KAILUA-KONA — Two hours before the first professional athletes entered the waters of Kailua Bay for the 2018 Ironman World Championship, the stars that hung over Kona were mixed with an electrified air of anxiety and anticipation, while volunteers who had been working virtually nonstop put the finishing touches turning the end of Alii Drive into the site of a competition that draws the world’s top athletes every year.
“Good chaos” is how one Ironman volunteer at Kailua Pier on Friday morning described the days leading up to the annual competition. Later that morning, with barely 24 hours before the race kicked off, volunteer and communication director Franz Weber likened it to “a big puzzle.”
“You have to put every piece together,” he said.
It’s an effort that requires somewhere in the realm of 6,000 volunteers, he said, across about 190 jobs. Those volunteers start about two weeks before the event with airport greeters and bike ambassadors.
And as the championship draws closer, the energy — and volume of volunteers — intensifies. Weber said in the area of the finish line alone there would be close to 1,000 volunteers.
But finding folks willing to help, he said, isn’t so difficult, saying somewhere between 800 and 900 people come to Kona from other countries just to volunteer. The local population, he added, is also quick to lend a hand.
“People want to help,” he said. “People want to support. It’s really the aloha spirit.”
And among the teams of volunteers hard at work Friday morning was one team dedicated to supporting their Kokua Crew cohort. More than 24 hours before the race got underway, Margo Takata and her team were preparing the volunteer nutrition station, a tent near the finish line where volunteers would have a place to stop in for refreshments while helping make the competition a success.
Meanwhile, athletes too were taking an opportunity to prep themselves Friday morning, taking to the waters of Kailua Bay to get in a good swim before the competition kicked off the next day.
Among them were Jacqui Giuliano and her husband Ryan Giuliano, who on Friday morning were getting ready for their sixth Ironman in Kona, happening the same day as their sixth anniversary.
Ryan Giuiliano said the event has become a yearly tradition for the couple, and they’ve already qualified for next year’s event.
Jacqui Giuliano said their final day typically includes a swim followed by breakfast and then a bike and run.
After check-in, tradition takes them to Island Lava Java — a burger for her and a pizza for him.
But between the nerves and anxiety, Ryan Giuliano said the day before the race is “probably the worst day of the entire process.”
“Once the gun goes off on Saturday, everything changes though,” he said. “It’s sort of like all those nerves just immediately go away, but just those 24 hours of dealing with them that this is the most miserable part of the whole experience.”
Through the afternoon, crews continued working on the finish line, attaching canopies and lining the home stretch of Alii Drive with flags and banners honoring prior years’ champions.
Shortly before 5 p.m. Bill Stockton, coordinator for swim-run transition bags, said they were about three quarters of the way through registering athletes.
Stockton’s worked this aid station for 36 years, he said.
“I enjoy it,” he said. “It’s fun to see the international visitors that come to town from all over.”
This was the time to meet and talk with some of the athletes — Stockton said they’d get 60 athletes a minute coming through the aid station once the competition got underway.
Saturday morning, an hour before first light shone over Hualalai, Palani Road was already filling with crowds energized for the day to come.
And with less than two hours to go before the start, athletes filed behind the Courtyard King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel toward the body marking station, passing through a white fence fronted with a sandwich board: “Athletes only,” it read.
Among the crowd were supporters and family members, including Hazel Shapcott of New Zealand, “proud mummy” of competitor James Shapcott, who would be participating in his second Ironman World Championship.
“It’s just like larger than life,” said Hazel Shapcott. “And you have no idea what it’s like until you get here and see all these people.”
And knowing the dedication and effort the day’s athletes had to put in to get to this point amazes her, she said.
“They’ve all had to qualify and, yeah, it’s a big journey,” she said, “and you really appreciate it when you get here and you see them all.”
Waiting with her was her son’s coach, Michelle Duffield of Western Australia. This year marks Duffield’s first time back in Kona since competing as an athlete in 2011 and 2013.
“And it’s quite surreal coming back as a coach. It is great knowing I don’t have to do this race though,” she said, laughing.
Duffield trained four athletes in this year’s race, three of them here for their first time.
“So to get them here for that experience has been quite an honor,” she said.
Less than an hour and a half later, at 6:25 a.m., the first of the professional men made their way down the steps into the bay making their way toward the starting line, followed just minutes later by the professional women.
Then with the blast of a cannon and roar of cheers from the crowd lining the sea wall, the athletes were off, their eyes set on victory.