Hawaiian Customs and Traditions at the Ironman

As the birthplace of the Ironman, Hawaii has always been a revered destination by endurance athletes. The legendary course and temperamental weather make the Ironman World Championship a unique challenge, while the aloha spirit of locals, fans and organizers present a welcoming atmosphere that's second to none.

America's 50th state always holds true to its customs and tradition, even when thousands of out-of-towners and international visitors descend upon the Big Island for the race. Here is a look at how athletes and fans can honor and respect the Hawaiian traditions that make the Ironman an experience unlike any other.

The Lei
The Lei is made of Hawai'i's most precious resources and represents the beauty of the land. For the Ironman competition, it is a gift given in honor of completing the race. The lei represents the "Pouli" in the depth of your soul. It sits around the neck and ends at the abdomen where the soul is connected to the body. The fragrance of the flowers brings forth the beauty of the land and the love of the people

Upon receiving a lei, the wearer should appreciate it and value it as a precious resource.  Recognize the effort and thought that went into preparing it. Accepting the lei gives aloha back to the giver. The lei should never be thrown in the trash but returned to the land. This brings the lei back to the full circle of life. "Aloha aku, Aloha mai" means "Give love and receive love."

Athletes and the Island
Ironman participants looking to get in tune with the island have several options. They may visit places such as the Pu'uhonua o Honaunau—the Place of Refuge, the Hulihe'e Palace, Mokuaikaua Church, Ahu'ena Heiau, Pu'ukohala or the area of Kohala. Mokuaikaua is the oldest church in the state. Kohala is the birthplace of Kamehameha I. Pu'ukohala Heiau National Historic Site includes a place of worship. Many of these places are on the Ironman race course and by understanding the history of the island, the competitors will understand those who have traveled the same course.

At sunrise on race day, a short religious ceremony will take place at Ahu'ena Heiau, on the grounds of King Kamehameha's Kona Beach Hotel. It is a way of recognizing the sacredness of the area on which the entire race starts and ends. The ceremony includes various people bringing ho'okupu (gifts), maile lei or other organic items wrapped in ti leaves. These gifts are received by members of the Hawaiian community and are carefully placed and left at the heiau throughout the weekend. It is a great way for us to recognize that God is being honored prior to the race with tangible evidence and a great way for us to seek blessings for the race. This ceremony is open to the public, but because it takes place minutes before the start, it may be difficult for athletes to attend.

While triathletes are the focus of Ironman, they are still visitors to the islands. The simplest way to show respect is to remain in the mindset of being a learner: learning about the people and the culture.

This respect for the land extends to the taking of mementos from the island. Rocks, though popular, may not be the best thing to take home. Aside from the already well-known myth about them being the cause of curses on the bearer, it is like walking into someone's home and taking things without asking. The best mementos are those that are store bought or received as gifts.

This brings ups another question: Are families and friends allowed to chalk the road on the course? If it is not permanent most people don't have a problem with it. It would be a good gesture to go back at some point after the race and pour water on the chalk marks, however. A little courtesy goes a long way.

The Influence of Madame Pele
From its start, the Ironman World Championships have been as much a test of endurance and a test of will and survival—thanks in large part to the unpredictable weather. But what is the significance of Madame Pele as the force of weather and wind on the course?

There is enough written and said about this matter by nearly every resident of Hawai'i. Even newscasters will attach volcanic activity in the islands with her; but that is where it ends. Weather and wind activity are not attributed to Madame Pele, because in Hawaiian belief they are separate from volcanic activity. In old Hawaiian belief, Pele had brothers and sisters that became associated with thunder, lightning and earthquakes.

Winds and rains have different names based on where you are on the island and the type of wind and rain that occurs. It is modern science that teaches that volcanic activity has a bearing on the weather pattern in the islands, not traditional Hawaiian belief.

The Aloha Spirit
The people and the aloha they share are what make the Ironman on Hawai'i unlike any other triathlon in the world, according to Island Breeze, cultural advisors to the Ironman World Championship. The values of the Hawaiian people are based on aloha, and each letter of the word carries with it a special meaning.

A -- Akahai—modest, gentle and unassuming (kindness expressed with tenderness)
L -- Lokahi—unity, expressed with harmony (to be balanced in your relationship)
O -- 'Olu'olu—to be agreeable and graceful, expressed with pleasantness
H -- Ha'aha'a—humble, unpretentious (humility expressed with modesty)
A -- Ahonui—"great or long breath" (patience expressed with perseverance)

The principle of Lokahi (unity) is taught in the home. The sacred relationship of people with God, each other and the land "underscores the belief that we are not the masters of the universe. Our very existence depends on the harmony we strive to maintain through love, honor, respect and reverence for one another," informs Island Breeze.

"We face the greatest challenge of all—to spread aloha and lasting peace wherever we are to whomever we come in contact with." This spirit, coupled with the energy, determination and sportsmanship brought to Hawai'i by the thousands of competitors, makes the Ironman World Championship the crown jewel of endurance racing.

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