How the Ironman World Championships in Kona went from a dare to the ultimate triathlon
The Ironman World Championships is enjoying its 35th edition in Hawaii this year and over this time the event has become steeped in mystique, developing a rich and dramatic history of gruelling and awe-inspiring races.
Since the inception of the event, its magic and legendary status has only grown, planting a seed in triathletes’ minds that’s impossible to dislodge until they’ve experienced the thrill of going to Kona.
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.
Commander John Collins of the US Navy then 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.
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.
TO THE BIG ISLAND
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.
Julie Moss inspired a generation of would-be triathletes when, 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 in the February’s race, her dedication and perseverance helping to author Ironman’s now trademarked mantra that Anything is Possible.
It was a show of grit and defiance that proved awe-inspiring to thousands, including Mark Allen, who would eventually go on to win six Ironman Hawaii titles, but not before the sport’s other great six-time champion, Dave Scott, would have his say.
Scott won the October event that year, his second Ironman title, while Allen DNF’d. The following year, what many consider to be the sport’s greatest ever rivalry began. Known as ‘The Man’ and ‘Grip’, Scott and Allen battled each other for years in Hawaii, with Scott always coming out on top despite being beaten at other races by Allen.
Everything changed in 1989 when the pair came off the bike together and ran step-for-step for 24-miles of the marathon, each daring the other to go faster. Such was the strength of these two triathlon colossi that they pushed harder than anyone could have imagined, their nearest rivals miles behind them. Eventually, Allen broke away to claim his first win in Kona, setting an incredible marathon record of 2:40:04 (including T2) that still stands today.
On the women’s side, the late 1980s and 1990s were dominated by Zimbabwe’s Paula Newby-Fraser, who won an incredible eight titles, her superiority dented only by Kiwi Erin Baker and the USA’s Karen Smyers. The next female superstar was Swiss Miss Natascha Badmann, who won six titles between 1998 and 2005 and is still racing today, having come sixth in the 2012 race.
Next came Britain’s Chrissie Wellington, who won every Ironman event she started including four wins in Kona (2007-2009, 2011). Chrissie is not only undefeated at iron-distance events, but also holds the world records for both M-dot and iron-distance racing and is the only athlete to ever win at Kona in their first year as a professional.Wellington was so strong that she changed the landscape of the women’s field, forcing the others to raise their game or get left behind.
The recent trend in the men’s race has been unbroken Aussie rule, with Chris McCormack winning in 2007 and 2010, Craig Alexander taking the titles in 2008, 2009 and 2011 and Pete Jacobs crossing the line first last year.
As Ironman has grown into the monster brand it is today, it’s become harder to reach Kona, 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 coveted lottery places. Nevertheless, the event remains the pinnacle of the sport for triathletes around the world, reaching almost mythical status 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 Ironman finishers everywhere and overshadows the triathlon season each year as its ultimate prize.
This truly classic event never did quite settle whether swimmers, cyclists or runners are the strongest athletes, but showed categorically that it is the Ironmen and women who deserve to take that mantle.