Story by Jim Gourley
“Be kind to every man you meet, because he is fighting a hard battle.” – John Watson
Three days. 320 miles. The numbers alone tell you that the Ultraman Hawaii course is a daunting physical challenge. But numbers alone can’t capture the full extent of what the field of 36 of some of the world’s greatest endurance athletes are about to tackle. The unique geography of Hawaii occupies 11 of the 13 world climate zones, and the contestants will pass through several of them each day. The challenges along the way range from unlucky stoplight changes to errant jellyfish to winds that have exceeded 35mph in the past. Multiple Ironman, Ultraman and Race Across America finisher Tony O’Keefe once remarked that the elements and obstacles can “peel an athlete like an onion” until they face the person they really are at the core. It’s what makes Ultraman two races in one. You race around the island and into yourself. Below we take a closer look at what this year’s contestants will run into on a daily basis.
Day 1: 6.2-mile swim, 90-mile bike
As if the distance on the swim wasn’t enough, currents and waves make the first leg of the event the most anxiety-inducing to all the athletes. Beginning at 6:30 AM from the Kailua Bay pier, they’ll make their way southward to a single buoy marking the turn into Keauhou Bay. Escorted by support crews on paddle boards and kayaks, the contestants’ biggest adversary will be uncertainty. Currents in Keauhou Bay pick up as the morning wears on. In 2000, they became so strong that ten athletes did not make the swim cutoff. It’s a harsh proposition to any pacing strategy—the longer you take, the longer you’re going to take. Top swimmers Martin Raymond of Canada, defending champ Alexandre Ribeiro and Ironman pro Hillary Biscay could finish as quickly as 2:20, but tides and fate will make the ultimate determination. Those who take longer than the five hour cutoff may be allowed to continue, but their hopes of making the first day’s final 12-hour window will face an uphill battle, both literally and figuratively. The 90-mile ride begins with an extremely steep climb to get on Highway 11. From there the road to Captain Cook rises an additional 1,500 feet over thirty miles of rolling hills along the coast. At that point, the lush vegetation gives way to a more barren landscape of lava flows slowly being retaken by the forests they razed. Temperatures will cool as the athletes round the southern corner of the island and begin the arduous 8-mile climb to the top of Mount Kilauea, cresting at 4,091 feet. They can experience rain and even hail along the way. Total elevation climbed on this day is 7,600 feet.
Day 2: 171.4-mile bike
The day will begin with a frigid, hair-raising descent down the volcano, with speeds approaching 50mph at the front of the pack. From there, the contestants will round the famous Red Road and begin moving northward along the east side of the island. The other side of the mountains from Kona appear as a totally different world from the environment most Ironman participants are familiar with. The early descent and flats are the last time the athletes will have it easy on the bike. The Hamakua Coast is riddled with deep gorges, which the athletes will have to negotiate on their way to Hilo. The environment will change again from dense jungles and coastline views to conifer forests and prairie lands filled with cattle. The day’s final miles will be perhaps the most treacherous of the entire race, going over the Kohala Mountains just south of Hawi. A long, steep climb, the winds over the peak are mercurial to say the least. In past years they have blown so hard that they have thrown small rocks into the faces of athletes and even toppled a few contestants. At their worst, the Kohalas have ended some athletes’ bids for an official finish with broken bones and hypothermia.
Day 3: 52.4-mile run
If you think the 112-mile bike leg through the lava fields of the Ironman is tough, try running it. Starting in Hawi, the athletes on day 3 will go through one of the toughest double marathons in the world. Here, the heat and hills desiccate whatever the athletes have left to only that which is real. You may not win. You may not finish. You may experience more pain here than ever before, and many of the athletes here have. But what is assured is that no matter how far you get in the physical race, you’ll reach the end of the one within yourself. That’s what the participants have come to find out. From the top veterans to the slowest newcomers, they know that training and technology are no guarantors of “success” in the traditional sense. Everyone has a different life and different goals, and consequently a different truth about themselves. What binds this extraordinarily special group is not how fast or how far they go around the island, but how far they go inside themselves. In that, they will travel the exact same distance—as far as it takes.