There are over twenty Ironman competitions held around the world. However none compares to the original one that takes place in Kona on Hawaii's Big Island during the second weekend of October. Now in its 36th-year, this grueling event that is dubbed the "World Championships", is considered the most prestigious Ironman race. That's because while the Hawaiian event is no different from any other Ironman challenge in terms of distance, the natural environment makes it the toughest of them all.
Started in 1978 by Honolulu-based Navy couple Judy and John Collins to challenge athletes that had been successful at endurance swimming, running and biathlon events, the race began as a combination of three of Hawaii's toughest athletic competitions - the 2.4-mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the 112 miles of the Around-O’ahu Bike Race and the 26.2-mile Honolulu Marathon.
In 1981, the organizers made the event even more challenging by moving the location from the shores of Waikiki to the hot lava fields of Kona. While that was bad enough, they also stipulated that the athletes had to complete all three challenges within 17 hours. It is therefore not surprising that the Hawaiian competition is open only to athletes that have completed a qualifying Ironman or, are fortunate enough to win one of the few lottery spots.
This year's event which attracted a record 2,187 of the world's most elite athletes took place on October 11th, 2014. The competitors gathered early in the morning to begin the first leg of the three endurance events - the grueling 2.4-mile swim across the Kailua-Kona bay. While that sounds easy enough, it is not, thanks to the strong ocean currents.
Then came the 112-mile bike ride across the Hawaiian lava desert to Hawi and back. Though it is a pretty level ride, strong headwinds along the entire route make it extremely challenging! By the time the competitors were done with the first two challenges, it was mid-to-late afternoon, which meant that the 26.2-mile run, which took them through Kona's scorching lava fields, had to be undertaken during the hottest time of the day, when temperatures often exceed 80°F (26°C).
However these challenges did not seem to dampen the enthusiasm of the 2014 competitors that represented 49 states and 68 countries. Among them was last year's women's winner and record holder Mirinda Carfrae. Also in contention was USA's most decorated Winter Olympian, eight-time short track speed skating medalist, Apolo Ohno.
Then there was former Italian Formula One and CART race-driver Alex Zanardi, who lost both his legs in a 2001 crash and wanted to demonstrate to the world that disability does not define personal ability. Also competing was 84-year-old Sister Madonna Buder who wanted to become the oldest person to complete the world's most difficult Ironman!
As the hours went by, the thousands of spectators that were waiting at the finish line watched anxiously to see which one of these amazing athletes would get there first. It turned out to be Germany's Sebastian Kienle, who completed the trek in just 8:14:18. While the triathlete has previously won two Ironman 70.3 world championships (half Ironmans), this was his first victory on the Big Island.
Mirinda Carfrae dominated the women's race for a second year in a row. The superb athlete broke her own marathon record of 2:50:38 that she set in 2013 with a speedier 2:50:26. This helped her come back from eighth place and overcome the 14.32 minutes lead that first time Swiss contestant Daniela Ryf had, following the first two events. While Mirinda's overall time of 9:55 was not enough to break her 2013 record, her win did place her in the elite group of only four women that have won the championship three times and more.
Incase you are wondering, both Apolo Ohno and Alex Zanardi crossed the coveted Alii Drive finish line in under 10 hours. Unfortunately, Sister Madonna Buder was not as successful. For reasons unknown, the 84-year-old retired after completing 74 miles of the 112-mile bike race.