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Ever dream of competing in an Ironman? How about the mother of all Ironmen – Kona? If so, join me for a behind-the-scenes look at all the prep, training, and craziness that goes into one of the greatest endurance races ever.

First a little history lesson: The first Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon took place Feb. 18, 1978 in Waikiki. Conceived by multi-sport athlete and naval officer John Collins, the idea was to combine three of the toughest races on the island into one competition. Fifteen athletes, including Collins, took on a 2.4 mile ocean swim, then pedaled a grueling 112 miles and for a cool down ran 26.2 miles. Gordon Haller, a taxi cab driver and fitness enthusiast, crossed the finish line in 11 hours, 46 minutes and 58 seconds to become the “original” Ironman.

The following year Lyn Lemaire, a cyclist from Boston, Mass, became the first female finisher. In 1980, Collins turned over the event to a local health club and the Ironman moved from the tranquil shores of Waikiki to the barren lava fields of Kona on the Big Island of Hawai’i.  Against this dramatic backdrop, athletes cover 140.6 miles by sea, bike and foot while battling “ho’ omumuku” crosswinds and scorching heat. The Ironman is the ultimate test of body, mind and spirit and the event has become the benchmark against which all extreme sporting challenges are measured. The Kona World Championship now attracts more than 1,500 participants, 25,000 spectators and millions in television audiences.

Timex triathlete Jackie Arendt

Since 1986, Timex (“takes a licking, keeps on ticking”) has sponsored the Ironman, supporting the event long before it gained international notoriety. And for over a decade, they’ve fielded a multisport team which now numbers about 50 athletes from around the globe. My roommate this week is Jackie Arendt (@JackieTriGirl) a professional triathlete who has been with the Timex team for four years.  She’s my Yoda, training me in all things tri.  Whenever I have a question, whether it’s about technique, strategy or rules and regs, I get an insider’s perspective as well as a chance to chip away at the psyche of a pro triathlete.

What I’ve learned watching and listening to Jackie, and observing the thousands of others who have descended on Kona this week, is that triathletes are a bit crazy (in a good way).  They think nothing of jumping on their bike for a five hour ride, running 10K to the store to pick up a few items or swimming out a half-mile into Kailua Bay just to get wet. They eat industrial-size meals, measure sweat loss and urination, and practice mantras to keep them going during their grueling endurance races.  They’re at once laid-back and obsessive – about splits, calories, electrolytes, compression wear, recovery, etc. Some work full-time jobs, some train full-time, some are parents, some are students – all are driven to compete and push their bodies to their physical limits.

Triathletes are also passionate about fitness. Looking around the island this week, the average body fat of Kona competitors is under 5% (see photo below for a peek what that looks like). While it makes the rest of us feel like slackers, it’s also motivating to see so many evangelicize the lifestyle. The energy on the streets of Kailua-Kona is palpable, from the ocean-side tables outside Lava Java, where just about everyone gathers for morning coffee to the action on the Queen K (Queen Kaʻahumanu Highway) where both pros and age groupers (another way of saying amateur) are getting in their final workouts before Saturday’s race. You can practically feel the rush of endorphins.

Last night was the Parade of Nations – the official kick-off to the Ironman where athletes stride down Ali’i Drive with their compatriots waving their national flag. After the U.S., the Australian and German contingencies seemed the largest. This morning was the annual  Kona Underpants Run where uber fit competitors get half naked and jog an easy lap around the village wearing some version of lingerie or undergarments. Event rules decree that any version of white “mommy underwear” (also known as tighty whities, y-fronts, briefs) is permitted but no boxers, long underwear, or stylish Euro-bikini briefs allowed (tongue firmly in cheek).

Tonight, the E Komo Mai (Welcome) Dinner was an extravaganza where all the athletes come together to celebrate the event’s heritage. A luau started the evening off and we were introduced to this year’s theme: “The Sparkling Eyes of My Roots.” The oldest female competitor, 82-year old Sister Madonna Buder, still racing Ironman triathlons 32 years after she started running, offered advice to the youngest woman competing. 

Julie Moss and Kathleen McCartney, who were rivals in 1982 when their grueling Ironman finish was immortalized by a TV crew, continued the theme. Moss and McCartney Hearst have returned to Kona 30 years later– this time as friends and training partners. Their rivalry is gone, replaced by a desire to help each other through transitional stages in their lives.

Athletes compete in Ironmen for a variety of reasons. Professional athletes come to Kona to win (there’s a purse of $650,000) but for most age groupers it’s a celebration race. Because at its core, the Ironman celebrates the human spirit and the will to survive. The goal is simply to finish. In fact the very first Ironman included this handwritten exhortation: “Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life!” Only a small percentage of triathletes ever complete a full Ironman so if you are among the elite group who has covered the 140.6 miles with an official time to prove it, bragging rights are yours for a lifetime. Whether it’s getting the red M-dot tattoo or some other commemorative gesture, finishing an Ironman is a life-changing event. It’s literally the point at which your old life ends, and a new one begins

So which pro will take the crown this year? Defending champ Craig Alexander is a favorite on the men’s side. Many in the tri community were looking forward to Lance Armstrong joining the field this year but the WTC banned the 7x Tour de France champion earlier this summer.  Not only would it have been interesting to see how Armstrong fared, but his participation would have brought a great deal of exposure to the oft under-recognized sport. Last year’s female winner, Chrissie Wellington, isn’t competing this year, but the 2011 runner-up and  2010 Ironman World Champion Mirinda Carfrae (Aus) is the woman to beat.

I haven’t attempted even a portion of the bike or run route but I did take a plunge into Kailua Bay and managed to swim to the floating espresso bar about a quarter mile out. Good thing there were underwater signs to provide direction. I may not be racing on Saturday but I can boast I was in Kona for the world famous race – with full access, VIP treatment the whole week (Thanks to Timex Sports) – and a newfound respect and appreciation for the sport and the athletes who participate.

Floating espresso bar in Kona

Anyone ever run a triathlon? How about an Ironman? Would love to hear your experiences.

For now, aloha from the Big Island. Be sure to check back more updates and insights and follow @prettytough on Saturday for live tweets.

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