Words by Mike Misselwitz

Day One at the KXT Ironmana Liquid Festival: A Soggy, Sloggy Start

Wild vibrations and foreign feelings coming into the 2016 KXT Ironmana Liquid Festival. My first time on new land and water. My first endurance race. My first experience with the Tahitian culture. A head full of nerves fueled by vague testimonies from athletes who have competed in past Ironmanas. “Prepare to endure pain like you’ve never known.” “Be ready for whatever.” “Ironmana was the biggest challenge, and biggest reward, of my life.” These are the words of pro paddlers I’ve consulted in preparation. Thanks, guys.

The only expectation I could bank on: an impending reality of pleasures I’ve never known, spontaneously mingling with equal doses of pain. Expect nothing, be prepared for anything. So goes the mantra of Ironmana.

Bora Bora. Jump right in, the water is warm. Postcards from the place don’t lie. True blue and translucent turquoise alive with brilliant coral topping sand white as snow. Home to a handful of the world’s most cunning watermen and women, and for the next few days, a melting pot of ambitious athletes sharing their spectacular home and competing among the Tahitians in Ironmana. Welcome to paradise…now go to hell. It’s not actually like that, but given the criteria of the event, at times it can feel close.

Ironmana is the flagship event of the KXT Tahiti Waterman World Tour and consists of three disciplines: swimming, standup paddling and prone paddling. It spans four days—one for each discipline plus one reserved for a mystery medley (icing on the cake, or a twist of the knife, depending on your perspective). Each day’s task and course remain undisclosed until competitors arrive on the beach in the morning. The element of surprise is paramount to Ironmana’s freakishly determined founder, Stephan Lambert, who dictates the races’ terms and competes in each event alongside his guests. Preparation is also paramount to Stephan, as is humility and the willingness to dig deeper than ever before.

The SUP mag crew arrived on Bora Bora for day one of Ironmana this morning, travel weary from an overnight flight from California. Airport snafus caused us to arrive behind schedule and I was forced to watch the day’s race from the sidelines rather than compete. Pity me. A 32-mile prone paddleboard race circumnavigating Bora Bora Island ensued. The sky opened up as the elite collection of racers thundered off the start line. Rain poured and wind howled. Reality set in. And with that the 2016 KXT Ironmana Liquid Festival was underway.

“Charger” Carter Graves, living up to her namesake.
#PPG2016 Prone Paddleboard Champion Matt Poole on his way to an Ironmana victory in the Prone race.

Our team stood by on a support boat as the athletes steadily rounded the island. The rain rarely ceased as they plowed through the pelting water first in packs, then in pairs, then alone. Six hours later, our boat docked at Sofitel Resort, the stunningly quintessential retreat that accommodates Ironmana. An hour and a half after that, I watched the final competitors file into the finish.

Seven and a half hours of relentless grinding, a complete circumnavigation of the island under wind and rain, and every competitor crossed the finish line smiling…on the inside, anyway. Day one was complete, or so I thought.

Now, as the sun sets and I sit on the balcony writing this, I look out across the Tahitian sea and a vibrant rainbow arcs uninhibited from the island’s crest behind me to the horizon across the Pacific. The sky glows gold and the stilted bungalows beside me silhouette against it for a view only conveyable to the present. I imagine today’s athletes might appreciate this view if they weren’t mending the day’s wounds in the sanctuaries of their bungalows. And just as the notion passes I see them, strumming across the glassy gold water on standup paddleboards, laughing, hooting and racing together. They’re heading to a point across the bay where they’ll admire the view before paddling back in dusk’s pink shadow for dinner. Go deeper, these incredible athletes will tell you. Clearly their maxim applies to both pleasure and pain.

Some refer to Ironmana as a spiritual journey. Now it’s clear to me why. For those fortunate and bold enough to attend Ironmana, it offers an opportunity to go where we may have otherwise never gone. To learn things about ourselves we may have otherwise never known. To make friends we may have never met and break barriers we may have never attempted to challenge on our own. Pain and pleasure combined, we’re blessed to be at Ironmana. Then again, I’ll let you know how I feel after joining the competition tomorrow…

How I got into Ironmana

Full From the Mag Feature: Ironmana, the Tahitian Dream