Sunday’s Captain Cook Challenge lived up to its reputation of being one of the tougher events on Team Mango’s calendar.
Frank Ferren was forced to call it quits during the bike segment when the steep Napoopoo hill climb damaged his bike derailleur. Another DNF happened when that same grueling incline broke Dave Pratt’s knee brace. And several others were viciously attacked during the swim by Portuguese man o’ war jellyfish. Indeed, it was a challenge.
“What makes this course unique is the entirety of the race,” said Carl Koomoa, race director for Team Mango events. “You’ve got to swim across Kealakekua Bay, then take off on an ugly uphill trail run followed by a challenging bike course, then a hard run on the old beach road. With everything combined, it’s a tough course.”
The challenge dates back to 1983, nearly 200 years after Captain James Cook sailed his ships into Kealakekua Bay. Just as the history books tell the story of how the white monument memorializing the famous captain came to be, so does Koomoa through his recollection of how the challenge began.
According to Koomoa, it was the idea of two other athletes, Ben Fisher and Kelly Beck.
“Ben was a Hawaii lifeguard and triathlete at that time,” he said. “And Kelly was also another great athlete. The two of them had some crazy-wild ideas but it turned out to be one of the best events. Everyone came out for it.”
Back then Koomoa was an eager participant and recalled the race being a much longer course and finishing near the grounds of Puuhonua o Honaunau. The course consisted of a 1-mile swim across Kealakekua Bay, a 60-mile hilly bike ride and a grueling 7.25-mile run.
“Ben and Kelly had a theme for their event,” Koomoa said. “It was, ‘race your way to refuge’ and named it the Captain Cook Challenge.”
After a few years, Fisher and Beck relinquished their roles to another Big Island racing enthusiast, George Goldstein, who kept it going until 1993. Putting on a triathlon in a rural area became a challenge in itself.
“I thought it was the most beautiful and challenging setting in the world to hold an event like this,” Koomoa said. “I just couldn’t let it die out.”
In 1994, Koomoa added the event to his Team Mango race series, shortened the bike and run course in 2001 — and the rest is history.
Clear, sunny skies hovered over sparkling waters of Kealakekua Bay — perfect racing conditions for the 20th edition of Team Mango’s Captain Cook Challenge.
Participants led themselves down the rocky descent of Napoopoo Beach, and eyed the distant Captain Cook monument as their target for the 1-mile swim. From there, a rugged 2.5-mile uphill trail run with an elevation gain of 1,500 feet awaited those who braved the swim of what would become a game of Russian roulette with the venomous tentacles of Portuguese man o’ war.
At the top of the trail, racers transition onto their bikes for a quad-busting 32-mile hilly circuit course and finish with a hot and humid 4-mile run on the Old Government road.
Relay team member Jim McCleery, who is known for his swimming prowess, used it to his advantage to exit the bay first in 22 minutes and 5 seconds. Next was the first individual, Jason Nixon, who hit the swim-to-trail run transition in 24:24, followed closely by 15-year-old Chris Prater (24:27).
Over the next minute came a ferocious chase pack made up of Jeremy Pederson (25:08), Kailua-Kona’s Michael DeCarli (25:09), Dan Gampon (25:15), John Howerton (25:25) and Hilo’s Chris Gregory (25:33).
Out on the gnarly 2.5-mile uphill grind, Gregory tapped into his running strength to pass the early leaders with his fast run split of 20:19, and took the overall lead as he headed onto the bike.
From there, it was inevitable that Gregory had a firm grip on the race as he continued to distance himself from the field, leaving many to wonder if it would be enough to break Luis De La Torre’s 2006 course record of 2:40:05.
With no one within striking distance, Gregory continued to push himself over the last 4-mile run segment, to blaze through the finish line in a course record of 2:34:05. Michael DeCarli, who continues to produce strong performances for the 2014 year, finished second in 2:52 flat. Third overall went to Lavaman’s notorious “Lava Boy,” Helgi Olafson, with a great time of 2:53:07.
2012 women’s champion, Sylvia Ravaglia of Waimea, was the lone female brave enough to compete in the challenge and finished seventh overall at 3:09:48. At last year’s Escape-2-Puuhonua, an event that took the place of the Captain Cook Challenge and featured a somewhat different course, Ravaglia amazed all as she topped the field as the overall winner with her time of 2:16:33.
In the relay division, McCleery (swim), Erin Rene (run) and John Cole (bike) finished first with their combined time of 3:12:58. Second went to the team of Melissa Braswell (swim/run) and John Ferdico (bike) with their time of 3:35:01. In third was the duo of Steve Dewald (swim/run) and David Cobb (bike/run) in 3:58:18.
After 20 years of hosting the popular Captain Cook Challenge, Koomoa plans to continue the tradition.
“Just to perpetuate something that has good positive energy, good family energy, in an area that doesn’t get much action, is what makes this race special to me.”