By Mike Tierney, Special to Universal Sports
In the sport of triathlon, there are ironman competitions and there is (begin ital) the (end ital) Ironman. The original swim/bike/run test of stamina remains the gold standard, the first still widely considered the best. This year’s Ironman World Championship unfolds Oct. 13 in the Kona District of Hawaii, known simply as The Big Island. The setting provides a vivid backdrop for these eilte athletes who are toasting the 35th annual race — while they are getting toasty on a grueling day made more difficult by the harsh natural conditions.
HOW IT WORKS: Some 500 hardy souls who converge on the island begin with a 2.4-mile swim, which is more than 50 percent longer than Michael Phelps covered in his exhausting week at the recent London Olympics. Then they hop on bikes for a 112-mile spin, the equivalent of riding between Los Angeles and San Diego. The ordeal concludes with a 26.2-mile run, which has been the marathon distance since the first London Olympics (1908), when 2.2 miles was added to the established length so the race could conclude within sight of the royal family’s viewing area. The first splash of water is timed for 7 a.m., signaled by a cannon blast. Anyone still on the road course at midnight can call it a day. That is when the Ironman officially ends.
HISTORY LESSON: The Ironman has its roots in a debate — okay, an argument — over which sport developed the finest endurance athletes. It got pretty technical, with terms such VO2 max (maximum amount of oxygen the body can use during intense exercise) tossed around. Organizers stopped debating — okay, arguing — long enough to combine existing swim, bike and foot races into a singular affair. It was called Ironman.
GIRL POWER: Though the Ironman name remains, the event has been mixed-gender since Year Two, when accomplished cyclist Lyn Lemaire placed fifth in a field of 15. Next time, two women signed up, and the organizers have recognized female champions as well as male ever since.
FIRST OF ALL: The inaugural event in 1978 drew only 15 brave souls whose entry papers said, “Brag for the rest of your life.” Gordon Haller of the U.S. Navy, who overheard a conversation about it after withdrawing from the Honolulu Marathon, signed up and finished first, 13 minutes under the 12-hour mark. Mr. Haller might be more winded from nearly 3 1/2 decades of bragging than he was from the competition. The runner-up was John Dunbar, a Navy Seal who ran out of water during the marathon and refreshed himself with beer the rest of the way. Hearing this, the media surely gave him a lot of pub.
HAPPY ANNIVERSARY: Thirty years ago, Julie Moss provided an indelible memory. Signing up primarily to gather research for her thesis on training, Moss led the women’s field and was nearing the end when her legs turned wobbly. She fell numerous times, finally collapsing within a few paces of the finish line. She was convulsing on the ground as Kathleen McCartney passed her. Moss crawled the rest of the way for the most famous runner-up finish in triathlon annals. The pair has accepted invitations to compete Saturday. Suffice to say, Moss will hydrate better this time.
OF COURSE: The swim is an out-and-back in the ocean on a triangular route to and from Kailua Pier. Cyclists pedal along the coast to the village of Hawi and back on a highway, passing fields of lava along the way. The marathon stays on the same highway, hitting the finish line on Ali’i Drive.
IT’S ELEMENT-ARY: Complicating the contestants’ task are the elements. Kona is notorious for its tropical heat (82 to 95 degrees) and humidity (90 percent) plus its blustery winds (up to 60 mph) and pelting rains. Temperatures exceed 100 in the vicinity of the lava. Some triathletes arrive early to get acclimated, and their race-day kit is loaded with electrolytes, salt tabs, gels and extra socks.
STAR-GAZING: For the guys, Craig “Crowie” Alexander of Australia has taken three of the last four titles. Last year, he lowered by 12 seconds the course record that had stood for 15 years despite leg cramps on the tail end of the marathon. On the women’s side, the undisputed star is Chrissie Wellington, who won her fourth and most impressive Ironman last year. The Brit, who has held the record since 2009, coped with a torn pectoral muscle, suffered in a bike crash before the race, and rallied from sixth place in the run.
PROFILES IN COURAGE: Among the most admired competitors have been the late Jon “Blazeman” Blais, a sufferer of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), who completed the circuit; Dick Hoyt, a senior citizen who yanked his disabled son in a boat during the swim, rode with him on a two-seated bike and pushed him in a wheelchair in the marathon; and Sarah Reinertsen and Kelly Bruno, each of whom has negotiated the course on a prosthetic leg. This year’s registrants include cancer survivor Teresa Byrnes, who underwent a double mastectomy. She parlays her competitions into fund-raising opportunities that raise funds for a foundation offering financial assistance to families of breast-cancer victims.
WHAT’S NEW: Organizers have taken 100 “lottery” slots for lucky participants and designated them for “legacy” triathletes: Those who have completed at least a dozen ironman events but never experienced the World Championships. AND THE NUMBER IS: Some 200,000 cups are used to consume 26,000 gallons for “fluid replacement.”