The Hawaii Ironman Triathlon takes place in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii each year at the beginning of October. It's a bit odd how I came to do the race in 1987 and then go back the next year with my mates Kev and Trev. So this is my story.
I was a cyclist back in the 1960s and from the age of 14 dedicated myself to being a racing cyclist. When I was 15 I took myself off to Brittany in France and raced cadet races. For the next five or six years I would save my money in the winter then cross the channel to live in France and be a 'coureur cycliste' each summer.
England wasn't a hotbed of road racing like France, for most English cyclists time trialing was the event of preference. The undisputed king of the 25 miles time trial was a guy called Alf Engers. He won every race he entered and held competition record in something like 49 minutes. In fact, he was called The King and was revered, much like Mark Allen or Dave Scott are in the triathlon world.
I knew Alf quite well. He was a baker by trade and one time, when I found myself with nowhere to live, I slept on a mattress above his bakery and then got up at five in the morning and worked for him deep frying donuts then squirting them full of jam.
Many years later or paths crossed again when we were both trying to be triathletes. Alf could ride, was improving his running but his swim was a disaster - when he kicked he went backwards! Anyway, he got it in his mind that he would do the Hawaii Ironman (no qualification needed in 1987). What he needed was a training partner to make those long 20 mile runs less boring and someone else to swim with and entice the old ladies to breast stoke in another lane. He asked me and I agreed to go training with him but told him he was crazy to think of doing an Ironman distance race on the other side of the world.
We put in quite a few good sessions, Alf always enthusing about Hawaii.
"Picture the scene" he would say, "Seven in the morning and a thousand swimmers break into the warm Pacific Ocean from Digme Beach, aaah!"
I had never swum 2.4 miles, let alone in open water, never run any further than our training runs (but I thought I could ride 112 miles if push came to shove). But I wasn't going to enter, anyway.
One day Alf arrived with a big grin and his Ironman entry form - and a photo copy which he gave to me.
"Come on John, picture the scene, etc etc".
I don't know why, but I sent off my entry form and $180 cheque and a little later received my confirmation of acceptance. Alf never got his acceptance, well, he didn't send off his entry. And that is how I came to be in Hawaii in October 1987, finish the race and returned home with a nice medal and a finishers shirt.
What does Kona mean to me? When I think back, that first Hawaii race was one of the turning points that sent me off on a whole different life.
Thanks Alf - you *******!
Hawaii Part 2
How I Dun It The Hawaiian Ironman in 1987
(a non stop sporting event comprising three sports: Swimming (2.4 miles), Cycling (112 miles) and Running (26.2 miles)
It wasn't my intention to be an entrant in the 1987 Hawaii Ironman, I sort of got inveigled into it by my very good friend (at that time!) Alf Engers. I was meant to be his support team but got coaxed into filling out an entry form and at the last moment Alf didn't, so I was out there on my own.
Shit . . . I’ve been swimming for about 20 minutes and just taken a really good look in front. The turn boats seem miles away. I don’t like open water swimming - I don’t like swimming full stop. I tend to panic in open water, I don’t really know what I’m doing here, still, the other swimmers around me seem to offer a little comfort. A Japanese woman is in front doing the breast stroke, she keeps zigzagging . . . or is it me!
The race started at seven a.m. just after the sun had come up over the mountain. The crowds, helicopters, film crews, not to mention over one thousand three hundred triathletes, made for a busy start. I had stood on the beach at the back of the field, the gun went and some sort of magnetic attraction made me move forward, following the others. In a moment there is a space to swim. There are big red buoys down the length of the course, I swim to each one, sometimes they are hidden by the swell. The water, at least, is warm.
After 1.2 miles we come to the turn boat, I can see frogmen underwater looking up and taking pictures. I don’t even dare to look for the finish. I wish I knew how many buoys there were, I could then mark my progress. I feel isolated, but if I could just catch that group about 20 yards ahead. Panic . . . I get cramp in my foot. I’ve had this cramp before, normally I swim to the shallow end and stand up. Today the shallow end is some way away. The cramp passes and I catch the trio in front. I realise I am now going even slower but resolve just to keep with them. Time passes very slowly.
Some days later a surf boarder tells us it’s not far to go. We come round the pier and down a roped-off lane to be grabbed and pulled out. I am amazed and bemused to have done it - 2.4 miles. Under the shower, down the alley, bag in hand (somehow). Sit down in the changing area and very quickly dress. Shorts rolled up ready to slide on, tug at vest and away. People are still sitting and toweling. I’m off. Out in the open I’m given food, sun-block and put on a bike, 138.2 miles to go.
In bottom gear I twiddle up the first hill, pass the cheering crowds then out onto the Queen Kaahumanu Highway. I’m moving well, passing people. I settle in, change up to a high gear, I’m flying. This is OK, I have my light wheels with aero-rims and thin racing tyres, they feel good as I whoosh along. The road is wide and rolling, as far as I can see there are riders dotted up the road. I concentrate on hauling in the next rider. I pass a large number of very small Japanese women.
Every five minutes there is a feeding station. Throw out empty bottles, catch more water, Exceed sports drink and iced sponges. If I’m quick I can get two sponges. It's very hot and there is no shade. The volunteers are very helpful, they hold up food and drink. I try to calculate how many plastic bottles are needed, must be nearly ten thousand. At one feeding station I pass a one armed rider, how does he take a drink? he must have to keep stopping.
The scenery is unchanging, black road, black lava, bright blue sky. I’m now having problems, my feet have swollen in my tight Italian cycling shoes. Every time I get out of the saddle a shooting pain goes through each foot. At the next feed station I grab a sponge for each foot. The sudden cold water hurts, however it’s not getting any worse.
Nearly 50 miles gone and the long climb to the turn at Hawi takes an age. Then the turn. I have no particular feeling other than wanting to get going and finish this ride. I roll top gear 52 x 12 back down the hill, but a strong side wind stops any real speed. The return is desolate. I’m moving like I’m on a long training ride - slowly. There are no landmarks to relate to. I grind on.
Then I see life, in the distance is the run turn, the runners also come out on this part of the bike course. As I ride by I see a few oncoming runners. I continue and catch a runner accompanied by a TV van, cameras and motorbikes, no mistaking The Man, Dave Scott, I decide against offering him my bike and carry on past. Within minutes I see Mark Allen with his entourage, he is breathing hard but has a good lead. Only five or six miles to go for him, he must win.
I ride on, pass through the town of Kona which is the start and finish, and on a further six miles. The road runs by the sea and is quite shaded. It ends at the Kona Surf Hotel which is also the bike/run transition. Up the last short sharp hill and a shout from my wife, descend round the corner, into the hotel grounds, through the car park and across the line. My bike is taken. Luckily I have thought to take my feet out of my shoes as I rode in. I didn’t want to have to twist them hard to get them out.
I’m sort of dazed. “Would you like a shower?” No thanks, I’m led into the changing area. Sit down, on with the running kit, loosely pull lace locks. Stand up. The loudspeaker announces “Dave Scott has just taken the lead". He is nearly finished, I’ve got twenty six miles to run.
I’m OK. I jog out but walk the first hill, this too is OK as I’ve already decided that would be my plan, then I start running. There is my wife, I give her a wave, this is rare for me, it’s usually some sort of scowl. I run on. The feed stations are every mile, I walk through each one, drink half a cup of water, then a cup of Exceed, take a sponge and them continue running.
I’m not at all worried by the distance, in fact I’m quite happy, this worries me, it’s not normal. I try to husband my strength like an old invalid but at the same time feel very alert. I pass even more Japanese, in fact I’m passing quite a few runners. We come to the outskirts of Kona, Dave Scott is probably having his cup of afternoon tea. I follow the course out of town and once again on to the Queen K Highway.
Now I can see all the runners coming back towards me, some are walking. I see another Brit, Sarah Springman, I call out “Turned out nice again . . .” I don’t think she heard me. At one feeding station a women tells me “You look real strong, not like some of those young guys.” Is this a compliment I ask myself? By the time I’ve mulled this over I’ve reached the far turn, about nine miles to go. It’s cool and getting dark. I pick up a fluorescent light stick and suddenly it’s very dark.
One good thing about the pitch black, you can’t see the hills. The light sticks off in the distance look like glow-worms. Thinks . . . If a glow-worm had its tail cut off would it be de-lighted? I see a runner still going out, he has a sort of buffalo on his head. Apart from going through two feed stations that each said five miles to go I’m still moving and thinking OK.
There are still people on their way out to the turn, I wonder how they can stick it. I’ve now passed nearly three hundred runner and suddenly we are back in Kona. Crowds are cheering, even on the outskirts they are still lining the streets. I have been told to sing Land of Hope and Glory down the last mile but this is all forgotten as I run in, searching for the bright lights of the finish. There it is! Unbelievable! All of a sudden I’ve stopped. I’ve finished! I’m given a Lei for which I murmur “Thanks” and being supported by two volunteers, my wife is shouting at me and trying to take photos. I try to tell her there is not enough light. I can still think!
I’m shattered and euphoric at the same time. I’m led to the Labman tent to be weighed. I’ve lost only three pounds, I reckon to have drunk 32 pints during the day (and only two pit stops). I also collect a dark blue T-shirt and a medal. I spend the next twenty five minutes being massaged by a man who can't speak English. I don’t mind, neither can I.
With some assistance I leave the massage area, there are still people finishing - What a day. Alf, you certainly missed something special, but thanks for the idea anyway.
Hawaii Part 3
1988 to 220
Me, Kev and Trev. 1988 version.
I came back home after finishing the '87 Hawaii Ironman vowing that that was it. I was never going back. Once was enough. It was too painful. The day after the race I had to come down stairs backwards I was so stiff. My legs were not human they felt like solid lumps of concrete. Enough, already!
However, as I knew I wasn't coming back I had gone into the Iroman store and bought just about every item of Ironman branded clothing in my size. Once back in training with the rest of my mates in the Total Fitness Triathlon Club I would appear at the pool each morning with a different Ironman shirt, maybe Ironman socks, Ironman cap, even an Ironman fanny pack. I didn't realise that my presence each morning in all my Iron manliness was like a personal affront to the rest of the guys. One day my best mates Kevin and Trevor took me aside and announced that they were so fed up with me being an Ironman poseur that they were going to Hawaii the next year and I was required to accompany them as I obviously knew how to get to the Big Island and which cinnamon buns were the best for them. Oh.
However (Number 2). A new rule, competitors for the 1988 event had to qualify at another race so we chose to go to (what was then) Ironman Europe in Roth, Germany. I had just taken delivery of a Winnebago motorhome so we three barreled down the various motorways, autoroutes and autobahns till we got to Roth and parked-up right on the swim start.
The race went ok, swimming up and down a canal was a lot less traumatic than the big wide ocean, the bike route pretty fast and the run up and down the canal path very flat. I remember being handed up a cup of chicken soup near the end, it was delicious! I had a pretty good race, swim & bike in 7 hours and ran in a shade under 4 hours to do 10:58. I think I was 8th or 9th in my age group so qualified for Hawaii. Kev also was easily in his top 10 but poor old Trev, who was in a much bigger and more competitive group didn't make his top 10 - disaster.
The race over we had to go immediately and sign up and pay our Hawaii entry fees. Trev, who is normally Mr Bubbly didn't want to come and hang around with us qualifiers. I, on the other hand, insisted he come, thinking it can't do any harm and there might be a way in . . . . . .
There was; after waiting several hours it seemed that everyone who was going to sign up had signed up. In Trev's age group there was still a place and yes, it could be rolled down, and yes he could enter, sign here, pay here. Hurray!
And that is how the three of us went to Hawaii in 1988 and the consequences of that race and the lack of race coverage and results in Triathlete Magazine tripped me into starting our own British triathlon magazine which we called 220, but that's another story!