Living the Dream with the Kona Family

By Rafael Zavala | Oct. 29, 2019, 11:33 a.m. (ET)

rafael zavala ironman


The IRONMAN World Championship has been an experience I will never forget. The Hawaiian culture, spirituality, and the people of Kona will be with me always. I could not believe I was finally there, sharing this historic race with the legends and pros of this sport. I was living my dream competing with the best in the world.


The week leading up to the race was filled with celebratory receptions, luaus and banquets, athlete interviews and Q&As, and final training on the legendary course—swimming in Kailua Bay, cycling on the Queen K, and running on Ali’i Drive. There were many opportunities to get to meet the greats, who were so generous with their time and imparting their encouragement and wisdom for the race.


Years ago, I bought the 25th Anniversary IRONMAN book by Bob Babbitt, who signed it and said, “I look forward to seeing you in Kona in 2009!” It took me an extra ten years, but I made it. And what an honor it was to meet Dave Scott, Mark Allen and Paula Newby-Fraser, who literally brought tears to my eyes, and getting to add their autographs to my collection.


This was the first year the race started in waves by age groups. As I was treading water between the enormous buoys, I was overwhelmed with emotion. Everything I had worked for over the past 13 years had come to this moment. I heard the sound from the traditional conch shell and we were off! Kona is known for its heat, humidity and winds…and it did not disappoint on race day. There are segments of the bike course where the winds are so relentless you are forced to wait to drink. Until you find some protection where you can take your hands off the handle bars, you just have to be patient. I was so relieved when I got back to town because the most intimidating leg of the triathlon was done.


I felt the emotions of the day growing in the last few miles of the run, knowing I had so many people supporting me, both from afar and at the race. The pain in my feet and legs magically faded away when I heard the cheering and fanfare as I ran into town. And then there I was, running down the magic carpet with my USA and Mexico flags flowing behind me to the finish line. There is nothing better than hearing Mike Reilly say, “Rafael Zavala, you are an Ironman!”


The theme of this year’s race was Ohana, which means family. It’s hard to put into words the ways in which Kona embraces the athletes as their own family. I couldn’t think of any word more fitting because it really takes a village to get here. The love and support from the town, race volunteers, family and friends are what made this race incredibly special. To be a part of this legacy is humbling and surreal.


I am a Kona finisher!

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