Island Magic

Who can forget the images of Julie Moss crawling to the finish line in the 1982 Ironman.

Almost 25 years later, I watched this year’s Ironman Hawaii on TV this afternoon — I always look forward to it since it’s so nicely produced, and it’s also the closest I’m going to get to participating in this race. It’s so inspiring to see everyone from the pros who come in in about 8 hours, to the very last finisher this year, Sister Madonna Buder, completing her 21st Ironman at the age of 76, with only a minute to spare before the cutoff. It was heartbreaking to see Jonathan Blais, who in 2005, completed his first and only Ironman after being diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), and seeing him this year confined to a wheelchair — next year, he will likely not be with us anymore. There was also Team Hoyt — the father and son team, whose son Rick is a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy. Dick Hoyt towed his son the entire 2.4 miles, but unfortunately did not make the 2:20 hour swim cutoff.

I was actually in Kona during the 20th anniversary a few years ago, and it was just phenomenal — the race, the people, the volunteers, the athletes…truly magic. It’s hard to accurately describe to anyone who has never been there, but below is a story I’ve kept from an old issue of Triathlete magazine that comes close.

NO MEDAL — by Mitch Thrower (Triathlete #189)

I don’t remember his name, but I do remember his face. He was from Japan, and it was the night before the Ironman two years ago. I was walking back to the King Kamehameha Hotel after a pre-race dinner when I saw him running down Ali’i Drive. It was dark and he seemed to be in some trouble, though smiling in his pain.

At first glance, I thought he was on a training run, but then I noticed a woman crying and a family waiting nearby. As he stumbled down Ali’i to the finish, the whole family broke down. Amidst the hammering and the yelling of the finish line construction crew, his family cheered as he approached the small road sign marking the finish. They caught him as he crossed the line and I realized what was happening.

With a hint of disbelief, I asked one of his relatives, “Why are you crying?” She looked at me and said, “He just did the Ironman today. Because he did not qualify, he did it the day before the race, when everything was marked. We were following him all day.” Tears streamed down this woman’s cheek and she turned and rejoined his finish line crowd of five. I approached the gentleman and shook his hand. Looking me straight in the eye, he bowed. I bowed in return with respect, admiration, and a bit of astonishment. Sunburned and exhausted, his arms hung on the shoulders of his wife and daughter — the “catchers”. There was no massage table to relax on, no chicken soup, no loud cheering crowd, no finishers’ T-shirt, no medal to take home. There was only the satisfaction in knowing that he had just spent the entire day completing the Ironman distance for himself and for his family.

What kind of race can motivate athletes to compete — even when there is no race? What intense energy lies under the lava in Kona, behind the WTC, and in the hearts of the athletes who lead the way on the Kona coast of dreams?

It is the same energy Rea’l Andrews experienced, pushing to the finish line where his brother who is fighting cancer awaited his hug. It is the strength that Judy Molnar found to return and face this race again — and finish. It is the energy that flows through 8000 volunteers to the 1470 competitors in the Hawaiian Ironman. It’s the energy of the announcers that scream and rally the spectators all day long. It is the energy that allows athletes to crush their doubts and fears, to do
everything in their power to tour the west coast of the Big Island as quickly as they can, realizing a dream along the way.

This year, just like my Japanese friend who came to Hawaii to finish the Ironman course on the day before the race, I came home without a medal. I met a six-year-old girl named Paige at the finish line who has cancer. She was part of the Rea’l Andrews support crew. She reminded me of my sister Stacey, who lost her life to cancer at age 16. I met her mom and the group that brought her to the race for its inspirational powers. She ran across the finish line right behind Andrews, laughing and smiling. I leaned over and gave her my medal and finisher’s shirt. The beam in her smile as she looked down at the shining medal around her neck, now that’s the energy of Kona, the strength of the Ironman.

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