From unlikely challenge to international sensation

While stationed near San Diego in the mid-1970s, John Collins and wife, Judy, participated in multi-sport workouts designed to break up the monotony of constant run training. During an awards banquet in 1977 for a Hawai`i running race, a lively discussion about the creation of a major endurance event in Hawai’i occurred. To challenge athletes who had already seen success at a local biathlon (swim/run), the first”Hawai`ian IRONMAN Triathlon” was born. As the conversation continued, Collins began playing with the idea of combining the three toughest endurance races on the island into one race. He decided to issue a challenge. He proposed combining the 2.4-mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim with 112 miles of the Around-O’ahu Bike Race (originally a two-day event and 114 miles), followed by a 26.2-mile run on the same course as the Honolulu Marathon.

The event was unveiled at the Waikiki Swim Club Awards Banquet in late 1977. ”The gun will go off about 7 a.m., the clock will keep running and whoever finishes we’ll call the IRONMAN,” Collins recalls. On February 18, 1978, 15 competitors, including Collins, came to the shores of Waikiki to take on the IRONMAN challenge. Prior to racing, each received three sheets of paper listing a few rules and a course description. Handwritten on the last page was this exhortation: ”Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life!”

Who would have predicted this exchange of bravado would be the foundation for what is now the world’s most recognized endurance event and the global benchmark for testing one’s personal limits?

Judy Collins, who originally planned to participate in the inaugural event, was forced to withdraw just days before. John Collins and 11 others finished the entire course. Gordon Haller, a taxi cab driver and fitness enthusiast, crossed the finish line first in 11 hours, 46 minutes and 40 seconds to become the ”original” IRONMAN. Collins finished the race in a little over 17 hours. Having lost only $25 on that first race, Collins agreed to organize a second eventin 1979. Unfortunately, bad weather postponed the race one day, and more than half of the race-field dropped outthis left only 15 to race for the second straight year. Among the remaining 15 athletes was Lyn Lemaire, a cyclist from Boston, Mass.

The first female finisher maintained second place for much of the race before finishing fifth overall. The winning time of 11:15:46, posted by Californian Tom Warren, improved upon Haller’s firstyear mark, and Warren became a minor celebrity when he and the race received exposure in Sports Illustrated. This larger-than-life depiction of the race in Sports Illustrated generated what Collins remembers as a ”shoebox full of hundreds of letters from athletes around the world who wanted to do the race.” ABC Sports called Collins asking his permission to film the 1980 event. Collins agreed as long as ABC brought its own crew and the filming bore him no expense.

Ironically, Collins transferred out of Hawai’i just as his baby hit the big time in 1980. He turned the event over to the owners of a local health club. No money changed hands, but Collins did receive assurance that he or his family could race for free any year that they wanted, and that ”they would save a few racing spots for the ‘ordinary athlete,’ because these were the type of individuals who created the race.” In 1981, Valerie Silk took over supervision of the race and made the key decision to move the IRONMAN from the tranquil shores of Waikiki to the barren lava fields of Kona on the Big Island of Hawai’i. Along the Kona Coast, black lava rock dominates the panorama. Against this backdrop, athletes would cover 140.6 miles by sea, bike and foot while battling ”ho’omumuku” crosswinds of 45 mph, 95 degree temperatures and a scorching sun.

The IRONMAN Triathlon became the benchmark against which all extreme sporting challenges would be measured. ABC’s broadcasts on ”Wide World of Sports” in 1980 and 1981 continued to generate interest from athletes, but IRONMAN’s signature moment would come the following year. With the men’s  championship title already claimed, ABC’s cameras zeroed in on the women’s leader. A college student from San Diego, Julie Moss’ lifeguarding background helped her stay among the early women’s leaders. After a strong bike, she found herself with a sizeable lead in the run. Her energy levels started to dip in the last five miles, however, and another San Diego competitor, Kathleen McCartney, began to cut into Moss’ lead. Moss managed to hang on, sometimes appearing like a punch-drunk fighter as she moved toward the finish line. But with a little more than 20 yards to go, her legs gave out and she fell to the ground. She attempted to get up, but her legs wouldn’t hold her. Rather than give up, she crawled. Race officials and spectators gathered around her, visibly concerned for her well being, as well as amazed by her courage.

Although McCartney passed her, Moss won the hearts of those on-hand and millions who later saw her determined effort on television. ABC’s Jim McKay, among the most experienced sports broadcasters in history, called it the most inspiring
sports moment he had ever witnessed. Instantly, competing in the IRONMAN became such a hot ticket that organizers instituted a qualifying system to keep the race field more manageable.

By any measure, the IRONMAN presents the ultimate test of body, mind and spirit for professional and amateur athletes. And as the IRONMAN Triathlon has emerged into the mainstream, the IRONMAN experience continually
transcends pure sport. It centers on the dedication, courage and perseverance exhibited by athletes who demonstrate the IRONMAN mantra that ”ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE®.”

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