KONA, Hawaii -- It is pitch black at 4 a.m. in Kona, Hawaii -- just like nearly everywhere else in the world at that time -- but when the floodlights came on at the Kailua Pier, lighting up the 35th Ironman World Championship's transition area, it served a symbolic powering up for the world's premier long-form triathlon.
Sebastian Kienle, who finished fourth in his first Ironman World Championship in 2012, took a few minutes in the dark -- on the pier -- before the start of the 6:30 a.m. race to say that the final few minutes of preparation for his eight-hour-plus endurance event meant simply preparing "all the fuel you need and some pick-up you need during the race." As he lined up the goods on his bike, he was also systematically "making sure all the gear you need -- helmets, glasses and shoes -- are on the bike." Because, honestly, preparing for a 140-mile long race started long before race day.
The final fidgeting worked for Kienle early, as he remained in the top group through the swim and came off the bike in third, the spot he held at the finish, about seven minutes behind champion Frederik Van Lierde's time of 8:12:29. The women were paced by Mirinda Carfae's 8:52:14.
But Kienle wasn't the only one prepping amidst both 2,100 athletes -- about 130 of them professional -- and more than 5,000 volunteers lining the course, manning the hectic transition area and ensuring the safety of the competitors in the water. All before the sun ever came up.
"I think this is crazy they actually do this," volunteer Katherin Fosstveit, a Norwegian native studying in Kona, says about the athletes. "But it is fun to watch. There is a lot of action."
In her second year, Foostveit says the best part of the day is watching so many people from different backgrounds coming together to support the athletes.
And while there's plenty of love to go around from the volunteers and fans lining the streets, that isn't always the case for the competitors, especially in the water during the mass-start age group divisions (the professionals start the course 30 minutes before the other 2,000-plus competitors) where its been called a fistfight in a washing machine.
Volunteer Matt Bromley was a little more diplomatic, simply saying the start was full of "tension." But it just adds a touch of drama to an already exciting event kick-off, he says.
It doesn't stay dark all day in Kona. As the sun peered over Mount Hualalai before the starting cannon launched the swimmers on their 2.4-mile loop in the 74-degree water, fans lined seawalls and rooftops to take it all in.
The top professional men finished the swim in just over 50 minutes and navigated off the beach and up the steps onto the pier where they ripped off their swim caps and made the run to their bike. Once there, it was a matter of seconds -- roughly five -- for the athletes to slide their mount from the rack, snap their helmet and sunglasses on and embark on the 112-mile ride up Kona's Kohala Volcano to Hawi. And back.
While fans can't get in to watch the madness in the transition area -- let's call it systemized madness, though, as the volunteers try to manage the onslaught of athletes -- they do pack the "hot corner," where the start of the biking section sends riders through the same city intersection three different times in a matter of minutes. For the thousands that elbow in for a good spot in the throng up to four people deep, they get to watch the professional racers fly through the corners and just a few minutes later watch the best of the age group competitors strain to catch the professionals, which does happen during the 646-foot elevation gain along the Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway. With a mix of triathlon fans and competitors' friends and family, the cheering remained steady and kids are ever-present, reaching for any high-fives they can get.
While the pier area cools down for a few hours -- in action, not temperature, which also boasts 67 percent humidity -- after the last of the age group competitors filter through and before the top men's professionals return from their ride in just over four hours, the excitement always returns. First, the top men speed down the Kona hills to the waiting arms of a volunteer who takes their bike away. Then the athletes spend just minutes winding through the transition area, switching biking shoes for runners and heading out on a full 26.2 marathon with a 161-foot elevation gain, starting on Ali'i Drive.
Around eight hours after the professional men stopped treading water and kicked off the 140-mile race -- right at mid-afternoon in Kona and well after all the ice in the back of the hospitality trucks has melted away -- the leaders raced down Palani Road and up the finishing ramp. For the rest of the afternoon and well into the evening competitors continued to trickle in. But as the clock ticked closer to the midnight race cutoff the crowd -- while substantially smaller -- grew with passion, cheering on those final competitors willing themselves to a finish and the ability to call themselves an Ironman.
It all ends in the pitch black, just as it started. But this time there's no need to fiddle with fuel and you don't need floodlights to illuminate the intensity and passion.
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and technology for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.