Hawaii Blog Days 16-17: The End of the World (& Manta rays)

Despite not getting to bed until about 1:30 in the morning, I still woke up at dawn. I felt pretty rough, coughed quite a lot and hobbled quite pathetically when I went anywhere – my feet got quite wet during the early parts of the marathon, which always means blisters. We went back into town to look at the finisher’s stuff, although the more incredible sight was the way people were almost fighting for sizes.

Back at home to lick my wounds a little and pack the bike then we met up with Claire and Duncan Shea-Simmons for lunch at Annie’s – the best burgers on the island – followed by ice-cream/ sorbet, all accompanied by a race debrief chat and some good giggles. We compared ridiculous tan/burn lines, war stories and plans for next year.

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A few hours later, following a vague attempt to make ourselves look presentable (difficult, in my case, with pretty awful Swimskin chafe, stupid tan lines and a death-rattle cough), we went back to the King Kam courtyard for the Banquet of Champions and award presentations where we sat with Alan and Philip, plus Joanne (IMUK race director) and her family. There were some great stories from the race; poor Lionel Sanders had his crank fall off, so was pedalling one-legged for a while till the drive side crank fell off too, at which point I think a lot of pros would have quit, but not Lionel – he started running, BAREFOOT, along the road, pushing his bike. Eventually the mechanics got to him, and he finished the bike and still posted a blisteringly fast marathon. That’s guts for you! They always announce the longest combined transition time too, which was helped in the case of two people by a T2 of over an hour! The food is good at this Banquet, unlike the Welcome banquet, which is one reason we never go. Finally, they showed the short film of the day, in which I made an appearance, on my bike. I’m obviously quite photogenic inside my bike helmet….

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When the banquet is over, triathletes party in Kailua. As we started walking back to the car, it began spitting. We were making pretty slow progress on account of blistered feet (me) or centipede stung toes (James) so since Philip knew where we could park, we decided to drive – after all, this is America, where no one would walk to the end of their drive if they could avoid it. Not 3 minutes down the road and the heavens opened, monsoon-style. Even the 10m from the car to the door and we were pretty drenched. The rain kept up all evening – much as people disliked the heat and humidity of Saturday, I think that the later finishers would have loathed having been soaked to the bone even more. We had a fun night, hanging out with old and new friends and finally went home at 2:30.

Not waking up until 7am was a bit of a novelty and represents the biggest lie in of the trip so far.

I was feeling a little down about how my race had turned out. I was fit and ready to put in a great performance, but if you can’t get a proper lungful of air, it’s hard to bike or run. To be fair, I don’t think my swimming would improve at all if I had a third lung though. My cough was pretty bad too, which probably didn’t help. This race is where we want to measure ourselves, and the financial, physical and temporal cost of getting here makes it something that’s hard to do repeatedly. I was disappointed and sad about not being able to put out the result I could have done when it mattered.

But you can’t sit around moping in Hawaii. So we went to The End of the World, a jagged, black lava cliff face a couple of miles south, where a famous family feud was fought and many Hawaiian warriors are buried. It’s a great place to leap from, but that morning, not particularly safe – the swell was significant, and the bigger waves were smashing quite hard against the rock face. As we arrived, a couple had recently jumped in, and were struggling to get back out – she was being caught in a whirlpool and sucked under and he was swept off a lower edge he’d assumed to be a safe landing above the sea’s reach. Thankfully they both scrambled out in the next lull, but having seen their struggles was enough to convince us it wasn’t safe right then. Later in the day, the chop would calm significantly, but we had other plans.

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Next we drove up to Mountain Thunder coffee. Two years ago, we did a couple of coffee tours and tastings and in our non-connoisseur opinions, this is the best coffee you can get in Hawaii – perhaps the world. Mountain Thunder are the only farm to sort their beans by colour as well as size (they have a laser colorimetric machine sorter), because colour matters when you’re looking for taste in a bean. We joined the tour just starting, as it was interesting not only to be reminded about the process, but to hear about recent developments. Then we bought a lot of coffee beans. A crazy volume of coffee beans!

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Home for lunch, and then things almost took a disappointing downturn. We were booked on a night manta ray snorkel tour, via kayak, but the company running the tour decided that morning that the swell we’d seen from The End of the World was too bad to take a dozen tourists out in, so they cancelled the trip. That meant a half hour of frantically calling round to find out if anyone still had a space. Thankfully we found one – Kona Honu Divers. They turned out to be excellent – funny, engaging guides, passionate about the marine life.

We met at the harbour at about 5pm and after the boat was loaded, set off for Mahaiula Bay, just north of Keahole Point. Arriving about a half hour before sunset, I chilled out on the boat chatting to a lovely girl from California who had just graduated as a marine biologist, and was out with the same tour but diving, not snorkelling. James got in for a swim and immediately, he could see mantas.

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The guides collected everyone back on the boat and gave us a small talk about mantas and a briefing regarding what to do. Then we got into wetsuits – the water is warm, but once the sun goes down, and you’re just floating, watching the Rays, you can get pretty chilly and many of those who declined regretted it. The water is crystal clear, so visibility is perfect. You then float face down in the water holding onto a surfboard with a frame built around it, on which were fixed lights, shining down into the water. The lights attract plankton, which is what the manta rays eat, so they come to the lights, like moths. Like enormous, graceful, beautiful, gliding 18ft black and white moths. They come swooping up towards you, and turn an elegant loop the loop directly under the surfboard, coming to within a half inch of our bodies every time, in some cases brushing against our wetsuits as they did so, their long tails trailing behind them and their cephalic horns opened to increase the surface area for collection.

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There were loads of them – I tried a couple of times and kept losing count, but the diver guide who was filming and taking photographs (inc the above) estimated 30 – 35. After 20 minutes or so, we moved our surfboard to an area with underwater lights called the Campfire and now we could see them gliding along the ocean floor, feeding from other tours’ boards and occasionally colliding in what still looked like a serene, choreographed ocean waltz. In the occasional 30 seconds when no manta was within your field of view, it would be filled with dense shoals of fish, in a plankton feeding frenzy. The Rays themselves were breathtaking; majestic, awe-inspiring creatures we feel honoured and humbled to have shared so small a piece of the Pacific with. James managed to shoot a fair bit of underwater video with our borrowed camera and such vivid memories will last a long while. It also helped put my race in context – a race is just a race, after all and a bad one is not The End of the World. To further help us remember, we also bought a couple of palmetto mantas from a street artist in Kailua.

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