Maui's Aluminum Man series blends multisport fun, aloha spirit

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At first it looks like any other race.

Orange buoys mark the swim course. Industrial-size Gatorade coolers line the starting area. A Powerbar banner marks the run finish.

But things aren't quite that routine when Nancy Robberson, co-founder of Maui's Aluminum Man Triathlon and Biathlon series, takes center stage to explain the racecourse.

"OK, so welcome to the Aluminum Man!" she roars in her husky could-be-a-radio-personality voice.

"The swim leg is twice around the four orange buoys," she says, pausing for dramatic effect before delivering the good news, "... but if you don't feel like swimming today, you don't have to!"

This isn't the only nontraditional approach to outdoor adventure racing when you come to an Aluminum Man event. For starters, there is never, ever an entry fee. There is also no official timing system, unless you use the watch on your wrist. There are no race officials eyeing for drafting or other questionable tactics that could result in disqualification. And there are no awards, unless you count the "door prizes" that Robberson gives away at the end of each event in her I-throw-it-you-catch-it haphazard style.

Yet in spite of this laissez-faire attitude (or quite possibly because of it) the bimonthly Aluminum Man series continues to draw a wide range of athletes from all over the United States. Participants have even shown up from Asia and South America.

Obviously, the picturesque setting of Maui must have something to do with the attendance. In fact, many of the race participants just happen to be passing through on their vacation or honeymoon when they notice Robberson's hot-pink flyers posted in sports shops all over the island.

"I think people are drawn to the series because it's not intimidating in the least," Robberson explains. "I really want to perpetuate the feeling of aloha and all-inclusiveness that makes these events special and lets everyone in on the fun."

The brainchild of Robberson, an elementary school teacher, and her husband Jami Kimmel, a construction worker, The Aluminum Man is actually a loving continuation of an event originated by their late friend Jaiom Berger. Berger's life ended tragically in 1998 when he was struck by a drunken driver while on the way home from hearing a local band.

He was a fixture on the lively triathlon scene in Hawaii, gaining attention and laughs by crossing the finish line of a marathon in a flawless handstand and completing a 5K by running backwards the entire way yet still in front of a large portion of the field.

"His spirit touched everyone," Nancy recalls, "and we want to continue spreading his love and joy for life through the Aluminum Man Series."

Indeed, the unique Hawaiian spirit of "aloha" is ever-present at the events built around Jaiom's memory. Before the race start, Kimmel asks that all participants join hands in a circle and appreciate a moment of silence for loved ones in need of remembrance. Never a solemn affair, this spiritual circle also serves to give first-time competitors an added boost of confidence and camaraderie as they literally rub elbows with more seasoned pros.

The events themselves are primarily biathlons of a swim-run nature, though the flyers also boast some cycling events. With catchy names like the "Splash and Dash Biathlon," the "Ready or Not," and the "Blaze Your Best Challenge," it's hard not to feel the rush of adrenaline when you imagine what these races may promise.

Both Jami and Nancy are sports enthusiasts, and they participate in each event they organize. However, you won't be racing Jami in the swim portion of the race he's kayaking as part of the support crew that makes sure everyone is having a good time and comfortable in the water. But if you're not quick in your transition, you'll notice him blazing by you in the run.

Nancy, whose aforementioned and ubiquitous hot-pink flyers perfectly match the shade of lipstick and terrycloth bikini she races in, has the long stride of a marathon runner and the boundless energy of someone who doesn't have the time or interest for negative energy.

"I really like the fact that our race appeals to everyone," she says. "We get honeymooners, serious triathletes, people who have never competed before, and those that just woke up and saw us on the beach and got here in time to join in!"

Indeed, at a recent event, vacationing Georgia resident Sloat Van Winkle decided to try his hand at his first ocean race, equipped with the decidedly non-competitive attire of beach shorts, snorkeling mask, and previous night's hangover.

"Well why not?" he growls in a distinct Southern drawl, "'when in Rome ...' they say."

He successfully finishes the swim portion of the event (all of it) before toweling off and cheering on the runners.

"What a great thing," he says, "I've never done anything like this before ... and although I probably never will again, at least I've done it once!"

Dr. Aaron Altura, a Maui local and Aluminum Man regular, is an accomplished athlete who relies on the events as an integral part of his more serious training. Altura, who raced the Boston Marathon last month, credits his frequent appearances at the Aluminum Man for preparing his body and mind for the grueling demands of endurance running and future Ironman races.

"For most multisport athletes, participating in the Aluminum Man series allows for some race-paced training in a relaxed and friendly environment. Many locals, including myself, have branched out and trained for triathlons after doing their first Aluminum Man race."

"Who wants this waterbottle?" Nancy yells during the post-race awards ceremony, reaching into a cardboard box full of door prizes that local competitors have brought to share and trade. "Anyone need a water bottle? How about this, um, what is this? Oh, how about a visor? Anybody need a visor?"

The prize goes to a little fellow too young to have competed but whose eyes light up at the object in Nancy's hands.

Whether they take away a door prize or the unique memory that participation provides, no one goes home empty-handed at an Aluminum Man event.

The Aluminum Man "Not-So-Serious" Series is a year-round schedule of races and events that occur about every other month on the isle of Maui. All events are held Sunday mornings at 8 a.m., but in different locations depending on the event. For more information, call (808) 878-2949.

A former swimmer at Stanford University, Alex Kostich has stayed strong in the sport at the elite level even while maintaining a day job. The three-time Pan-American Games gold medalist still competes in and wins numerous open-water races around the world each year, as well as competing in the occasional triathlon and running race. In addition to being Active's main swimming expert, Alex writes the Fitness Makeover and World Class Workouts columns. You can send him questions and article idea via e-mail.

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