The Way I See It

By Pat Bigold

Tuesday, October 14, 1997

Triathlon truly
remarkable achievement

PART of being a sportswriter has to do with being able to marvel at the feats I witness.

I think it's important to allow myself to utter a "wow" once in a while -- even if I utter it very quietly

Detachment is the rule of thumb in journalism but, cold detachment is counter-productive.

In sports reporting, what we write about is usually something we couldn't do ourselves. No shame in admitting that it's often something I could never do at any time in my life.

I cover prep kids who clock 10.9 running the 100-meter dash, slam-dunk a basketball, and catch a football at full stride under double-coverage.

I cover professional distance runners who can jockey for position in a pack at 21 miles and churn out 4-1/2-minute miles doing it.

But I have never witnessed up close anything like what I'll see Saturday in the Ironman Triathlon World Championships on the Kona Coast.

The event has been going on since 1978 but this will be my first trip to report on it.

Human beings will race each other through a 140.6-mile Odyssey under some of the most mind-bending conditions. Break it down -- a 2.4-mile ocean swim, a 112-mile bike race, followed by a 26.2-mile footrace.

The Ironman is the oddest, most daring, most punishing and most dramatic event I can imagine.

WHAT those 1,500 or so triathletes set out to do seems no less daunting than an attempt at the summits of Everest or Kilimanjaro.

Considering that I would never be seen or heard from again if I somehow made it to the swimmers' turnaround point in Kailua Bay, this whole event challenges my beliefs about what the human body can or should endure.

I think it's something just short of a miracle that anyone can develop his or her body to the point of finishing this ordeal -- let alone do it in 8 hours, 4 minutes and 8 seconds, as Belgian Luc Van Lierde did last year in winning it. More incredible is that Van Lierde (who has withdrawn from this year's Ironman) owns the Ironman distance world mark of 7:50:27.

I won't be on the desolate Queen Kaahumanu Highway with the bikers and runners when the reflected heat from asphalt and endless lava rock causes temperatures to reach 100 degrees, and the wind gusts pound thin, aching bodies at up to 60 mph.

I'll be in the media center in Kailua-Kona, safe from the heat, the wind, the strain and eventual agony that many will experience in trying to complete the Ironman.

THE average finishing time last year was 11 hours and 30 minutes, but there are some who come laboring down Alii Drive toward Kailua-Kona at midnight or well beyond. Some as old as 70 or 80.

Anyone who remembers Julie Moss crawling across the finish line in 1982 on ABC's Wide World of Sports knows how watching this event can gnaw at your gut and make you feel like you've got something in your eye.

It was a 19th century New England transcendentalist poet -- Henry David Thoreau -- who once said it was a good idea for us to see our natural limits surpassed every now and then.

I see my limits surpassed constantly in this job I have as an observer of athletes. Unable to directly identify with the pain, pressure and ultimate exhilaration they feel on the plane of competition, I simply marvel at their feats.

That's what I do best, and I'm not ashamed to say it. My words spring from nothing better than an unabashed sense of amazement.

Pat Bigold has covered sports for daily newspapers
in Hawaii and Massachusetts since 1978.

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