Over the past several years, I've been back at the Ironman World Championship in Kona with a different perspective than in the old days. I go now to see clients and pitch new business for my company, but I have no official role at the race itself. No credential, no passes, no access. This was disorienting at first, but it's also given me a fresh perspective on an event I came to know so well as an insider. My favorite race day spot now is the at the intersection of Hualalai Road and Kuakina Highway. It's one of the best vantage points on the entire course, because you see the athletes pass three times, at critical moments in the competition.
The first time is just before Mile 1 of the marathon, when the runners are just starting to find their legs after the bike ride. They move south along Kuakini, then turn right onto the long, sloping downhill of Hualalai, headed for the first marathon turnaround five miles away at the far end of Alii Drive. All the cards are on the table at this point. The athletes are still taking stock, gearing up, ignoring the bad signs, clinging hopefully to the good ones
The second time is just after the runners have labored back up Hulalai and taken the left turn back onto Kuakini, heading for the inevitable drama and soul-searching of the Queen K Highway. This is a crux point of the day for many, because the out-and-back run on Alii, then the modest-in-any-other-context grade on Hulalai has staggered them. They have approximately 11 miles behind them, but 15 still to go. A lot of walking happens here.
The third time at the same spot is at mile-25+. Right turn on Hualalai, then a second right turn to the north on Alii Drive and the long run-in to finish line. Sacred ground. Best/worst turn in the business. There, but not there. I've had pros run by me at this spot and ask frantically, "How far? How far?" They know very well where the finish line is. What they fear is the person coming from behind. "How far?"
One cool thing about this spot is that as the pros run down Kuakini Highway toward Hualalai Road, they are intermingled with the age-groupers. It's a Kona thing -- a result of of how the course is designed -- a uniquely democratic arrangement, that in the case of the first few pros at least, gives the age groupers at that specific point in the marathon a rare and memorable experience. A helicopter smacks the air loudly overhead. The lead motorcycle rumbles through, followed by the photographers. And then, suddenly, the freaking Ironman World Champion comes barreling along, and for a few steps you can run with him or her; you can match the pace for a few yards or maybe even longer. Or not. Good lord, these people are fast! Hello mom! Look at me! I'm running with the champion of the entire triathlon world!
It's fun to watch. Better this year than ever. On a crazy hot and humid day, the pros were dying by mile 25; the age groupers were still full of hope. You could tell the difference, but not by much. Not by very much at all.