Shannon Kurek, Marlon Saldin and Michelle Payette: Bringing Ironman to Sri Lanka

After running a hundred and fifty triathlons, Shannon Kurek is no stranger to pain. He’s been on intimate terms with every variety of physical torment an Ironman challenge can inflict – from the cramping of your intestines as they reject the energy drinks you’ve been guzzling down to the knotting of the muscles in your thighs as they refuse to carry you a step further. Just crossing that finishing line represents such a triumph of willpower and spirit that it is a profound victory to simply complete the course; for Shannon there’s little that compares to the pure elation of it. Now, as the founder of a company known as HFP Racing he knows what every triathlon junkie is looking for – the next great challenge, the next horrendously demanding course. He’s betting that for some of them competing in the blazing heat and draining humidity of Sri Lanka is going to be it.

Last year’s event in Thailand

Shannon and his colleague Michelle Payette were in Colombo last week to meet their local co-director, Marlon Saldin and inspect the course for what will be the first Ironman 70.3 event in South Asian and the first 5150 Triathlon in South East Asia. Michelle plans to stay till race day – Shannon describes her as their “boots on the ground.” She is best known as the director of IronKids, but during her time on the island she will be coordinating the island’s first Ironman event. Already competitors from 28 countries have signed up and many more are expected. With several thousand dollars in prize money and 10 qualifying spots for the 2012 Marines Ironman World Championship 70.3 up for grabs, competition is likely to be stiff. Plenty of locals are also signing up, having begun preparing months in advance.

Come 7 a.m. on February 19, 2012, competitors in the 70.3 will begin their 1.9 km swim at Galle Face and follow it up with a 90 km bike ride made up of 3 laps to Rajagiriya and back. The last stretch is a 21 km run that will border the banks of the Beira Lake. The Ironman 5150 is the less taxing of the two: a 1.5 km swim, a 40 km bike ride and a 10 k run. The roads will close on the day and as is tradition, competitors will be cheered on by friends, families and every curious bystander around. While competing in this event might sound almost like a form of advanced masochism Michelle says “when people just love the sport and it’s part of who they are and it’s part of their spirit, it’s like oxygen to your lungs.”


Shannon is confident that Sri Lanka’s first brush with Ironman will be a complete revelation. Part of it is the wonderful diversity of the competitors themselves. While there are the professional athletes, there are also the teenagers running their first triathlon, and the senior citizens, some closing in on eighty, who are veterans of the event. There are cancer survivors and the disabled or physically challenged athletes – and they’re all at the start line together. It’s a rare sport where an amateur and last year’s world champion rub shoulders, Shannon points out. It’s part of what makes them a community. “It’s like we survived a war,” he says, talking about how supportive and positive competitors can be.

It’s also an inspirational one, because every year the challenge inspires people to do extraordinary things. A father son duo have become particularly famous says Michelle. Rick Hoyt has been confined to a wheelchair with cerebral palsy and cannot speak or walk. For the last 20 years, his father, Dick, has either towed, pushed or carried Rick past the finish line in a series of athletic challenges including the Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Hawaii. Then there’s Sister Madonna Buder – ‘The Iron Nun’- who competed in her first Ironman at age 55 and has completed over 325 since, holding the official record for the oldest person at 79 to complete the race.

In Sri Lanka, competitors will be able to win prizes in nearly 30 different categories, including the various age categories. To be eligible they will have to complete each section within the designated time frame and stagger past the finishing line in less than 8 hours. Waiting to congratulate them will be volunteers with ‘finisher’ medals. (No one wants to end up having to admit they DNF or Did Not Finish, explains Shannon.)

Such ‘greeters’ are among several categories of volunteers the Ironman relies heavily on, others will be called upon to work aid centres, direct competitors on the day and manage the award ceremonies among other things. The organization provides a small stipend to each of its volunteers and for many groups this becomes a wonderful fund raising opportunity. In past years, Ironman volunteers have raised funds for everything from sports equipment to art supplies, education and medicines. They hope to have many groups in Sri Lanka interested in doing the same, as the event relies heavily on the community for support.

In the meantime, excitement continues to build as the day draws closer: “Certainly the sport of triathlon doesn’t get any bigger than Ironman,” says Shannon, totally confident it’s going to be a success.

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on December 18, 2011. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Athula Devapriya.

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