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How Do I Love Thee, Honu?

Of the four million clichés written about Hawaii, every last one of them is true.

Let me count the ways:

1-      It’s in Hawai’i

2-      It’s in Hawai’i

3-      It’s at the Fairmont Orchid

4-      In Hawai’i

That’ll pretty much do it. Here’s the thing about Hawai’i: Of the four million clichés written about it?

Every last one of them is true.

I’m not going to repeat them, except to say that stepping off the plane in Kona is like dropping through one of those inter-dimensional portals that were so popular on The Twilight Zone, only without all the existentialist angst and multi-eyed aliens. Given the bajillions of tourists who have come and gone over the years, it’s hard to fathom how the locals have remained so warm and welcoming, but they have. Sure, the entire economy here depends on tourism, but that’s true in Cancun and Miami, too, and if you’ve ever been there, you know it ain’t the same.

Then there’s the Fairmont Orchid, the host hotel, but calling this place a “host hotel” is like calling the Parliament Buildings “city hall.” It was originally built as a Ritz-Carlton…then got upgraded. There’s something a little weird about seeing sweaty athletes pushing bikes along wide marble terraces modeled roughly on the Doges Palace, but after you realize that the guy who parked your car can recite every one of Peter Reid’s splits going back to his first kiddie tri, it starts to make an odd kind of sense. When was the last time the check-in people at a host hotel gave you a sheet and rag for your bike tied with a silk bow?

Wrapping all of this pampering in a warm cocoon of ohana is race director Diana Bertsch and a crew of veterans who are so bent on making Honu the perfect tri experience they even treat absurdities with undeserved respect. (To the participant who complained to the race office about the wind this weekend: I’m with you 100 percent on that, but I have it on good authority that it was really BP’s fault: The Honu crew took the rap just to be polite. By the way, I hope you’ll sign the petition protesting the sun in the racers’ eyes on the last part of the swim. That’s just not right.)

There’s just one problem with all this cozy aloha: The race itself is a snarly beast waiting to sink its teeth into your ankle. The answer to one or two dozen emails that invariably arrive at the race office in the week before the event is, No, they do not cancel the race if it’s windy or hot.

The real specialness of Rohto Ironman 70.3 Hawaii is that it’s the closest most people are ever going to come to experiencing the Ironman World Championship first hand. You get the same mass swim start, including an all-out slugfest at the first buoy that would make a UFC champion blanch. Then you bike right out on the actual Ironman course, complete with the same winds that blew Dorothy’s entire house to Oz (“Ding dong, the witch is…” yada yada yada.)

And that’s where the resemblance ends. Since the distances in a 70.3 are only half those of a full Ironman, run director Jerry Ewing accepted a wager as to whether it was possible to make the 13.1 miles of the run just as difficult as the 26.2 miles of the Ironman marathon. Jerry, reputedly a former CIA black op’s interrogator, turned to Abu Ghraib for his inspiration and won the bet easily. First, he situated it on a golf course, in order to make sure that as soon as any runner finally got some tempo going, the terrain would change from grass to asphalt or lava and then back again, effectively rendering any notion of “rhythm” totally moot. Then, he designed the layout to resemble his favorite childhood game. Unfortunately, that game was “Chute & Ladders,” and for those of you in the digital generation who don’t remember that one, all you need to know is that, in the blink of an eye you could change location, position, altitude or velocity. If you’ve been on the Honu, run, you know what I’m talking about. New York City taxi drivers have been known to babble incoherently between miles nine and twelve.

Somehow, though, the race manages to provide both a state of delirium (the good kind) and sense of satisfaction for all those triathletes fortunate enough to participate in the most beautiful 70.3 in the world.