Chris Gregory faced one bit of adversity, taking a bad spill on his bike.
He was so far ahead, it hardly mattered.
Rani Henderson thought she was in trouble at one point. It turns out, she said, “I was literally chasing ghosts.”
In fact, everyone else was chasing her.
On a rainy Sunday morning — what else would one expect? — in which East Hawaii joined the world of competitive triathlons, a pair of West Hawaii standouts showed everyone how it’s done, easing to victory at the inaugural Hilo event.
Gregory and Henderson are each runners turned runners/bikers turned runners/bikers/swimmers. Both call the swim their weakest link, though neither was in much trouble when they got out of the water at James Kealoha Beach Park.
However, only Gregory knew it at the time.
“I probably could have gone harder if I had somebody to push me,” said Gregory, who finished the Olympic-sized course (1,500-meter swim, 40-kilometer bike, 10K run) in 1 hour, 59 minutes, 37 seconds.
“I’ve never won a big triathlon before, so it was kind of weird being in front.”
He took the lead on his bike near Hilo Bayfront and never felt seriously challenged again.
As expected, the rough water made for a harsher swim than the relatively placid conditions many triathletes are accustomed to experiencing.
“We were all getting washing-machined,” said Gregory, who finished eighth at a similar distance at Lavaman Waikoloa in March. “Usually, the swim is pancake flat, like a pool swim.
“It was gnarly here. I couldn’t see where I was going. Whomever beat me in the swim, I thank them for giving me somebody to follow.”
He built a big enough lead on his ride from Hilo to Pepeekeo that he was able to overcome a crash near the turnaround. Gregory estimated he lost about a minute or two as he readjusted his bike chain. The fall left him with abrasions near his elbow and hip.
“On a normal day, I would have stopped,” he said. “Because of adrenaline, I kept going.
“The rest of the ride felt uneven. It was hard to pedal, it was hard to run. I was just like ‘Let’s get through this’. I was kind of out of it.”
Jonathon Ucker (2:08:06), the first male out of the water, finished second and was followed by Michael Decarli (2:14:48), Adam Ankrum (2:15:33) and Dan Gampon (2:15:38).
Henderson (2:16:54), who was sixth overall, took the lead for good from runner-up Karlyn Pipes (2:22:30) about a mile into her run, though she didn’t know it at the time.
When Henderson emerged from the water and crossed the new county-built ramp that ferried triathletes over the lava rocks, she was told a “women in black” was among the leaders.
Rumor had it the “women in black” also excelled on her bike.
“Getting off the bike, people were yelling that a girl supposedly in all black had four minutes on me,” Henderson said. “The way this course is arranged, I couldn’t see her.
“About mile 5 of the run, I kept looking for this ‘women in black,’ I was thinking I might not have enough time.”
In actuality, there was no “woman in black” to worry about. Only gray skies stood between Henderson and the finish line.
“It definitely helped me push and motivated me to keep going,” she said.
In the women’s field, Winona Chen (2:28:03) placed third, Erin Stephens (2:31:56) was fourth and Joan Campbell (2:41:29) took fifth. Pipes recorded the best swimming split in the race.
Henderson was coming off a 14th-place finish in the women’s division at Ironman 70.3 Hawaii in May and she was the fourth female finisher at Lavaman Waikoloa in March.
She didn’t sign up for the Hilo event until two weeks ago when her husband, Penn Henderson, decided not to compete in a bike race on Oahu. The couple juggles competitive races to care for their 15-month-old child.
“I didn’t put much training in for this and the outcome is kind of a surprise,” she said. “We didn’t know what to expect, and it was truly an epic event from start to finish. Because of the rain, it made it harder than people expected.”
Gregory, who moved from Hilo to Kailua-Kona in May, credited his time spent in East Hawaii while studying at the University of Hawaii at Hilo with helping him to conquer the rain.
He’s planning to move to Arizona soon to pursue a career as a pharmacist.
“I’m going to come back, because this was so fun,” he said. “You can’t do anything about the rain. If not for that, it would have been perfect.”