Henderson: Hilo triathlon a race to remember


Never mind that a triathlon consists of a tough swim, bike and run. At Sunday’s inaugural Hilo Triathlon, the fears keeping racers up at night leading into the event were rough swim conditions with the possibility of heavy rain.

In response to numerous emails concerning potential tempestuous waters, race director Joe Wedemann made a last-minute decision allowing participants to use wet suits, masks, snorkels and to the surprise of many, fins.

“The idea was to encourage people to participate,” Wedemann said during the prerace meeting. “And we wanted a good turnout for our first year. We want a race attractive to both beginners as well as veteran athletes. This is what triathlon is all about.”

With all of the Big Island’s triathlons being in West Hawaii, Wedemann faced several logistical challenges to bring an exciting and new event to laid-back, quaint Hilo town. Among these were how to get participants in and out of the water safely as well as getting racers across Hilo’s famous “singing bridge” in one piece on the bike course.

Those familiar with James Kealoha Beach Park know very well the dangers one may face attempting to scale over the rocky lava shoreline into turbulent waters. Thankfully, in the days leading up to the big event, the County of Hawaii answered Wedemann’s call for help.

“You can thank the county for building you a swim ramp,” Wedemann said. “We will also have a 12-foot wide carpet lining the entire length of the bridge. And best of all, we will have 400 volunteers out there to assist you along with the Hawaii Police Department and Fire Department.”

For many, excitement ran high along with the community’s “gung-ho attitude” for Hilo’s first triathlon — a great reflection of Wedemann’s dedication and hard work in organizing the inaugural event that began nearly a year ago.

With Tropical Storm Fausto’s remnants causing dark clouds and rougher-than-normal swells to roll in, Sunday’s swim conditions lived up to the hype — actually exceeding predictions of being a “rough-water, washing-machine.”

High surf, turbulent swells, and violent chop stormed over the shoreline, causing the entrance swim buoys to be engulfed in whitewash. Adding to the eerie scenario displayed before a few hundred athletes and spectators gathered near the beach was heavy fog and mist that completely erased the turnaround boat from sight.

And right on cue, the skies of Hilo poured roaring rain just at the completion of Whitney Houston’s 1991 version of the national anthem.

It was indeed, the Hilo Triathlon.

The swim started off with buoys hidden in the rain showers. Every opportunity to look for direction or take a quick breath was met with a face full of salt water. Racers were forced into survival mode, fighting their way back to the newly built County staircase. It was not a good swim, not at all. It was, however, an exciting roller coaster water adventure — an experience that many will certainly talk about for years to come.

“At one point I got tumbled in one of those big rollers,” relay swimmer Lexi DeCarli said. “When I surfaced, I had no idea where I was or which way I was suppose to go.”

“That swim was brutal,” Susan Smith-Nixon said. “And it was so cold that I was freezing!”

Once out of the water, the 40K bike course took riders along Hilo Bay Front, across the famous Singing Bridge and out to Pepeekeo. Soggy conditions continued to chalenge athletes mentally and physically as the rain intensified.

One by one, participants who were unable to dodge the numerous puddles and potholes began to line up on the side of the road as they fixed flat tires, checked their wheels, or simply just sat there — waiting, hoping for the ominous conditions to cease.

While Oahu resident Michelle Simmons’ double flat took her completely out of contention in the women’s division, Kailua-Kona’s Gerd Weber should have been given an award for surviving a triple.

“I couldn’t believe I got three flats out there,” a smiling Weber said, shaking his head. “Tough conditions for sure.”

As participants got off their bikes and headed out on the 10K run, racers wondered what they would encounter next. But to the pleasant surprise of many, the seemingly endless rainfall kept cool what normally becomes hot and steamy conditions on the run.

Gentle rolling hills, spectacular views of Hilo’s shoreline, and a spectator-friendly course that had everyone cheering to the max, certainly helped the finishers feel like champions.

And after the last happy finisher crossed the timing mat to join the postrace festivities, including live music, a fabulous beachside barbecue, and announcing by the popular “DC,” many could not stop themselves from sharing their admiration, enjoyment and respect for the newest multisport event on the circuit.

Wedemann, his race staff, the volunteers, Mayor Billy Kenoi and the entire Hilo community should be proud. To pull off a genuine first-class race event under such unfavorable conditions, and to do it all with aloha and bright smiles on their faces will go down in history as, “the race to remember.”

 

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