Honu: Who knew?

June 4th 2009

by Lee Gruenfeld

Did you ever find yourself in the middle of an Ironman World Championship triathlon thinking, "This would be a great race if it was just shorter?"

Man, have I got news for you.

Imagine arriving at the swim turnaround and instead of finding the Fairwind, finding a ramp leading out of the water and straight to T1. Then imagine hopping on your bike (or whatever passes for "hopping" after you’ve been swallowing saltwater and trying not to get your jaw broken for 1.2 miles) and being instantly teleported thirty miles up the Queen K. Then, when you get close to Hawi, somebody says, "Ah, what the heck: Let’s turn around a couple miles short instead of going into town," and about five miles south of the Kawaihae turnoff, the same guy says, "OK, enough: Let’s start running," and when you do, it isn’t up a hill named after a store that packed up and left town ten years ago but the ninth hole of a golf course that otherwise responsible people have been known to abandon their families and travel thousands of miles to play. And when you finally finish the run, it isn’t in darkness so thick you need a light stick to avert collisions with other racers. When you finish

this race, restaurants are still serving lunch, and the athletes eating it are able to do so using knives and forks served by waiters instead of syringes and liter bags of saline served by licensed physicians.

Welcome to Honu, the Ironman 70.3 Hawai’i, where you can race on chunks of the fabled Ford Ironman World Championship course without feeling like you’ve just gone fifteen rounds in a cage fight.

The event is newly domiciled at the Fairmont Orchid, a posh enclave that normally caters to guests whose idea of a massage bears little resemblance to the Abu Ghraib maulings voluntarily endured by the endurance crowd but which has proven itself equally accommodating to down-dressed and up-amped athletes. The Orchid seems to be staffed with rabid triathlon fans who are supposed to be giving new arrivals a tour of the property while carrying their bags but seem more interested in quizzing them about their training methods. People here just seem to get it, an attitude that adds to the overall intimacy that makes Honu a cocktail soiree in comparison to October’s tailgate party.

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The Fairmont Orchid staff created this sign at the hotel entrance to greet athletes.

The sign, like graffiti out on the Queen K, is made entirely of coral stones.

Which is kind of interesting when

you consider that both events have the same race director. Diana Bertsch (pictured left) is the overlord of the World Championship, a fifty-places-at-once puppet-master orchestrating a dizzying array of logistical challenges. As with a Hollywood movie, a casual observer would consider it a miracle that it ever gets done at all, and yet it does. But at the Big One there is budget, an army, a playbook the size of the Manhattan phone book and a string of computer systems that would make NASA jealous. At Honu, there are three people at folding tables with two Macs and a printer. The engine isn’t technology; it’s Bertsch’s palpable affection for the event. Maybe that’s why Honu draws top professionals even though there are no pro slots and the only prize money awarded is in the form of comp’d admission to a post-race luau on the beach.

Ironman 70.3 Hawai’i is dazzling, down-to-earth and doable, but make no mistake: It’s also daunting. The winds on the way to Hawi don’t slacken just because it’s May, and neither do the humidity, heat and gravity. Much of the run is on grass, a calf-busting novelty for many triathletes, and as if the combination of hills and varying terrain weren't already threatening to earn Honu a reputation as one of the toughest runs on the 70.3 circuit, the 2009 event this past weekend threw in a couple of additional surprises: While the winds were blissfully light on the bike, the temperature and humidity must have felt compelled to compensate, turning the run into a severe test for even hardened veterans who thought they’d seen it all. "Hardest 70.3 I’ve ever done" was a muttering frequently heard from bedraggled competitors crossing the finish line.

It passed quickly. After all, this is Hawai’i, not Hoboken, and a post-race chicken teriyaki burger (on the house, compliments of the race) was all it took to restore both glycogen and equanimity.

Anyway, those are the words one picture is worth a thousand of, so here are a few snaps of the sweetest little 70.3 on earth. Look around and smell the frangipani.

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Toto, I don’t think we’re at the Kailua pier anymore…

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Every Ironman and 70.3 has its own ‘DigMe’ beach. You worked hard for that body…so flaunt it.

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Challenged athletes were well-represented. This is master prosthetist Peter Harsch with one of his best customers, ex-U.S. Marine staff sergeant Chris Chandler. After Chris lost a leg in Afghanistan, he got a new one and went back. Three times.

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Double amputee Rudy Garcia-Tolson had a special set of challenges: Out of the water and into his run legs, then up the hill to swap those out for his bike legs.

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The Fairmont Orchid put on a special race-eve spread for the athletes. Conspicuously absent were pierogies but, somehow, diners managed to summon the will to go on.

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Coach Roch looked upon his charges from above, and saw that they were good…

 

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…but ceded his high perch to this local sentry.

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Pros Amanda Balding, Luke McKenzie and Justin Granger in the lobby after their race meeting.

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Race morning

 

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Many-time world champion age-group winner Lesley Cens-McDowell and husband Rich, head of emergency medicine at Kona Community Hospital and marginally adequate golfer.

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Honu is a "fenceless triathlon" in which spectators mingle freely with athletes. Not a security guard in sight yet, miraculously, it all works.

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Ol’ Whatshername. If I don’t get at least one good picture in, it’s spaghetti and the sofa for a week.

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Tri-veteran Sally Crawford, unable to compete because of a knee injury, supports her friend Mark Moses (as well as husband Bob "Gorak" Crawford, somewhere in the water).

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Don’t ask. Don’t tell. Don’t even go there.

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Tattoos: The new bumper-sticker.

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Leaders approaching the shore.

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It’s either a deep-water or shore start. Racer’s choice

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First out of the water is John Flanagan III, of Honolulu.

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1:23 later, Chris Lieto emerges

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Rudy Garcia-Tolson gets ready to put his run legs on, but a surge of water filled the sockets with sand. Later, it would make for a very uncomfortable run.

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But for the moment, the task is to get up the hill to the swim-bike transition as quickly as possible.

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From a distance, T1 looks chaotic. Up close, it’s actually quite organized, and the resemblance to a teenage pillow fight is purely coincidental.

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The bike legs starts out bunched up…

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…but spreads out quickly. And gets quiet. And lonely.

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Loneliest of all is Chris Lieto. His lead was 4:04 at the turn in Hawi and grew to eight minutes by the time the bike leg was over.

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Craig Alexander gets a face full of water following an overly-casual bottle toss.

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Luke Mckenzie, 2008 second place finisher, trying to chase down Alexander on the way back from Hawi.

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There was plenty of excitement in the age group ranks, too.

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Twins Kristin and Kayla Hoag attempt to repair Lori Travis’ bike using techniques learned from watching Harry Potter movies. When "Repairiamus!" fails, mechanics from the tech van they were riding in did it the old fashioned way.

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The last comforting thing cyclists would see before hitting T2 to start the run.

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This might look like the ninth hole of the Mauna Lani North Course...

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...but it's actually T2, the bike-to-run transition.

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Spence Cocanour of Aiea (only town in the entire U.S. with no consonants) hightails it out of T2.

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David Stackhouse of Honolulu grabs some water before hitting the run course.

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If that grass looks cool to you, you’ve never run on grass in Hawai’i.

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About the only shade on the course; Lasts about 15 seconds.

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Just when you thought it couldn’t get any hotter, it got hotter.

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This was the most popular aid station on the entire course. Must have been because it was in the shade. (By my count, the guy at the barrel filled the same cup 52 times.)

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The joyfulness was over quickly, then back to work.

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The new USAT course marshal.

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Penalties were few and far between.

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Will Bertsch has a firm grip on the finishing tape.

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Once you’ve seen it, you get the bug. "I’m, like, so going to do Honu next year."

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Craig Alexander ran down Chris Lieto to claim victory in record time despite a tougher course. He doesn’t wear #1 for nothing.

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Chris looked a little dejected coming across 02:40 later, but recovered quickly.

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Cherie Gruenfeld congratulates Rudy G-T for putting another notch on his "Tough Guy" belt by finishing Honu only a month after knocking off Wildflower.

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A splendid time was had by all!