Ben Fertic and Paula Newby-Fraser cozy up at the Kona Inn.
7-Days To Go…What Race?Kona in October means the same thing for triathletes the world around – Hawaii. The third weekend in October is, for many, the pinnacle of a lifetime of preparation – the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon World Championship. 140.6-miles on triathlon’s most hallowed ground. Compared to most sports, triathlon’s history is relatively short but the one place you will find it in abundance is on the Big Island. As you get off the plane and feel the first breath of that warm, humid breeze you get your first inkling. Then you drive the Queen K toward town and start to recognize the lava and bougainvillea background you’ve watched every year on NBC as the heroes of the past have fought their way into the legend that defines this event. It’s not any other triathlon. It’s our own World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup, Daytona, Wimbledon, Masters, World Cup Final, and Pipeline Masters all rolled up into one. If you want to feel tension, spend the final 7-days before the Hawaiian Ironman in downtown Kailua-Kona. There’s nothing quite like the combined build up of tension and emotion in 1800 souls who know they’re destined to a day of toil and suffering in conditions and on terrain better suited to a maximum security federal penitentiary…or, in this case, some of the world’s premier 5-star resorts.
Back in 1995, I (Huddle) came to Hawaii for the first time in 10-years with absolutely no intention of racing. It was a revelation. I was shocked. A person could actually spend 10-days in Hawaii with nothing to do but surf, snorkel, play golf, lie on the beach, drink Mai-Tais while watching the sun go down blew me away. Evidently, I hadn’t paid attention to all the travel brochures. No, like most triathletes, all I knew was swim, me, bike, me, run, me, eat, me (oops), massage, me, sleep, me, etc. Suddenly, I was looking at the world outside and all the fun everyone was having. You mean you don’t have to go to bed at 9pm on the Big Island? You mean I can drink beer? You mean you can wake up and go surfing? And laugh? And not curl up in the fetal position waiting to die on Saturday? What had I been doing all these years?
Today, I woke up, drank coffee, checked e-mail, got a shower and waited for the boys to pick me up. Ben arrived early and I was in the shower so he had a cuppa and talked to Paula. Early. Early? Ben? We must have a tee time. I jump in the car 5-minutes before the appointed 7am pick-up and we drive down the road to get Plucky. What do you know but he’s walking and already half way to the house we’re renting. What the hell is this? They told me 7am. It must be golf. Off we go to meet long time tri-geek and now the main Island connection, Thad, for a round on Hualalai’s resident course. When I tell you that this is where golfer’s end up after a lifetime of service to Mother Theresa, I’m not kidding. It’s golf heaven on earth.
After we arrive, I realize why these two golf geeks happen to be so punctual this morning. We have to get to the driving range so that we can “groove our swings” for an hour before our round. To say that Ben Fertic and Greg Welch have a bit of a rivalry on the links is like saying that Mark and Dave used to enjoy a long training day on the Queen K. Thad and I somehow found ourselves in the middle of Iron War except that, in this case the Iron referred to the numbered clubs in our bags and not the prefix for our event’s name. After 45-minutes on the range, I’d used up all my good shots and was doomed to another 100+ round. That’s ok. It’s not about me. It’s about Iron War.
If you thought that Welchy was competitive on the race course, you should see him with a club in his hands. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone audibly wish someone else’s golf shot to go out of bounds until this round – all in good fun, of course. Right. One of the highlights was listening for the guttural grunt that would emanate from deep within Ben’s body during the follow through of his drive – almost willing the ball to travel just a little farther than the Aussie’s - sometimes it actually worked.
Somewhere around the 11th hole after more fun than a 5-year old could handle, I looked East toward the Queen K and saw in the distance the cars and trucks going back and forth on the highway. Just as I was about to look away two tiny cyclists caught my eye. It was about 11:30am by now. The sun was well up and the ho’o mumuku winds were just starting to blow. I saw these two cyclists and a wave of pity washed over me. I said, “Man, I’m so happy I don’t have to do this race ever again.” Thad looked at Ben and Welchy and said, “I’ll bet you guys are happy to hear that, huh?” The president of the World Triathlon Corporation and the men’s ’94 champion (now pro liaison for the event) both just smiled and I don’t even remember if they said anything. “Well”, I thought, “you managed to put your foot in your mouth again Huddle.” But it’s true. I’m just being honest. This race is hard. The preparation is harder. I’m tired. I’m balding. I’m getting a nice tire going around my middle and my knees hurt. I’m just so happy to be blessed with having discovered that there’s life after this sport.
Make no mistake. I’m still as much of a geek as I ever was. I can’t wait to see this race again. I can’t wait to drive into town on race morning and see the faces of all those athletes who’ve worked so hard to get here. I can’t wait to see ever possible human emotion on those 1800 faces. I can’t wait to see it all unfold with the surprises, disappointments, elation, and satisfaction that come with it. It’s just that I’m just happy I get to do so from a seated position in air conditioned comfort with snacks and cold drinks.