It's a special place, the finish line for the Ironman World Championship in Kona. I always knew that, watching from afar on NBC's tape-delayed, pre-packaged highlight show. But now after spending a week in Kona with Timex Sports, and a full night at the finish line, I am convinced it is like no other event in sports.
The overall winners get a lot of the fanfare, applause and support, and rightfully so. And indeed, when Pete Jacobs and Leanda Cave, the men's and women's winner, respectively, broke the tape Saturday afternoon, it was truly a great scene. Jacobs saying simply, "I'm in love," made for a perfectly succinct post-race interview.
But the real fun -- and the truly inspiring, unforgettable, remarkable moments -- doesn't happen until the final hour of the race.
Competitors have until midnight to finish, a full 17 hours after their day began. And some need every second to complete the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run.
That final hour was like nothing I'd ever experienced before in sports. The streets and bleachers are packed with fans, some of whom have also been out for a full 17 hours, turning downtown Kona into a party. An energy takes over, an energy that is pure and sincere and contagious, led by Mike Reilly, the Voice of the Ironman, who announces every finisher as though they were part of his family.
And when the crowd cheers as one, trying to help the final few racers down the finish chute as the clock ticks down ... well, it's hard to put into words, really. So let's just watch some videos.
This is from my vantage point in the VIP section (thanks again, Timex!):
I think my favorite part of the video comes at the 1:11 the mark -- in the bottom left corner, the guy in the blue shirt who appears, banging the Tyr thundersticks, is Andy Potts. He's a professional triathlete, and finished in 7th place -- and was still out there some six hours later, cheering for Harriet Anderson. The guy who presents her with a finisher's medal? That's Pete Jacobs, the men's overall winner.
In many ways, finishing last is greater than finishing first.