”

When athletes get here, after 5 hours of traveling or fifty, they go a little bonkers. Tuesday and Wednesday are when Kona transforms from a happy, drowsy hangout for tourists into an aerobically fit insane asylum, with cyclists and runners streaming relentlessly up and down Ali’i Drive performing their final sharpening workouts, most locked into the aero position and looking as happy as a chainsaw.

I’m staying nearly seven miles out of town, and to get in to watch the morning festivities at Dig Me beach I jogged in. The intention on display along Ali’i is disturbing. It doesn’t appear to have a direct connection to the spirit of Aloha. I thought about this while running to town this morning, recalling a longtime triathlon friend who had raced Ultraman Hawaii several times but never had been around for Kona, and when he saw me that year he grabbed me by the arm and in a very distraught way said, “This is all wrong.”

I agreed with him then, and his point continues to resonate. As writer Martin Dugard once commented about the modern-day field of the Hawaii Ironman, all he could see were “achievement junkies.” True: unless you get in through the lottery, you just about have to be a super achiever to win a slot to be here.

But in reading a quote by the great Australian miler, Herb Elliot, included in the book “Born to Run,” just because the Aloha spirit isn’t on display before the race doesn’t mean it isn’t alive and breathing. ““Poetry, music, forests, oceans, solitude—they were what developed enormous spiritual strength,” Elliot said. “I came to realize that spirit, as much or more than physical conditioning, had to be stored up before a race.”

And perhaps that’s what’s going on with the athletes as they charge up and down Ali’i, as the asphalt road traces the young coastline (the Big Island is the newest in the Hawaiian archipelago), to the sound of the sea, past the Little Blue Church, under the sweeping palm trees and in the steaming sun. Athletes are pulling it all in, wrapping all emotion, memory and adrenaline into a tightly bound inner package of what constitutes “enormous spiritual strength” that racing the Hawaii Ironman demands. The Aloha spirit is being drawn in like a deep spiritual breath.

After I arrived yesterday I went with TriCenter host Ann Wessling to the Natural Energy Lab where Kurt Hoy, Liz Hichens and the digital crew were doing video interviews with age-groupers here to defend their 2009 championships. Questions were being asked to plumb the competitive desires of the champions—to get a glimpse of the piss and vinegar one must imagine drives those who maintain families and engineering jobs or medical careers while cleaning the clocks of the best in their age-groups from around the world.

After all the filming was done, one of our fantastic videographers, Steve Godwin, was puzzled. “I don’t get it,” he said shaking his head. “They’re all so….nice.” Steve was expecting to hear sparks, flames and daggers and all he got was a collection of sincerely spoken words that were kind, gracious and respectful of all in the sport.

It’s been like that as long as I can remember with the age-groupers. I think in part it’s because the sport draws good people. They are nice. Consider a story from one of the age-group champions interviewed yesterday, Cherie Gruenfeld, who is the heart and soul behind Exceeding Expectations, a program that turns the lives of inner-city kids around with the power of triathlon. While waiting to be interviewed Cherie told me about how generous the triathlon community has been in supporting the group. When their delivery truck was broken into and all the bikes of all the kids were stolen, Cherie sent out an email message asking for help. “You wouldn’t believe the response we got,” she says. “Bikes worth thousands of dollars just came pouring in. All from one email.” (Check out Cherie’s program at

Another reason I feel that the top age-groupers are the last athletes in the world you’re going to hear trash talking is that they’ve got enough to deal with during a race. Anyone trying to kick the ass of anyone zooming by is in for a horribly long (and possibly very short) day. The soul of the Hawaii Ironman is the same today as it was in the beginning—being in a ridiculously tough situation with the ultimate objective being not to beat yourself. To not fail in this task means relying on those it in with you.

At the K-Swiss press event today, Beke talked about his race in 2007 where he was having a bad day and he was forced to walk during the marathon. Beke won Ironman Arizona in 2007 and the woman that hosted his home-stay was so thrilled she flew to Kona that year to cheer him on. “I had high ambitions,” Beke said. “But I blew up on the bike.”

Beke said that while he doesn’t like the idea of dropping out of a race in the first place, he was especially motivated by his friend to stay in. “Her big dream was to get a chance to just finish this race. It would have been disrespectful to this lady to have dropped out.” He added he felt the same way about everyone out there with him.

Indeed, Beke added there was a benefit to walking the 5:30 marathon split. “Others passed me, turned around and spent time walking with me. I made a lot of friends!”