The Amazing Competitors Who Make Up the Ironman Family

The Ironman World Championship in Kona has come and gone and the event was officially AWESOME. Thanks to long-time sponsor Timex Sports, I was privileged to spectate this year’s iconic race – a monster of an endurance challenge that includes a 2.4-mile ocean swim  followed by a 112-mile bike ride through scorching lava fields and a 26.2 run down Queen Ka’ahumanu highway. The race is the dream and goal of almost every long-distance triathlete – the pinnacle of years of training and preparation – but more than anything it is about ohana, Hawaiian for family.

In the world of Ironman, physical fitness, race fueling and hydration are all hugely important but the unique bond that spans all ages and walks of life is what lasts forever.  Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten and that theme is never more prominent than at the hallowed finish line on Ali’i Drive – the stage for great success stories and personal victories  even in the last minutes of the race.

For  77 year-old Harriet Anderson, who finished 20 seconds before the official cut-off , coming in last may have been just as sweet as finishing first.  Really, is there any other race in the world where the last competitor gets as much attention as the winner?  Where the champions return to the finish line hours after their victories to rally in the final runners?

By all accounts, the Kona Ironman is nothing short of a suffer fest. Athletes are roasted by the sun and battered by cross winds. They may end up pushing their bike and walking in the sweltering heat. They may not see a solitary spectator for miles and it is just them, the elements and their thoughts. At the end, their back hurts, their legs ache and their feet are covered with blisters the size of quarters.  But as they turn the corner onto the final stretch of Ali’i Drive, they hear the roar of the crowds and the thumping of the finish line music. Spectators high-five the runners, diners at sidewalk cafes stop and cheer, a sea of people line the barricades waving flags from countries all around the world. And when the finish line comes into sight, racers spot themselves up on the Jumbotron. With one final surge they make it up the ramp and through the arch to hear Mike Reilly announce those life-changing words: “Congratulations…you are an Ironman!” And then many literally collapse. The adrenaline rush reverses, their legs give out and after 140 miles, they have to be carried from the finish.

Who is crazy enough to do this? The answer is nearly 2,000 participants, professionals and amateurs. They come from 60 countries and all 50 states. They range in age from 19 to 82. And all of them won his or her invitation to Kona through competitive qualification at other Ironman events. In fact, there are more than 100,000 people who compete annually  to try to qualify for Kona. Some lucky entrants get a slot through the Legacy program or lottery and this year eight athletes earned a bid via the the Kona Inspired competition. All have persevered to get there.

The starting cannon fires at six a.m. and the race course closes at midnight – 17 hours after the start. For many competitors it becomes a race against the clock. The final minutes are no longer about winning or losing – they are about finishing. Racers may come to Kona alone, but no one is alone at the finish– no matter how long it takes.  Reilly welcomes everyone home, with the kind of personal comments that make a  racer feel he is a best friend who has been rooting for them the entire way.

Really, the stories of Kona competitors are what make this race so special. Hawaii  delights all five senses, but as spectacular as the  islands are, the athletes who come to Hawaii to race are even more captivating. From the pros down to the age-groupers, each has traveled a powerful  personal path to get to the World Championship.  The Ironaman brand has morphed into a lifestyle represented by a unique group of ambitious and courageous individuals who aren’t afraid to push their personal limits. .

The road to Kona might not the same for everyone but for many it contains major life changes.  Personal stress, health or relationship issues, a dedication to a person or cause are all motivators. From Sister Madonna  Buder, aka the Iron Nun, the oldest female competitor at 82 to BethAnn Telford who is battling brain cancer and had to learn to stand, walk and run again, there are stories of courage and iron will.  When BethAnn finished the race, she raised a white flag above her head with the word “hope” surrounded by the names of children battling cancer. In announcing her an Ironman, Reilly added the words “You are a survivor” to his proclamation.

For  BethAnne, along with each of the competitors, dreams come true and goals are met at the Ironman finish line. Like all great champions, they soldier through tremendous challenges to reach their goals. Their narratives are motivational and their stories, stitched together, create the  bond that is so integral to the triathlete community. By far the most compelling part of  the Kona race for me was absorbing the history and learning about the stories. The 150 professionals, who finish the competition in under 10 hours, are each truly amazing but the stories of the nearly 1,800 non-professionals who complete the course in the 17 hour time frame are even more inspiring.

Ironman has always been about finishing what you have started. About being able to do what you have set out to do. Maybe not as fast as the person in front of you but certainly faster than the person that never started”  – John Collins,  Founder of The Ironman Triathlon

As the giant Timex clock above the finish line counts down to midnight, victory parties are underway for the earlier finishers. The roads through Kona are slowly reopened as the course is cleaned up for the return to life as usual. And the large and enthusiastic crowd at the finish area waits for the last runners. Out of the quiet and into the bright lights come the final “Ironmen” whose personal stories are a testament to being a champion: an 81-year-old man completing his third Ironman, a 43-year-old woman with a prosthetic left leg, a54-year-old woman who triumphed over breast cancer, and siblings running together to raise money for ALS research in memory of their father. Each of them was greeted with tears by a personal “support team” who had been cheering them on at various places along the course for the nearly 17-hour day.

And there were plenty of others who brought me to tears.

Twenty-nine year-old Annee Deering, one of Ironman’s “Kona Inspired” contest winners, came to Kona  to not only cross the finish line, but to spread her message of empowerment to young women across the country. Deering decided to tell a very personal story in an effort to show  the world, that Anything IS Possible. Battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at a very young age, she has utilized the sport of triathlon to help heal herself from the difficult after-effects of childhood sexual abuse.

Fireman Rob Verhelst from Madison, Wisconsin, is competing in 10 Iron-distance races this year while raising money and awareness for Code 3 for a Cure, a charity that helps firefighters and their families affected by cancer. Rob completed the run portion of the race in FULL fireman turnout gear, standing out in honor of his cause.

Karen Aydelott has competed 12 times in Kona, including an age group win in 1997. In 2006 she was hit by a car while training on her bike and spent the next two years trying to save her ankle and foot. They couldn’t, so she had the lower part of her leg amputated so she could “at least ride her bike.”  Thanks to the Challenged Athletes Foundation, Aydelott was able to get a running prosthesis and she began the long journey back to this year’s Ironman World Championship.

These are but a handful of the remarkable stories I came across in Kona. There are hundreds more.

Life is very much like an Ironman.  You will get knocked down and you have to dust yourself off and get back into the ring. Despite the blisters, the sunburn, the sore muscles and the exhaustion,  racers end the day on a high.  Like three Fire Rock Ales and a tequila shot into a good buzz. From the starting cannons to the fire dance that signified the end of the race, the day was filled with inspiration.  Just after  midnight, with Hawaiian drums beating and a native prayer said for all the day’s participants, I stood in awe of each and every successful Ironman.

One thing I realized in watching and taking in the madness is that each of us needs to find our “Kona.” We all have our own personal challenges and fears. We all need to set goals and push boundaries. What makes the Ironman journey so rewarding and exciting is the bond, the ohana, that is formed by the courageous souls who take on the challenge. And that is pretty awesome.

Mahalo – it was a life-altering experience.

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