The Road to Kona is a hilly one. When you watch the Kona Ironman race on television the bike course seems flat. But when you actually get on the road to Kona you are immediate surprised by how hilly it is and by all the crazy graffiti. More on this is a sec.
I made the pilgrimage to Kona, Hawaii about a year ago for just one day of fun in the sun. By the way AlooooHA (as they say in Hawaeee) to all.
I arrived by cruise ship tender right next to where the swim starts. I had come to Kona to frolic in the surf and sun with my family, but I was immediately amazed at the number of triathletes swimming the course. There’s a tiny beach, about the size of your average garage door, tucked into the corner of the bay. You climb down a few small steps to get to the “beach” and pass by kids who are snorkeling, and you are on the swim course.
It is outlined by a series of buoys that mark the course and distance, and you are free to swim 2.4 miles by following the buoy line straight out into the bay. The warmth, clarity and saltiness of the water immediately took me by surprise. For those of us who normally swim in a pool, it takes a bit of getting used to. Trust me, you don’t want to open your mouth, as I did, the first few strokes.
The salt water settles in the back of your throat, making you immediately thirsty. This is not a happy feeling for the 2.4 miles of the swim. What is a happy feeling is the scenery. There are numerous colorful small and surprisingly big fish swimming below you. So many in fact that I had a hard time concentrating on my swim stroke.
I’d take a stroke and immediately notice some big-ass fish a few feet below me. “Oh look at the size of that fish,” I’d think to myself. “Holly crap is that a shark?” There are definitely no sharks in my Colorado pool. “That can’t be a shark, it has an orange stripe, Phew!” A few strokes further down the course and I’d spot another big-ass fish. “Is that a shark?”I thought to myself” as I tried to judge the dorsal fin for its sharkiness factor…and so it went while I swam.
A more pleasant surprise was the warmth and buoyancy of the water. The salt in the water made it like swimming in a wetsuit. I know this because every so often I would stop, terrified that the fish below me was indeed a man-eating shark, only to notice how easily I floated without kicking…which was good as I thought kicking might attract sharks. Just for the record, as far as I know nobody has ever been even remotely eyes-up, let alone attacked, by a shark during the race. But these fears are not logical, so I did a lot of floating and wide-eyed staring down.
A quick word about the waves, they are pretty big for the most part but also mostly harmless. I’ve come to accept that big ocean swells like these are actually much easier to swim in than small choppy lake waves. The ocean swells pick you up and gently put you back down. The small choppy lake waves break over your head and make it hard to breathe and see. I’ll take the Kona swells, thank you very much.
Now I wish I could report that I actually rode a bike on the course, but remember that I was in Kona to frolic in the surf with my family. So I did the next best thing. I drove to a beach that happened to be on the bike course. This means that I drove about 25 miles of the bike route.
I can report back that it is surprisingly hilly. I believe that it official has about 6000 feet of elevation gain. This is pretty considerable when you consider that the big island is also very windy.
I always believed that the Hawaiian trade winds were soft and gentle. Sort of like God giving you a gentle puff as you sit on the pristine beach, under the gently swaying palm trees. After all, this is what the post cards like to show.
Forget it! The wind comes howling across the pacific at something like 15-25 mph. It hammers you in the face and threatens to blow off any loose articles of clothing like hats or poorly tied bikinis.
I rented a Tony Soprano-sized Chrysler 300 and it was getting blown around as I drove the course. “Toto were back in tornado Kansas,” was my main thought as I wondered how really hard it would be to peddle 112 miles into this wind.
At least you have the Kona graffiti to look at and keep your mind occupied as you hammer into the wind on the bike course. The course is lined with hundred of messages written in white rocks. The volcanic ground is mostly jet-black and the local have taken to spelling out messages with white rocks on the jet-black ground. Many of the messages profess a deep love for this guy or that gal. But there is a fair share of triathlon graffiti that encourages racers along the course.
I’m not making this up. My wife spotted a message that said “Go Roman …20005!” Roman, who ever you are, I hope you did our name proud and hopefully kicked some serious butt that race!
By the afternoon it was time for us to head back to our cruise ship and I was stunned at how warn it had gotten. The black lava radiates heat and the hot winds don’t do much to cool down the place.
We drove by the Natural Energy Lab. This is where the run course makes a left and heads into the lava field for a 4-mile loop toward the sea before heading back to town. I was even feeling hot just thinking about running in the air-conditioned splendor of my rented luxury cruiser. I was also stuck in stop-and-go traffic. I have to admit that my dream of island paradise does not include traffic. But here I was stuck like a bug in a rug. Creepy slowly forward I looked down at the speedometer, and figured at an average speed of 6 mph, it will probably take us longer to get back to town than the pros take running the course.
Of course the difference being that I was sittin’ back with the air blowing in my face, jamming to island music, while they were running 26.2 miles, in blistering heat, with hot winds, through a jet-black lava field. All of a sudden, the big-ass fish didn’t seem so bad any more.
Here’s an idea for the WTC. Any chance of making the swim last in Kona…just a suggestion. Mahola!