In the beginning, becoming the “Iron Man,” was more about bragging rights than anything else.
Forty years later, it has become so much more.
On Feb. 18, 1978, 15 athletes set out on Oahu to conquer what many saw as impossible — and downright insane — in a single day.
The triathlon trek — the brainchild of co-founders John and Judy Collins — combined the three most grueling endurance events in the state: the 2.4-mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the 112 miles of the Around-Oahu Bike Race and a 26.2-mile run on the same course as the Honolulu Marathon.
In short, the excursion would be dubbed, “Ironman,” and was meant to prove who was the best athlete around.
“It was an ongoing debate. We already had an event which had a short swim and short run between the swimming club and running club. This just threw bicycling into it,” said John Collins, who with his wife Judy co-founded what would become one of the world’s most renowned endurance races. “Throw everything into the same mix, make each of them long, and make each of them an ultimate event for their day. And whoever finished first, we would call him the Iron Man. Most of us were not sure we could do it, so the name of the game was to finish.”
From the outside looking in, “crazy” was the most common adjective used to describe the event. Let’s be honest, it still is for some.
“I remember there was a cartoon in the Honolulu paper after the first Ironman,” said Michael Collins, son of John and Judy, in a 2013 interview with West Hawaii Today. “It showed a guy in a hospital bed with a second place trophy. The caption was, ‘I only came in second. The winner died.’”
Of the 15 that started, 12 of the original Ironmen completed the journey, but more importantly, they proved that impossible was really just the beginning.
“We had a lot of people say they would never do something like that again, but it was a success,” John Collins said. “Ironman has always been about finishing what you started. About being able to do what you set out to do. Maybe not as fast as the person in front of you, but certainly faster than a person that never started.”
Four decades since that first opening horn sounded on the shores of Waikiki, Ironman has become a worldwide sensation, featuring more than 150 total races around the globe in 50-plus countries, giving a stage to elite endurance athletes and age-groupers alike.
“What I love about Ironman is that it continues to be something that people can be passionate about. The growth and excitement that have come with that has been incredible,” said Diana Bertsch, Vice President of World Championship Events for Ironman. “To be able to celebrate all the dreamers and people who have been here from the beginning is incredibly special.”
While Ironman has grown to unfathomable levels, it still remains tied to Hawaii in a special way. The race moved to the Big Island from Oahu in 1981, and the west side the island has hosted the World Championship race since, becoming the mecca of the sport.
“The race started in Hawaii and I think is very much tied to the Aloha Spirit,” Bertsch said. “You have people who dream about the start line in Kona. They think they might never have that opportunity to race here, but when they do, it’s so exciting to see. There’s a special passion that you can see in the athletes and volunteers, and if we didn’t have that, it would be impossible to grow.”
Ironman first hit the mainstream when Sports Illustrated’s Barry McDermott wrote a now legendary article on the race in 1979.
“That morning 15 people, including a woman, had ignored the boundaries of sanity and started the contest,“ McDermott wrote. “They all shared a common reason for being there, a very compelling reason (some called it a curse): an addiction to inordinate amounts of exercise.”
From that point, the race never stopped expanding.
There were 102 athletes by the third edition of the race, and in 2017, more than 2,300 would toe the starting line in Kona. And that’s just for the world championship race.
According to Messick, 225,000 athletes competed in Ironman-branded events around the globe (which also includes the 70.3 distance) last year.
Like many, Bertsch can clearly remember her first encounter with Ironman. She was sitting on the Alii Drive seawall in 1990, watching the mass-start swim kick-off at pristine Kailua Bay.
“Immediately, I felt like I had to be apart of it. I get chicken-skin just talking about it,” said Bertsch, who ended up volunteering in 1992, before doing the race in 1995 and eventually working for the company in 1997. “It’s so inspiring and I think Ironman provides that feeling on many levels.”
Ironman found Dave Scott — who would go on to earn the nickname “The Man” for his antics in the sport — a little differently.
While doing the Waikiki Roughwater, Scott saw a flyer from John Collins advertising the race. He laughed a bit when he read it.
“I remember thinking, ‘That’s a long three days,’” Scott said, recalling his reaction after seeing the 140.6-mile total. “But I was intrigued by it and quietly I thought ‘I could do that.’ I was a bit naive at the time.”
Turns out, he was right on the money. Scott not only did the race in 1980, he dominated, knocking nearly two hours off the previous course-record, finishing in 9 hours, 24 minutes and 33 seconds. He still has the wooden championship plaque hanging in his office from that victory 38 years ago.
“I just wanted more of it,” Scott said. “It created this insatiable appetite.”
Scott quickly became a certified star on the Ironman circuit. He went on to win six world championship titles (1980, ’82, ’83, ’84, ’86, ’87), and had a front-row seat to the evolution of the sport, although, that was hard to see at the time.
“I’m getting old if Ironman is 40,” a still very fit 64-year-old Scott said. “It goes by so quick. As an athlete, you are traveling all the time, going from one race to another. The history is unfolding but your view is very myopic. But now looking back, it’s hard to believe.”
Scott was the first inductee into Ironman’s Hall of Fame in 1993, and he had countless legendary moments in his storied career. However, one of his most celebrated performances — which he is often asked to talk about — is his runner-up finish in the 1989 “Iron War” to Mark Allen — the only other man to win the Kona world championship race six times (1989-93, ’95).
Allen edged Scott by 59 seconds for his first title that day, and both men crushed the previous course record in a showdown that most consider the greatest race in endurance sports’ history.
“Let’s talk about all the times I beat him,” Scott said jokingly.
Allen — Scott’s former rival — isn’t shy to talk about the day that added major momentum to his rise in the sport.
“I was just trying to stay in it and not explode. Looking back on that race now, I can see that it was a pivotal moment in Ironman history. Something like that might never happen again,” Allen said. “With Dave and I racing each other side by side for eight hours, I think all of us — including myself — found out that Ironman can be raced from start to finish. It’s a competition, a race — not just surviving.”
Ironically, one of Ironman’s other defining moments was all about survival.
In 1982, Julie Moss, a college student competing to gather research for her exercise physiology thesis, steadfastly moved toward the finish line in first place, despite becoming severely fatigued and dehydrated. But in the homestretch, she staggered like a punch-drunk fighter. Just yards away from the finish line, she fell to the ground, getting passed by Kathleen McCartney for the women’s title. Moss crawled to the finish line, and her courage and determination spawned Ironman’s mantra, “Anything is possible.”
Things were quite a bit different 40 years ago on the Ironman course. There was no flashy performance wear, ultra-light equipment, or even an elite plan for nutrition.
“On the run, I drank half a beer — big, bad mistake,” John Collins said, recalling his first Ironman experience. “On the bike, I ate a bowl of chili — equally bad mistake.”
Now, everything is fine-tuned — diets included — especially for the uber-athletes at the front of the pack like defending Kona title-holder Patrick Lange and women’s three-time champ Daniela Ryf.
Allen and Scott continue to stay involved as ambassadors for Ironman and each have their own successful coaching businesses. The duo admits, however, today’s sport is a little different than it was in their heyday, albeit their historic finishing times can still stack up with some of the best.
“When I started, it was really grassroots, rag tag,” Allen said. “Now, when you look at the pier on race morning, it looks like a space age parking lot.”
“I have a veracious appetite for the science,” Scott added. “A ton has changed recently in terms of nutrition… A lot of people think, ‘I’m a triathlete I can eat anything I want.’ But inside you can be a garbage can, a volcano of problems.”
What hasn’t changed, is the essence of the race.
“While the industry has grown, the experience of the race is still in that hands of the athlete. You still have to cover 140.6 miles under your own power,” Allen said. “You find parts of yourself that you never knew you had and strengths you never knew existed. It empowers you.”
You are an Ironman
Gordon Haller was the first Ironman champion back in 1978. He was working as a taxi driver and showed up on a whim after seeing a flyer. He ended up winning that race in 11:46:58.
But there was no blaring music bringing him down the final stretch, throngs of fans hanging off the finishing chute, or a familiar voice dubbing him the champion.
“I cruised in, crossed the finish line, and there were only a few people around,” Haller said in a 2015 interview with West Hawaii Today. “Someone there actually had to ask if I was in the race. Real low-key.”
Now-a-days, the finish line is hard to miss. It’s a party, and the maestro is Mike Reilly — The Voice Of Ironman.
“You are an Ironman,” is his patented phrase, and on race day in Kona, it rings out along Alii Drive and over Kailua Bay until the wee hours of the night.
“Most people only get to do the race once,” Reilly said. “There are so many first-timers who are last-timers. I always think about them and try to make that experience of crossing the finish line special for them. I want to welcome them home.”
The final hours at the Ironman finish line have developed into the most unique experience is all of sports. The champions, who come in during the afternoon, return to celebrate the last finishers and it turns into a celebration of sport unlike any other.
Reilly has been working the Ironman crowds for 30 years and his routine behind the mic on race day can last for up to 17 hours straight. He takes the task to heart, pulling off his own feat of endurance to be at his best as the midnight hour hits.
“What I’ve learned over the years is that everyone has a story — something worth celebrating. The roar increases with everyone that comes in,” Reilly said. “Then the final athlete comes in and it’s louder than it was for the winner.”
That’s mostly due to the amount of inspirational stories rolling over the finish line over those final few hours — everyone from paralyzed and amputee athletes, to 80-plus-year-old athletic wonders and former NFLers and actors — all accomplishing the unthinkable. Even former Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi sent the crowd into a frenzy back in 2014, when he finished the race in the final hour.
“It’s really like life. It can go by so fast. What I tell everyone is to embrace it,” Reilly said. “Embrace every breath.”
A special place
Ironman has gone international, but there’s no place like home. Every year, Kona continues to provide a Super Bowl atmosphere for the thousands that descend on the Big Island for the world championship. The race and the once one-stoplight town have grown side-by-side.
“There is something so special in Kona,” Allen said. “The challenge is so different than anywhere else.”
For legends like Allen and Scott — as well as Bertsch and her elite behind the scenes crew — the world championship weekend is their busiest of the year.
That has been especially true this week, with the festivities in full swing for the 40th anniversary edition.
However, it always feels like a homecoming, with a few thousand of their closest friends.
“Growing up, I was a scrawny little kid. I never thought I would become known for what I did with sports,” Allen said. “I really embrace being in Kona. When I’m home and go to the grocery store, most of the time, nobody ever says a word to me. But when I’m in Kona for race week, everybody knows me. You just can’t beat it.”
Editor’s note: This story originally ran on Feb. 18 — Ironman’s official anniversary.