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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, October 19, 2003


Canadians Peter Reid and Lori Bowden, estranged husband and wife, won the Ironman Triathlon World Championship.

West Hawaii Today via Associated Press

Ironman shares staying power with Hawi town

 •  Reid captures men's Ironman for third time; Bowden top woman

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Big Island town of Hawi encompasses about 1.2 square miles in North Kohala.

It is the northernmost town in the island, the cradle of the kingdom of Kamehameha, and a living monument to the rise and fall of Big Sugar in Hawai'i.

But to millions around the world, Hawi is synonymous with something else — pain and suffering.

Ironman cyclists headed by Paula Newby-Fraser of Encinitas, Calif., and Mathieu Meister of Lutter, France, make their way to the turnaround point in Hawi, a newly rejuvenated town in North Kohala on the Big Island.

Spectators in Hawi gather at the As Hawi Turns store next to the turnaround point for the biking portion of the Ironman triathlon, an endurance course that traverses the Big Island districts of Kohala and Kona.

Tim Wright • Special to The Advertiser

It's a reputation built and maintained on a single October day each year when the quintessential rural town becomes the axis of the world's most notorious endurance event, the Ironman Triathlon World Championship.

The Ironman yesterday in Kona comprised a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike race and a full 26.2-mile marathon. Hawi's town center is 56 miles from the pier at Kailua village in Kona, or exactly midway through the bike leg of the race.

In a good year, the journey up Highway 270 to Hawi is demanding. But when trade winds oppose riders, slowing them to a dry grind, and heat from the surrounding lava fields collapses upon itself like a gray-on-gray inferno, the challenge can be overwhelming.

"There's a 10-mile stretch just before Hawi that intimidates a lot of people," said Raul Boca, founder of the Team Boca Training Program, and an 11-time Ironman finisher.

"You've already been fighting the wind for quite a while, and then you have to go uphill. The heat starts to rise and the sun feels hotter because you aren't moving as fast."

Many triathletes consider Hawi the first critical test of the race. The decision to push, conserve or simply endure can decide the outcome before the race is even half done.

"It's a chance to test your legs, to see if you feel strong or weak," Boca said.

"A lot of people make their move on this stretch. Everybody wants to be the stronger one up the hill."

Yesterday's conditions were almost ideal, with gentle winds and moderate cloud cover. Even then, the exhausted cyclists wobbled, weaved, even fell as they made the hairpin turn in the heart of Hawi.

For some riders, reaching Hawi is a relief. The race — psychologically at least — is half over. Once the turn is made, the wind is usually at the riders' backs with 10 miles of downhill road ahead.

Yet even that can be treacherous. One strong crosswind can send the rider sprawling at 40 mph.

"It's tough," Boca said.

That, to the millions worldwide who follow the Ironman is Hawi — a place of lung burn, muscle failure and shaken psyches.

But to the roughly 940 people who reside there, that isn't the whole story.

Before Western contact, an estimated 8,000 Hawaiians lived in farm areas along the slopes of the North Kohala mountains, most in Hawi or in Kapa'au, two miles to the east.

Kamehameha was born nearby, and his presence in the North Kohala area remains strong.

There's a road leading to the King Kamehameha Birthplace State Memorial. Legendary Rock, which Kamehameha hoisted to assert his royal position, lies bolted to the ground in a clearing off the highway. And at the Civic Center in Kapa'au stands the original Kamehameha statue from which the Honolulu version was modeled.

The story of contemporary Hawi begins with the missionary Elias Bond, who in 1863 founded the North Kohala Sugar Plantation. The plantation provided employment to local residents and no small amount of wealth to Bond. In 1906 the Kohala Ditch project, the 22-mile irrigation system, was completed, drawing water from Kohala mountain rivers for use at the plantation.

The success of the plantation made North Kohala a major population center, and Hawi a boom town.

At one point, there were five mills operating in North Kohala.

"This town was not always a small, sleepy town, " said Richard Nakahara, whose family has operated grocery stores on the island for three generations. "There used to be 20,000 people who lived here. If you talk to people today, you'll find out that a lot of them have roots here. This was one of the big towns in the old days."

In 1952, the Nakaharas took over the old plantation store, establishing one of the community's most stable family businesses. Nakahara Grocery Store retains the original structure of the plantation store.

In fact, Hawi still looks much the same as it did decades earlier, with buildings dating back to the early 1900s.

But the town is not the same and has not been for many years.

"When I was growing up, the sugar mills were being mechanized, so naturally they did away with a lot of the physical labor," Nakahara said. "And so the population went down. When I was in college, a lot of people kept moving out because there was no work."

Rhayce Watai, 10, helps disperse water to Ironman competitors bicycling through Hawi on the northern part of the triathlon route.

Tim Wright • Special to The Advertiser

By the time the plantation harvested its last crop in 1975, the population of North Kohala had dwindled to about 3,000. Economic stagnation that would linger for more than two decades had settled in.

"When I first moved here (from New York) 12 years ago, it was quite a depression," said Peter Pomeranze, owner of the Hawi Bakery and president of the North Kohala Merchants Association.

"This town went through some really rough times. But then two or three years ago, we started to notice a turnaround. Last year the improvement was really pronounced."

He said Hawi is enjoying something of a renaissance, with antique shops, bookstores, cafés and other tourist-oriented efforts joining older businesses on the strip.

"This is an old-fashioned, small town, but we're also offering now a level of sophistication," he said.

For Pomeranze, Hawi's annual encounter with the Ironman is an ideal way to show off the town's upswing. "Financially (the Ironman) is not that big a thing, But it's a nice thing to call attention to the community. A lot of visitors have been coming in this week just to see what the bike turnaround looks like, and then walking around seeing what else we have to offer."

Yesterday outside the Nakahara store, in the open space where horse-and-buggies once tread, widow Martina Dela Cruz sold small packets of cascaron sticks, banana lumpia and fresh fruit to visitors at the weekly farmers market. Directly across the street, a homemade sign advertising spicy crawdads was mounted on the back of a truck.

At Kohala Coffee Mill, visitors ordered decaf latte and nonfat cappuccino as they waited for the first bicycle riders to appear. "We all like to come out and cheer them on," said Lachelle Crabbe, who works at the café.

Across the street, David and Julie Santana sat with their children, Kennith, Jasmine and Frank, and soaked up the sights of 300 locals and visitors casually mixing.

"Hawi is quiet, lazy not fast-paced at all," David Santana said. "I helped out at the Ironman a couple of times at Kailua and it was really hectic — just thousands of people all around. "

With Highway 270 closed to traffic, Kohala Middle School registrar Rickey Ricketts had to ride his road bike six miles to see the action.

Gary Spaynor of Louisville, Ky., who came to see daughter Shelby Sheffield compete, navigated the side roads to see the swim start, the swim-to-bike transition, and the Hawi turnaround.

As soon as Sheffield rode in and out of town (22 seconds total elapsed time), Spaynor and his family were in the car and on their way to the next transition.

Of course no one had a better or more convenient vantage point than Vernon Emeliano and his friends.

The 25-year-old cook was born and raised in North Kohala and for the past four years he and his girlfriend, Daeneen Duque, have shared a home right on the lip of Highway 270, just a few doors down from the aging Toyama Building and across the street from the Bamboo Restaurant, where he works.

"It's kind of cool," he said, "and I'm home."

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