ARRIVING, YOU SEE THEM, the Iron People, cycling on Kona’s Queen K Highway in one-piece triathlon suits and aero helmets, these pilgrims’ ceremonial clothes. The Ironman World Championship is the hardest major race in the world: 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bicycle ride, 26.2-mile run, all in the shadeless tropical heat. Yet the event is filled with unlikely apostles: mothers of young children, three-limbed amputees, octogenarians, all ticking Kona off their otherwise divergent bucket lists because of a fascination for what’s difficult. Because marathons have been ruined by people who think it’s fine to walk. Because life is too easy and Everest is too far away.
The Ironman was not supposed to be for everybody. It was supposed to be for nut jobs. Twelve people finished the first, in 1978. Fifteen people competed in the second. Then, in 1982, Wide World of Sports aired pretty, limby, 23-year-old Julie Moss stumbling like a newborn giraffe across the finish line—muscles spent, personifying the limits of what’s possible—and the race jumped. These days, each of the 27 worldwide Ironman events sells out in minutes. Ironman Asia-Pacific sold out in five. The inaugural Ironman U.S. Championship (in New York City and New Jersey) sold out in just over 11. The 60,000-plus race slots available in 2012 won’t begin to slake the demand.
The 1,855 berths at the Ironman World Championship are the most coveted. The event takes place in early October on the kona—translation: leeward—or dry side of Hawaii’s Big Island, in the mellow tourist town of Kailua-Kona. The swim is out and back from Dig Me Beach, a horseshoe of sand just off Alii Drive, Kailua-Kona’s main street and the course’s finish line. Both the bike and the run take turns through town, then head north on Queen K Highway, just inland from the island’s west coast, where the monotony of the black lava fields is broken only by racers’ names spelled out in small pieces of white coral. Athletes qualify for Kona by placing at the top of their age groups in earlier Ironman races, but the organizers do make a few exceptions. Two hundred people win slots through a lottery. Four buy auctioned spots on eBay. (Highest bid in 2011: $60,100.) The pro field includes 51 men and 33 women. Hopefuls crave slots at Kona like sinners aching to be saved.
“I needed this,” racer 1136 told me on Wednesday, three days before the Saturday race start, as we were standing in the lobby of King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel, the de facto race headquarters. “I needed to become the plot.” To reach this point, she’d paid the $650 registration fee plus a hefty scrip in tears—a job quit, a 401(k) depleted, a marriage strained—all for the chance to cover 140.6 miles over 10, 12, maybe 17 hours and end just a few yards from where she’d started, back on Alii Drive, just past the big banyan tree.
The Ironman, in his elected habitat, is not hard to spot: he has a visor, shaved legs, no body fat, compression socks, very little clothing, maybe a tattoo of the World Triathlon Corporation’s copyright-protected M-dot logo. The Ironwoman—though in the vernacular, she too is an Ironman—is not a cougar, exactly, more like a cobra: ripped, sinewy, focused, sometimes hissing, “We can do whatever you need to do, honey, after my bike is racked.” Most arrive nearly a week early to acclimate and bask, turning Alii Drive into Burning Man for Type A++ folks, the ultimate active vacation for people who like their daily workouts detailed (3 hr bike, including 6x12 min @ 95+ RPM, HR zone 3), each training session captured, quantified, uploaded, and analyzed, all the better to achieve. Must-do items before the event include the Underpants Run (ostensibly to make fun of Europeans, who once roamed the island in Speedos, but clearly a chance to strut disrobed), a swim out for a free cup at the Coffees of Hawaii catamaran, trolling the expo, maybe scoring a little cattle colostrum (yes, colostrum, the hyper-nutrient-rich liquid from a mammal’s breasts after pregnancy, to boost the immune system and abet recovery), and generally reveling among other people who understand what the hell you’re talking about when you say nutrition is the fourth discipline of triathlon and who don’t think it’s weird that you’re strolling around wearing your heart-rate monitor and not much else.
THE DAYS LEADING UP TO the race are a frenzy. By Thursday, Alii Drive is choked with a thousand-plus hardbodies shopping for skin suits, Garmin watches, Reynolds wheels, and PowerTap power meters. The Iron families descend on Lava Java. The Iron Prayer services start. (“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” Philippians 4:13.) That morning, Dave Scott, six-time Ironman world champion and coach to Ironman queen Chrissie Wellington, drives his son, Drew—who is 21 and for two more days an Ironman Kona virgin—north along Queen K Highway and inland up to Hawi to scope the bike course.
“In here keep it smooth, relax your toes,” Scott Sr. says as we pass the airport, eight miles outside town.
A little later: “Here you’re 20, 40 miles into the race, and the novelty of being in an Ironman begins to wear off.”
In Hawi—a spacey metropolis of about 1,000 people, with avocados for sale in self-serve baskets by the side of the road—the highest point of the race, Scott overshoots the turnaround. (“I haven’t been up here in a long time.”) His phone is ringing nonstop: athletes stressing over minutiae, his teenage daughter, his sister, his ex-wife. “I’m going to die of a heart attack from emotional distress,” Scott says a few hours later as he parks in town. And this is even before the welcome banquet begins behind the King Kam hotel, a sort of revival meeting for endurance freaks, with fire-eaters, hula dancers, and blaring rock anthems. The World Triathlon Corporation is hell-bent on inspiring. It’s as if Disney took over AA. The emcee calls Ken Glah, who’s competed in 27 consecutive Ironman Hawaii races, to stand for the crowd. Soon after: Lew Hollander, on his 22nd Kona start, at age 81.