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The 2013 Kona Ironman: Witnessing Humanity at Its Best

10/18/2013 11:18 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

For one Saturday every October, it has become a personal ritual for me -- one that I look forward to all year -- to volunteer at the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Although I'm not a competitor, something about this event captivates me, and each year I come away with new insights inspired by the stories of human endurance and determination that unfold before my eyes.

Last year, I was inspired to blog about how the Ironman athletes influenced my perspective on our health care system. This year, with the messy and acrimonious congressional fight over Obamacare, the government shutdown, and the debt ceiling crisis never far from my thoughts, I was most impressed by the spirit of support and goodwill that suffused the Ironman. Although it was a competition -- one with high stakes -- I saw only the best humanity had to offer. Wouldn't it be a wonderful to see the gridlock in Washington, D.C. finally clear and our leaders come together in a similar spirit of cooperation and goodwill?

My day on Saturday, Oct. 12 started at 4 a.m. with a short trip to the Keauhou Marina boat launch ramp on the Big Island of Hawaii with Bruce Patterson and his 12-foot Zodiac boat in tow. We needed to get ourselves to Kailua Kona by 6 a.m. in preparation for our role as a lifeguard boat for the swimming portion of the 35th Kona Ironman World Championship, which was to start with the professionals at 6:30 a.m. As the sun stated to come up over Mount Hualalai at 6 a.m., we could see it was going to be a perfect day. There was not a cloud in the sky, the air was clear, it was already warm, and the water of the Pacific Ocean in Kailua Bay was amazingly calm. The seawalls along the bay were all occupied by thousands of spectators that had come to see their family, friends, and favorites compete for the title of "Kona Ironman."

This was going to be the largest number of participants ever in the Kona event, with over 2000 competitors from more than 52 countries. For some, qualifying for this competition represented the realization of a dream they had for decades. The 2.4 mile ocean swim was the first step of the Kona Ironman, followed by 112 miles on bicycle and then a 26.2 mile marathon. Temperatures would potentially hit 115 degrees on the blacktop of the roads the competitors would be covering throughout the day. Both Bruce and I wondered how many of the 2,000-plus competitors would successfully complete the course.

After completing our responsibilities as members of the swim safety crew, we took the boat back to the marina. We knew that by this time the group of professional athletes would already be far ahead; the top group would complete the course between 3 and 4 p.m. The rest of the competitors had varying lengths of time ahead of them on the course depending upon their fitness, experience, and ability to manage the pain of extreme exertion. The final cutoff for all the competitors would be the stroke of midnight.

By 3 p.m., the town was jumping with anticipation. We could watch the progress of the race on a huge screen at the finish line that was broadcasting the progress of the leaders along the marathon route. It was quite a race, but ultimately two amazing winners emerged: Frederik Van Lierde, from Belgium, completing the 140.6 miles in an incredible 8:12:29 minutes, and the women's champion, Mirinda Carfrae from Australia, finishing in women's record time of 8:52:14.

As the top Ironman professionals came to the finish line, I recognized that for this moment in time each October the small community of Kailua Kona represents the fitness capital of the world. These people make you recognize the amazing physical capability for endurance of the human animal.

But then another story takes over where the awe of the exceptional athlete leaves off. Over the next eight hours, some of the most amazing examples of tenacity, endurance, perseverance, and courage emerge. These are the stories of the participants who are not professionals, but rather people of all walks of life, body shape and size, gender, race, and nationality who successfully complete the grueling course. Each of these "Kona Ironmen" has their own unique story as to how they got to Kona, what the race means to them, and what they had to overcome to be there and successfully complete the course. There are many people who have successfully overcome a life-threatening disease like cancer, there are those who are dedicating their experience to a loved one or cause of importance to them, and there are those who are seeking a deeper understanding of themselves and what living life to its fullest means.

For me, the whole day represented a kaleidoscope of emotions, thoughts, and reflections on the "meaning of life" lived vicariously through the experiences of the competitors. Often these stories were told to the audience over the public address system at the finish line by the amazing master of ceremonies, Mike Reilly, who was an "Ironman" himself for the endurance he demonstrated for more than 12 hours at the microphone, rallying the spectators in support of the competitors.

During the last two hours -- between 10 p.m. and 12 a.m. -- thousands of spectators, many of whom had been around since the 6:30 a.m. start, as well as a significant number of competitors who had finished the race hours before, were all gathered to bring home the last of the aspiring "Ironmen" who were still on the course. It had been dark for four hours and it started to rain. The atmosphere was surrealistic with the halogen lights shining brightly on the chute where the finishers would find their way after their 140.6-mile journey. The crowd that lined both sides of the path was screaming encouragement. Each competitor, upon passing the finish line, was announced as an "Ironman" by name plus a short description about their life. It was like being present for several hundred celebrations of life. We witnessed husband and wife, father and son, brother and brother, strong and wounded cross the finish line, often arm in arm and embracing as they crossed the line. There were those that danced across the line and there were those whose legs and bodies gave up as soon as they recognized that they had accomplished the goal.

And then to add the final touch of magic, as the timing clock started counting down the final 15 minutes to midnight the announcer told us that there were four people on the course that might make it in time, including the oldest woman competitor at 78 years young. This announcement led the thousands of spectators assembled at the finish line to start yelling in unison. The announcer then ran down the lighted chute into the darkness with the microphone to find the group and "bring them home." We can all hear his voice when he connects with them and leads them to the finish line. As I look around me at the thousands of cheering spectators of every background, age, and place of origin, I recognize that we are all united in the expression of selfless support for those who have now entered the lighted path to the finish line. There is no other message at this moment other than selfless joy for the group that is soon to become "Ironmen." They cross the finish line at 11:54 p.m. But then we are told that there is one more woman that trails them and her name is Karen. The announcer runs once again into the darkness to find her and guide her home. The spectators start in a spontaneous chant of "Karen, Karen, Karen," and the clock moves on toward the 12 a.m. hour. The seconds pass, and it seems there will not be enough time left for Karen to finish before 12 a.m. But then out of the darkness two figures are heading down the lighted chute and now the assembled thousands all see Karen as a woman with a prosthetic leg, who is being cheered on to the finish line by the announcer who is running alongside her. Karen is visibly spent and seems dangerously close to falling, but through her courage and determination she crosses the finish line to the thunderous chanting of "Karen! Karen! Karen!"

As I looked at the finish line and Karen being honored, I noticed that the counter on the finish line indicated she was the 1,980th person to become a "Kona Ironman" that day. I thought of the tens of thousands of people along the race course cheering people on during the biking and marathon. How much did this emotional support help the competitors? This question is unanswerable, but what I did feel as I started to walk the two miles back to my car was that this day was an example of what can happen when people focus their full energies on the collective good. There is no requirement for people to cheer others on they don't know, but you see it happening along the whole of the race course. I witnessed competitors stopping in the middle of the competition to check in and assist with other competitors who appeared to be in trouble. I observed the best of what we call "human." It affirmed for me that within humans reside compassion, generosity, thoughtfulness, and concern for others. It was a day to affirm the privilege of being human.

And then came the most unexpected conclusion of what had already been an amazing day for me. As I walked to my car down a street that was now dark and -- I thought -- empty, a Japanese man in his 70s and wearing his official competitor number on his arm was running slowly toward the finish line that, a mile away, was now quiet. He was accompanied by a race official who was running with him in the dark. Even though it was now well past midnight and the official race was over, he too could be an Ironman. As he passed by I clapped and cheered, and simultaneously clapping and cheering came from both sides of the street where in the dark I hadn't noticed other people celebrating the true spirit of a champion on this most special day. It was at that moment that I recognized that at some level we all have the spirit of a champion in us. It just takes the right environment to make it shine.

Dr. Jeffrey Bland is the author of the upcoming book The Disease Delusion, scheduled for release by HarperWave, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, in Spring 2014.