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Ironman At 40: Part 1 of 3 The Past

The only reason I’m writing this is because of something that happened 40-years ago. It was a race that took place on the Island of Oahu.

It involved three normal sports that most of us did as kids: swimming, cycling and running. But the distances of this first-time event were so gigantic that pretty much everyone thought it was insane. Those numbers? A 2.4-mile ocean swim. A 112-mile bike ride around the Island. Then a 26.2-mile marathon. It all got strung together into one continuous demanding challenge. Fifteen brave athletes raced that day in an attempt to cross the finish line. Those fifteen changed the face of endurance sports forever.

The first IRONMAN in 1978 saw 15 competitors going into uncharted athletic territory.

Yes, on February 18, 1978 the IRONMAN was born.

There was no midnight cutoff. You could take as long as you needed to finish. There was no qualifying to gain entry. Fifteen was not exactly a bloated number of competitors. There was nothing aero or sleek. No one wore anything that yelled out “I am a triathlete”. It was more like a band of misfits heading out to have a good time, if that is possible covering 140.6 miles under your own power in one day!

In the end twelve finished. Gordon Haller was crowned the first ever IRONMAN Champ. His time? 11:46:40. That’s pretty impressive by any measure.

It was extraordinary considering there were no coaches, no reservoir of knowledge to tap into to help him get ready. In ninth was John Collins who along with his wife Judy dreamed up this crazy contest. His finishing time was 17:00:38. Yes, if there had been the midnight cutoff, John would have needed to squeeze another 38-seconds out of his race to be an official IRONMAN finisher.

Lyn Lemaire was the first woman to compete in the IRONMAN. That was in 1979. She finished 5th overall!

Like a seed that just sprouted, the IRONMAN slowly took root and grew over the next few years.

In 1979 Lyn Lemaire became the first women to do the race. She was the only woman that year and ended up finishing in 5th overall in a field the same size as the previous first year in 1978.

Just after that race Collins was pondering making it a relay instead of an individual event. But as IRONMAN’s fortune would have it Sport Illustrated writer Barry McDermott was on Oahu covering a golf tournament. He happened to see the IRONMAN taking place. McDermott was so drawn in by what he witnessed that he wrote a ten-page incredibly inspired account of the IRONMAN for Sport Illustrated. The calls came rolling in to Collins for info on the race. He knew he didn’t need to make it a relay to get traction.

The history is well accounted for from there on out. Tom Warren won for the men in 1979 and was interviewed by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. That was huge. Then in 1982 ABC Wide World of Sports captured one of the most dramatic finish line crawls of all time and suddenly the IRONMAN and the infant sport of triathlon was on the international radar of endurance sports worldwide.

What supercharged its momentum through that period in the 1980’s was IRONMAN’s extraordinary ability to bring out the human spirit.

It never looked easy. It always had a quality of complete uncertainty. Every athlete racing came with the same question. “Can I finish it? Can I be one of those blessed people to cross the IRONMAN finish line before the stroke of midnight?”

Uncertainty is the hallmark of amazing. It’s the spark that ignites commitment. Uncertainty unlocks the door to a person’s real potential. It helps them get ready to embrace and endure extreme challenge. Uncertainty when roped in and overcome always makes a great story. Only with uncertainty are the greatest dreams in life born.

And indeed to be an IRONMAN was becoming the dream for thousands around the globe. It was a chance to personally fly to the moon and touch the stars. Competing at the IRONMAN in Hawaii had became an iconic sporting landmark where mere mortals could test themselves at near godlike and mythical proportions. It was where the ordinary were transformed into the extraordinary. And the uncertainty of what it would take guaranteed the race would unfold with raw human spirit and deep inspiration oozing out of every cell of every competitor for all of us to witness.

Even the early IRONMAN World Championship finishes gave little foreshadowing of what would happen in 1989.

Fueling my first six IRONMAN World Championships in Hawaii was the same magic we all saw in the race.

I floated in Kailua Bay on race morning like everyone else. I was waiting for the starting cannon completely enveloped in uncertainty. None of us knew if we’d be able to find what it would take to cross the finish line. But I knew if I could, that something inside of me would be changed forever.

Yes I was also hunting another goal. I wanted to be the very first across that amazing finish line. But that wasn’t the spark that put each of those first six races in the rarified air of human experience.

You see at the time doing an IRONMAN, doing THE IRONMAN in Hawaii, had not become “normalized”. It was still like going into the outer space of endurance athletics. It was our chance to experience sport from a life-altering perspective.

Today IRONMAN is somewhat more of a “normal” thing. Most people know someone who has crossed the finish line at an IRONMAN if not having done it themselves. It’s a change of perspective like this. What if you were walking along the beach and kicked something with your toe only to look down and see a huge diamond laying in the sand. You would be amazed. You would go home and tell all your friends what just happened! But if you found a diamond every time you walked on that same beach it would eventually lose some of it’s luster.

I’m certainly not saying the dream of IRONMAN is any different today than it was in the past. But you may have to look past the vast community of those who have finished the distance to see that even with all of that, IRONMAN is still completely amazing. It’s uncertain. It’s still unpredictable. You will be demanded to go beyond your fears and open the door to your fullest capabilities to complete it. Dreaming to finish an IRONMAN is just as priceless and precious today as it was 40-years ago!

Stay tuned for the second in this Three-Part series as IRONMAN Turns 40.

If you missed any of the other two posts in this series, here they are:

Ironman At 40: Part 2 of 3 The Present

Ironman At 40: Part 3 of 3 The Future


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