On Monday morning, a group of 50 people associated with the VEGA IRONMAN World Championship made a trek up mauka to participate in grounds restoration at Halau Ka‘eaikahelelani — a Hawaiian hula academy in Hōlualoa that utilizes the practice to teach native language, culture and connection to place.
What the volunteers offered as part of their service project was substantial — a $2,500 grant to the school and 100 hands working the land diligently and lovingly for more than two hours. What the volunteers received in return, however, may have been even more generous.
“I hope that they find a deeper connection to the place, to Hawai‘i, and more appreciation for everything outside of what they (initially) see,” said kumu hula Lily Lyons, who operates the halau with her sister Ka‘ea Lyons.
“I feel like that’s kind of the first layer of Hawai‘i — it’s the hotel, whatever they see when they first arrive,” she continued. “And we’re behind all of that, we’re way deep in Hawai‘i, and so we really are the people that live here every day who make the true engine of the place keep running. I hope (today) they found greater respect and appreciation for this place.”
Hula kumu Ka‘ea Lyons said the connection her sister spoke about is a major component of the work done at Halau Ka‘eaikahelelani for hundreds of West Hawai‘i residents between the ages of 1 and 73 — all of whom come to the school to learn and grow.
But it was also the point of the activities Monday.
“That action of touching the land and being connected to the land, that’s really the overall purpose,” Ka‘ea said. “Hopefully, they’ll take what they learned today and apply it to other spaces they visit around the world. I don’t know if they’ve ever had an opportunity to really experience the authentic culture we have in Hawai‘i, but this is it. … This is what we do.”
For Mike Reilly, the voice of IRONMAN who will call the finish line in Kailua-Kona for the 31st time on Saturday, the two-way exchange of generosity was palpable.
“We bring 2,500 athletes into cities all over the world. It’s a strain,” Reilly said. “We want to make sure we give back to the community and don’t just leave without a leave-behind. It’s like in giving, we receive.”
Monday’s cast of volunteers, who offered their hands as part of the nonprofit IRONMAN Foundation’s community outreach efforts, was star-studded. Alongside Reilly, whose “You are an IRONMAN!” call has become iconic in the world of sports, was Julie Moss.
In 1982, as a graduate student, Moss entered the triathlon as part of her exercise physiology thesis. She led the race by 20 minutes when the marathon started but was passed only yards short of the finish line after her body began to shut down. She dragged herself across the finish in what has come to be known as the “Crawl of Fame,” a moment that helped kickstart the competition’s rise to international prominence.
The work Moss put in at the halau on Monday wasn’t quite so strenuous, but it came with its own rewards. Reilly, Moss and the rest of the group — which included athletes, their families, IRONMAN staff and race partners — first asked permission to enter the sacred land. This process of protocol involved traditional Hawaiian chants and is precisely the sort of activity taught at the school.
After the ceremonial beginning, volunteers removed invasive plants from the lush Hawaiian countryside like the African tulip and Macaranga tanarius, known colloquially as elephant’s ear.
They cleared weeds and helped reconstruct a rock wall lining outdoor spaces around the property where many who live on Hawai‘i Island cultivate self-identity through building connection to the ‘āina.
Volunteers even identified and began to address a problem the sisters didn’t know they had — a clog in their drainage system exacerbated by weeks of heavy rain on the Kona slopes.
“In Hawai‘i, one of our things is when you go somewhere, you leave it better than when you arrived,” Lily said. “They’ve certainly done that today. And what’s neat is that now, we’ll always remember them by things like (the rock wall they built). So their mana, or their energy, is now part of our property forever.”
Ka‘ea said it will be through community outreach that extends in both directions, like the restoration service project Monday, that IRONMAN and its participants will continue to construct long-lasting relationships with the Hawaiian people and their culture.
That, she added, will only improve the IRONMAN experience for all involved.
“They’ve been really awesome, crazy awesome,” Ka‘ea said of the volunteers. “Really, it’s based on relationship. I think our culture and our community … that’s what we are. As long as there is relationship building, I think they’ll continue to make a bigger impact.”