This is it! The big IronMana finale!
How do you say "exhausted" in Tahitian?
As I sit down to write this, my final piece from the Bora Bora Liquid Festival, it is the first word that comes to mind. I'm sunburned, sore and physically fatigued. But mentally, I feel energized. Alex Kostich was right. There's nothing like this event; I needed to experience it for myself in order to understand just how special it is. Before coming here, it was hard to imagine a grueling endurance event was the way Kostich chose to recharge for the next year's open-water season. Today, I totally understand.
Everything we've experienced this week led up to today's final competition: the IronMana, the longest, most prestigious and most difficult one-man Va'a canoe and stand-up paddleboard race in Tahiti. According to last year's winner, Christian Roihau, Va'a is to Tahiti what football is to the United States. And this event, to continue the comparison, is the Super Bowl. It is the most coveted win on Christian's 10-month racing calendar, which runs from mid-February until mid-December.
"The IronMana is very important," he said in French. "It is about pride."
Each year, event organizer Stephan Lambert designs a course unlike any used in previous races so no returning competitors have an advantage over first-timers, and returning athletes are given an entirely new experience. He announces the course the night before the race at an opening-night pasta dinner and paddlers are told to arrive at Matira Beach by 9 a.m. the next morning.
This morning, Mother Nature threw in a fun twist of her own -- wind, lots and lots of wind. It was consistent throughout the day at 12-15 knots, with gusts around 20 knots, or 24 mph. For a moment, there were rumors Stephan might postpone the race because of the weather, but that would have gone against the spirit of this IronMana. I've known Stephan only a week, yet I've spent enough time around him to believe he would view the wind, or any extra challenge, as a blessing, an added adventure or extra layer to everyone's experience.
So, not surprisingly, at 9 a.m., the beach filled with competitors and spectators. The race was on.
This year's IronMana course began on Matira Beach at the southern tip of Bora Bora and, for the first time in the 13-year history of this race, was entirely viewable from the start. Racers paddled in clockwise laps of about 3.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) that took them, at the farthest point, about a quarter mile away from the beach. The individual IronMana competitors completed 12 laps (or about 20 miles) either on a stand-up paddleboard or in a one-man Va'a canoe or surf ski. Last year, the course circled the island and was nearly twice as long, but wind-free.
Now, showing up at today's event having spent all of 50 meters in a Va'a canoe and expecting to participate in the entire race would be a lot like showing up to run the New York City Marathon having never spent a day walking upright. I wasn't sure I would be able to maneuver one of the very flip-able Va'a canoes for one lap. But the Liquid Festival is about the experience -- not simply to watch the best paddlers in the world perform their sport, but to participate and grow as an athlete myself. That's why I came here.
A handful of locals entered the race as two-person relay teams, just for fun. So I partnered with my colleague Eric Hiss, a journalist and founder of the global travel blog wandermelon, and went in search of a vessel. Our goal was to finish as many laps as we could in the same time it took the winners of the race to complete all 12. And thanks to the kindness of Wilfred Ah Min, owner of Va'a Connection Tahiti, a local shop in Papeete, we had a brand-new fiberglass canoe to use in the race. It meant a lot that he trusted us -- OK, me -- to return his canoe in one piece. (Spoiler alert: We did!)
Unlike their Hawaiian counterparts, Tahitian one-man canoes do not have rudders, which means they are incredibly difficult to steer, especially in the rough conditions we experienced. As a competitive person and someone desperately needing as many laps as possible to work off the excessive amount of bread I've eaten in the past week, I would have loved a flat, windless day. But as a journalist wishing to understand just how technically proficient the Tahitians are at paddling, today was a perfect day.
Asking around, I learned the proper French phrase to explain the race conditions: "F------ hard." On the first lap, I struggled to steer against the chop and never managed to maneuver my boat to the far marker. I did, however, manage to tip the boat, which is incredibly easy to do because of the unbalanced design of the single-side ama, and fillet my toes on a chunk of coral while attempting to re-board the canoe with a paddle in one hand.
I have no idea how long it took me to finish that first lap, but thanks to a paddling lesson from Stephan earlier in the week, I had an efficient enough stroke to return to the start without too much physical fatigue. (Mental fatigue, I had plenty of due to the frustration of not being able to steer to save my life.)
But on every lap, I got a little better at something. I completed one tip-free lap. I figured out how to relax my legs and still maintain my balance. I even completed one successful turn to start the third lap. Three-and-a-half hours into the race, Eric and I completed six laps. Together, we had completed half an IronMana. Five minutes earlier, Steeve Teihotaata, the hands-down No. 1 paddler in Tahiti, finished the 12-lap race. Roihau finished second. Hereani Teahurai completed the entire 12-lap IronMana and finished fifth. Moehau Goold took second in the men's SUP division, which took more than an hour longer than the canoe race. His wife, Ura, withdrew from the race after being up all night with their extremely cute 1-year-old daughter, who was sick.
At the post-race party, winners of each division received paddles, cash and, most importantly, bragging rights for a year. I've declared Team Eric and Alyssa winners of the non-Tahitian division, considering we were the only paddlers who were not from the islands of Tahiti. I hope that's not the case next year. (If the many emails, tweets, Facebook messages and texts I've received over the past week are to be believed, there should be a strong showing of Americans at the 2013 IronMana.)
There truly is nothing like this event. But don't take my 8,000 words for it. You really have to experience it for yourself.