KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii - When you think of Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, you think of lush green palm trees, high-end resorts, tropical breezes and the warm blue Pacific water.
The most strenuous activity of the day might be a sunset stroll on the beach or sipping a mai tai at the King Kamehameha Hotel.
On Saturday, this sleepy resort village will turn into a frenzy of 1,800 triathletes from around the world as they compete in the 30th World Ironman Championships. Throughout the day, they will punish themselves through a 3.9-kilometre swim, a 180-kilometre bike ride along the Queen K highway, notorious for its wind gusts of up to 100 km/h, and a 42-kilometre marathon run through the sizzling lava fields, where the humidity can hover above 90 per cent. Imagine spending 10 hours in a sauna.
By any measure, the Ironman is considered the world's toughest single-day sporting event. What started out as a craze that was once considered a novelty bereft of reason just 20 years ago is now one of the fastest growing sports in the world. Twenty-two Ironman races are held around the globe every year. Most fill up within hours of opening for entries. That is in spite of the $400-plus it costs to enter, as well as the 18 to 24 hours a week of training and personal commitment it takes to get ready for the race.
Despite the gruelling conditions that Kona dishes out, more than 50,000 athletes from around the world have done all they can just to get here, short of selling their brother. The Hawaii World Championships are triathlon's Holy Grail, its Mount Everest. It's what every serious triathlete aspires to do.
Upwards of 30,000 spectators will line streets along Ali'i Drive to watch the finish on Saturday. Some 100 million more will watch the race unfold on television. The top professionals are vying for the $580,000 US prize purse, while the amateurs will be racing to place among the world's best in their age group.
What makes this race so unique is that the amateurs race side by side with the top pros. Imagine being able to suit up with the Edmonton Eskimos in the Grey Cup. Or the Edmonton Oilers in the Stanley Cup.
Stony Plain's Heather Fuhr is among the sport's elite. One of the most decorated female athletes in the sport, she picked up her 15th career win this May at Ironman Japan. Only Zimbabwe's Paula Newby-Fraser, a former Sports Illustrated female athlete of the year, has won more Ironman titles (24).
"The Hawaii Ironman is the Super Bowl of triathlon," says Fuhr, who got her start in the sport while racing for the University of Alberta. She's been based in San Diego since 1991 with partner Roch Frey, but returns home from time to time to see her family. "Competing in Hawaii is the ultimate goal of everyone that does triathlons. Most athletes will spend years just getting to race the Hawaii Ironman. It has become more and more difficult to qualify. It is very much a status symbol."
Fuhr has won Hawaii once (1997) and finished second here twice (2002 and 2004). Known for her blistering run, she still holds one of the fastest marathon times on record.
She's hoping to recover from her disappointing finish in 2005, where she arrived home almost an hour behind the winner, Switzerland's Natascha Badmann. Fuhr's time of 10 hours, three minutes was good for 25th place, among the slowest of her 16 starts in Hawaii. She boils it down to not being able to find her familiar run legs because of overtraining after winning Ironman USA three months before.
She's changed her approach this year, adding more recovery sessions between hard efforts. She hopes that will translate into a top-five finish on Saturday.
At 38, Fuhr is a bit long in the tooth for most pro sports, but she is still considered in her prime for an Ironman triathlete. After almost two decades of racing, she feels she no longer has anything to prove on the lava fields.
"I've gone from zero expectations in 1991, to many years of placing an incredible amount of pressure on myself, to just finishing well. Now, if I have a bad race, life will go on. And if I have a great race, it's icing on the cake."
A number of other Edmonton athletes are also racing on Saturday. Kerry Nisbet, a 50-year-old police officer, is racing Hawaii to raise awareness for Cops for Cancer Team Ironman. Nisbet started the fundraiser six years ago which has raised more than $1,000,000 for cancer research.
Twenty-two year old student Kevin Gregg saw the race on NBC five years ago and that's when he started dreaming of being here. He found out in April that he was one of 50 athletes selected through the Ironman lottery.
"What does it mean to be racing the Big Kahuna?" he asks. "It's a great honour. I just hope to finish." Any athlete who crosses the finish line in Hawaii before midnight -- and that's 17 hours of racing -- earns the title of Ironman.
Jason Stanton, 34, is also signed up. He's the son of runner and businessman John Stanton, founder of the Running Room. He's thought about racing Hawaii since he started competing in triathlons as a 12-year-old in Edmonton's Kids of Steel series. "My dad still has great memories of his Ironman. My wife is a two-time finisher and my sister-in-law has done Hawaii. It's a tough family to be in," he jokes.
"Everything about the race is tough, the swim, the wind on the bike, the heat on the run. Why am I doing this? Oh, right, I love this race!"
Men And Women Of Steel
A quick look at the 2006 Ford World Ironman Triathlon Championship on Saturday in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii:
Course: A 3.9-kilometre ocean swim, 180-kilometre bike race and marathon run of 42.195 kilometres.
Defending champions: Faris Al-Sultan, Germany; Natascha Badmann, Switzerland.
Start time: 7 a.m. local time (11 a.m. MT). Men's course record is eight hours four minutes eight seconds, women's is 8:55.28.
Field: 1,800 competitors from over 50 countries, including 95 Canadians.
Prize money: $580,000 US. Men's and women's champions each get $110,000.
Who to watch: Men: Stadler, Germany; Cameron Brown, New Zealand; Rutker Beke, Belgium. Women: Badmann, Switzerland; Michellie Jones, Australia; Canadians Lori Bowden, Victoria; Heather Fuhr, Edmonton; Lisa Bentley, Caledon, Ont.
On the web: www.ironmanlive.com.
Television: NBC, Dec. 9, 2 p.m.
This article originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal