So here we are, less than 2 weeks away, and I am sitting at LAX en route to the Big Island. All of the hard work (training wise at least) has been done, the next few weeks are about making sure I don’t undermine my fitness, getting a bit more rest and recovery and most of all enjoying the build up to the biggest endurance race in the world. Instead of biting my nails down to small tiny stumps, I try to focus my mind (and mouth) on the things I love about racing at Kona and being on the unique, beautiful and enchanting island of Hawaii. Here are just some of them………….
- The entire population of Hawaii seems to live in ‘slippas’. Not the practical, often tartan, footwear more commonly worn by 90 year old men (and my dad) but flip flops. In all colours. And always without heels. You’ve got to love a place where shoes are shunned in favour of letting it all hang out (especially if you have four toes the same length like me).
- Bikes (motor and push) are largely made for transporting surfboard carrying locals. Never ceases to amaze me how one man can simultaneously peddle whilst holding a 6ft long board in one hand and a can of beer in the other. And traffic jams are practically non existent – and when they occur they are caused by drivers pulling over to take a picture of a whale/dolphin, a sunset, a bikini clad babe or occasionally a World Champion athlete out on a training run.
- Food. In Hawaii everything is supersized. Fortunately not only the offerings of burgers, fries and fizzy pop but everything else besides – they have avocados as big as my head, lychees which look like eyeballs by taste like heaven, bananas (and marriage proposing men dressed as bananas) and nuts. Macadamia nuts particularly. Salted, roasted, made into butter, put in pies or covered in chocolate. Inspirational. And where else in the world can you got to a restaurant and order a ‘poke’? And be served raw fish salad. There are 100 types of poke in Hawaii. I wouldn’t mind sampling them. And, sliding down the culinary scale a notch, the favourite Hawaiian comfort food is none other than Spam. Yes, with a capital “S”, not the offerings of small, excitement inducing blue pills in our email inbox, but the infamous canned blocks of pale pink pork parts which comes in a mind boggling variety of varieties – Spam Classic, Spam Hot & Spicy, Spam Less Sodium, Spam Lite (surely an oxymoron?), Spam Oven Roasted Turkey, Hickory Smoked, and Spam Spread. So beloved is this ‘meat’ product it’s served at the island’s McDonalds. Supersized I am sure.
- Having studied Geography at University I am a sucker for all things environmental, and Hawaii boasts 11 of the 13 global climatic zones – according to one internet site “you can hit the beach, soak up the sun and heli-ski at the top of Mauna Kea in the same day”. However this site also describes Hawaii as “a place where you’re never too hot or too cold, but always ‘just right’”. ‘Just right’ is not the adjective I would use to describe the weather whilst racing at Kona. ‘Bloody brutal’ would be more accurate description of the ‘roasty toasty’ climatic zone.
- The clear blue ocean around Kona is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. Here we have a swim course in which the underwater scenery is akin to being in an aquarium, with fishes of every colour, shape and size (seeing them makes me feel guilty for having a ‘poke’), not to mention supersized Green Turtles, pods of dolphins and pods of cameramen with supersized lens’. Marginally better than the weed filled, toilet coloured, intestinal problem inducing water that characterises most other swim courses.
- And after the swim we have a bike and run course which feels like you are on the moon – black, dried ‘cow pat looking’ sea of lava as far as the eye can see, only stopping when it hits ocean or the green slopes of the volcano. For many athletes the lava fields remind them of a dead/death zone. For me the landscape is alive – the recent remnant of a huge volcanic eruption. And I try and remind myself of this when I am running into the (no) Energy Lab like furnace.
- Contrast the lava fields with the infamous Alii Drive. This is sacred ground, the road that stretches about 7miles south along the coast and the site of the famous finish line, from where Mike Reilly calls every athlete home. Along Alii Drive there are huge palm trees, bushes of hibiscus – the Hawaiian state flower and sugary white sandy beaches – complete with sugary white British holiday makers slowing turning a delightful shade of lobster in the ‘roasty toasty’ climatic zone.
- At what other race do scantily clad men hang a garland of flowers, or ‘leis’ around the necks of every finisher? Every lei I have received has meant something to me; some of them I have framed and others I have returned to the land from which they came. Throwing the flowers one by one into the ocean. To me, receiving a lei is the epitome of Hawaiian culture, their hospitality and deep connection with the natural world.
- And then there are the Mai tais. A delicious combination of rum, curacao, lime juice and mint and the obligatory paper umbrella. Post race happy hour indeed. After all…when in Rome.
- Last but not least, Hawaii is the magical, beautiful, hallowed island where I can put myself to the ultimate physical and mental test, and pit myself against the best endurance athletes – male and female – on the planet. And this year the competition is even stronger. I feel so lucky to be able to race World Champions like Julie Dibens, Mirinda Carfrae, Catriona Morrison and so many others. Their presence will make me fight harder, dig deeper, and aspire to even greater heights. That’s what competition is all about. This doesn’t scare me. It excites me. But there is no added pressure. No matter what happens on 9 October I will always be a triple World Champion. So as I get ready to step on that plane to Kona my mind is at peace – I am journeying towards the place where I managed to make my dreams come true three times over. I can’t wait to land on the Big Island and give you all a performance to remember….but maybe I’ll save my supersized helping of pale pork parts until after the hard work has truly finished. Aloha!
Original published in 220 Magazine (edition 252)