THE IRONMAN COUNTDOWN

Kona-Kailua, Hawaii – With six months still to go, determined swimmers daily plough the choppy waters in front of my hotel here. All hope to be players in the world’s #1 endurance test: the Ironman Triathlon, which begins and ends at this spot. The tenacity of these genuine warriors is heroic; participants in a contest that makes one-track Olympic winners seem wimpy by comparison.

“Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life!” was the handwritten notation on the rule sheet handed out for the first Triathlon, a February morning 28 years ago. Fifteen Ironmen competed that day, 10 of them competing the course after the winner (Gordon Haller, a taxi driver) crossed the finish line in 11 hours, 46 minutes and 58 seconds. 2005 winner, Germany’s Faris Al-Sultan, 27, did it in just under eight and a quarter hours, and women’s champion, Natascha Badmann, a 38-year-old Swiss, in 9:09:30.

Today’s visitors to Kona, daily swarms coming ashore from the cruise ships, pay no attention to this drama (early) in the making. But when the meeting of champions arrives in October, 25,000 spectators will overflow the town and, like the competitors, will be from a hundred countries. This influx brings $20 million in tourism to the Big Island.

There were 1,800 would-be Ironmen last year, whittled down from XX times as many more thousands who had failed to qualify at the scores of sites in as many countries where applicants seek to prove they can finish at least half the length of the final course. The average entrant spends up to 24 hours per week in training.

Just west of the Kailua Pier, where the triathlon begins and ends, the fusty, sprawling King Kamehameha Hotel will become the focal point of race activities on October 16, housing the Media Center (free fax machines!) attended by hundreds of foreign and domestic press. NBC telecasts the race now, but it was ABC Sports that first got the world’s attention (after a 1980 article in Sports Illustrated) when the red-haired women’s leader Julie Moss collapsed and – though passed by Kathleen McCartney (11:09:40) – crawled the final 20 yards to the finish line.

And every year there are slots for disabled athletes – blind, deaf, legless. “If I can complete this race, there’s nothing in life I can’t do,” said Clarinda Brueck, a New Jersey teacher who lacked part of her left arm, and who did eventually pass the finish line.

The swim course (record time: 46:44 for men; 48:43 for women) takes place in a ‘track’ 100 yards wide with water temperatures around 79 degrees. Then, after a change of garment (public nudity is prohibited) contestants cycle up the coast to Hawaii and back, prohibited from overtaking on the downward Palani hill. Record: 4:24:50 (men); 4:48:30 (women). Finally, in temperatures ranging from 82 to 95 degrees, comes the 26.2-mile marathon (record: 2:40:04, men; 2:59:16, women). There are aid and drink stations every few miles and scores of doctors, nurses and paramedics who volunteer their time to be where needed.

Five thousand other volunteers along the course distribute 2,400 cookies, 100,000 gallons of water, cola, soup – enough to fill three huge swimming pools – as well as enough bananas to feed two monkeys for a year at Honolulu Zoo.

”In preparation for this race,” event director Diana Bertsch told contestants last year, “you have uncovered a wealth of physical, emotional and spiritual potential within yourself that most people will never know. The forces of nature will definitely play an important role in your race. The surging ocean, the brutal winds and the sun-baked lava fields are all special elements creating the mystique of this world-class event.”

The whole thing began in 1978, when Navy Captain John Collins, while stationed near San Diego, got into an argument with friends about who was in better shape – runners or swimmers. He suggested tying together a trio of existing events. It would be, he forecasted, the ultimate test of body, mind and spirit.

Collins took part in that first race, finishing within the 17-hour limit, and then laid low for 19 years until 1998 when he and five contestants from the first race participated again. Age doesn’t seem to bother Ironmen: in 2000, Bill Bell finished in 16:57:13. He was 77.

It seems appropriate that the race begins and ends close to the former palace of King Kamehameha, for he was the person who not only unified for the first time the Hawaiian islands, but is reputed to have done it almost 200 years ago. But then, a century later, came the earliest surfers, first George Freeth (who died prematurely) and then the Olympic swimming champion Duke Kahanamoku (1890-1968), who is forever associated with refining and defining the surfing art.

Past Performances

Americans held the triathlon title every year from its inception, until 1993 when Greg Welch, an Australian, took first. In 1984, Dave Scott won his fourth Ironman in 8:54:20, becoming the first person to break the nine-hour barrier. Two years later, he set a new record, 8:28:37, including a 2:49 marathon, for the first time under 2:50. Belgium’s Luc Van Lierde’s time of 8:04:08 set in 1996 is still the world record.

In 1992, Paula Newby-Fraser, then 30, a Zimbabwean living in Encinitas, California, became the first woman to finish in under nine hours, 8:55:28. In 1994, she won her fourth consecutive title and in 1996, her eighth total.