Five weeks till Kona

It has been 47 weeks since Pete Jacobs of Australia and Leanda Cave of Great Britain claimed victories at the 2012 Ironman World Triathlon Championships here in Kailua-Kona. One of the most ferocious sporting events ever concocted, nearly 1,900 athletes from around the world converge on our small town to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2-miles – consecutively. For spectators, it’s a day full of goosebumps and inspiration. For the athletes, after many months of personal sacrifices and rigorous training, it becomes the “icing on the cake” – a day they’ll remember forever.

Professional triathletes finish in about eight hours. The rest of the field has 16 hours to complete the race. The physical endurance and mental strength required to reach the finish line is mind-boggling. There is no “Couch to Ironman” program – there is no faking it – these athletes must put in some legitimate training time. And even with that, there are no guarantees – especially in tough Kona conditions.

I recently caught up with three Kailua-Kona residents as they ready themselves for their first Ironman: Dan Gampon, Michael DeCarli and Jon Jokiel.

“Highly determined,” is probably the best way to describe 18-year-old Gampon. A recent Kealakehe High School graduate, Gampon splits his time between college studies and triathlon training – with hopes to be one of the youngest finishers at this year’s event.

“The triathlon community here in Kona has been like a new family,” Gampon said. “I love everything about my training, it’s a new lifestyle, and it’s what I love doing.”

Like most Ironman hopefuls, Gampon sees the long-term rewards worth the short-term sacrifices. He chose to delay job opportunities and has temporarily put his social schedule on the back burner while focusing on the training necessary to reach his goal, “to finish with heart.”

Keeping it fun, some of his training sessions come with catchy nicknames such as “Mellow Mondays, Hardcore T-Days, Double Swim Humpdays, Friendly Fridays,” and of course, “Hell Weekends” – a Saturday bike ride of about 100 miles followed by a 20-mile Sunday run.

DeCarli first dreamed of crossing the Ironman finish line after watching the event on TV when he was 14 years old. Twenty-four years later, DeCarli will finally get to have his day in Kona.

For most of his younger years, DeCarli’s primary interest was weightlifting – resulting in an unfriendly triathlon weight of 220 pounds. After moving to Kailua-Kona in 2001, living amidst triathlon’s most sacred ground, it was only a matter of time before his teenage dreams caught up with him.

For the past three years, DeCarli has been on a mission to secure one of the few available Ironman slots. He developed his fitness and raced himself into shape while regularly competing in various multisport events such as Peaman, Team Mango, Lavaman, and the challenging Hawaii 70.3 Ironman – which ultimately opened the door to compete this October.

Currently a leaner 185 pounds, DeCarli’s “triathlete transformation” did not come easy. Similar to the challenges faced by most amateur triathletes, DeCarli, works as a full-time landscape contractor for his business, Aloha Greens, and is also a husband and father of three children. Tack on 20-plus hours per week of swimming, cycling and running – and it becomes clear how much drive and determination it takes to reach such a dream.

“My ultimate time goal is 10 hours and 30 minutes,” DeCarli said, “but whatever happens, I just want to cross the finish line.”

Forty-eight-year-old Jon Jokiel grew up in Kaneohe, Oahu, and his passion for long distance events began in high school where he ran track and cross-country during the early-’80s. He completed his first triathlon in Chicago in 1988 when the sport was still considered new and not nearly as popular as it is now.

Throughout the years, Jokiel gravitated toward sports that pushed him physically and mentally. From glacier climbing in the Cascades of Washington state to competing in Boston and Honolulu marathons, Jokiel relished challenges many of us would find daunting.

After volunteering for the 2007 Kona Ironman, Jokiel realized his next challenge would be his ultimate endurance test. “Kona” was now on his radar.

As a full-time park ranger at Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, Jokiel often bookends his workday with cycling and running. He begins as the sun rises over Hualalai and finishes in the evening, while that same magical sun sets into the Pacific.

With the majority of training already behind him, Jokiel feels he’s in the best shape of his life and at the peak of his physical fitness. “Even though I am approaching 50, I feel like I’m in my 20s again.”

Take a moment to imagine being in their shoes, and what it will feel like crossing the finish line five weeks from now. Inspiring indeed! Despite diverse backgrounds and ages, come Oct. 12, these athletes will have certainly earned the right to hear “You are an Ironman!”