Behind the scenes of the world’s toughest and nicest triathlon, which is set to take place this weekend on the Big Island of Hawaii.
The Ultraman World Championship is unlike any other triathlon. With a unique format and history, it has fascinated, challenged and defeated the world’s fittest athletes for nearly three decades. On Friday, Nov. 29, 35 athletes will vie for the title of Ultraman World Champion by circumnavigating Hawaii’s Big Island in three days. First, they’ll swim 6.2 miles from Kailua Bay to Keahou Bay and bike 90 miles; on the second day, they’ll cycle 171.4 miles point-to-point; and on the third day, they’ll run a double marathon to wind up at the Old Kona Airport State Park.
But the distance covered isn’t what makes this event special. We spoke with race director Jane Bockus to learn more about the celebration of endurance that’s captivated athletes and fans for nearly three decades. Below, her thoughts on the race. This interview took place before the 2012 race.
“The first year they did it, you had to finish by midnight New Year’s Eve. After that, they decided 12-hour cutoffs were a little better than having to wait around for everyone to finish at midnight.”
“The race was moved to November after the first year mainly because people didn’t want to be crewing and be away from their families over Christmas and New Year’s. By having it Thanksgiving weekend, a lot of people have a four-day weekend.”
“The distance is what it takes to go around the island. Originally the bike course was a little shorter, but then lava ran across the road and that’s why the bike got a little bit longer on day two. The double marathon has always been the same distance on day three.”
“We’ve never had to cancel the race. In 1992, Hurricane Iniki had gone past the island and hit Kauai. The fellows who came that year dedicated all of their entry fees, with our permission of course, to the Hurricane Iniki fund to help Kauai.”
“Some years there are very strong winds, so people haven’t finished because of that. One year there was a very bad current out of Keauhou Bay. There was a full moon so there was a bigger tide and 17 people didn’t make the cutoff on day one just because they were in the water for so long on the swim.”
What Makes It Special
“Everybody that works for Ultraman Hawaii—we’re all volunteers. Nobody gets paid. That way we all pull for one another. If something needs doing everybody just steps in and does it.” Everyone from the bike mechanics to timers and the massage therapists are volunteers.
“It’s small enough that everybody gets to know everyone. The first night, we all sleep at a dormitory at a military camp, and we all have a big dinner together. So we all get to know each other and it’s like a big family. We encourage everyone to help each other too. If somebody’s athlete needs bike parts or something, other crews will help them out. It’s not a cutthroat thing. It’s kind of a journey, part of a big adventure.”
The race was founded on three principles: “Aloha, which means love—not romantic love, more the love you have for your fellow man and caring. Kokua means help, and we encourage everybody to help one another. Ohana is the word for family. By the end of the three days we are a big family.”
The Future Of Ultraman
“I’d like to see more events in different places. We have one in Canada now, and we have one in Great Britain, which takes place in Wales. This year we may have two people shadowing us learning about the event and how it’s put on.”