First, there was the sea, silent and alone and endless in shades of blue. Then, volcanoes rose from below the sea, throwing water and rock into the air in great cacophony. Afterwards, all was silent. And then, from across the sea, from over the horizons, came humans in floating crafts, harnessing the wind and using paddles to move across the water’s surface. Fatigued from their journey, they settled upon this hardened and overgrown chaos, building their homes near to the sea from whence they came. There they stayed and lived with the sea.
That was the story I saw in my mind as I flew into Tahiti and then on to Bora Bora. Shimmering shades of blue leading up to barrier reefs that protect the lagoons within, palm trees swaying on lonely atolls, verdant green peaks rising incongruously from the water below with human structures lining the shore. When we landed on the airstrip in Bora Bora we were only a few feet above sea level, directly inside the barrier reef that rings the island like an aquatic shield. To get anywhere on the main island required a taxi—and that taxi is a boat.
The wind whipped my face as I tried to relax on the boat after spending 12 hours inside air-conditioned airports. The salt air sat heavily on my skin. Though I was tired, I had gotten there with the modern luxuries of engines and props; the Tahitians had arrived almost 2,000 years before using hand-made boats, paddles, sails, their bodies, the stars and innate sense of adventure, a journey nearly unfathomable today. In short, they’d earned their lives in paradise. I hadn’t.
But I was going to try. I was in the Society Islands for the Bora Bora KXT Ironmana Liquid Festival. To call the Ironmana an event is a disgusting understatement, akin to calling an ultramarathon a jog or a hiking the Pacific Crest Trail a walk. It started in 2000, as a va’a, (a traditional rudder-less Tahitian canoe) race and has since fledged into a full-on combination of open-water swimming, prone paddleboarding and standup paddling, similar to a triathlon, except that it lasts four days and you don’t know when and how long you’ll be doing any of those disciplines. There was a full moon while we were there and at one point I was sure we were going to be sent out to paddle underneath it. Each day was a new form of torture.
Stephan Lambert is the man behind this madness, although he seems an unlikely endurance event organizer. A French expat whose sun-beataen skin battered by the tropical rays he smoked cigarettes after sessions in the ocean, completely unlike the athletes he’d host. Traditional Tahitian tattoos decorated his right arm and hand. His sense of humor was droll and he easily talked shit in both French and English.
“So this is Will, from the famous SUP magazine,” he said laconically when magazine contributor and all-around water-woman Morgan Hoesterey introduced us. “Are you ready for this?” ready for this?”
His look seemed to say that maybe I wasn’t. I mumbled something along the lines of “Yes,” and went off to find my room, knowing I hadn’t convinced him, or myself for that matter, that I was ready for an event with such a level of suffering. But there I was.
World-class athletes wandered the beach in front of the hotel waiting to get the lowdown from Lambert: triathlon coach-to-the-stars Roch Frey, Manhattan Island Marathon Swim winner Grace Van Der Byl, former All-American Stanford swimmer Alex Kostich and many others.
Grace Van Der Byl was nowhere to be seen. After dominating the female competition—and many of the men—in a four-mile swim, Grace took to the six-mile SUP race with a smile, even though she’d hardly paddled standup before. We stood, toes in the white sand, rehydrating with cold water and Powerade, waiting for her to come in.
“Maybe she gave up,” said Maeva Hargrave, a 46-year-old Tahitian waterwoman who steadily finished every race at the same pace, no matter the conditions.
“That doesn’t sound like her,” Hoesterey said. She would know. As a warm up to the Ironmana, Lambert had organized a multi-day, 280-mile sail/paddle on traditional Tahitian sailing canoes from Tahiti to Bora Bora for a select few, Grace and Morgan among them. They’d gotten there the old-fashioned way.
After a bit of concern, Morgan rallied a posse of paddlers to go check on Grace. They limped across the line 15 minutes later. Grace was smiling.
“First in the swim, DFL in the paddle,” she laughed. “Gonna have to work on that.”
It was common feeling throughout the competition. No one was an expert at all of the disciplines. Many of the Tahitians paddled the prone legs on their SUPs because they didn’t own or have access to proper boards. Some people had never SUPed before while others had no swimming technique. This affected the atmosphere: it was competitive, but not in a cutthroat way. The Tahitians in particular waited at each finish, hugging and cheering and congratulating each other as they crossed the line. People exchanged stroke tips, everyone cheered for each other and I, for one, felt like we were all in excruciating pain together. Maybe it was a fraction of what the Tahitians felt like when they spotted these islands for the first time.
Alex Kostich, the swimming phenomenon who won each swim by a healthy margin, watched Grace come in from her standup journey. He’d been coming to Bora Bora for the Ironmana four years running and had never tried the SUP races. He simply swam. But after watching Grace grit it out, he opened up.
“I gotta try that,” he said simply. And the next day, he did.
At the beginning of the last lap of the final race—a 20-mile SUP grinder consisting of five laps sidewind, upwind, then side/downwind inside Bora Bora’s lagoon—I lapped Maeva. The Tahitian woman waved at me as if out for a morning stroll. “Only two laps to go,” she said, like she was almost there.
I only had one to go, and I was dying.
And then, a sea turtle popped up next to me. It seemed to look curiously at me, the creature grunting along the surface standing up on a board. Surely it was a good omen. The squall that I’d seen brewing on the horizon would blow past us and we would all finish the race in a relatively low state of agony. It was not a good omen.
The turtle plunged underwater and the squall engulfed us. The rain was cool on my overheated, dehydrated body but with it came the wind. I snuck into the lee of a motu, dreading when I had to turn the corner and face the wind head-on. It was nearly two miles to the final buoy and it was directly into the leading edge of the squall. This part of the course had been the worst of the whole race and there it was a final time, but now with twice the breeze. My energy was gone. I was out of water. My neck was seizing up.
The reef moved in slow motion beneath me. I paddled from coral head to coral head to measure my pace. I was so slow that I considered standing on the reef until the storm passed, but I wanted so badly to be done with the race—and with the four days of exertion—that I stroked sloppily along, my board flexing in the punishing wind chop. Roch Frey, the triathlon coach, who was out in front of me during that leg, said that at one point he consulted his watch and had been moving a single mile per hour.
When I finally reached the upwind buoy I wasn’t excited, just tired. I hobbled to the finish line and did my best not to collapse. Niuhiti had won the race with Tamarua in second and, in the way Tahitians seem to be in tune with the water, had the squall as a tailwind to finish the race.
“There were actually some good bumps,” Cowan told me with a smile.
It was two hours before I could even manage to stand up and talk to people in a normal fashion. And that’s about when Maeva crossed the finish line—after spending six hours paddling in the brutal South Pacific sun—looking tired but beaming. I still wanted to cry. She looked like she wanted to party.