I landed in Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii, Thursday afternoon. I'm staying at King Kamehameha, as are a lot of the Ironman athletes. The hotel is the site of the big race, and it's hard to miss it. Everywhere you look, there are people training.
With such intensity around me, I didn't want to miss a beat. I aimed to take full advantage of the Hawaiian sunshine. First up was a snorkeling tour in South Kona with the good folks at Sea Quest. They're conveniently off Highway 11, about a 20-minute drive from Kamehameha. Take the Expedition tour ($109; seaquesthawaii.com), which goes from 8:15 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. You go on a high-speed raft and zip along the coastline, stopping at three sites--Honaunau Bay, Black Sands Beach, and Kealakekua Bay--to go snorkeling. The waters are clear, the fish are beautiful to behold, and, if you're lucky, you may even see a sea turtle swimming around. The raft also takes you up close to sea caves and lava tubes, where you can see first-hand how waves hammer away at rocks to create these formations. If you'd rather kayak, check out Ocean Safaris's Sea Cave Tour, which runs from 8:30 a.m. to noon; $64, oceansafariskayaks.com.
Next up, I headed back to the hotel for stand-up paddle surfing lessons from the Kona Boys. Their "Beach Shack" is located on Kamakahonu Bay, right outside the hotel. (If you're looking for a place that concentrates purely on surfing lessons, try the Kona Surf School on Kahaluu Bay; $150 for a one-on-one session.) I was 10 minutes late because I had been trying to clean the black sand out of my swimsuit, and when I got to the beach, my instructor, Abe Shouse, was waiting patiently for me, already in the water with his board and paddle. He had taken out a nice board for me; yellow, with "Laird" written on the sides. A board like this gives you the notion that, just maybe, you too can stand tall and glorious like Mr. Hamilton as you glide your way along the waves. But I was quickly disabused of that thought when I tried to stay standing on the darn thing. I slipped and splatted into the ocean several times as I tried to get my sea legs. Shouse, on the other hand, was making it look incredibly easy as he headed further out. Seeing my obvious struggle, he took pity on me and switched my board to a wider one, which made it super easy for me to find and maintain my balance. As I got more comfortable on the waves, I got to appreciate the paddle I was using. Turns out Shouse made it himself. He custom builds paddles from local wood, and he learned from the master, Leleo Kinimaka, who's uncle is legendary surfer Titus Kinimaka.
One warning: Wear lots of sunscreen. I put on SPF 70+ first thing in the morning and did not reapply until hours later. The result: serious lobster tan. The sun is extremely strong, and sunburn will happen without you really noticing. Make sure to keep slathering on sunscreen if you don't want to look like a ridiculous tourist.
The most popular annual Ironman event will take place at Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii Saturday, October 10. Outside Online'sAileen Torres will be covering the big day, and she's also writing an accompanying blog, "Hawaii Adventure," for tips on what to doand where to stay if you're planning to visit.