In a loud booming voice, “Elle, you are an Ironman – Spectacthlete!”
Last week Ben and I spent all day Saturday cheering and supporting our dear friend and amazing badass, Kelly Phuah. It was our honor to be in Kona fulfilling our long-awaited promise that we would be in Kona when (not if) she qualified, which she did in her second attempt at the Ironman distance earlier this year.
I’ll have another post about our fun on the Big Island that’s not Ironman-related. We were oddly in sync with the Phuah family for the entire trip. Wed night, Kelly and her father came over for dinner to our AirBnB on a flower farm, which had the most spectacular lanai overlooking the ocean. It was really lovely catching up with Kelly and getting acquainted with her gregarious and joke-loving father.
On Thursday we had no plans to meet up with the Phuahs, but I kid you not, Ben and I walked into the SAME RESTAURANT AT THE SAME TIME as the Phuahs (now including Simon, Kelly’s husband). And this restaurant was not even in the main downtown area of Kona, but a little farther away. Later that afternoon, once again, we found each other at the Ironman Expo.
Friday we had pre-race dinner with the Phuahs. The waitstaff at the restaurant was very attentive and gung-ho about wishing Kelly luck for the next day.
Saturday was the big day. Ben and I woke up early in order to meet up with Simon and Kelly’s father at their hotel at 5:30 am. Kelly had left even earlier. Our plan was to leave our car at the Phuah’s hotel and go with Simon and Kelly’s dad in their car to their friend’s hotel, which was nicely situated at Mile 2 of the marathon course and two miles away from the finish/start area.
We got to the swim start area about 6 am and it was already swarming with people. If you want to see anything of the swim, you need to be there much earlier. Based on the advice of the friend, we had decided not to see the swim start and go to the bike course. Since we had quite a bit of time because Kelly wasn’t going into the water til much later, we walked around to soak in the atmosphere. The excitement was palpable. Ben and I spent much of the week saying to each other, “Can you believe it? We’re here. We’re here in Mecca for Mecca.” Although I’m not a triathlete and Ben’s a casual one at best, we’re both quite interested in the sport of triathlons and we watch the broadcast of Kona every year eagerly. We always thought it would be great fun to go, but we knew that it would be even more special to go if a friend were competing.
Unlike any other event that I’ve been to, the spectators and the volunteers are just as into the event as the competitors themselves. Don’t get me wrong, at big events like marathons, spectators are into the event, but nothing like what you see at Kona. There’s really nothing like it. So many people were walking around wearing shirts proclaiming that they were on Team [insert name here]. I wished that we had made Team Kelly shirts too.
The swim start starts with a cannon. First the pro men, then the pro women, then the male age groupers, and finally the female age groupers. That’s four booms of a cannon. We saw a bit of the splashing of the pro men in between people’s legs who were standing on the sea wall, but we quickly gave up and headed to scout a good area to see Kelly head out on the bike course.
We stood at the intersection of Pulani and Kuakini Highway, where we could see Kelly three times because of how the bike course was designed. We stood at the southeast corner, but belatedly we realized that we would have been better off at the northwest corner so that Kelly would have had a chance to see us too. After we saw Kelly go by twice, we decided to move to a different less crowded area so that she could see us on the bike course. Mission accomplished! Kelly saw us.
After that, we had several hours until we would see Kelly on the run course. We went to a cafe (Island Lava Java) where we ate and drank. I knew it was going to be a long day, so I ate a hearty meal. I was quite thankful for the apartment by Mile 2 because it was getting hot and humid quickly and I was starting to wilt. I napped for an hour. Simon kept us updated on Kelly’s progress. He was glued to the app and constantly monitoring her and her competitors. Kelly was 29th of the water for her age group, but she was steadily and quickly making progress. By the time she was done with the bike course, she was 13th.
We periodically left the apartment to cheer for people (the pros and other friends of the Phuahs). Because it was so hot, I couldn’t stay out the entire time, so I went back to the apartment to rest. When Kelly was due to arrive, we all rushed out to cheer. Simon and Ben ran a half mile or so with her on the way out. Then they came back and we waited for Kelly to come back because this section was an out-and-back. When Kelly came back, once again, Ben and Simon ran with her for a little bit. I was too hot and tired.
We had one final rest at the apartment before we left it to go to our final cheer spot, which was approximately Mile 25. The hot sun took its toll and Kelly dropped a few spots back. We were getting concerned that perhaps she might not make her goal of sub-11 as the finishing time prediction of the app kept creeping closer and closer to 6:20 pm, but Simon reassured us that her pace was keeping steady. We cheered loudly for her one last time and then we rushed over to the finish area so we could see her cross and hear the announcement. Ben and I somehow managed to secure a pretty good spot and we had a great view of Kelly crossing the threshold and hearing the announcer say, “Kelly Phuah, you are an Ironman!” She raised her arms in exultation! She did it in 10:56 and 16th in her age group – an amazing accomplishment for her first Kona Ironman.
And we did it! After a long day in the hot sun, we were all Ironman spectacthletes!
On Sunday, Ben and I had a long travel day back to New York. Serendipitously, we were on the same flight as Simon (Kelly and her dad were spending another day in Hawaii), but what was even crazier was that we were all in the same row. I swear we did not plan any of this.
If you’re a fan of triathlons, especially Ironman distances, it really is an incredible experience to be in Kona for the World Championships. The environment and atmosphere are electric with excitement and seeing everything play out in front of your eyes is unbelievable.