Kona - 7 & 6-days to Go – Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ OnWhen you’ve come to Hawaii every October since 1986, it begins to feel a little like Groundhog Day. Yes, we over packed. Yes, it’s hot. Yes, it’s windy. All of that said, it’s still Hawaii – magical. The anticipation begins when the door of the plane closes and continues through the “half way to Hawaii” game where you try to guess the exact time the flight is half way to Keahole Airport. I always play this game thinking that I’m some sort of mathematician – hey, I’ve been to the wind tunnel and talked to smart guys – I can do this. Let’s see, wind speed, air speed, total miles to destination, etc. As I stroll to the bathroom, Welchy always asks what time I’ve “guessed” – not that we’re competitive or anything. He rolls his eyes as I tell him (like he knows) and, like always, we’re both wrong – by a lot. Once again, we won’t win the chocolate macadamia nut clusters and have our seat numbers announced to the rest of the plane. Damn it.
Like last year, we had the 2005 men’s champion, Faris Al Sultan on the plane. If there’s one thing that stands out about this guy it’s the fact that nothing seems to have changed for him. He’s still unshaven, still very friendly and unassuming, still wears his support hoes on the plane, and still checks his bike in a cardboard box. That’s right, the defending Hawaiian Ironman World Champion still travels with his bike in a cardboard box. When I think about the amount of obsessing and worrying about the whole bike packing and shipping ordeal, I think everyone could take a lesson from Faris. Many think he’s shown the chinks in his armor in light a 5th place finish at Ironman South Africa and a second to Chris McCormack at Roth but I’m not buying. Faris is all about the present moment. I don’t think he’s thinking about what has happened so far this year. I think he approaches every race like he always has – gun goes off, go as hard as you can ‘til you see the finish line. Don’t ever bet against a past champion. Ever.
You get your first indication that you’re arriving by the bumps the plane starts to make as the pilot descends to the inevitably windy, tropical conditions that define the Islands of Hawaii. White caps below on the blue Pacific Ocean remind you of pedaling along the Queen K at 4-miles per hour – down hill. Then you see the black and brown lava of the Big Island’s Kohala coast reminding you of stifling heat in the energy lab with absolutely nowhere to hide – absolute exposure. As you step out into the thick air, and down the steps onto the tarmac of Keahole Airport, you can’t help but be a little excited. If you’re not racing, you also can’t help but be a little relieved.
The fact that we now arrive on Friday, 8-days prior to the event, means we’re not worried about acclimating to the heat. The fact that Faris is arriving with 8-days to go, makes you wonder. How relaxed is this guy. When asked if he’s considered coming to Hawaii to train for the most important event of the year, he says, absolutely not. “I don’t want to spoil the special feeling of arriving for that event.” Wise words from someone who, regardless of how nice and/or relaxed he appears, clearly wants to win this race again. What about acclimation? What about adjusting to the time zone. What about doing some training on the course? Faris seems to have rewritten the rules. There are no rules or maybe the rules are what you believe. Whatever it is, it seems to be working for him and you can’t help but consider him the favorite. You can tell me all you want about Chris McCormack, Cam Brown, Normann Stadler, etc. but the fact remains, Faris was the last man to win this race. Until someone beats him, he’s the favorite.
And then the earth shook…
Greg Welch is one of the funniest people I know. Greg Welch has become a great golfer. Greg Welch has never seen Caddyshack. What? I know, it’s not possible, right? But it’s true. Six years ago, the little kangaroo was forced out of triathlon by ventricular tachycardia. He has since turned his competitive energies to the golf course and happened to shoot a legitimate 75 (3-over par) on the Nicklaus course here at Hualalai. That this leprechaun has never seen the quintessential golf comedy that has given most 35 to 45-year old men the bulk of their material, shocked me when I learned of it. When Paula finally saw the movie back in ’88, she looked at me and said, “Wow. I though you were funny.” I knew I’d been outed but I wasn’t ashamed that pretty much ever quip or retort I had in my arsenal was from this favorite classic. That Welchy had made it past 40-years of age and never seen it seemed not just impossible but just plain old wrong. Saturday night, we got a copy of the DVD from a friend and made him swear that he’d watch it in the morning. Now, rather than remembering the steady stream of one-liners and dialogue from this movie, Welchy will surely have Caddyshack embedded in his grey matter as a reminder of the immense potential of mother nature.
On October 15, a beautiful Sunday morning was unfolding. Paula, Greg, Sian, and I were lounging sleepily on the couch watching Chevy Chase’s character, Tye Webb, instruct his protégé caddy, Danny Noonan, to “be the ball”. Then all hell broke loose.
As a Navy brat, I spent 4-years in the Philippine Islands, a country known to sit in an active earthquake zone. I remember many earthquakes – some that measured over 7 on the Richter scale – and always aftershocks. This one was the most violent I ever remember. It definitely wasn’t the longest – it seemed to only last 10 or 15-seconds at the outside – but it was very pronounced in its force, perhaps due to our proximity to the epicenter.
As the shaking started, we all looked at each other not quite realizing what was happening and before we could verbalize it, the full force of the quake hit giving everyone a clear – almost primal – command to run. Get out of the house and get out onto open ground – and we did. Welchy ran out to his immediate left and the rest us ran to the right and out the front door as the house shook violently emptying shelves of vases, opening drawers, moving furniture and turning pictures askew. As we hit the driveway, the minivan was jumping around in its own private mosh pit. After getting outside, we saw that Greg wasn’t with us, and all started for him – not realizing that he’d made a hastier escape out the sliding doors through the patio. When you’re not familiar with your quarters, it’s funny how much of a magnet the front door, through which you’ve entered, becomes. Maybe 5-seconds after being outside, it stopped.
Our first concern was Greg and the possibility that the extreme fight or flight episode would trigger his heart into v-tac and result in a jolt from his pacemaker. We looked to Hulalai, the volcano whose slopes we were on, to see if there was a potential eruption. Then we all quickly looked to the ocean with thoughts of the tsunami in Indonesia fresh in our media influenced minds. We thought of the fact that many of our friends would be swimming in Kailua Bay. We started trying to call or direct connect friends in on the island to gather information on what had happened and if there was damage elsewhere. Thankfully, everyone started to report in. Power was out, landline phone service was out but water was working. We beeped Graham Fraser and his wife Sue who were staying below us and couldn’t get through. Within minutes, however, they beeped us and said they’d been evacuated and were being moved to a parking lot above the hotel. They came up to the house and Graham related that they were sleeping. “You know, it’s pretty hot so I didn’t have any clothes on. When it hit, I ran straight out my back door on to the lawn and was standing there naked with everyone else on their balconies and outside.” So, not only were people traumatized by the earthquake but many had to see Graham Fraser – naked. The horror.
We finally heard from Roch and Heather who had been in the water swimming in Kaiula Bay. Roch said he was on his paddle board accompanying Heather and some other swimmers but noticed absolutely nothing. Then lifeguards came out in boats to tell swimmers to get out of the water immediately as a precaution in case of a tsunami. Roch helped the guards to clear the bay of swimmers and, as you might expect, got some resistance from some very focused Ironman athletes. “Why? Why do I have to get out?” to which Roch responded, “Because there’s potential for tsunami and you could die.” No need to say more.
When I finally spoke to Luke Bell, he said he and his wife, Lucy were in their 5th floor condo at the Kona Alii (same location as Roch & Heather, Pete Coulson & Michellie Jones, and others) and he said the movement was incredible. I asked what he was doing when it hit and he sheepishly told me, “I was on the toilet. Lucy and I ran out and the whole hallway floor was moving up and down. We ran down the stairs and out into the parking lot.” As it turned out, the Kona Alii looked lit might have some serious structural damage which would put a lot of people out on the street but, by last night, had power back on and leaks repaired so that those who chose to, could move back in.
What struck me most was the lack of power and communication in the first two hours. Many of us could access the internet from our cel. phones but there was no news of the quake for at least two hours. By the time we saw the news, it was overly dramatized CNN headlines. We wanted to stay off cel. phones to both conserve battery life and not jam the lines that emergency crews needed but we also wanted to call family and friends to let them know that all was well. We heard that flights were being turned back to the mainland but, by the end of the day, it seemed that most everything was returning to normal. There were definitely some big rocks that rolled onto roads and paths, homes that had their insides ransacked, but it seemed that damage was relatively light compared to what was being told back home. The tone of the people who called to check on us was very urgent – sometimes on the edge of panic. Makes me wonder what the real level of anything I see on CNN or Fox really is.
Anyway, after a house full of refugees for much of the late morning and afternoon, things seemed to be quickly returning to normal. The people you feel for are the locals who are working at the hotels and resorts. You can see that all they want to do is go home and make sure their families are ok but there they are at work offering you every comfort they possibly can. It’s called aloha.