Ironman Triathlon

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Ironman Triathlon

The Ironman Triathlon, arguably the world's toughest endurance competition, has come a long way from very humble origins. In 1977, a group of recreational athletes and naval officers in an Oahu bar got into a dispute over who was the better athlete—the runner, the swimmer, or the cyclist. Trying to resolve the argument, Naval Commander John Collins jokingly proposed a race combining the 2.4 mile "Waikiki Roughwater Swim," the 122 mile "Cycle around Oahu," and the Honolulu Marathon. A year later, 15 bold adventurers gathered on a Waikiki beach to attempt the first Ironman Triathlon, unaware they were to become a part of history. By the early 1990s, the annual Hawaii Ironman had become an internationally-televised professional competition, and the Holy Grail for hundreds of thousands of triathletes worldwide. It had also helped transform the world of exercise, inspiring the entire concept of cross-training and countless other multi-sport events.

Triathlons first gained recognition in 1979, when Sports Illustrated published an article on the second annual Hawaii Ironman. The next year, a highlight package was aired on ABC's Wide World of Sports. Although the Ironman was presented as an obscure competition for only the most obsessed athletes, the telecast still helped launch hundreds of other multi-sport challenges. In 1981, the Hawaii competition was moved from Waikiki to the Kailua-Kona on the Big Island, to take advantage of the spectacular backdrop of open shores and lava fields. But it was the telecast of the dramatic 1982 Hawaii Ironman that truly placed triathlons in the public conscience. Just two miles from the finish line, women's leader Julie Moss collapsed, in severe glycogen debt, but refused to accept any medical attention. She staggered over the final two miles, literally crawling to the finish line as Kathleen McCartney passed for the victory. Viewers around the world watched in awe, wondering not only whether she would finish the race, but whether she would survive. The next year, the field of competitors doubled and over 12 million people tuned in for the live telecast. The popularity of triathlons skyrocketed through the 1980s, resulting in the establishment of other major Ironman races, a World Cup Circuit of shorter races, and thousands of multi-sport events for more recreational athletes. The multi-sport craze swept the world, inspiring other "extreme" adventure races, like the multi-day Eco-Challenge and the Raid Gauloises, combining trail running, cycling, mountaineering, paddling, and sometimes even sky-diving.

By the late 1980s, triathlons had become both a professional competition, where full-time athletes competed for prize money and sponsorship, and the ultimate challenge for the amateur athletes. The Hawaii race, with its mumuku headwinds and searing temperatures, often reaching into triple digits along the lava flats, remained the main event; just to enter, competitors had to either qualify at a national competition or hope for one of the coveted lottery spots. As the competition grew, being a triathlete came to require more than a large lung capacity and a large threshold for pain; it required a large wallet. A week in Hawaii plus all the equipment—including titanium bicycles, wetsuits, shoes, accessories like heart-rate monitors, and enough food to replace the 5000 calories a triathlete might burn in a day of training—could cost thousands of dollars. The Ironman slowly became a sport for the rich, a status symbol for business executives and athletes in other disciplines.

The competitive men's field was dominated by six-time winners Dave Scott and Mark Allen throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. In the dramatic 1989 Hawaii Ironman, Allen narrowly edged Scott after racing side-by-side for nearly eight hours. Scott made a miraculous comeback in 1994, returning at the age of 40, after a two and half year retirement, to place second. The competition increased throughout the 1990s, and the winning time dropped substantially. Luc Van Lierdes' record 8:04 hour time set in 1996 is over three hours faster than Gordon Haller's 1978 winning time. The improvement over the years in the women's field was even more remarkable. In 1992, eight-time winner Paula Newby-Fraser finished in just under nine hours, an astonishing four hours faster than Lyn Lemair, the first female winner in 1979.

In 1998, the Hawaii Ironman celebrated its twentieth anniversary. In just two decades, it evolved into the world's most recognized endurance race, with 1,500 competitors, including 140 professional triathletes, competing for pride and $250,000 in prize money. During its 20 years, the multi-sport race has completely transformed the world of exercise, spawning the entire concept of cross-training and capturing the imagination of both recreational and professional athletes around the world. The simple bar bet also received its ultimate compliment, when a shorter version of the competition became an official medal sport for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

—Simon Donner

Further Reading:

Cook, Jeff S. The Triathletes. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1992.

Edwards, Sally. Triathlon: A Triple Fitness Sport. Chicago, Contemporary Books, 1983.

Levin, Dan. "Gall Divided into Three Parts." Sports Illustrated. October 10, 1983, 86-91.

Moore Kenny. "Big Splash in Hawaii." Sports Illustrated. May, 1997, 63-69.

Scott, Dave. Dave Scott's Triathlon Training Guide. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1986.