Kona Prize

By  Karen Lethlean

Karen Lethlean is a trying to be retired English teacher at a Senior College. Ever Present Predator is being published by Pareidolia Volume 2 Wanderkammer as part of their memoir section. San Antonio Review will publish In Isolation. She has won awards for her writing; Bum Joke was awarded a comedy writing award. She is currently writing of military services 1972-76. In another life she is a triathlete and has competed at Hawaii Ironman world championships twice. 

There is a beach adjacent Kailua-Kona pier on Hawaii’s big island. This curved stretch of sand between pier and old Government house earnt a nickname. A no so secret code known to all triathletes – Dig Me beach. I feel confident this is not an official moniker, but rather a reaction to athletes who make an annual pilgrimage to these shores. By parading about on the pier, I embody actions of my predecessors and fellow members of a unique fellowship.

According to Ironman triathlon mythology the Germans are the most enthusiastic; but no matter where we come from all these fit bodies wearing minimal lycra flounce about, stretch, chat, and swim waters off Dig Me. Our state of undress is slightly offensive to locals who tend to be very modest, often wearing mu-mu dresses of flowing fabric or bright shirts and long pants, even in the tropics. But these cultural differences don’t eradicate pranced embodiment of – how good do I look! Athletes stand about or perform various pre-swim warm up routines. Sure, we are posers when on Dig Me beach.

On this day I am doing double time in the dig-me stakes with a brilliant emerald green one-piece swimming costume blazoned with Australia sideways across my small athletic proportioned breast. Hell, my country’s title is right from shoulder to hip, in large letters.

A rotund gentleman wearing baggy bib and brace denim farmer Joe overalls, spoke, ‘Oh my gawd are you a ‘hassie..?’ He drawled.

I can’t resist a look down my left side, and the sarcastic retort of, ‘I guess so.’

‘Purrhaps yawl cud answer me a question?’

‘Try to.’

‘Lookin round, ‘nd there’s awl these peo-urple har, is there sum-um goo’in on?’

I gaze about taking in a post card perfect view complete with palm trees lined coast. This tiny patch of sand reputedly imported from Australia of pristine white granules which are alien in this vicinity because of volcanic rocky big island’s shores. As if mirroring scenery, various forms of humanity loll about. All sorts of tourists from a nearby cruise ship, including my curious farmer figure mingle with more athletic specimens.

He is biting his lip waiting for my response, so I tell him, ‘Ironman triathlon, world championships actually.’

By his confused look, I can tell what I have said is totally alien. I need to make a conversion and give him distances in miles. So, I run through how this is a three disciplined race made up of 2.4 mile (3.8km) swim, 112 miles (180km) on the bike, and 26.2 mile (42.2km) marathon run.

From where we are standing it is possible to look out at those hopefully calm, waters several kilometres out from Dig Me beach, where, in only a few days, a mass migration of triathletes will begin. This weekend those calm waters will look like a giant mullet run, all arms, and legs, full of thrashing until we reach the exits to jump onto our bikes, which will be lined up along Kona pier. Filling this very space, currently bustling with tourist buses and tour touters.

Triathletes, popping their leg over a lightweight bike, will then take a 180km pedal out there into desolate, empty, lava fields. Using only leg-power against oven-hot furnace born air, right to Hawi village, fighting against trade winds at every pedal push. Then, most of the day later, when we leave those bikes at the bottom of a hill known as ‘the pit’. Glad to remove bike seat from bum crack. Then, if legs begin to function, we must run out up to the highway. Running through humid air sullied with volcanic fumes known as Vog; my fellow triathletes and I tackle landmarks with names like ‘piss and moan hill’ location of Pay N’save. To make our way out into that lava field oven again, along Queen K highway. Down into a scorching hot region where solar energy is harvested for local power – The Energy Labs. By which time darkness might be settling, our only light being a full moon, bouncing off reflector belts of other runners. Eventually we get back to Ironman finish line along A’ali drive. A frightening, inhuman quest in anyone’s language.

Say, whaaat? Tell me that agaain.’ He asks.

‘2.4 mile (3.8km) swim.’


‘112 miles on the bike (180km).’

‘Lawdy I dant drive my tractor that fur.’

‘Then 26.2 miles (42.2km) running.’

Simultaneously a little memory popped into my head, on time I corrected a work pal by saying, “And yes, women do complete those same distances.”

My companion is still taking this in. I haven’t told him of many incidental dangers. Beginning with something lurking in shallows of Dig Me beach, sea urchins. Step on one, even by brushing up against a spine so it embeds in your foot, ends your chance to race the single longest one-day endurance event on our planet. Not to mention heat, winds, road edge shrapnel or random mechanical and physical problems.

Over how lanng?’ My farmer Joe asks, ‘ya’ll got days, weeks, raight?’

‘All in the one day. Start 7am, we must finish by midnight to be called an Ironnan.’

‘If’n I did thaat I’d be in a whole arghther state.’ He drawled.

I feel an inclination to tell him, while it’s not a different geographical location, after an Ironman finish many participants are in a whole other state. I am finding his attitude a refreshing contrast from my students who only focus in on, ‘…do you win, miss?’ Or their other area of interest once they realize it is a race, and there are no toilet breaks.

Farmer Joe’s questions are a stimulating break from pre-race-hype. I can understand why he showed interest, as I am parading around in minimal lycra with a dig-me swagger; mark me down as being as guilty as any other triathlete. My justification for this attitude would be a looking great, jumping out of my skin, muscles on muscles, ready to race an Ironman triathlon body. No doubt my companion has never spoken to an Aussie before, let alone one about to represent their country in the Ironman Triathlon World Championships.

‘Who in the good lawd’s name thaught this up?’ Asks my American buddy.

‘Some of your countrymen, devised this torture so we can be called an IRONMAN.’

I know I am here because of three military pals argued about who was fittest sportsman. Then in 1978 John Collins decided to test their conclusion by putting together three longest events held in Hawaii. Firing a starter’s gun at 7am and calling anyone who could meet individual cut-off times for each discipline and finish before midnight an Ironman.

Age group champions come from 40 different countries, at least. As well as high profile professionals and recognizable Ironman celebrities like “flying Fin” Pauli Kiuru who won four consecutive Australian Ironman Championship. Now working for large Scandinavian media company, soon to represent his country in Parliment. You can chat with professionals, I wished Michellie Jones good luck, and she became the first Australian female to wear a winner’s laurel for an Ironman World Championship. Also, a chance encounter with Belinda Granger, she’s always happy to speak to fellow Aussies. We shared moments and Ironman reminiscences. Discussing things like how being an Australian means needing to endure long training hours right through winter and fronting up on Kona well before any triathlon races back home, often our first race of any triathlon season. Nonetheless Australian’s are successful. Forging a reputation for producing Ironman winners through both genders, age groupers and professionals, strugglers and noteworthy able bodied and AWAD representatives.

Ironman legend, and Hall of fame inductee Dave Scott, runs a stall for his training group, readily stopping for a photograph with my husband and keen to hear used his poster for inspiration. The Man’s salute of victory motivated me through rainy, cold winter’s days when I rode an indoor bicycle wind trainer to supplement long bike rides. At least winter in Sydney doesn’t include snow. But I am here now, those solitary hours can be forgotten.

Amongst crowds of super fit individuals possible to spot Norman Stadler, at local coffee shops. A drop-dead gorgeous, sparkling blue eyed, German. Thought for a time I might be able to encourage him to breed with my daughter. Empty fantasy, I know. Yet I vividly remember his infamous response when asked, ‘what have you come to Australia to do?’

‘I coome to vin…’

Ironman fellowship negates any barriers between professionals, amateurs, even countries. No media packs to curtail a few words with Chris McCormack, five consecutive Australian Ironman titles, as well as twice being crowned World Champion. Once by outpacing Stadler in famous A’ali Drive finish Shute. Easy for me, because Chris’s dad, a long-time friend, is virtually my neighbour back home. Our first Australian world champion, Greg Welsh, now zips about on a motorbike doing commentary, or making documentaries for Ironmanlive.com. Even an equally good looking male model clone Craig “Crowie” Alexander, is another Australian resident from my Shire. Ever humble despite completing three-pee wins at Ironman’s World Championships. Regardless of his feats Crowie will receive less media coverage than a drunk NRL player or philandering cricketer. 

Fellow members of this elite Ironman group could all don a people don’t know how famous I am image. Looking like an alien life forms, or at least another genus evolved from sedentary desk jockeys, or couch surfers who years ago saw an unconquerable. We share a desire to embody dig-me principles and to wear evidence of our sport. One stand-out T shirt (and there are many) declared:

At home I am a freak

When I come to Kona


True, we are guilty of possessing an elite group mentality, declared last time we crossed an Ironman finish line by listening to Mike Rielly’s infamous cry “…You aare an Irr-on-man!..” (His biography aptly titled The Voice.)

So much prestige is gained from shuffling, running, crawling or walking down a designated, narrow strip of blue carpet. A fortune waiting to be made if able to bottle eau-de-finish-line. Aside from cheering crowds, other Ironman finishers and those handing out medals, “catchers” help bundle away casualties. Clean up spillages and assure family and supporters their loved one, and inductee into Ironman Kona club should probably be okay, soon.

‘So. what you’all win? Asks my pier-side farmer Joe.

‘A hallowed finishers T-shirt, towel and medal, that’s what we get.’

His disbelief is demonstrated with lots of head shaking.

Digging Ironman triathlon projects, a nut-case edge. We are not ashamed to flaunt. Participants sport branded clothing, put stickers on cars, bikes, everything including tattoos. I’ve even seen more than one M-dot symbol shaved into someone’s hair. Masse in significant Ironman locations, like during October full moon, on Dig Me beach, Kona, triathletes are good looking athletes. Often attended to by perve-worthy partners or family members. Sometimes earning titles “bike bloke” or “bottle-bitch”, smilingly uttered, devoid of any implied negative connotations, rather worn with pride like badges of honour. Members of an Ironman entourage are recognizable by methods used to keep themselves fit with similar vigour. Frequently seen in tears, at awards ceremonies, because they were not good enough to earn a Kona qualifying slot. Jogging around with space-capsule prams or taking turns to mind kids while a significant other does swim laps around Dig Me beach buoys.

Some families may not share positive attitudes to our physical shape. You’re ready for an Ironman distance triathlon when your mum says, ‘you look a bit sick, are you okay?’

Most, about to line up for this madness share a gaunt, semi starved look. I doubt if there is more than 12%, well perhaps 15% body fat amongst any of 3,000 of us here to do this race. We mingle on a patch of Dig Me sand, with facades of invincibility.

Different challenges permeate devotion endurance triathlons including a number of occasions necessary settle down PC brigade by telling them, ‘Ironman has nothing to do with gender. Men and women, amateurs and professionals do the same race, start at the same time, with the same cut off times for everyone, all racing exact same courses. Ironman is a brand name, not a gender title.’ 

Or – ‘no you’re thinking of the Surf Ironman competition, with its paddle, swim, ski-craft and run format. This is a swim-bike-run triathlon event.’

We all know what it means to be part of this dream, this lifestyle, and this sport. Crossing semi-visible lines marking off, obsessive, addicted crazy people, from others. Another T-Shirt slogan – If you ask why, you don’t understand.

My Farmer Joe friend is here on Kona pier because this particular year Ironman World Championships involved a slight date shift to allow for his Island-hopping cruise liner to dock and disgorge mostly mainland tourists at Kona. The pier untypically full of cross-purpose users. Swimmers, supporters, Ironman triathletes and tourists all in their distinct clusters. The latter attracting a flotilla of tour buses, signage and bustling providers touting for customers, as well as lovely little marquees to shelter from tropical sun. Triathletes simply endure heat and were extremely unlikely to be interested in any tours.

Island Gods were not happy with this change of dates. Evidence of this annoyance arrived as a 6.2 Richter scale earthquake, just a week before Ironman World Championship. A shake-up which threw all training and Ironman preparation activities into disarray. Not to mention razor sharp volcanic rock grit now joined scrub bush’s thorns on road shoulders. Goddess Pele really miffed, by Ironman supporters who take souvenirs. Persisting in picking up volcanic pebbles to take home in remembrance of this epic sporting apex in their loved one’s life. Yet when it comes to natural disasters, who can identify reasoning of spirit Gods?

Due to the earth’s rumbling, for whatever reason, many brought home a souvenir T shirt. One which added 6.2 to other horrific distances and showed a recognizable M-dot symbol a-shaking.

After this earthquake disaster athletes were just beginning to feel steady on our feet again. Talk shifted away from evacuations, damage, or what you were doing during the Earthquake. Panic mellowed into a sense of readiness for this year’s race. Chief discussion dealing with notions you are never ready for an Ironman Triathlon. Digging mantra of, ‘do best you can.’ Prepared yourself to alter race plans at any stage. A voice from my past, triathlon coach and fitness trainer encountered while I lived in Singapore used to say, ‘most average fit, capable, prepared triathletes can finish an Ironman distance race, Problems arrive when they predict a finish time.’

Months, years even, getting ready, attempting to qualify. Kona arrival, once in a lifetime, for final preparations of variant lengths of time. Those with enough money spend months acclimatising to heat and winds.  Most of us an afford some “tapering” including early morning swims around buoys off Dig Me beach.

 ‘We can’t just come here and enter…’ I begin to tell Farmer Joe.

‘Waait, you paay for this?’

I giggle, ‘yes, we don’t get all this for free.’

He really has no idea how this event might be paid for in unique ways, by every competitor. Or prices charged do include volunteers handing us food and water all day. In my last race I felt sorry for aid-station crews. A coolish night, by Kona standards, and everyone wanted me to take iced water, as if a special on this chilled liquid. But I craved something warm, knowing another choice would be available. My first sip of Ironman Kona’s famous chicken soup offered during closing run stages as heavenly uplifting as reputed.

We do get medical facilities too, especially at finish lines. In return Ironman athletes can provide captive audience for all sorts of medical tests; one year several thousand research subjects available to University of Iowa. Investigating why some people make use of Vitamin C better than others. PhD students access data into all sorts of muscular, medicinal or health problems, conduct questionnaires, with race organizer’s permission.

Race organizers used to insist entry fees be paid only in green-back American dollars, right at acceptance of world championship qualification. Making this fact known didn’t always remove frantic exchanges of currency in hotel lobbies, or fast trips to a nearby airport currency exchange booths. Who wants to miss a hallowed Kona slot just because they didn’t have correct dollars? Now credit cards are happily accepted.

‘But it’s not just as case of pay your money and do this,’ I tried to reassure my pal from the mainland. ‘Everyone has to qualify to do this race by winning a slot at another Ironman race.’

I don’t mean to brag so I will spare him information most of us need to win our five-year age group to have a snowball’s chance on Kona lava fields of qualifying. Or hope like be-Jesus those faster either can’t afford to take up slots offered. Often as few as 25 or 30 per qualifier race. Or cross our fingers, competitors for hallowed Kona slots are already gained a slot in another race, or don’t want to put themselves through Ironman pains again. Crowds of nervous triathletes wait with bated breath, sweaty palm, in anxious anticipation, just to see if their name comes up during a tense roll-down ceremony conducted following morning after Ironman qualifying events.

I detect my friend is already struggling with qualifier concepts.

‘Waait, yar’all have doune one, aaalready?’


Even though I am an exception to this rule. Securing my first Kona qualification, while working as an expat in Singapore, by doing a “local” race in Phuket, Thailand. A measly 1.8km swim, 55 km bike, and 15km run, winning my age group and thus earning a coveted slot to my first Ironman distance triathlon at a World Championships in Kona. Being blessed with ignorance, about impending torments turned out to be a good thing. Just short of a decade later to earn my second chance to battle lava fields again in Kona.

For my initial Kona I did, however, have a supporting community of Swiss, British and Canadian expat triathlete friends who kept me informed if not nervous.

One informing about, ‘a hill which goes up for 25 miles.’

Growing up in a city perched on edges of an ancient seabed I thought he was joking. Perth – a flat, sandy place risen from Indian ocean depths millennia ago. I responded to such a claim as being preposterous, with something like, ‘you can’t be serious!’

Such an incline way beyond my imagination, so once I settled into Kona, I went looking for said hill. Riding my bike out past airport runways onto lava fields to be confronted by asteroid like vistas. I stopped on a patch of slightly higher ground confounded by Beware donkeys crossing signs and an endless horizon where roads vanished off into a heat haze. Nothing but scrubby dry trees and acres of lava solidified rock permanently frozen into wave like patterns. Fearful I scampered back to town, trembling. My first exploration, still 50km short of base for a race-day climb up to Hawi via, that hill. I discovered truths associated with my peer’s warning on race day, along with trade wind ferocity. As my bike shifted sideways under me while I tried to get food from my back pocket.

Most years Kona reports surface about, ‘worst ever winds!’ Yes, a high percentage of triathletes milling about Dig Me beach encountered an Ironman triathlon before, but Kona isn’t the same.

‘Yep, we all have to qualify, unless you managed to win a lottery slot,’ I tell my disbelieving audience.

There is another moment of jaw-swinging, stunned silence. So, I continued my explanation, ‘You can go on-line and buy ticket in the lottery, 250 slots are drawn globally.’

‘Whaaat, and this is the prize?!’

= = =

Note: Following outcries as to validity of lottery status for this award, global lottery slots were dropped.Sources: 25 Years of Ironman World Championships, Bob Babbit, Oxford: Meyer und Meyer, UK Ltd., 2003.30 Years of Ironman World Championships, Bob Babbit, Meyer and Meyer Sport (UK) Ltd., 2008.www.ironman.com/au


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