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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, October 19, 2002

Kona's Ironman triathlon provides boost to economy

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

KAILUA, Hawai'i — It's an unusually stormy morning in Kona when talk at the Ocean View Inn turns — as it always does this time of year — to the subject of the Ironman Triathlon World Championships.

Posters of Ironmen Chris McCormack, left, and Paul Amey flank the entrance to a store on Ali'i Drive in Kailua, Kona that sells triathlon gear. The event is an economic boon.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

"I think they're crazy," laughs Kawewehi Davis, who manages the bar.

A man seated in front of a bank of windows looks out the half-open jalousies across the street to the churning waters east of Kailua Pier. His eyes follow a pair of swimmers rising and falling, appearing and disappearing between the waves.

"Still training," he says, swirling the ice in his glass of beer. "Crazy."

The 140.6-mile race — comprised of a 2.4-mile ocean swim, 112-mile bike race and 26.2-mile run — takes place today in Kona. Competitors have been trickling in for the past several weeks, transforming the Big Island town into an international village of steely-eyed, flint-lean athletes.

For weeks, the long corridor of shops and restaurants along Ali'i Drive has been wallpapered with the coated-canvas banners of the race sponsors. Drivers on Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway stay close to the median to avoid the dotted line of high-speed cyclists zipping along the shoulders.

"The energy in town is so high on race week," says Joel Sampson, manager of B&L Bike and Sports. "There's excitement mixed in with a tad bit of fear. You walk down Ali'i Drive and you can feel the anticipation."

Roughly 7,000 volunteers are expected to help at today's event, including about 4,500 aid station volunteers. Peter Young, deputy managing director of Hawai'i County, is managing the aid stations for the 13th consecutive year. The stations are sponsored by a wide range of local and national businesses and community organizations, from Hawaiian Airlines and Avis Rent-A-Car to Grace Community Church and Kealakehe High School.

"We'll finish around 1 a.m. and each station will clean up the area around it," Young says. "Our goal is for the day after to look as if the event were never here.

Ground-level impact

In other places, it's Halloween — the harvest celebration — that heralds the start of the late holiday season. In Kailua, the time of bounty begins weeks earlier as the world's top endurance athletes arrive en masse at the place where triathlon is practiced like religion.

Jason Losey, service manager of B& L Bike & Sports in Kailua, assembles one of the hundreds of bikes shipped in for the Ironman competition today. The 112-mile bike ride follows the swim off Kailua Pier.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

"Kona is the Holy Grail for triathletes," says Tom Steinkraus, who flew with his wife, Mary, from Milwaukee just to help out with the race. "It's the Super Bowl. It really is the crucible from which triathlon sprang."

It's also been an economic boon for the Big Island and, to a degree, the rest of the state as well.

While the Ironman field is limited to 1,500 competitors, these competitors typically bring with them a full accompaniment of family, friends and coaches.

An economic impact study released in 1999 by the State Department of Business Economic Development and Tourism estimated that the Ironman generates nearly $15 million in direct sales to out-of-state visitors specifically traveling to the Big Island for the event, and more than $26 million in total sales. An estimated 28 percent of Ironman athletes visit another island as part of their trip. Ironman officials said these figures have remained consistent since the study was released.

Evidence of the Ironman's ground-level impact isn't hard to find. Several of the hotels near the course are near capacity, rental cars and scooters are almost impossible to find, and Kaumoana HewLen looks about ready to drop.

HewLen is the unfortunate UPS delivery person on whose route lies the B&L bike shop. Everyday for the two weeks leading up to today's race, HewLen lugged crate after onerous crate of supplies and equipment to the store, including hundreds of disassembled bicycles sent in advance by Ironman competitors.

"When it's over," he sighs, "they'll pack it up again and send it back."

B&L is the official sporting goods store of the Ironman, a designation that helps assure the survival of the store, if not — in a literal sense — its staff.

"We jump from a staff of five full-timers to about 30 full- and part-time staff in a three-week period," Sampson says. "We spend quite a bit of time in preparation even before the competitors get here. Our inventory jumps up 400 percent. By the time people come in, we've already put in a couple of 60- or 70-hour work weeks. We're dead tired."

Sampson said the store makes one-fourth to one-third of its yearly revenues during Ironman month.

"It's our bread and butter," he says.

Athletes also turn to Kona businesses for their own fine tuning.

Darlyne Garrigan-Lealao of the Hair We Are barber shop says dozens of competitors stop in for trims, shaves and wax jobs.

"They want to get rid of all the hair they can," she says.

Many Kona restaurants accommodate Ironman competitors with special training menus and expanded hours.

Davis, the Ocean View Inn bar manager, says the athletes — crazy though they may be — make for good, friendly patrons.

"They come in for bagels, English muffins, fruit, vegetarian dishes," she says. "A lot of the Europeans order beer. And not the light stuff, either — they want fat beer with all the carbs."

The restaurant — near the finish line — opened at 4 this morning and won't close until the midnight cut-off.

"We usually stick around to see the last competitors come in," Davis said. "A lot of times they have tears in their eyes because they had to try so hard to get there."

Pirates By the Sea Tattooing on Ali'i Drive will also be open late tonight to accommodate the inevitable flood of competitors and spectators wanting to make the experience a permanent part of themselves.

Owner Linda Potter says anywhere from 75 to 150 people will come in the hours and days after the race for Ironman-logo tattoos.

The tattoos cost $50 to $175 depending on size and complexity.

"I'll usually do about 40 people on race day and the rest over the next couple of days," she said. "We get both elite athletes and absolute first-timers. There are some German athletes who come every year to add another piece to their ankle tattoo."

The original extreme sport

The Ironman is often — and errantly — credited with being the first triathlon event ever staged. In fact, the first triathlon, organized by Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan, took place in September 1974 in San Diego. The race consisted of six miles of running, five miles of bicycling and 500 yards of swimming, broken up into multiple legs.

Amateur athletes John and Judy Collins took part in that seminal race, and the idea stuck with them when they moved to Hawai'i in 1975.

When a friendly debate — are swimmers or runners the better athletes? — arose among the Collins' and friends Tom Knoll and Dan Hendrickson, John Collins proposed a novel way to resolve it: a triathlon that linked O'ahu's three major endurance events — the Waikiki Rough Water Swim, the Around Oahu Bike Race and the Honolulu Marathon.

The Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon was held in February 1978. Twelve of the 15 competitors were able to complete the race, with Gordon Haller taking first place with a time of 11 hours, 46 minutes and 40 seconds.

The following year, Barry McDermott wrote a 10-page article on the event for Sports Illustrated that piqued the curiosity of sports fans across the country.

In 1980, John Collins, a Navy SEAL captain, was transferred back to the Mainland and the race was passed to the reluctant hands of Haller and Valerie Silk, owner of a Nautilus Fitness Center, who had helped with the previous two races. (In 1981, Silk moved the race to Kona, where it has remained since.)

"Before I left, I got on my motorcycle with a shoebox full of cards and letters and asked Valerie to take over," John Collins said. "They had nothing to gain from it, but they agreed."

Before he left, Collins was contacted by "ABC's Wide World of Sports."

"The event had gotten a lot of attention because of the Sports Illustrated article, and they wanted to come and shoot it," he recalls. "We had a verbal agreement and nothing else. I didn't hear anything, and I wasn't sure if they were really going to come."

They did, and the link between the event and the broadcast media — a link that would eventually bring the sport to worldwide attention — was forged.

A defining TV moment occurred in February 1982 (two races were held that year) when Julie Moss, the women's leader for most of the race, collapsed just yards from the finish line. Kathleen McCartney passed Moss to win the race, but the image of Moss desperately rising, falling and eventually crawling on her hands and knees across the finish line captivated millions of viewers. America was hooked.

A deft businesswoman, Silk guided the Ironman through a period of remarkable growth during the 1980s. A qualifying system was implemented in 1983 to restrict entry to elite competitors. At the same time, a lottery system was introduced to ensure, as Silk insisted, that everyday athletes could continue to pursue their athletic dreams alongside the best of the sport.

The 1980s also saw the rise of the professional triathlete. None was better than Dave Scott and Mark Allen who each won the event six times, and Paula Newby-Fraser, the only eight-time winner.

Silk sold the Ironman to veteran triathlete Dr. Jim Gills in 1990, who then established the World Triathlon Corporation and the Ironman Foundation, a charitable organization designed to support the West Hawai'i community.

Under the Florida-based WTC, the Ironman broadcast moved to NBC, where it expanded to a full 90-minute program. The increased exposure coincided with a surge in popularity, particularly at the international level, and the corporation was able to leverage its growing appeal into hugely profitable licensing agreements with Timex, Foster Grant, Cannondale and others.

"Triathlon started in San Diego, but it was the Ironman that built the sport," Collins says. "There was the 'oh my God' factor, the drama of the race, the television coverage. Triathlon was created on the apex of the Ironman."

The Collinses now live in Panama, where they've established a popular off-road triathlon. John Collins, who has tentative plans to compete in next year's Ironman, says he doesn't regret giving up ownership of the race.

"I get asked that question a lot," he says. "The real answer is that if I had kept it, it would never have gotten as big as it has. Valerie (Silk) had vision and that's what drove the event."

Judy Collins, whose early contributions to the event are often overlooked, is equally philosophical about the commercialization of the Ironman.

"I can't criticize the size or the commercialization because what is important is that the event continues to promote the development of human achievement," she says.

Bang for the buck

Tau Harrington, sports event coordinator for the Hawai'i Tourism Authority, also has no problem with the event's commercial possibilities.

This year, HTA has invested $225,000 for a sponsorship role in the event. In return, HTA will get advertising space on bumpers, billboards and other published materials; commercial spots on qualifying races carried by ESPN; and access to the event's participant directory and mailing lists.

"We look for sports events with high media impact, attendance that impacts the state, and events that happen in soft-shoulder periods to even out arrivals," Harrington says. "Ironman delivers in all these areas."

Harrington says the participant demographic also bodes well for Hawai'i: executives or professionals with an average household income of $90,000. The average participant stays about 10 days, two more than the average Hawai'i visitor.

The NBC broadcasts serve, in effect, as 90-minute commercials for the beauty of the Big Island. And the HTA spots have proved effective in directing potential visitors to the Hawai'i Visitors and Convention Bureau call-center. Harrington said center usually fields about 200 calls a day. That figure jumps to as much as 800 per day during the weekend the event is broadcast. (The event is broadcast twice a year.)

Last year, despite the fact that fewer athletes brought family and friends with them in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the event provided a significant boost to Kona's devastated economy.

A spot in the Ironman Triathlon World Championship — referred to simply as "Kona" by triathletes — is perhaps the most coveted thing in all of endurance sport.

WTC administers 23 qualifying races around the world and it's common for Kona hopefuls to hop from continent to continent trying to lock up a position. Each year, dozens of Hawai'i residents travel to Ironman Canada, Ironman Australia and other triathlons trying to make the cut.

The Keauhou Kona Triathlon was created to help Hawai'i residents get into the event, but, as with the other qualifying races, demand for spots is so high that the field is filled almost as soon as entries become available.

For non-elite athletes, WTC continues to make available 150 spots for U.S. citizens, 50 spots to international age-group competitors and five spots to physically challenged athletes — via a lottery system.

Karen Glanz, director of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Program at the Cancer Research Center of Hawai'i, is one of only 19 women to make it in through the U.S. lottery this year.

As a condition of her selection, Glanz had to complete one of the qualifying races. She picked Keauhou, a half-Ironman race.

"They don't tell you until April and Keauhou is in May," Glanz says.

To make matters worse, Glanz was in Amsterdam on business right before the qualifying race. She flew to Kona directly, arriving the night before the event.

"I barely finished," she says.

She may barely finish the Ironman as well, but it won't be for lack of effort. In the five months since Keauhou, Glanz has worked diligently on her own and with specialized training groups. At her peak, she spent about 26 hours a week on the road or in the ocean.

"There's a whole mystique that surrounds the race," she says, "but for me it's something I want to accomplish as a fitness goal and as the result of a determination to achieve something I didn't think I could do."

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2461.

Correction: The surname of Valerie Silk, a former operator of the Ironman Triathlon, was misspelled yesterday in a previous version of this story.