Hailed as the World Cup of triathlon, the Ironman World Championships has been taking place on the Big Island of Hawaii since 1981. And every October, the best athletes travel from all corners of the world, and descend on the tropical, tranquil town of Kona, and it’s surrounding lava fields. Triathletes Ashlea Keene and Cory Sullivan flew all the way from New York to be part of the Ironman experience, and returned with some epic photos. These are some of their favorites, and the stories behind them!
Popular among spectators on race day, Ali’i Drive allows spectators to cheer for their favorite athlete up close, and leave a personal message in chalk to inspire them on their 140.6 mile journey. The messages are not only colorful, but they are also written in many languages, and truly capture the festive spirit that is only felt when the most talented athletes come from all over the world to share the same challenge.
In the days before Ironman, the athletes receive the red (and black) carpet treatment when they check their bikes into the Transition Zone. Security personnel guard their very expensive equipment overnight, so athletes have one less thing to worry about.
Even bike check-in draws a crowd, as each athlete’s arrival is announced as they enter with their bikes. Naturally everyone’s attention is on what bikes the pros are riding this year.
Like the other athletes, American Pro Andy Potts is introduced with a bio as he arrives at bike check-in. On stage with his bike, Potts is asked if 2015 Ironman World Champion Jan Frodeno will be chasing him all day. Like most pro triathletes who know that in Ironman, anything is possible, Potts does not give a definitive answer.
Athletes, volunteers and spectators wake up before the sun on race morning to discover that while they slept, the town of Kailua-Kona, HI was transformed.”The Finish line must have been set up over night, and it was gone by the next morning, like magic!” Keene says, impressed. The stage is now set for the legendary endurance challenge to begin.
Although it is still dark at 4am, intensity is in the air as athletes have race numbers marked on their arms. This blur of movement as everyone prepares for a long day of racing is soon followed by tense quiet as the athletes enter the water and wait…
The sun rises on 2,000 triathletes, and the volunteers and boats that will keep them safe on their 2.4 mile swim in Kailua-Kona Bay. In the distance, a TV helicopter hovers over the water. Spectators know that throughout the day, the chopper will serve as a sign that a lead athlete is approaching!
As the race start draws closer, international spectators with foreign accents crowd the seawall, all vying for a good view of the iconic swim. At least four-people deep, the crowded seawall forces one photographer to stick his camera lens between the legs of a group blocking his view. In the commotion, Ashlea and Cory are almost pushed into the water!
Ben Hoffman, seen here, is fourth overall out of the water.
Most of the top professional triathletes finish the 2.4 mile ocean swim in an astounding 50 minutes! With the swim behind them, they are quick to gear up for their 112 mile ride on the Queen K Highway.
After a 56 minute swim, Australia’s Mirinda “Rinny” Carfrae begins her bike ride with the climb up Palani Road. Setting a marathon course record on her 2009 Ironman Championship debut, Carfrae sets off in hopes of catching the athletes ahead of her, and beating that record.
Her main opponent, Daniela Ryf, manages to hold off Carfrae and the other professional women, and begins the 26.2 mile run with an eight minute lead. Ryf goes on to beat the Australian and destroy Carfrae’s overall course record from 2013. But Rinny proves why she’s still a crowd favorite, running her way from 13th to second place female overall!
Fresh off the bike, Jan Frodeno finishes the ride and begins the run a mere four seconds ahead of fellow German Sebastian Kienle. The two run the first half of the marathon side-by-side, sometimes chatting, but clearly out to wear the other down.
Wildly popular for his signature aviator sunglasses and amusing blog posts, Picky Bars founder Jesse Thomas makes his Ironman Championship debut. His enthusiasm on the bike catches up to him, making for a tough marathon experience. Later Thomas points out that just having a solid performance at this Ironman was a dream come true for him!
She may look hardcore with all those tattoos, but Heather Jackson of Wattie Ink is “humble, happy and fun,” Sullivan said. “And look at her colorful support team!”
The Wattie Ink team just contributed to the party atmosphere already in full effect on Ali’i Drive. Spectators hung out in the streets, and enjoyed shaved ice and music played by a nearby DJ while they cheered on their favorite athletes. And Jackson went on to place third in the women’s race!
Above, an exhausted Trevor Wurtele musters enough energy to high-five a young boy cheering from the sidelines. Wurtele is one half of power couple Team Wurtele. He and wife Heather, also a talented triathlete, live in an RV when they aren’t competing professionally.
People-watching opportunities abound on race day. “It was amazing to see people from all corners of the globe, proudly wearing their national colors and waving flags,” said Keene. “Other people had special shirts made to support their athlete, or just wore a crazy outfit to stand out!”
After dropping Kienle, Frodeno suffered through the last 13 miles alone. And this electrifying crowd was waiting at the finish line for him to break the run course record set in 1989, and win the most prestigious Ironman two years in a row!
“Everyone along the barricades starting beating on them in unison as Jan approached the finish line for the win,” Ashlea Keene recalls. “That was the coolest part!”
Kona Ironman 2016 was filled with unforgettable moments both for the athletes and for the electrifying crowd that came to support them. Want to see for yourself? NBC is airing the race this Saturday December 10th at 2:30pm eastern.You’ll see that when these world class athletes and their supporters come together it is something bigger than many of us can imagine.