Run. Paddle. Chug.
Not all local health events are created equal. Just ask the participants of the annual Hermosa Beach Ironman. Whether the goal is six-pack abs or a six-pack of beer, they’re going for the gold … and it’s 100% South Bay.
- Written byStefan Slater
No, Hermosa Beach’s Ironman is not that Ironman. Sure, both events share the same name—probably a great frustration to the World Triathlon Corporation, which coordinates the famous Ironman triathlon that’s known throughout the world. But the two events are, to say the least, extremely different.
Every year on the Fourth of July, a group of South Bay locals—who always remain unnamed—host this pseudo-triathlon in Hermosa Beach. The event begins in the early morning before any Fourth of July revelers are awake, typically around 8:30 a.m., with a mile-long run on the sand followed by a mile-long paddle.
Then after returning to shore, the competitors chug a six-pack of beer while judges watch closely. The lighter and cheaper the beer, the better. If they can keep the booze down after 15 minutes, they’re in the clear; if they puke, they’re out. First one across the finish line wins.
And at the end a band—sometimes Pennywise, sometimes Special C—plays something mosh-pit-worthy, and the crowd joins together celebrating. Then, almost as soon as the event gets rolling, it’s over. Beer cans disappear. Everything’s cleaned up and packed away during the early morning, and it’s almost like nothing ever happened.
The event is, of course, ridiculous. But it’s a silly tradition that’s lasted roughly four decades, and it fits Hermosa Beach—one of the primary stomping grounds of California’s punk, surf and skate scenes—neatly. Last year roughly 500 people showed up for the event, and the competition raised thousands of dollars for charities, including the much-loved Jimmy Miller Foundation.
It’s a strange, seemingly absurd but ultimately harmless event that locals—ranging from eager grandparents to surf rats in their early 20s—hold onto dearly. The event connects the present Hermosa (with its trendy brewpubs, boutiques and ties to the expanding Silicon Beach further north … in other words, safe, mundane and very grown-up Hermosa) to the Hermosa of yesterday: the good-time beach town that played host to grungy surfers and punk rock kids alike.
It’s an event that means a great deal to locals and one that many hope to keep alive for years to come. Ironman is South Bay fun, pure and simple.
Sand to Screen
This year during the fourth annual Sunscreen Film Festival West that runs September 29 to October 2 here in the South Bay, festival organizer Robert Enriquez will premiere a new documentary about the Ironman competition. “I got this idea, and I wanted to tie with the community a bit better,” he says.
He was familiar with the Ironman event, and he felt that a documentary—one that explored the history and importance of the competition—would be a hit with locals. “It’s vibrant, and it’s been going on for years, and locals love the tradition behind it,” he says.
The documentary will approach the event from two angles. There will be a historical element, which will examine how the event grew from its grassroots beginnings in the early ‘70s. And the other component will focus on the day of the actual 2016 event, following certain individuals as they compete.
“The physical aspect is very competitive,” Enriquez says. “You have to be at a high level just to get in the top percentage.”
Julie Nunis, who helped Enriquez with the filming process, noted that conducting interviews has helped her better understand the event. “It’s not all chaos,” she says. “And the guys who compete are really passionate about it.”
Enriquez and Nunis interviewed a number of locals who are actively involved in the event. For example, Robert “Burgie” Benz, former Hermosa Beach mayor and city councilman, has been a major proponent of the Ironman, and he’s helped the two filmmakers by providing a great deal of context and background.
He notes that originally the event started in Manhattan Beach with only a handful of competitors. As it grew, local officials pressured organizers, and the event was pushed down to Hermosa Beach.
“In years past, I came in as close as second place,” Benz says, adding that he loves to compete each and every year. “I’m not a particularly gifted athlete, but I can chug a six-pack faster than most anybody in the contest.”
The event, which Benz quickly emphasizes is all about fun, does its best to distance itself from the rowdy parties that usually occur later on during the day on the Fourth of July.
“We wanted to make sure that it didn’t get associated with the wacky people that come in during the afternoon ,” he says, adding that the event is for athletes, professional drinkers and patriots alike.
Benz goes on to say that the Ironman is the last vestige of Hermosa Beach fun—“of free Hermosa Beach life.” It’s an event for South Bay locals to celebrate South Bay life.
“It’s a time when folks come from out of town, and friends get together and have fun. We celebrate the years gone by,” he says, adding that the charity angle is meant to emphasize the event’s pro-South Bay attitude. It gives natives a chance to celebrate and support South Bay causes and families.
In order to emphasize that the event is more so about fun, Benz points out that there are some fairly strict ground rules: There are no glass bottles allowed, and cleanup has to occur promptly at a set time in the early morning. At the end of the day, Benz just wants people to have a blast.
Chris Brown, owner of Campsurf and multiple Ironman champion, notes that he first participated in the event when he was 18. “I’m 46 now, and in all those years I’ve only missed one Ironman,” he says.
The event, he notes, is fascinating to watch. “It’s like a flash mob. As soon as it’s over, a cleanup crew arrives, and everyone disperses. Ten minutes afterwards you couldn’t tell something happened,” he says.
Brown, who grew up in the South Bay, notes that the event helps older locals connect to Hermosa’s past. “There are a lot of new people coming into the area, but Hermosa is the birthplace of the surf industry and punk rock. The Ironman is a connection to a time when Hermosa was a little more fun-loving and permissive and true to its roots,” he says.
The event reminds him of the Hermosa he grew up with, and it’s a tradition that he and his friends all look forward to each year. “In fact, my parents (they’re in their 70s) love the event, and they come down and watch. And even if they can’t, they have to know what happened,” he says.
Annie Seawright, another local, notes that she’s competed at least 20 times. “I’ve only missed three years: twice when I was pregnant and once when I had flight attendant training,” she says, adding that she was one of the first women to compete in the event, and she’s won the event’s women’s division 12 times total.
She adds that when she first started competing, there were only a handful of women who entered the event. “But now there are about 40 to 50 women ,” she says.
Like Brown, Seawright notes that the Ironman is a rite of passage for locals. It’s something that she and her friends were eager to do when they were younger, and it’s something that she hopes her children will try out one day too.
The tradition even carries over to her grandparents. “ moved here in the ‘20s,” she says. “My grandmother encouraged me to do the event.”
At the end of the day, the Ironman is purely about having a good time. “The guys are sweethearts. We have a mosh pit, but it’s all about fun,” she says.
Like Benz, Seawright encourages people to watch or even enter the competition. Without seeing it, the Ironman might sound chaotic, but that’s not a fair assessment. Checking it out, she notes, gives a person a chance to connect with an aspect of Hermosa that only true locals tend to appreciate.
“I think it’s good, and when people see it up close and see how much fun we all have,” she says, “it’ll change their impression of it.”