Ironman Triathlon

M Dot

An Ironman Triathlon is one of a series of long-distance triathlon races organized by the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a marathon 26.2-mile run (for a total of 140.6 miles), raced in that order and without a break. It is widely considered one of the most difficult one-day sporting events in the world.

Most Ironman events have a limited time of 16 or 17 hours to complete the race, course dependent. The race typically starts at 7:00 a.m.; the mandatory swim cut off for the 2.4-mile swim is 9:20 a.m. (2 hours 20 minutes), the mandatory bike cut off time is 5:30 p.m. (8 hours 10 minutes), and the mandatory marathon cut off is midnight (6 hours 30 minutes). Any participant who manages to complete the triathlon within these time constraints is designated an Ironman.

The name ‘Ironman Triathlon’ is also associated with the original Ironman triathlon which is now the Ironman World Championship. Held in Kailua-Kona, the world championship has been held annually in Hawaii since 1978 (with an additional race in 1982). Originally taking place in Oahu, the race moved to Kailua-Kona in 1981, where it continues today. The Ironman World Championship has become known for its grueling length and harsh race conditions.

The idea for the original Ironman Triathlon arose during the awards ceremony for the 1977 Oʻahu Perimeter Relay. Among the participants were representatives of both the Mid-Pacific Road Runners and the Waikiki Swim Club, whose members had long been debating which athletes were more fit, runners or swimmers. On this occasion, U.S. Navy Commander John Collins pointed out that a recent article in Sports Illustrated magazine had declared that Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx had the highest recorded ‘oxygen uptake’ of any athlete ever measured, so perhaps cyclists were more fit than anyone.

Collins and his wife Judy Collins had taken part in the triathlons staged in 1974 and 1975 by the San Diego Track Club in and around Mission Bay, California, as well as the 1975 Optimist Sports Fiesta Triathlon in Coronado, California. A number of the other military athletes in attendance were also familiar with the San Diego races, so they understood the concept when Collins suggested that the debate should be settled through a race combining the three existing long-distance competitions already on the island: the Waikiki Roughwater Swim (2.4 mi), the Around-Oahu Bike Race (115 mi.; originally a two-day event) and the Honolulu Marathon (26.219 mi.).

Until that point, no one present had ever done the bike race. Collins calculated that by shaving three miles off the course and riding counter-clockwise around the island, the bike leg could start at the finish of the Waikiki Rough Water and end at the Aloha Tower, the traditional start of the Honolulu Marathon. Prior to racing, each athlete 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,’ now a registered trademark.

With a nod to a local runner who was notorious for his demanding workouts, Collins said, ‘Whoever finishes first, we’ll call him the Iron Man.’ Each of the racers had their own support crew to supply water, food, and encouragement during the event. Of the fifteen men to start off in the early morning on February 18, 1978, twelve completed the race. Gordon Haller, a US Navy Communications Specialist, was the first to earn the title Ironman by completing the course with a time of 11 hours, 46 minutes, 58 seconds. The runner-up John Dunbar, a US Navy SEAL, led after the second transition and had a chance to win but ran out of water on the marathon course; his support crew resorted to giving him beer instead.

With no further marketing efforts, the race gathered as many as 50 athletes in 1979. The race, however, was postponed a day because of bad weather conditions. Only fifteen competitors started off the race Sunday morning. San Diego’s Tom Warren won in 11 hours, 15 minutes, 56 seconds. Lyn Lemaire, a championship cyclist from Boston, placed sixth overall and became the first ‘Ironwoman.’ Collins planned on changing the race into a relay event to draw more participants, but Sports Illustrated’s journalist Barry McDermott, in the area to cover a golf tournament, discovered the race and wrote a ten-page account of it. During the following year, hundreds of curious participants contacted Collins.

Collins no longer wanted to direct the Ironman race and approached Nautilus Fitness Center owners Hank Grundman and Valerie Silk about taking over control of the race. Grundman previously had extended his club’s facilities to many of the Ironman competitors. Following the couple’s divorce in 1981 Silk received ownership of Ironman. That year she moved the competition to the less urbanized Hawaiʻi Island (called the Big Island) and in 1982 moved the race date from February to October; as a result of this change there were two Ironman Triathlon events in 1982.

A milestone in the marketing of the legend and history of the race happened in 1982. Julie Moss, a college student competing to gather research for her exercise physiology thesis, moved toward the finish line in first place. As she neared the finish, severe fatigue and dehydration set in, and she fell, just yards away from the finish line. Although Kathleen McCartney passed her for the women’s title, Moss nevertheless crawled to the finish line. Her performance was broadcast worldwide and created the Ironman mantra that just finishing is a victory. By the end of that year the race had maxed out at 1,000 participants, with a lottery used to fill the field while turning away another 1,000 interested participants.

In 1990, with the help of Lew Friedland, Dr. James P. Gills acquired and purchased the Hawaii Triathlon Corporation, owner of the Ironman brand, for $3 million from Silk. With the Ironman brand, Gills established the World Triathlon Corporation with the intention of furthering the sport of triathlon and increasing prize money for triathletes.

In 2013, Ironman piloted the ‘Swim Smart Initiative’ in North America and brought with it some notable safety related changes to the Ironman format. These changes included new rules regarding swim course formats, water temperature regulations, pre-swim warm ups, wave starts, and additional rescue boats/watercraft (paddle-boards, kayaks, etc.). The initiative also introduced ‘resting rafts’ so that athletes may exit the water to rest without being disqualified.

The current Ironman Hawaii course record was set in 2018 by Patrick Lange (Germany), whose winning time was 7 hours, 52 minutes, and 39 seconds. Daniela Ryf (Switzerland) set the women’s course record in 2018 with a winning time of 8 hours, 26 minutes, and 18 seconds.

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