Brownielocks and The 3 Bears

The History
 of the
 Ironman Triathlon
 World Championship Competition

Cartoon Fun


The Far Side



The Ironman Triathlon began in 1978.  A naval commander named John Collins  (stationed at this time in Hawaii) was sitting at an awards ceremony for a local Honolulu running race.  He ended up in a hot argument over which athletes were in the best condition: runners or swimmers.  John Collins himself was both a runner and a swimmer.  He had been reading about the bike race the Tour de France (see our page) and it's legend Eddie Merckx.   He decided that cyclists were in the best condition of all. So he issued a challenge that he felt would settle the argument.  His challenge was a race that combined  the Wakiki Rough Water Swim (local race), a bike race around the entire island of Oahu, and the Honolulu Marathon. He was so inspired by this, he jumped up on the stage during a break in this awards ceremony, grabbed the microphone and announced this new competition to everyone there.  He then said that the winner would be declared the "Ironman."

In the first competition in February 1978, only 15 people entered. And, only 12 crossed the finish line, including John Collins. The winner of the first Ironman Triathlon was Gordon Haller, an amateur athlete and taxi cab driver.  His winning time was 11 hours, 46 minutes and 58 seconds.

A few years  later the Navy transferred John Collins, so he bequeathed the event to a couple who owned a local health club. However, they ended up getting a divorce. So, the wife took over the competition.  Her name was Valerie Silk.  In 1981 she moved the competition off of the island of Oahu because it was the most populated and had the heaviest traffic, to Kona on the western side of the Big Island of Hawaii. Instead of battling traffic, the contestants now battled "mumuku" crosswinds and scorching temperatures as they ran 26.2 miles and biked 112 miles along the highway that cut through Kona's fields of rough black lava. Add to that a 2.4 mile ocean swim around a rectangular course, the entire Ironman competition respresented a little over 140 miles of grueling physical challenge.

Not many people knew about the Ironman Triathlon until "ABC's Wide World of Sports" started to cover it in 1980.  Then in 1982, television viewers were shocked, stunned and horrified to watch the women's leader (a college student who entered to get information for her thesis paper on exercise physiology) named Julie Moss, collapse from exhaustion and dehydration a few yards from the finish line!  Another competitor did pass her. But Julie Moss would not give up. She crawled on her hands and knees the last 20 yards. This inspired athletes everywhere and triggered a boom in popularity in the Triathlon event, proving that just finishing (and not winning) was a great accomplishment of its own. 

The Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Hawaii is held on the Saturday nearest the full moon in October.  This allows athletes from colder climates more time to train and to make it easier for those competitors who do not finish the race before dark.

There are numerous other triathlon events worldwide that have sprung up based on this event in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, which now attracts approximately 1,500 competitors from 50 countries as well as 8,000 volunteers. The crowds are as large as 25,000, often gathering along Ali'i Drive in downtown Kona, where the race ends.  Women have participated in this event almost from it's beginning. And, there is now a division for physically challenged entrants in which wheelchair-bound athletes can compete.  

The next day after the triathlon is over, there is an awards dinner at the King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel, which is also the triathlon's headquarters since 1988.  About 4,000 attend this dinner.  The winners of each division of the race are recognized and $325,000 in prize money is awarded.  The biggest prize goes to the first-place man and woman who each receive $70,000!

All Ironman competitors (men and women) must shave their legs before the race!  This is done for several reasons:  (1) Keeps your legs cooler (2) It's easier to take those wets suits off and on (3) It's easier to take care of any medical cuts, rash, bruises etc. on hairless legs.  I would also assume that pulling off a sticky bandage from a hairy leg would be very painful also.  It's best to have your legs shaved.

On Thursday night before the Saturday triathlon, the King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel also caters the "Carbo-Loading Party" for the competitors and Ironman fans.  About 2,000 people attend this dinner.  The hotel hires dozens of extra help to keep the buffets with pasta and plates.  The hotel feels this is a great boost for business.

Also on the Thursday before the Saturday race, there is a light-hearted race down Ali'i Drive by Ironman athletes (women and men) wearing only their underwear.  This is held early in the morning, so that the contestants do not tire out from racing in the heat of the day.  It also is a way to run off nervous energy. But most importantly, it raises money for the Ironman Foundation.

Does everyone who enters the Ironman Triathlon have to be a professional tip top athlete? No!  Before John Collins left the organization, he was promised that there would always be a few slots kept open for the "ordinary athlete."  In other words, not elite Ironman competitors, but just ordinary people because those were exactly the kind of people who first entered this race back in 1978.  Today, the triathlon has a qualifying system that restricts the number of entrants and a 17-hour time limit.  It also has 150 lottery spots to individuals who have not been in any of the qualifying races.  There have been a number of notable contestants in the lottery group such as Jim Ward, age 80 (the oldest); and, Dr. Jon Franks in 1994, the first to complete the race using a wheelchair and a hand-powered bike.


Visit the official Ironman Triathlon site.

Return to our Month of October Holidays Page.


Source of Information:
"Holidays, Symbols & Customs  3rd Edition"
By Sue Ellen Thompson
Omnigraphics, Inc. © 2003

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