KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii — Picture this: 40 years of swimming 2.4 miles, while being inadvertently kicked, punched, elbowed and slapped. Forty years of biking 112 miles with the Hawaiian heat Gods pulling your body through physical agony. And 40 years of running a 26.2-mile marathon with this left in the body’s reserve tank — n-o-t-h-i-n-g. Simply put, this equals 140.6 miles of soul-challenging, gut-wrenching and adrenaline-driven insanity. I call this hell. For others, it’s a slice of heaven.
Now, welcome to the 2018 Ironman World Championship.
Forty years have passed since Gordon Haller became the first athlete to cross the finish line of what would evolve to be, arguably, the planet’s toughest single-day sporting event. On Feb. 18, 1978, Haller was one of 15 athletes who arrived in Waikiki to face a challenge originally proposed by Honolulu-based Navy couple John and Judy Collins, combining Hawaii’s three toughest endurance races — the 2.4-mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim, 112-mile Around-O’ahu Bike Race and 26.2-mile Honolulu Marathon. The rest is history.
The Ironman triathlon series brings together some of the toughest and most motivated athletes this universe has to offer. Each Ironman race — hosted domestically and abroad — is considered a qualifier for the world championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii each October. Annually, approximately 260,000 athletes attempt to qualify in the full Ironman distance of 140.6 miles or half Ironman, 70.3 miles.
The Ironman molds itself deep within my persona. No, I’ve never competed, nor have I ever wanted to. I would die. But my brother, Kevin, is a different kind of animal. The kid’s a freak. A stud. More of one than I’ll ever be or ever desire to be. I’m content with just being a basic nut-job, comfortable with hiding myself in a packed media ballroom, where cats have been known to do a Triple Lindy from the ceiling tiles. True story. Three years ago, I was seconds away from being taken out by a wild flying kitty. That would’ve been nutty.
But I’m allowed bragging rights, too. After all, Kevin’s my brother and I’ve watched him grow into a helluva competitor. He’s no Ironman virgin. Kevin’s competed in the world championship nine times, and participated in well over a dozen other full-distance Ironman races and 20-plus halfers. In 2006, he set the course record for his age group at Ironman Arizona. That, alone, is cray-cray.
Interestingly enough, many years ago Kevin got his initial triathlon itch from New York Islanders-great and friend, Bobby Nystrom. Kevin, who worked in the National Hockey League for over a decade with the Islanders, Florida Panthers and New Jersey Devils, competed in his first triathlon in a duo with Nystrom.
Long Island born and raised, my big bro is now the director of coaching education and athlete development for USA Cycling in Colorado Springs, Colo. In fact, through Kevin’s athletic successes, he’s been able to interact with some of the most respectable athletes sports have to offer, and, in turn, has helped his little bro originate some incredible stories. The one that’s strongly ingrained in my memory is Sheila Isaacs of Shoreham. In 2004, the then-67-year-old grandmother completed the Ironman World Championship with a little more than five minutes left before the race’s 17-hour midnight cutoff. With the completion of that race, she finished her 100th triathlon and became the first known person to finish a triathlon in all 50 states. I was there to witness it. Talk about emotional — I’m not embarrassed to admit that I might have shed a tear or two … or three.
This week, I traveled back Hawaii to cover the world championship again as a journalist. As Oct. 13 approached, there was a certain indescribable energy that filled the Kailua-Kona community this time of year. It’s an electricity that only the Ironman World Championship can generate.
I’ll bring the Mai Tais.
Po’okela. Hana Hou.
Brian T. Dessart, a former Herald sports preview editor and director of marketing, now writes for Sports Illustrated, covering performance, fitness and action sports. He also hosts weekly video segments for SI’s NHL division, titled the #NHLNugget. You can follow Dessart’s weeklong coverage of the 2018 Ironman World Championship on si.com/edge.