Ironman brings big business to Kailua-Kona

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KAILUA-KONA -- King Kamehameha's Kona Beach Hotel on the Big Island has been the headquarters of the Ironman Triathlon World Championships since 1989, and the property is gearing up for this year's competition, to be held Oct. 18.

About 1,500 athletes will swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles in the 25th annual race.

Preparing meals for this group isn't easy, according to hotel chef Michael Oldham.

He orders more than 20,000 pounds of food to feed athletes, families and support crew. At the carbo-loading party alone, 600 pounds of tomato sauce and 300 pounds of noodles will be used in the lasagna.

The Kona Beach Hotel does more than serve approximately 15,000 meals during Ironman week. Its parking lot and tennis court areas will become the new transition area for the swim-to-bike and bike-to-run segments.

"This year's 25th anniversary race particularly is significant, with as many as 50 different nations represented. Together with the international media attention, it's expected to be greater than ever," said Mark McGuffie, director of hotel operations.

"From a business perspective, I would estimate that Kailua-Kona hotels can attribute a full 10% of the entire month's occupancy to Ironman," he said. "It is an extremely important event for the Big Island economy."

And for small businesses that depend on tourism, it can be a lifesaving transfusion. Take the case of B&L Bike and Sports in Kona. Owner Gerry Rott said the Ironman has helped her small business survive.

"It's half our gross for the year in one month," she said.

Even after 9/11, the Big Island was spared the drop in tourism suffered on most other islands thanks to the Ironman, which drew 20,000 people in 2001 and generated $14.9 million in direct sales, according to the state's Department of Business Economic Development and Tourism.

The idea for the Ironman took shape over a few beers. In 1977, Navy Cmdr. John Collins gathered with family and friends at an awards party after the Oahu Perimeter Relay, a 112-mile running relay race that travels around the island.

After the race, Collins debated with friends about which athletes are most fit: swimmers, runners or cyclists.

Collins later announced he would organize a race that combined the Waikiki roughwater swim, the around-the-island bike ride and the Honolulu Marathon.

"Whoever finishes first," Michael Collins recalled his father as saying, "we'll call him the Ironman."

Michael Collins, a teenager at the time, helped his father that first year by coordinating the finish. It amounted to little more than sitting in a car with a friend at Kapiolani Park late into the night, waiting for people to cross the Honolulu Marathon finish line. Twelve people finished.

The Ironman triathlon moved from Oahu to the Big Island in 1981 to alleviate traffic issues and enable the race to grow. And it has. The finish line now is a 700-person operation (excluding a medical staff of 150), with more than 7,000 volunteers for the entire event.

The television exposure alone is worth its weight in gold, said B&L's Rott. "If [visitors] have seen [Ironman] on TV, they know [the Kailua-Kona area] because of it," she said.

For more information on King Kamehameha's Kona Beach Hotel, call (800) 367-6060 or visit www.konabeachhotel.com. For more details on the Ironman Triathlon, visit www.ironmanlive.com.

To contact reporter Katherine Nichols, send e-mail to [email protected].

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