Debbie Hornsby and Cliff Rigsbee.
By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin

the premier challenge
for triathletes

By Pat Bigold

Cliff Rigsbee and Debbie Hornsby know what it's like to race into the virtual oblivion of Kona's Gatorade Ironman Triathlon.

"There's no scenery other than the lava fields and very few spectators on the course, which makes it very hard," said the 32-year-old Hornsby, Hawaii's first female finisher last year.

"Then there's the heat (82 to 95 degrees, 90 percent humidity) and the wind that comes whistling out of nowhere with gusts up to 50 mph last year. It's very daunting mentally. To keep your wits about you, you have be mentally tough."

The 43-year-old Rigsbee agrees.

"Your biggest concern is concentration out there," he said. "The barren landscape is a mind-breaker. You can literally see the heat rising from the road. You can see mirages."

Rigsbee and Hornsby, two veteran Honolulu triathletes, will be among 1,500 competitors from 60 countries and 50 states who will enter the water at the Kailua pier at 7 a.m. Saturday and embark upon an all-day test that pushes their bodies to bizarre extremes of endurance.

There are Ironman contests in several other nations but the 20-year-old Kona ordeal is considered the world championship and offers a total purse of $250,000.

Contestants swim 2.4 miles out from and back to the pier. Then they sprint for their bicycles for a 112-mile trek that will take them north along the Kona Coast to the small village of Hawi. They will return along the same route.

Then comes the 26.2-mile marathon footrace through Kailua and onto the same course used for the bike race. The runners finish in Kailua on Alii Drive, where up to 20,000 spectators will be massed along the road.

The German men's delegation looks especially strong this year and six-time winner Dave Scott of Boulder, Colo., is back. Australia's Greg Welch, potentially the fastest runner in the marathon field, is also back and he's coached by last year's winner, Mark Allen.

The 38-year-old Allen, of Cardiff, Calif., has retired after a 15-year career and just as many Ironman victories as Scott.

Germany's Lothar Leder, who was sixth last year, comes in after setting the world record for the 140.6-mile triathlon distance in July with a time of 7:57:02 in Roth, Germany. It was the sport's first sub-eight-hour race.

Another German, Thomas Hellriegel, built a 13-minute lead on Allen during the bike race last year and held first place until the 23-mile mark of the marathon. His bike time was 4:29:37 against 35 mph headwinds.

"The Germans are just animals on the bike," said Hornsby.

On the women's side, defending champion Karen Smyers of Lincoln, Mass., will find herself once again contending with seven-time winner Paula Newby-Fraser of Encinitas, Calif.

Newby-Fraser surprised the Ironman field by announcing only four days before the race that she will once again compete.

Last year, she had a commanding 12-minute lead in the bike race but was overtaken by Smyers with a quarter-mile remaining in the marathon. Newby-Fraser then collapsed about 300 yards from the finish and took 20 minutes to recover before she crossed the line in fourth.

Newby-Fraser has had victories this year in the Ironman Australia (Tuncurry, New South Wales) and the Ironman Canada (Penticton, British Columbia).

Newby-Fraser is also the world record holder for the Ironman distance with a time of 8:50:53, set in Germany in 1993.

Rigsbee will be entering his 13th Ironman. His best finish was 21st and he has won his age division five times. He keeps coming back to chase his elusive goal of going under nine minutes.

"I got within 1:34 of that in 1992," said Rigsbee.

Brent Imonen, a Kaiser High graduate who now lives in San Diego, also will compete. He was Hawaii's top male finisher last year.

This will be Hornsby's fifth straight Ironman. Her best performances have been 14th in 1994 as an amateur and 14th in 1995 as a professional.

Other Hawaii women competing include Rachel Portner, Lindsay Weeks and Bridgett O'Meara.

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