Hailed as the World Cup of triathlon, the Ironman World Championships has been taking place on the Big Island of Hawaii since 1981. Every October, the best athletes travel from all corners of the world, and descend on the tropical, tranquil town of Kona and its surrounding lava fields. Triathletes Ashlea Keene and Cory Sullivan flew all the way from New York to be part of the Ironman experience, and returned with some epic photos. These are some of their favorites, and the stories behind them!

Ali’i Drive is a popular pace on race day. There fans can cheer for their favorite athlete up close and leave a personal message in chalk to inspire them on their 140.6 mile journey. Colorful and written in many languages, they truly capture the festive spirit that is only felt when the most talented athletes come from all over the world to share the same challenge.

Ironman bike check-in

In the days leading up to Ironman, the athletes receive the red (and black) carpet treatment while checking their bikes into the Transition Zone. Security guards their very expensive equipment overnight letting the athletes worry about one less thing.

Ironman bike check-in

Bike check-in always draws a crowd as each athlete’s arrival is announced as they enter. Everyone’s attention is on what bikes the pros are riding this year.

Ironman athlete Andy Potts

American Pro Andy Potts is introduced as he arrives at bike check-in. On stage with his bike, Potts is asked if 2015 Ironman World Champion Jan Frodeno will be chasing him all day. Andy knows that in Ironman, anything is possible, and does his best to give a fuzzy answer.

Ironman finish line

On race morning athletes, volunteers, and spectators wake up before the sun to discover that the town of Kailua-Kona, HI has transformed overnight.“The finish line must have been set up overnight, and it was gone by the next morning, like magic!" Keene said, impressed. The stage is now set for the legendary endurance challenge to begin.

Body marking

Still dark at 4 am, intensity builds as athletes have race numbers marked on their arms. This blur of movement of everyone preparing for a long day of racing is soon followed by a tense quiet as the athletes enter the water and wait…

Before the swim

The sun rises on 2,000 triathletes, volunteers and the boats that will keep them safe on their 2.4 mile swim in Kailua-Kona Bay. In the distance, a TV helicopter hovers over the water. Savvy spectators know that throughout the day, the chopper will serve as a sign that a lead athlete is approaching.

Crown on the seawall

As the start if the race draws closer, the international spectators crowd the seawall, all vying for a good view of the iconic swim. The crowd is at least four people deep forcing one photographer to stick his camera lens between the legs of a group blocking his view. In the commotion, Ashlea and Cory are almost pushed into the water!

Ironman athlete Ben Hoffman

Ben Hoffman (pictured), is fourth overall out of the water. Most of the top pro triathletes finish the 2.4 mile ocean swim in an astounding 50 minutes! With the swim behind them, they are quick to gear up for their 112 mile bike ride on the Queen K Highway.

Ironman athlete Mirinda Carfrae

After a 56 minute swim, Australia's Mirinda "Rinny" Carfrae begins her bike ride with the climb up Palani Road. Carfrae set a marathon course record in her 2009 Ironman Championship debut and she’s off in hopes beating that record.

Ironman athlete Daniela Ryf

Carfrae’s main opponent, Daniela Ryf, manages to hold off the field and begins the 26.2 mile run with an eight-minute lead. Ryf goes on to beat the Australian and destroy Carfrae’s overall course record from 2013 but Rinny proves why she’s a crowd favorite running her way from 13th to 2nd place female overall!

Jan Frodeno

Fresh off the bike, Jan Frodeno begins the run a mere four seconds ahead of fellow German Sebastian Kienle. The two run the first half of the marathon side-by-side, sometimes chatting, but clearly out to wear the other down.

Jan Frodeno

Jesse Thomas founder of Picky Bars and Wildly popular for his signature aviator sunglasses and amusing blog posts, made his Ironman Championship debut. His enthusiasm on the bike catches up to him, making for a tough marathon experience. Later Thomas points out that just turning in a solid performance at this Ironman was a dream come true for him.

Jan Frodeno

Heather Jackson may look hardcore with all those tattoos, but is described by Sullivan as “humble, happy, and fun”and apparently pretty tough to beat as she went on to earn third place in the women’s race!

Her colorful support team from Wattie Ink helped to contribute to the party atmosphere in full effect on Ali’i Drive. Spectators hung out in the streets enjoying shaved ice and music played by a nearby DJ while they cheered their favorite athletes.

Jan Frodeno

An exhausted Trevor Wurtele musters enough energy to high-five a young boy cheering from the sidelines. Wurtele is one half of power couple Team Wurtele, and when he and his wife Heather aren’t competing professionally they live in an RV.

People-watching is great on race day, Keene describes “It was amazing to see people from all corners of the globe, proudly wearing their national colors and waving flags. Some had special shirts made to support their athlete, or just wore a crazy shirt to stand out!”

Ironman athlete Jan Frodeno

After finally pulling ahead of Kienle, Frodeno suffered through the last 13 miles alone. It all paid off as he went on to break the run course record set in 1989 and win the most prestigious Ironman competition two years in a row!

"Everyone along the barricades starting beating on them in unison as Jan approached the finish line for the win," Ashlea Keene recalls. "That was the coolest part!"

Kona Ironman 2016 was filled with unforgettable moments both for the athletes and for the electrifying crowd that came to support them. Want to see for yourself? NBC is airing the race this Saturday December 10th at 2:30pm eastern.You’ll see that when these world class athletes and their supporters come together it is something bigger than many of us can imagine.

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