By CAROLYN LUCAS-ZENK
No journey is without its challenges, struggles and pitfalls. Such is true when comes to the Ironman World Championship, one of the most grueling endurance races. But also present during this annual event is a celebration of the human spirit — from grit, determination and athleticism to aloha, selflessness and fun.
Anticipated to be at the starting line Saturday are 1,928 triathletes, which is approximately 4 percent more than last year, said Race Director Diana Bertsch. All will attempt to complete a 2.4-mile ocean swim, 112-mile bike race and 26.2-mile marathon in 17 hours or less. “It’s about a dream and a belief to do the impossible,” she added.
In the field are two very familiar women, Julie Moss and Kathleen McCartney Hearst, who were part of arguably one of the most heart wrenching and significant moments in Ironman history. In the 1982 race, Moss, a college student collecting data for a physiology thesis, became severely dehydrated and faltered as she approached the finish line. Like a stunned boxer, she staggered and then fell right before the finish line, allowing McCartney Hearst to pass her and win the race. Moss then recovered and crawled across the finish line. The event play on ABC’s Wild World of Sports, capturing the imagination of millions of viewers, and Moss’s courage provide inspiration to many. The last time either Moss or McCartney Hearst completed in the race was back in 2003, when they race together for event’s 25th anniversary, according to Ironman.
Another famous competitor is 25-year-old Caine Eckstein, deemed “the best endurance Ironman that Australia has ever seen.” The Coolangatta Gold Champion took his wins to a new record this year by becoming the only person in history to win the iconic event five times.
There are 64 countries represented in Saturday’s race. The top five countries competing are the United States (820 triathletes), Australia (243 triathletes), Germany (164 triathletes), Canada (128 triathletes) and Great Britain (84 triathletes). Of the American competitors, the majority — 143 — are from California, and 54 are from Hawaii.
Most of this year’s competitors are expected to cross the finish line; others will not. For the triathletes who appear in the chute before midnight, the race cutoff time, their arrival will generate titanic tribute from thousands of cheering spectators lined along Alii Drive. They will also finally hear the words they’ve longed for: “You are an Ironman.” According to the 2011 race results, 1,773 of the 1,850 triathletes finished and Gary Hermansen, a 54-year-old nurse from Salt Lake City, Utah, was the last official Ironman declared.
Every year, Ironman evaluates what works and what doesn’t, as well continues to try to make improvements, Bertsch said. Except for the three starts, the 2012 Ironman World Championship will be same as last year’s version. The professional men will start at 6:30 a.m. Saturday, followed by the professional women five minutes later and then the age groupers will begin at the traditional time, 7 a.m.
Bertsch said the reason for the three starts was to “make it a fair and level playing field for the athletes,” as well as provide the opportunity to showcase each of the races within the event.
This year’s theme is Aa Na Maka O Na Aa, or “The sparkling eyes of my roots.” It came from a conversation between Bertsch and Aunty Elizabeth Maluihi Lee, a “Living Treasure of Hawaii” and legendary master lauhala weaver. Bertsch was introduced to Lee by Wally Lau, a mutual friend and the county’s deputy managing director. Bertsch shared how race organizers wanted this year’s theme to include reflection of the past and one’s roots.
Lee told Bertsch of the hala tree, which is a reflection of “our past, present and future.” She explained how our ancestors and kupuna represent the roots, and from the roots come the tree (the parents) and the branches (the children). As the branches continue to spread, the leaves come and represent the grandchildren. She explained how eventually they blossom into the beautiful hala seed, which will separate and fall to the ground, as well as begin a new cycle while assuring the legacy still lives.
“As we live our lives, we will never lose our way as long as we remember where we can from. Success is about respecting our roots, taking value in what we have learned, and embracing our journey,” Lee said. “Knowing your roots is knowing your way. Our roots represent the path that our ancestors have taken and the choices that have been made that define and illuminate who we are.”
Lee said she was thankful for the opportunity to share her knowledge with the organizers and participants of this international sporting event. She also called it “an honor” to serve as the grand marshal of Tuesday’s Ironman Parade of Nations. She looked forward to meeting triathletes, wishing them well and a safe journey. Bertsch said Lee will also receive the Ironman Malama Award, which recognizes individuals who have given of themselves so that others might benefit.
“A great supporter” of the event ever since it moved to the Big Island in 1981, Lee said she watches it every year while sitting in front of Mokuaikaua Church in Kailua-Kona because “it’s exciting seeing who will take home all the bacon and who will not give up and continue through the night.” She thinks the event helps the local economy by driving tourism and supporting commerce, as well as highlights the island’s beauty and showcases what Hawaii is all about. Lee said what she’s most proud of is how the community, though it has grown up so much, continues to share and promote the aloha spirit. She hopes it encourages visitors to not just return again, but also help others in their hometown, even if just for a day.
This will be Bertsch’s 10th event as director. Besides supporting and helping athletes fulfill their dreams, she said the best part is witnessing what people are willing to do for others. She expressed tremendous gratitude for “the incredible volunteers that put everything aside to help others make their dreams come true and give of themselves with tremendous positive energy.” She said without the island community and the more than 5,000 volunteers, including the directors and coordinators who volunteer the entire season, the Ironman World Championship would not be possible or be what it is today.
“I really believe that Ironman has a heart and soul, and it was created here,” she added.