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Before the Ironman…

October 1, 2011

The beginning of the Ford Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii draws athletes from around the world to a place with a history of “extreme” sports. (NASA Photo)

On Saturday, October 8 the Big Island of Hawaii will host the 2011 Ford Ironman World Championship. Nearly 2,000 competitors from across the planet will gather for what many consider to be the ultimate triathlon, consisting of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike race and a 26.2 mile marathon.  Though this event began in the late 1970’s, this sort of physical exhibition and competition is nothing new to the Hawaiian Islands.

Imagine traveling 70mph down lava slopes on a sled about 3 to 6 inches wide!

For centuries, extreme “sports” were the norm for Hawaii’s warrior and chiefly classes. For example, it was said that a skilled Hawaiian runner could circumnavigate the Big Island in about 8 days (250 miles across rugged lava coastline). Warriors could travel down steep lava hills at up to 70mph on a holua sled. A visiting chief would be met with up to a dozen spears being hurled at him, requiring catching, dodging and deflecting all of them at once. During the makahiki season (Autumn), warriors would compete in many athletic events that included stone rolling, throwing spears and distance running. Even for normal commerce and communication, men could paddle over 100 miles over the open ocean to the other islands. Of course, the most recognized Hawaiian sport, surfing, was a dangerous and arduous competitive sport.

Hawaiian warriors and chiefs took part in many “extreme” sports in ancient times. (Photo used by permission of Kai Markell)

Probably the one historical figure that epitomized this “extreme” sportsmanship of the Hawaiian culture was Kamehameha the Great. As a young boy, he was known to carry a large round stone through the valleys of Kohala. When he was about 20 years old, he turned over the massive Naha Stone in Hilo, which weighs about 2 tons (the stone now sits in front of the public library in Hilo).  His physical prowess was unmatched during his lifetime.

As a park ranger in the historical National Parks of the Big Island of Hawaii, it seems very fitting that every year the Ironman triathletes traverse the same rugged landscape and swim the same waters where Kamehameha and his fellow warriors and chiefs competed. The swim portion of the triathlon begins in front of Kamehameha’s Ahu`ena Heiau in Kailua-Kona (where he died in 1819). The bike portion of the race parallels the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail, taking the competitors up to Kohala, the birthplace of Kamehameha and through Pu`ukohola Heiau National Historic Site, where Kamehameha began his conquest of the Islands in 1791. The marathon portion passes Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, where traditional extreme sports took place in the form of holua and surfing. In many ways, the Ironman competitors are retracing the footsteps of the ancient athletes that came before them.

U.S. Navy SEAL Mitch Hall, assigned to Naval Special Warfare Center, tests his racing bike in Kona, Hawaii one day prior to the Ironman Triathlon, Oct. 20, 2006. (U.S. NAVY PHOTO BY PETTY OFFICER 3RD CLASS BEN A. GONZALES)

So whether you are a triathlete or not, remember as the Ironman gets going that our modern competitions here in the Islands are a continuation of centuries of such activities. And also remember, you don’t have to be a triathlete to get into the Great Outdoors! Mahalo for stopping by today…Aloha!