Ironman Hawaii: History Of The Kona World Championships
The story behind the Ironman World Championships in Kona and how a dare became the ultimate triathlon.
The lonely and tough lava fields of the Kona nike course (Photo: Bakke-Svensson/Ironman)
With a brand as strong as the competitors who take part in its races, it’s easy to forget that what we now take for granted as Ironman began as little more than a dare between athletes to settle the bet of who were the fittest: swimmers, cyclists or runners.
The original Ironman was conceived during the Oahu Perimeter Relay awards ceremony in 1977, where athletes from the Mid-Pacific Road Runners club and the Waikiki Swim club engaged in the usual debate about which sport created the best endurance sportsmen. Then, Commander John Collins of the US Navy weighed in, stating that according to Sports Illustrated magazine, five-time Tour de France winner Eddy Merckx, had the highest ever recorded VO2 max – a marker of aerobic efficiency calculated by the volume of oxygen a sportsman can consume while working at maximum capacity.
Collins and his wife Judy suggested an ultimate race to settle the debate once and for all – a combination of three already incredibly tough events held on the island of Oahu:- the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, a 2.4 mile sea-swim in water too warm for the benefit of wetsuits; the Around-Oahu Bike Race, a gusty, crosswind-dogged 115 mile course (reduced to 112 for the Ironman) that originally took place over two days; and the Honolulu Marathon, a standard 26.2 mile running race in baking hot Hawaiian conditions.
Collins unveiled the event at the Waikiki Swim Club Awards Banquet later that year, saying: “The gun will go off about 7am, the clock will keep running and whoever finishes first we’ll call the Ironman”.
On February 18th 1978, there were only 15 competitors willing to drag themselves through such a monumental sporting challenge and the race pack was only three pieces of paper with basic routes and rules, ending with “Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life!” Each of the competitors had their own support crew providing food and drink as the race went on – beer in the case of John Dunbar, a US Navy SEAL whose support team ran out of water during the marathon, but who managed to finish second all the same. Gordon Haller, a US Navy Communications Specialist, finished in 11:46:58, still very respectable for age-groupers today, and earned the right to be crowned as the first ever Ironman.
The following year a field of about 50 was whittled down to only 15 again as the event was postponed by one day due to some of the worst weather for years in Honolulu’s stormy season. Nevertheless, the race was able to crown its first Ironwoman, as the only female competitor Lyn Lemaire, a championship cyclist from Boston, finished sixth overall in 12:55:38. Despite the weather, Barry McDermott, a journalist for Sports Illustrated, happened upon the Ironman and wrote a 10 page feature on the event, prompting Collins to receive hundreds of race applications over the next year.
In 1981, Valerie Silk took over race organisation and relocated the event to Hawaii’s more rural Big Island, starting and ending at Ali’i Drive in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, where competitors still run, jog, walk or crawl down the finishing chute at the end of their race.
If anything, the new route across the island’s barren lava fields was even tougher, with 45mph crosswinds and 35 degree heat, but it still courted 326 enthusiastic competitors. The following year marked the end of the Ironman’s embryonic phase with the championship being moved from February to the October slot it now holds, a change that meant athletes actually had two chances that year to become an Ironman.
As Ironman grew over the years into the monster brand it is today, more and more official events started sprouting up all over the world, and the Hawaii race became the World Championships, with places only available to locals, those who earn qualification spots by topping their age-groups at other M-dot events, or athletes lucky enough to win one of the 200 lottery places.
There have been some incredible shows of athleticism at Kona including the amazing six wins of both Dave ‘The Man’ Scott in the 1980s, and his rival Mark Allen in the next decade – a competition now echoed with two-time champions Craig ‘Crowie’ Alexander and Chris ‘Macca’ McCormack. Also etched into the race’s history was Julie Moss hitting the wall spectacularly as she neared the line in 1982, yet despite complete fatigue, disorientation and her legs no longer being able to hold her, she crawled courageously to cover the last 20 yards and cross the finish line in second, her dedication and perseverance helping to author Ironman’s now trademarked mantra that Anything is Possible.
In recent years, the headlines have been made by Britain’s own Chrissie Wellington. Chrissie is not only undefeated at iron-distance events, but also holds the world records for both M-dot and unofficial races and is the only athlete to ever win at Kona in their first year as a professional.
As an event, Kona has reached almost mythical status with triathletes around the world, despite, or perhaps due to, the fact that few of them will ever get the chance to race there. It holds sway over would-be Ironmen everywhere and overshadows the triathlon season each year as its ultimate prize. Ironman Hawaii is a truly classic event that didn’t quite settle whether swimmers, cyclists or runners are the strongest athletes, but showed categorically that it is the Ironmen who deserve to take that mantle.
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on Tuesday, October 9th, 2012 at 3:00 pm under Pro Triathlon.
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Tags: Ironman, Ironman Hawaii, Ironman World Championship, Ironman World Championship 2012, Kona, Triathlon Plus Magazine