The Prize


There is a beach adjacent Kailua-Kona pier on Hawaii’s big island. This curved stretch of sand between the pier and the old Government house has a nickname; a secret code known to all triathletes. This stretch of sand is Dig Me beach. I’m confident this isn’t an official moniker, rather, a reaction the athletes who make the annual pilgrimage to these shores come to feel. By parading about on that same pier, I embodied the actions of my predecessors. I felt drawn in to a unique fellowship.

According to the mythology of the event, the Germans are the most enthusiastic, but no matter where the athletes come from, fit bodies wearing nothing but lycra flounce about, stretch, chat, and swim the waters of Dig Me. Our state of undress slightly offends the locals who tend to be very modest, often wearing mu-mu dresses of flowing fabric or bright shirts and long pants. But these cultural differences don’t eradicate the feeling we come to radiate: how good is this! Athletes stand about or perform various pre-swim warm up routines. Sure, we are posers on Dig Me beach, but in many shapes and forms.

I was doing double time in the Dig Me stakes with an emerald green one piece, blazoned with a familiar outline across my small, athletically proportioned breast. Hell, Australia was stamped right from my shoulder to hip in large letters. Can’t remember where I got that ‘cossie,’ but I was rather taken with the thing and took every opportunity to sashay around wearing it. As a result, some of the labels I earnt back home were none too complimentary, but I figure it pays to advertise your nationality here in Kona.

The rotund gentleman who spoke to me was probably just as proud of his baggy bib and brace denim “farmer Joe” overalls.

‘Oh my gawd are you an Aussie?’ he drawled.

I couldn’t resist a look down my side; the sarcastic retort that followed, ‘I guess so.’

‘Perhaps yall could answer me a question?’

‘Try to.’

‘Lookin round, there’s awl these people here. Is there sum’ going on?’

Surrounding the beach is a picture-perfect view, complete with a palm lined coast. Gentle swells tumble onto the shore. Sometimes waves splash up over the beach wall; reminders of the natural power of which we encounter race day. Those aqueous undulations can hit Dig Me’s beach ledge hard enough to send a spray soaring into the air, providing sport and entertainment, especially for the kids that play chicken with the spray. Water drenches people too close, then falls back languidly, with drops sifting through shards of sunlight.

Dig Me’s sand was reputedly imported from Australia. There are pristine white granules, alien to the surrounding area, given that the rest of the big island’s shores contain mostly pebbles and rocks as foundation, that, or ledges of ancient lava that flowed right into the water. We all know that out there behind this village, clinging to land’s edge, is a sea of rock and boulders that were tossed out by Pele from the volcano – Kilauea. Molten lava has been and continues to build this island, from something to nothing.

The swim takes place south of the pier. The opposite side is taken up by all sorts of water activities and sports; stand up paddle boarding, sailing, kayaking, fishing – the Bay can be a real hub for play, which is strange notion in comparison to the serious nature the Ironman competition concerns itself with. There are points in the year when all sorts of tourists from nearby cruise ships – including the curious farmer figure I spoke to – mix and mingle.

He bit his lip while waiting for my response. I told him why, ‘Ironman triathlon, World Championships.’

By his confused look, I could tell what I said was totally alien, like speaking another language. I tried making conversion, telling him the distances in miles for a bit of context. I figured that might help, for someone so accustomed to the metric system.

From where we stood it was possible to look out at those (seemingly) calm waters, visible several kilometres out from Dig Me beach. Later, a mass migration of triathletes would meet in the middle of it all, like some giant mullet run, all arms, legs, thrashing about until we would reach the exits. Then we’d jump on our bikes lined up for a 180km pedal out into desolate, empty lava fields. We’d fly through oven-hot air, all the way to the village, fighting against trade winds at every pedal push. Then, most of the day later, once we’d left the bikes at the bottom of a hill known as ‘the pit,’ we’d run out up onto the highway. Running through humid air sullied with volcanic fumes known as Vog; my fellow triathletes and I would tackle landmarks with names like ‘piss and moan hill,’ to make our way out into that oven again, along the Queen K highway, down to the scorching hot region where energy from the sun is harvested for local power. By this time, darkness would settle, and the only light would be the full moon, and reflector belts of fellow athletes. Eventually we’d get to the finish line along A’ali drive. But all of this is a frightening quest at one point to us all, and it hovers off in the distance like those calm waves. This is our Everest, our Super Bowl, Royal Ascot, Flushing Meadows, for some, Mecca. There is simply no place quite like this, no matter where you come from.

On Dig Me beach no sea-gulls steal your food. Apparently, they haven’t made it to Hawaii. As we strutted about we were safe from the scavenging habits we’d expected. No such menace robbed us of the greasy hamburgers we picked up, the French fries, fish tacos, California sushi hand-rolls, waffles, pancakes or the all you can eat shrimp down at the open-air Bubba Gump’s. If I ate like this without the training, I’d quickly gain the dimensions of my friend I spoke to about the event. But with the endless training to prepare, triathletes can almost eat whatever they like. Hours in the pool, 5 or 6-hour bike rides every few days, running triple figure kilometres any given week; it can all negate the weight gains. Still, indulgences of the culinary type are rare with the athletic group that attend. We are all careful, in lots of ways.

Tell me that again.’ He asks.

‘2.4 mile (3.8km) swim.’


‘112 miles on the bike (180km).’

‘I can’t drive my tractor that far.’

‘Then 26.2 miles (42.2km) running.’

While I recited the facts a memory popped into my head. I had corrected a work pal once by saying that, yes, of course the women run the same distance. Ironman has nothing to do with gender. Men and women, amateurs and professionals are do the same race, start at the same time, with the same cut off times for everyone, all racing on the same course. Ironman is a brand name, not a gender title.

While my companion stood taking in the distances, I wondered if I should have also stated the many dangers. What was lurking in those shallows of Dig Me; sea urchins. Step on one, even by brushing up against a spine, and you’d quickly end the chance to race. You did all the training, made all those commitments (including qualifying), maxed out your credit card to get there, but one wrong footfall could end everything before you even begin. We all know the rules – don’t put your feet down until you can catch the sand in your fingers.

But there is beauty to it all too. Swimming at Dig Me beach could mean you’ll encounter spinner dolphins, or watch turtles feeding from the rocks, or see tiny bright tropical fish fluttering down below, but unlike my friend, none of us were here for leisurely observations on Hawaii’s sea-life.

Buoys for the Kona Ironman World Ironman Triathlon Championships are left out semi-permanently. You can’t get any locals to pronounce “buoy” in a manner that isn’t giggle-worthy. It’s usually turned into two exaggerated syllables, “Boo-oi.” But no-one really laughs when we push out past those orange markers. You forget those things.

‘Over how long is it?’ farmer Joe asks. ‘Yall got days, weeks, raight?’

‘All in the one day. Start 7am, we finish by midnight to be called an Ironman.’

‘If I did that I’d be in a whole nother state.’ He drawled.

I found his attitude a refreshing contrast to the students I taught who could only seem to focus on, ‘Do you win, miss?’

It’s always water off a duck’s back trying to explain that winning events is not why you race here. Another area of interest, once they realize that everything must occur within the space one day, becomes a range of way too personal questions about toilet facilities.

‘Who in the good lord thought this up?’ asks my American buddy.

‘Some of your countrymen, devised this torture so we can wear the title “Ironman.”’

I knew I was there because of three military pals that argued about who was the fittest sportsman. In 1978, a fellow by the name of John Collins made the decision to test the claims, and put together the three longest sporting events that’d ever been held in Hawaii. Firing a starter’s gun at 7am, then seeing who could finish before midnight.

Champions came from over 40 different countries. High profile professionals and recognizable Ironman celebrities like “Flying Fin” Pauli Kiuru, who won four consecutive Australian Ironman Championships, all wander about. You can always chat with the professionals. I had a chance to wish Michellie Jones good luck. She went on to be the first Australian female to win the Ironman World Championship. There was also a chance to talk to Belinda Granger, always happy to speak to fellow Aussies. We discussed things like how being an Australian meant keeping up the long training hours right through winter. The nation has been successful over the years. Forging a reputation for producing winners of both genders, different age groups, and AWAD representatives. You can see Norman Stadler, at the local coffee shop. That drop-dead gorgeous German who made the infamous response when asked, ‘What have you come to Australia to do?’

‘I come to vin…’

You can have a few words with Chris McCormack, easy for me, because Chris’s dad, a long-time friend, is virtually my neighbour back home. He has five consecutive Australian Ironman titles, as well as being twice crowned a World Champion, once by outpacing Stadler in that finish chute down A’ali Drive. Even our first Australian world champion, Greg Welch, now zips about on a motorbike doing commentary on the event, or making documentaries for Ironman legend and Hall of fame inductee, Dave Scott, runs a stall for his training group. He readily stopped for a photograph with my husband. The salute of victory he gave motivated me through rainy, cold winters. At least the winter in Sydney doesn’t include snow like it does for many of the competitors. But I was on the beach then, ready, and those solitary hours could be forgotten. It’s strange that despite these feats, most receive less media coverage than a drunk NRL player or philandering cricketer.

Fellow members of the Ironman group have all the grounds to don a ‘people don’t know how famous I am’ image. They look like alien life forms, evolved from the sedentary desk jockeys, or couch surfers, who at one point years ago saw a challenge that seemed unconquerable. We all shared a desire. One of the stand-out T shirts (and there were many) that year was one declaring:

At home I am a freak

When I come to Kona


Last time we crossed the finish line, we all revelled in listening to Mike Rielly’s infamous cry “…You are an IRONMAN!..” all together. The Ironman fellowship negates any barriers between professionals, amateurs – especially countries.

So much emotion can come from shuffling, running, crawling or walking down that narrow strip of blue carpet – to the finish. Not all Ironman finishes look pleasant. My own daughter spent many hours as a finish line volunteer, and afterwards she only had one question, ‘Why?’

‘So that’s all yall win? Asks farmer Joe.

‘Pretty much. A T-shirt, towel and medal, that’s all we get.’

He shook his head.

The triathlon has a nut-case edge. We’re not ashamed to flaunt it. Participants dress in their best sport branded clothing, put stickers on cars, bikes. Some shave symbols into their hair – I’ve even seen tattoos. En-masse, near the full moon during any October on Dig Me beach, us athletes fill the shores. These athletes are often attended to by perve-worthy partners or family members. Members of this accompanying entourage are recognizable by methods they use to keep themselves fit with the same rigorous vigour as their participating partners. They’re the ones jogging around with space-capsule prams or taking turns to mind the kids while their partner swims around the buoys off Dig Me beach. Frequently though, they’re in tears, because they didn’t earn a qualifying slot to race alongside their loved ones.

It’s also often the case that our families don’t share the same idea about our physical shape. You know you’re ready for an Ironman distance triathlon when your mum says, ‘You look a bit sick, are you OK?’ Most of the others share this same gaunt, semi starved look. I doubt if there is more than 12%, well perhaps 15% body fat amongst any of the 3,000 of us here. We are always on that patch of Dig Me sand, almost, invisible.

We know what it means to be part of this dream, this lifestyle, this sport. We each cross a semi-visible line in in the sand each year, marking our own sanity. I recall another T-Shirt slogan: If you have to ask why, you don’t understand.

The pier was full of cross-purpose users. Swimmers, supporters, Ironman triathletes and tourists all in their distinct clusters. The latter attracting a flotilla of tour buses touting for customers.  The Island Gods mustn’t have been happy with the bustle. Evidence of this annoyance arrived in the form of a 6.2 scale earthquake, just before the event. The shaking threw all training and Ironman preparation activities into disarray. Not to mention the razor sharp volcanic rock that now joined scrub on the shoulders of our bike course. Yet another factor of difficulty. Many brought home a souvenir T shirt that year that added a 6.2 Richter scale to the rest of the horrific distances I’d spelled out for my friend earlier.

Later, after the quake, we were beginning to feel steady on our feet again. Talk shifted away from evacuations, damage, what you had been doing at the time the Earthquake hit – it all mellowed into a sense of mediative calm. You can never really be ready for the beginning of an Ironman Triathlon. There’s the old mantra, ‘Do the best you can,’ that we hear countless times, but you must prepare yourself, be ready to alter your race plan at any stage. A voice from the past; a triathlon coach and fitness trainer encountered while I lived in Singapore used to say, ‘Most average, capable, and prepared triathletes can finish an Ironman distance race, but you’ll start having problems when you start thinking about finish times.’

We all follow months, years even, of getting ready, and arrive in Kona for the final preparations of varying lengths in time. Those with enough money spend months acclimatising to the heat and wind before the event occurs. Most of us have some “tapering,” including early morning swims around the buoys off Dig Me beach.

‘We can’t just come here and enter…’ I begin to tell Farmer Joe.

‘Wait, you pay for this?’

I giggle, ‘Yes, we don’t get all this for free.’

He really has no idea how this event might be paid for in unique ways, by each and every competitor. The price we were charged does include having volunteers hand us food and water all day. We get medical facilities too, especially on the finish line. In return, Ironman athletes are privy to all sorts of medical tests. One year research was being done by University of Iowa into why some people can make use of Vitamin C better than others. PhD. students doing doctorates into all sorts of muscular, medicinal or health problems, can conduct questionnaires.

‘It isn’t just money you pay with,’ I reassure my pal from the States.

You wait with bated breath, sweaty palms anticipating, anxious to see if you name comes up in the tense roll-down ceremony which happens the day after qualifying events. But I didn’t bore him with the information, I could see my friend is still struggling with the concept of Ironman altogether.

‘Wait, you’ve already done one too, to be here?’


Yes, a high percentage of triathletes milling about Dig Me beach have had an Ironman triathlon before, or competed in something comparable, but Kona is never the same. I secured my first Kona qualification while working as an expat in Singapore, by doing what was considered a “local” race in Phuket, Thailand. It was a measly 1.8km swim, 55 km on the bike, and a 15km run. I won my age group and thus earning the right to my first Ironman triathlon at the World Championships in Kona. Being blessed with ignorance about the impending torment turned out to be a good thing. I did however have a supporting community of Swiss, British and Canadian triathlete friends who kept me informed, if not nervous. One told of, ‘A hill which goes up for 25 miles.’ Being the product of a city perched on the edge of an ancient sea bed I thought he was joking; Perth – a flat, sandy place, that really never rose from the ocean.

‘Yep, we all have to qualify, unless you managed to win a lottery slot,’ I tell him.

There was a moment of jaw-swinging, stunned silence.

I continued, ‘You can go on-line and buy ticket in the lottery, they draw out 250 slots globally.’

‘This is the prize?!’ he says.

I smile.

= = =

Sources: 25 Years of Ironman World Championships, Bob Babbit, Oxford: Meyer und Meyer, UK Ltd., 2003.

30 Years of Ironman World Championships, Bob Babbit, Meyer and Meyer Sport (UK) Ltd., 2008.


Karen Lethlean is a retired English teacher, whose essay ‘When Did We’ was included Caught in the Breeze: 10 Essays, concerning Australian identity published by Blemish Canberra. ‘The Fake One’ appeared in Journey: Experiences with Breast Cancer BusyBird Publishing. She won the Torquay Froth and Bubble literary festival competition in 2010. Karen’s work has been published in some literary magazines and has won writing awards such as runner up Winter Solstice, Wild with Red, Yellow & Black. This year Organic was commended for the Summer Solstice contest. Cenotaph was runner up 2016 Flash Fiction Ink Tears. Bum Joke was commended for #22 The Best of Times humorous writing competition. Karma was published on line by Pendulum Papers. Playing Office Politics will shortly appear in Hear Comes Everyone! Toys and games edition. In her other life Karen is a triathlete and has done Hawaii Ironman twice.


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