Longtime athlete and avid fan of Rudy Project, Mark Vareschi, was randomly selected from more than 60,000 participants as the winner of a once in a lifetime experience to Kona, Hawaii during the 2015 IRONMAN® World Championships. Check out Mark’s account of his experience on the Big Island below:
When I received the e-mail from Devin at Rudy Project saying that I’d won the Kona sweepstakes I was, despite Devin’s assurance in the e-mail that it wasn’t a joke, dubious. Nonetheless, I responded to say, yes, I could be available on the dates specified to go to Hawaii for the 2015 IRONMAN® World Championship.
When Paul Craig, President of Rudy Project NA, e-mailed a few hours later to confirm that the sweepstakes was real and that I’d won the trip, I freaked out just a little bit. You see, I’m not someone who wins contests; I’m typically not someone who even enters contests. But, somehow, I found myself entering the Rudy Project 30th Anniversary Kona Sweepstakes and randomly my name came up a winner.
What was particularly cool about winning this trip is that I’m a little bit of a Rudy Project fanboy. I’ve been racing bikes (road, mountain bike, and cyclocross) since 2001 and for as long as I’ve been competing I’ve been wearing Rudy Project glasses and helmets. I have my favorite pair for rainy days (Mapei Edition Tayo with yellow lens), sunny days (Fluo Noyz with multilaser lens), and race days (the new Tralyx with ImpactX gray lens). For fatbiking in Wisconsin I even picked up a pair of the Klonyx ski goggles. I race and train in the Rudy Project Sterling, Airstorm, and Kontact+ helmets year round.
This is all to say, I like Rudy Project gear a whole lot. It was going to be extra cool to meet the folks behind the products I use on a daily basis.
Months passed with occasional e-mails and phone calls with the awesome staff at Rudy Project (Thank you, Devin, Riley, Greg, and Paul!) to finalize flights and accommodations. By early October, summer has passed and fall was descending upon Wisconsin. It was a perfect time for a tropical vacation.
The trip came right in the middle of my cyclocross racing season. I’ve been particularly motivated this season by my awesome teammates on Revolution Cycles and racing every chance I could get. By the time October rolled around, I’d done seven cyclocross races in the span of three weekends, and I was ready for a break. I was tired, ragged, and ready to lay on the beach for a while and watch others compete.
I flew out of Milwaukee early on the Tuesday before IRONMAN®. It was, thankfully, an entirely uneventful (though long) trip. We landed in Kona amid a wind storm that made the already surreal tropical environment of palm trees and lava fields seem even more so.
I got to Ali’I Drive just in time to see the IRONMAN® Parade of Nations. It seems pretty obvious now – given that the Kona Ironman is the World Championship – but I was surprised initially by how international the race is. Over the course of the week I came to expect the range of accents and languages of participants. Ironman truly is an international affair.
The first event on my schedule was the Rudy Project VIP party the night I arrived. It was a swanky affair held at Hulihe’e Palace with a breathtaking view of the ocean and a who’s who of triathlon celebrities including Sean Astin (from the movie Rudy) and a host of pros. I mingled, snacked, and got to see one of the most amazing sunsets I think I’ve ever seen.
Wednesday, once I’d begun to sort out the time difference and exhaustion from travel, I wandered around the area surrounding my hotel. I visited the IRONMAN® Expo where I got to see some very cool stuff (SRAM eTap!) and made my first of many trips to the beach.
I’m vegan, which can sometimes make travel complicated, but it also can make it an interesting challenge to ferret out where the delicious vegan noms can be had. Kona did not disappoint. Within a half mile of the hotel, I found amazing vegan breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Any fears that I would have to subsist on Clif bars quickly faded. Thanks to Ali’i Buzz, Evolution Bakery & Café, and Ai Pono Café! You all kept me very, very well fed all week.
Thursday brought with it one of the most anticipated events of the week (aside from the IRONMAN® itself) – lunch with pro triathlete Michellie Jones. Lunch with Michellie and Paul Craig really was one of the highlights of my trip. We had a wide-ranging conversation about triathlon, the history of Rudy Project, and Michellie’s picks for Saturday’s race.
Thursday also brought the Kona Beer Mile. There’s not much to say here. I’m a much better runner than a beer drinker, and I’m not a very good runner. You can see the whole video recap that Rudy Project shot here:
Friday felt a bit like the calm before the storm. One of the coolest things about being in Kona for an entire week before the actual race was observing the sense of building anticipation. On Tuesday, things seemed pretty calm. By Friday afternoon, most of the infrastructure for the race had gone up and the atmosphere was positively electric. I spent the day wandering around the beach at the Old Airport Recreation Area and taking a tour of Kona Brewing (it’s a good tour).
I wanted a low-key Friday because Saturday morning was race day and race day meant a very early wake up. When my alarm went off at 5 AM, I was pretty groggy but remembered I wanted to get a good spot to watch the start of the swim. I found a great spot at the Hulihe’e Palace amid a massive crowd and got to see the sun rise and the anticipation of the crowd grow. When the cannon went off and wave after wave of IRONMAN® competitors went off, it again felt surreal. The crowds roared and hundreds and hundreds of athletes were off for what would be a very long (and hot) day.
After grabbing a quick breakfast I made my way to the first transition to watch the Pro men head out on the bike. I’ve been racing bikes for a very long time, but I really couldn’t imagine what the transition from swimming very, very hard to heading out for 112 miles in the heat and sun of Kona.
While the IRONMAN® competitors toiled all day, I took a break and went to the beach. The stillness of the almost vacant beach only a mile or so from the raucous start/finish was an intense contrast. I relaxed; I splashed about; I realized I needed a nap.
I napped just a bit and woke up in time to see the winners heading up Ali’i Drive. If the crowd felt raucous at 6:25 AM, it felt crazy as the pros finished up later in the day.
After taking another break for dinner and another nap, I headed out at 10 PM to watch the last two hours of the race – the cutoff is at midnight. I’d thought that the crowd watching the pros finish up was electric and crazy, but that paled in comparison to the massive crowds that gathered along Ali’I Drive to watch the age group athletes finish up. You could feel the crowds energizing competitors, many of whom had been on course for 14, 15, or 16 hours, as they ran toward the finish. Saying that watching this spectacle is inspiring is an understatement. I’m an endurance athlete, sure, but I’m not an endurance athlete in the way that those who compete in the IRONMAN® are. I can’t imagine that I’ll make the jump to multisport, but the images of those athletes finishing are etchedindelibly on my mind.
Sunday I wanted to sleep in. I didn’t want to sleep in too much, however, because Sunday afternoon football starts in the morning in Hawaii. On my ride to the hotel on Tuesday, I’d spied what looked like a Green Bay Packers bar. When I got there on Sunday, it wasn’t just a Packers bar, it was the southernmost Packers bar in the USA. I’m not a native Wisconsinite, but I’ve come to appreciate the Packers during my time living in Wisconsin, and it was a real treat to be surrounded by Packers fans from around the country – and around the world – on Sunday morning.
A late flight on Sunday night gave me most of the day to soak in just a little more Hawaii. I wandered about, visiting the beach (again) and taking in one last sunset.
I got to the airport and bid Kona a final farewell. It was an amazing and, at times, unreal trip. I feel so fortunate and grateful for the experience. Thank you so much to Rudy Project and everyone who made it happen. Thank you, again, Paul, Devin, Riley, Greg, and everyone at Rudy Project! You all made it a spectacular trip.