Indomitable Dutchman Bart de Zwart is no stranger to endurance tests in the world of stand up paddle! We know him best for his innumerable exploits, from breaking the 24-hour world distance paddling record to setting a new best recorded time at last year’s Great Glen Challenge in Scotland, or indeed, taking part in the Yukon River Quest, which prides itself on being the “world’s longest annual paddle race”. Yes, it seems that for Bart, no endurance challenge is too great, and no matter the conditions, he keeps coming back for more. Small wonder then why he is so eager to participate once more in Ironmana, a gruelling multidisciplinary waterman challenge par excellence taking place in French Polynesia every year. For Bart, a comprehensive test of this nature is too great to pass up, so he gives us the low-down on the 2017 edition, which kicked off today in a whole new location, Huahine.
I have just had the honour of flying in to one of the toughest, most wonderful, most gruelling, most rewarding and most unique events that I have come to know in my SUP career to date. Though I’m mostly known for taking on particularly trying endurance races, which are generally no walk in the park, Ironmana might be considered even more challenging in many ways.
Some refer to it as a boot camp, while others liken it to their daily routine. One thing is clear though, over the years, Ironmana has grown into one of the ultimate tests of a waterman’s mettle, in which participants are very much taught to expect the unexpected.
For competitors, there rarely seems to be a clear schedule of the events due to take place on any given day. The whole thing seems to operate on somewhat of a pot-luck basis, and usually after an early breakfast you will discover the kind of gauntlet to be thrown down before you on that particular day.
And the whole event itself takes place in one of the most extraordinarily beautiful locations in the world! This year it is held in Huahine, a small tropical paradise belonging to the French Polynesian islands and situated about 320km west of Tahiti.
While in previous years, Ironmana has been largely focused on endurance races, this year all we know is that it will be mostly concentrated on sprint races in SUP, swimming, OC1, surfski, sailing canoe and running. Most athletes who go out there are specialised in one discipline and they can get by in the rest, which makes things all the more interesting. We all have our individual strengths and weaknesses.
You can choose to only participate in the disciplines you’re used to and skilled at, but funnily enough, almost all participants take part in all the races, seeing it as a fun and convivial event that challenges you and lets you try your hand at everything. It’s a real thrill and, as a concept, it’s really big in Tahiti.
Stéphan Lambert, a great waterman in his own right, is the event’s principal organiser. He lives in Tahiti and organises over 30 events throughout French Polynesia annually. What I like most about his events is that he tries to come up with original courses and rules to make his races that little bit different and more exciting.
Though easy they are not! Unpredictable at times even! If he finds it a novel or exciting idea to incorporate a 1-hour paddle into the wind into a particular course, he’ll go ahead and do so. No holes barred. I met Stéphan for the first time a couple of years ago, when he assisted with my arrival onshore following my solo crossing from Tahiti to Bora Bora. Just to give you some insight into Stéphan’s adrenaline-driven character, he paddled with me for the last 4 hours of this endeavour around the reef at Bora Bora just “for fun”. That’s just the kind of guy he is.
So, with an unpredictable series of trials, all manner of different watersports disciplines, a stunning setting and an organiser with an eccentric approach to organising endurance events, it really promises to be an awesome week! Internet permitting, I myself will try to post daily short stories, photos and videos of proceedings in Huahine, so check out my Facebook page for updates!