Kona Moments – October 9-11, 2007
Thu, 11 Oct 2007 10:39:00 -0700
Yeah, it’s all over as I write this but that doesn’t mean I had time in the final couple of days leading up to race day to actually put my fingers on a key board so bear with image captions that reference last week.
It’s always the same but no matter how many times you’ve been here you’ll never be immune to the energy and hype that builds like storm surge in front of a category 5 hurricane of bullcrap. It doesn’t matter whether you’re racing, supporting an athlete, working in some aspect of the event, or just trying to buy weed from a local (relax, I’m kidding), the building tsunami of emotion, drama, and unrealistic expectation & worries will inevitably eclipse any soap opera or high school prom you can imagine. How and why does this event seem to generate so much bizarre behavior among people who know what to expect and have been through it all before? Maybe it’s the “magic” that has been said to define the island in the middle of the Pacific. Maybe it’s the combined energy of 1800+ people going through their pre-race contractions simultaneously. Maybe the moon is in it’s 7th house but Jupiter is not aligned with Mars. Whatever it is, it happens every time and few can escape it.
Athletes – these are the main attraction - people who have been doing 3-mile swim workouts, 120-mile rides, and 20-mile runs every weekend for the past 52-weeks but are suddenly certain that they’re going to unexpectedly (pick one) drown, collapse, crash, wear their aero helmet backwards, go embarrassingly slow, dnf, lose control of bodily functions, be caught on film in compression socks, finish last, and/or have a booger on their face at the finish line. It’s not even that they think that some dark possibility awaits them but they actually think that somebody cares. Please.
Family & friends – these well meaning people fall into three possible categories: 1 – Mirrors - overly nervous & emotional repositories & reflectors of the athlete’s perceived mood and/or future performance (about 45%); 2 – Drains – industrial sized vacuum cleaners that suck the energy from the athlete by insisting that he/she attend every activity on their unannounced vacation/party schedule for the week (45%); 3 – Phantoms – these are the dream partners for an athlete who’s about to face an Ironman on Hawaii because they are uncannily perceptive to the athlete’s needs (10%). They’re present when needed and magically gone when not.
Media – These folks (who me?) spend the week leading up to the race divining the results prior to race day by pouring over stats from previous years, interviewing athletes & insiders, and attending as many functions as possible that offer free booze. It’s amazing how many people don’t just predict the winners but actually give the top-5 finishers on the men’s and women’s side (who me?) along with a complete script of how the race will play out. This just adds to the ridiculous level of hype and tripe that throws fuel on the fires of all involved.
Locals – These are the poor people whose community has been turned upside down. The temporary quadrupling of the population causes traffic to double as athletes ride and run 4-abreast down single lane roads that have no shoulder, lines run 5 to 10-deep at the grocery store due to athletes in all manner of inappropriate dress, and tempers heat up as interlopers relieve themselves on the side of the road and ignorantly trespass the many “kapu” (forbidden) areas on the island. There’s nothing quite like the site of a skinny self-righteous triathlete complete with shaved body, underpants, heart rate monitor arguing with a giant native Hawaiian about the fact that they’re doing the Ironman as justification for just about any transgression you can imagine. Local: “Hey Brah, you can’t go there. This is kapu – you’re on private land.” Athlete: “Yeah but I’m doing the Ironman.” Or Local: Hey brah, why you wearing your underpants in the KTA – my kids don’t want to see that.” Athlete: “Oh, this? His is my race uniform. I’m doing the Ironman.”…and so it goes all day every day. Evidently, local residents are somehow unaware that the event has invaded their home for the 27th or 28th year in a row and it’s the job of athletes to explain that they’ve been given a 10-day pass to behave badly.
Professionals – Yes, they’re also athletes but in addition to the pressure of trying to win their category they’re also trying to eke out a living and this is the race that can make and sometimes break a season. It doesn’t matter if you’ve won or lost every race you’ve entered this year – if you have a good day in Kona, it’s all anyone remembers. This isn’t really true but it sure seems to feel like that to these 150 or so men and women literally racing for their lives. Some actually have the ability to remain relaxed and easy going (real or not) seemingly able to shut out everything as they move through race week barely giving off any sign of consciousness in an attempt to conserve every ounce of energy that will be needed to propel them through the elements on Saturday. Others give off clues of instability as they all but vibrate as they nervously attempt to move about town without giving up the fact that they feel like they’re facing the gallows. All but close friends and confidants treat them like pitchers in the middle of a no-hitter for fear of disturbing their mojo and therefore being responsible for pre-race emotional eruption let alone a less than perfect result on race day. And so it goes all week long…
Roch was doing surprisingly well ‘til about Wednesday. Anyone who’d been near him for the previous week noticed a subtle but definitive shift in mood. Laughing and smiling became forced – sort of like the prisoner of some sadistic kidnapper trying to politely laugh at his/her captor’s jokes while privately wanting to uncontrollably sob. My favorite moments were subtly taunting him by accepting invitations to go surfing or drinking beer. I knew he’d never go with me but that didn’t stop me from inviting him just to rub in the fact that fun was a feature of his former life and now, as a soon to be 2007 Ford Ironman World Championship finisher, he’d have to forego anything remotely associated with fun. Ah the simple pleasures.
Anyway, the pro race that was shaping up for Saturday was beyond category. When you looked at the list of contenders on both the men’s and women’s professionals, it was difficult to imagine a more difficult outcome to predict. You could always go to the tried and true “who was in the top-10 last year” method. Take 6 to 8 of these names, put them into this year’s results and then insert the remaining two to 4 from names who would invariably move up from last year’s 10th to 20th place. That might work except for the fact that it hadn’t worked for the men from ’05 to ’06. No, last year just 4 of the top-10 men from ’05 made it back in ’06. On the women’s side, 7 of the top-10 from ’05 were present an accounted for in the ’06 crew.
What about other international Ironman winners from the 21-races around the world this year? Anyone who has been to Kona can tell you that 50-cents and a win anywhere other than Kona will get you a postcard and some change at an ABC store on Alii Drive. Winning elsewhere has little bearing on the Big Island but it might just signal that an athlete is ready to move into the top-10 and then climb the ladder to the podium. Other than Luc Van Lierde, who comes to Kona without credentials and contends for maile wreathe? This year was no different than others but, for some reason, seemed even deeper and less predictable than years past. You had your odds on favorites in names like Stadler, Al Sultan, and McCormack on the men’s side and Jones and Baddman on the women’s side but what of last year’s top-10 and the up and comers who were starting to show promise.
What about McGlone and Alexander? Can you even consider athletes who’ve never done an Ironman or, in the case of Crowie, only done one? In these two cases, you couldn’t not consider them based on their talent alone but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone putting them in the top-3. No, the podium is reserved for the tried and true. To be considered as a real threat, credentials are required. Past champions, podium sitters and multiple top-10 finishers are the only ones who could legitimately be considered. After the race there will be enough hindsight to choke a congressional oversight committee but in the final anxious days before the race, you have to go with what you knew…or think you know.
Anyone who had witnessed this event over the last 20+ years knew one thing: defending a title from one year to the next in Kona was a very difficult task. No one has managed to pull this off on the men’s side since Tim DeBoom won for a second time in 2002 successfully defending his ‘01 title in the face of champions like Peter Reid, Thomas Hellriegel, Cameron Brown, and Normann Stadler. On the women’s side, Natascha Baddman last did it in ’05 - the Swiss Miss, a certain future Ironman Hall of Famer also did it in ’01 and ’02. Who else has defended in the 29-years of this event? With the possibility of 58 different winners (29-men and 29-women) over the years, there have been exactly 5-total (three men and three women) who have ever successfully defended their Ironman titles. Dave Scott did it in ’83, ’84, and ’87. Mark Allen did it four times in ’90, ’91, ’92, and ’93. The aforementioned DeBoom pulled it off in ’02. Sylviane Puntous did it in ’84. Paula Newby-Fraser did it five times in ’89, 91, ’92, ’93, and in ’94. Natascha, as mentioned above, has done it three times.
So, that means that we have to write off last year’s champions, right? Ok, you go ahead and write off Normann Stadler and Michellie Jones. Uh, no thanks. You might have a case for moving Normann down in your predictions simply based on the fact that he’d offended the Island last year by three times throwing his maile wreathe to the ground upon winning which incurred a “cleansing” by the local Kahu and, in the eyes of some, sealed his future of success on the Big Island. This requires that you buy into the lore of Hawaii but, if that’s a stretch for you, you can simply remember the way the pressure of defending in ’05 caused Stadler to melt down two days prior to the event and left him crying with frustration by the side of the road. In ’06 he came back with a vengeance and, in light of his ’05 experience, many thought the lesson could well have been learned.
Michellie Jones would be much tougher to bet against. What other athlete in the field has more triathlon wins than this Aussie? Who is more competitively tenacious and professional in their preparation? Who’s going to beat her? You could conjure up a scenario where the only other woman who has the necessary mana and motivation is the former 6-time winner from Switzerland. Natascha’s days are numbered at the top of the women’s field and she must know it. Like Paula Newby-Fraser in ’96, you couldn’t help but wonder if a healthy and perfectly prepared Baddman would have an answer for Jones.
All in all, there were 40-some names on anyone’s list of favorites which proves that there are no math majors among triathlon prognosticators. You can’t cram 20, let alone 40, athletes into the top 10 but, once again, many were trying to do just that. Pre-Kona predictions have never mattered in the past but it’s the final week before the race and that’s part of the ritual that entails this week of ridiculousness. The cannon can’t go off too soon – for everyone.