Swim Start
"This is Triathlon's Spiritual Home"

October 3, 1998
2.4mile swim, 112mile bike, 26.2mile run
Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

     1998 was the 20th anniversary of the Hawaii Ironman and the race directors made every effort to celebrate the history of this event. Past years’ winners were on hand, as well as the founder of the event and the winner of the very first race. For those of you who don’t know the story behind the creation of this event, it came about as follows: Navy Captain John Collins was stationed in Oahu and he was sitting around with some buddies in a bar after the awards ceremony for a local event. They had just read a Sports Illustrated article which touted cyclists as the fittest athletes in the world. The group got to talking about who they thought the fittest athletes were - swimmers, cyclists, or runners. Collins postulated that if someone swam the Waikiki Rough Water Swim course (2.4 miles) and then cycled most of the Around Oahu bike course (112 miles), they would meet up with the Honolulu Marathon Course. They decided to link the events and anyone who finished all three back to back they’d call the ‘Ironman’. During a break he jumped up on stage and offered this- challenge, "Swim 2.4 miles, Bike 112 miles, Run 26.2 The gun will go off in the morning, the clock will keep running and whoever finishes first we’ll call the Ironman". People laughed, but the next year, 18 people shoewed up, 15 started the race and 12 finished. Gordon Haller won the first race in 11:46:58 and the rest is history. Since then, the Hawaii Ironman has become triathlon’s spiritual home. Here’s my account of this year’s race.

Start/Finish Sign
Tourist Bureau Marker that stands on Alii Drive

September 27, 1998 - As our inter-island charter flight approaches the Kailua-Kona airport, the window offers me my first glimpse of what this course has in store for all the athletes. The airport is simply a couple strips of asphalt laid amongst the ancient lava flows of the island. Desolate doesn’t begin to describe the sight - it looks like we’re preparing to land on Mars. Step off the plane and we’re greeted by the heat and humidity of the tropics, but more of a concern is the wind that nearly knocks us off our feet. I hope this isn’t a bad omen.

September 28, 1998 - We wake after a good night’s sleep and head to the pier for my first swim workout. It’s also my first swim in the open ocean. All the races I did this year were in colder, fresh water so I’m used to swimming in a wetsuit. My impression? The salt water gives one the buoyancy of a wetsuit without any restriction in the shoulders. So, it’s like swimming in a wetsuit with more freedom. Actually, it’s more like swimming in a wetsuit with more freedom while eating potato chips. This ocean is making me thirsty! We brought along a disposable water proof camera so I swam out a bit with the camera in my suit and took some pics looking back at the pier for a different perspective.

After swim practice and breakfast we head out on our first planned road trip to the Volcano National Park. A full day excursion, but well worth the trip. A truly unique place to visit.

September 29, 1998 - Another trip to the pier for a 7am swim. Things are really getting busy here as athletes flock to the water each morning. Sponsors are on hand offering samples of Ironman Bars and Race Day sports drink. They people from GU gels even have a booth set up where you can check in your clothing before you swim. For me, it’s like mingling with movie stars at the Oscars as I spot the race favorites in the crowd. I pick out Natascha Badmann (the eventual women’s winner) and Lothar Leder (first man to ever break the 8 hour barrier) who is surrounded by a throng of German fans.

After swimming we decide to head to Hapuna beach, which is noted as one of the best in the world. I certainly can’t disagree. We meet up there with a friend of mine, Peter, who is also doing the race and we went out to ride part of the course while our spouses spent a day in the surf. We rode for about an hour and a half and I got my first taste of the legendary ‘mumuku’ head winds the island is famous for. I hoped it wouldn’t be that windy on race day. The rest of the day was spent in the 85F water and on the beach where Bo Derek was filming her television show. And no, I didn’t get to see her - I only recognize pro triathletes anyway.

September 30, 1998 - Another 7am swim was followed by a driving tour of the course. We drove the entire bike course and got out to take some pictures of the landscape and crosswinds. Because a good part of the bike and run overlap, on the way back in we stopped at the Energy Lab road where I did a short run to see what it was like. The Natural Energy Lab of Hawaii is a government run area where they are doing experiments on how to extract energy from the heat of the earth. It can also be a furnace when it’s hot out. It is a 2 mile dead end diversion off the highway that runs towards the sea. On the way in it’s downhill and into a sea breeze so it feels great but the way out, uphill, with a tailwind can get pretty oppressive. I hope for some cloud cover on race day, as this is at the 16-20 mile points of the course.

October 1, 1998 - No swimming this morning. Instead, we went to the pier where Cheryl watched the swimmers and I decided to bike the last part of the bike course/first part of the run course. It took less than an hour. After breakfast we went to a snorkeling beach in town that offered great access, right off the beach. Even before I could get my flippers on I almost stepped on one of the huge sea turtles that live around the reef. The sea life in this little cove was unreal - the fish know that people will be feeding them and they hang out here. A great visual experience.

That night we had the Carbo dinner which was held outdoors at the race hotel. They did a special video presentation that showed clips from all the races and they brought most of the winners from all the races on stage. I thoroughly enjoyed this, as I hadn’t seen much coverage from many of the earlier races.

October 2, 1998 - One day to go. Today I just had to check in my bike at the pier and do final registration details. I swam in the morning - not quite as busy today. Afterwards, I registered and then checked in my bike. We had an early dinner in our room and went to bed.

October 3, 1998 - Race Day. Got to the pier at 4:40am and I still had to wait in line to get into the transition area. Cheryl went to the pier and couldn’t get a spot on the wall to the watch the swim start. People had been sleeping on the wall to ensure a good view. I went through body numbering and then in to check my bike and pump my tires. The rest of the 2 hours before were dedicated to sunscreen, stretching, hydrating and washroom breaks.

The Swim - They warned us at the pre-race meeting that once we were all lined up properly the gun would go off without much warning - and they were right! The course is an elongated rectangle - out and back essentially. I had pretty clear water for the first 100m or so. In fact, I thought this was going to be an easy, clear swim. But when we reached the first buoy all of a sudden the pack converged and we were pushing and shoving and elbowing for awhile. Not a problem, though. I had a bit of trouble navigating as the swells in the ocean made located the orange marker buoys difficult. Not to mention the fact that the women were wearing orange swim caps which made it look like there were hundreds of buoys out there! At one point early on for some reason I found myself on the inside of the buoy line. I don’t know how I got in there, but I worked my way back out so that they were well on my right side. In fact, I swam quite wide the whole race, which left me lots of clear space.

I hit the dock at the pier at 1:07:21 - over 3 minutes slower than at Ironman Canada but given my wide berth and navigation problems, I was happy. Into the rush of transition where I got help changing and then off to my bike. The crowds are huge at the bike start. The first task is climbing Palani hill out of town - which is where I saw Cheryl waiting. I check my watch and saw 1:10 and change so I must have had a quick transition.

Swim Finish
Swim Finish
(full size)

The Bike - Within minutes we’re on the Queen K highway speeding towards the lava fields. The first 10-15 miles we must have had a tailwind because I was making great time and actually wondering if I might set a PR for the day. But as we hit about 20 miles I could see everyone ahead of me begin to sit up and struggle and then I found out why: The legendary ‘mumuku’ head winds which normally reside around the turnaround in Hawi had migrated south to the lava fields. All of a sudden all bets were off as far as a PR was concerned. I just didn’t want to get thrown off my bike. It’s hard to describe what it was like battling the head and cross winds. Triathlon legend Scott Tinley once offered this bit of advice to anyone interested in replicating the sensation of cycling in Hawaii. He suggested going into your bathroom, turning the shower on with hot water only, turning on a hair dryer and aiming it in your face, and then sitting on a broom handle for 6 hours. That sounds about right.

Biking the lava fields
Biking through
the lava fields
(full size)

From behind, I could see my fellow competitors actually leaning their bikes sideways in an attempt to keep from being blown over. My ears were ringing from the noise of the wind. At one point I was in a gear usually reserved for climbing steep hills, and I was standing and grinding away on a slight downhill, just to maintain 15 km/h. In comparison, with a tailwind in the same area on the way back I was cruising along comfortably at 60 km/h. We alternated between head winds, cross winds and tail winds for the first 52 miles, where we turned around and headed back the way we came. On the way back, everything was reversed which made for a very fair race. Some years the winds reverse on the way back and you really suffer!! I almost lost control a few times while trying to drink from a water bottle, but I survived the bike unscathed. Total bike time - 6:02:03 - about 21 minutes slower than Ironman Canada.

The Run - There’s nothing easy about the marathon on this course. We were lucky to have some cloud cover for the run (one wish came true) and the winds created a breeze but the course itself still takes it’s toll. The first four miles are up and down long hills. The first mile goes up a long steep hill, then we hang a right and go down a mile into a dead end called ‘the pit’. It’s hot as Hades in the pit and there’s very little breeze. Run uphill a mile out of the pit and then it’ll be down a steep hill to about the four mile mark. Then we ran through town to about the 8 mile mark. Through town is easy as there are cheering fans and shade and an ocean breeze. But then we head out into the lava fields for the meat of the course. I got to see the leaders returning so I knew early on that Peter Reid was going to win one for Canada. Overall, I didn’t have any problems with the run. The Energy Lab was difficult on the way out - the slight uphill takes it’s toll at 19 miles - and the last few miles have some long uphills which just seem to go on forever. The return to town is nice - it’s down some steep hills (which you pay for the following day) and then there’s a beautiful right hand turn onto Alii Drive. The 400m on Alii drive are quite possibly the sweetest 400m in the sport. The crowds are huge and loud and the glow from the finish line lights just brings you home. I crossed the finish line in 11:15:39 - 33 minutes off my Ironman Canada time but I wasn’t disappointed at all. One of the nice parts of this race is that they let your spouse or a friend into the transition area after the race so I was able to get a photo with my medal and my support crew. 

My original goal was just to go and do the race and be part of the hype so to finish as comfortably as I did on a tough day was very satisfying. This was one event that I won’t soon forget - or soon repeat.

Final Splits:

My Race Number
A Scan of my Race Number

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