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Posted: October 12, 2005

Triathlon: 'World Series of triathlons' pushes athletes to the limit

You don't have to be crazy to compete during the toughest day in sports, but it helps, reports Lynne Bermel from Kona, Hawaii.

Imagine this: You're lined up at centre ice in the Stanley Cup final. To one side is Daniel Alfredsson. Just beyond him is Mike Fisher. About as likely coming across a reserved Toronto Maple Leafs fan in an Ottawa bar, right?

Maybe so, but for those taking part in the World Series of triathlons -- the 27th Ford Ironman World Championship -- something similar becomes a reality on Saturday on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Some 1,600 amateurs from six continents and the top 150 professionals in the sport have invaded this normally sleepy seaside village resort, getting in their final workouts before the "Big Kahuna."

Moments before the starting cannon, participants say their final prayers before the Canadian Ironman in Penticton, B.C. (August 2005) Photo: Steve Bower

At the crack of dawn, the top age group amateurs and pros will dive into the Pacific Ocean to begin the toughest day in sport. While the winners will take about eight hours, everyone who finishes under the 17-hour cutoff time will earn the title of "Ironman."

Why would anyone in their right mind subject themselves to a 3.8-kilometre swim against flailing arms and legs, jutting elbows and ocean swells, and then follow it with a 180-kilometre cycle against the Mumuku island winds, which have been known to throw riders off their bikes, only to finish, mercifully, with a 42.2-kilometre marathon across sweltering, barren lava fields?

Tony O'Keefe, a Major in Canada's Air Force, contemplates the swim course leading up to his 20th Ironman. Photo: Steve Bower

"Because it's the chance to test your inner limits," says Tony O'Keefe, 43, an air force major from Kingston and a veteran of 20 Ironmans.

"I've been doing triathlons since Cale was born. (His son is a first-year student at the University of Ottawa). He's one of my biggest supporters. When he walks around in an Ironman T-shirt, he takes it as a huge compliment when someone says his Dad is crazy."

"Once you do a few of these things, it gets in your blood. Ironman is really a metaphor for life. Life isn't easy. Neither is the Ironman. If you can get through an Ironman, you can pretty much get through anything. "

O'Keefe isn't alone. Ironman and extreme events like it have seen a huge surge in popularity over the past decade. Most Ironman events are sold out within hours, despite the $450 U.S. entry fee. More than 40,000 triathletes tried to qualify for the Ford Ironman World Championships. Less than one in 20 made it.

How did an event that was conceived over beers in a Honolulu bar get to where it is today, rivaling the Tour de France as the most prestigious endurance event in the world? A race that is covered around the globe, led by NBC and its Emmy Award-winning broadcast, which draws more than six million viewers every year?

To find the answer, you'd have to dial back 27 years. At that time, three U.S. marines were trying to settle an argument after a local running race about who was the fittest man in Hawaii. Their solution? Combine the three toughest individual events in Oahu: The Waikiki Roughwater Swim (3.8 kilometres), the Around-Oahu Bike Race (180 kilometres, a two-day event back then) and the Honolulu Marathon (42.2 kilometres).

In its first year, a mere 15 competitors lined up for event. The winning time was 11 hours 46 minutes. By comparison, last year's winner, Germany's Norman Stadler, came home in eight hours 33 minutes.

Efforts to get the local Honolulu paper to cover the event were met with derisive laughter from the sports department. They said any race of agony and torture would quickly fade into oblivion. Undaunted, the race continued.

The following year (1979), Barry McDermott, a reporter for Sports Illustrated, happened to stumble upon the race while covering a professional golf tournament in Honululu. As soon as his article hit the newsstands, letters began flooding into the Ironman office, including one from ABC's Wide World of Sports.

The race captured world-wide attention two years later when ABC cameras caught a disoriented and dehydrated Julie Moss, who had been leading the race, clawing her way to the finish line.

Also among the early trailblazers were a foursome from Ottawa: Ronny Philips, a welder, known for his legendary endurance rides; Dr. Don Johnson, a renowned knee surgeon; Kirk DeFazio, a former defensive back for the Ottawa Rough Riders, and Dave Dyer, a sports administration officer. Dyer was so affected by the Hawaii race that he came home and created the National Capital Triathlon.

Tomorrow: A look at Canadians who have dominated this event over the years.

This article was also published in the Ottawa Citizen, reprinted with permission of Lynne Bermel

© Copyright 2005 Lynne Bermel

Lynne Bermel, a former world-ranked pro Ironman competitor, is a senior marketing & PR consultant living in Ottawa. She is also a freelance writer and TV sports show host. You can reach her at: lynnebermel@rogers.com.

You can access previous columns by Lynne at: LB_Columns

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