It involved three normal sports that most of us did as kids: swimming, cycling and running. But the distances of this first-time event were so gigantic that pretty much everyone thought it was insane. Those numbers? A 2.4-mile ocean swim. A 112-mile bike ride around the Island. Then a 26.2-mile marathon. It all got strung together into one continuous demanding challenge. Fifteen brave athletes raced that day in an attempt to cross the finish line. Those fifteen changed the face of endurance sports forever.
There was no midnight cutoff. You could take as long as you needed to finish. There was no qualifying to gain entry. Fifteen was not exactly a bloated number of competitors. There was nothing aero or sleek. No one wore anything that yelled out “I am a triathlete”. It was more like a band of misfits heading out to have a good time, if that is possible covering 140.6 miles under your own power in one day!
It was extraordinary considering there were no coaches, no reservoir of knowledge to tap into to help him get ready. In ninth was John Collins who along with his wife Judy dreamed up this crazy contest. His finishing time was 17:00:38. Yes, if there had been the midnight cutoff, John would have needed to squeeze another 38-seconds out of his race to be an official IRONMAN finisher.
In 1979 Lyn Lemaire became the first women to do the race. She was the only woman that year and ended up finishing in 5th overall in a field the same size as the previous first year in 1978.
Just after that race Collins was pondering making it a relay instead of an individual event. But as IRONMAN’s fortune would have it Sport Illustrated writer Barry McDermott was on Oahu covering a golf tournament. He happened to see the IRONMAN taking place. McDermott was so drawn in by what he witnessed that he wrote a ten-page incredibly inspired account of the IRONMAN for Sport Illustrated. The calls came rolling in to Collins for info on the race. He knew he didn’t need to make it a relay to get traction.
The history is well accounted for from there on out. Tom Warren won for the men in 1979 and was interviewed by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. That was huge. Then in 1982 ABC Wide World of Sports captured one of the most dramatic finish line crawls of all time and suddenly the IRONMAN and the infant sport of triathlon was on the international radar of endurance sports worldwide.
It never looked easy. It always had a quality of complete uncertainty. Every athlete racing came with the same question. “Can I finish it? Can I be one of those blessed people to cross the IRONMAN finish line before the stroke of midnight?”
Uncertainty is the hallmark of amazing. It’s the spark that ignites commitment. Uncertainty unlocks the door to a person’s real potential. It helps them get ready to embrace and endure extreme challenge. Uncertainty when roped in and overcome always makes a great story. Only with uncertainty are the greatest dreams in life born.
And indeed to be an IRONMAN was becoming the dream for thousands around the globe. It was a chance to personally fly to the moon and touch the stars. Competing at the IRONMAN in Hawaii had became an iconic sporting landmark where mere mortals could test themselves at near godlike and mythical proportions. It was where the ordinary were transformed into the extraordinary. And the uncertainty of what it would take guaranteed the race would unfold with raw human spirit and deep inspiration oozing out of every cell of every competitor for all of us to witness.
I floated in Kailua Bay on race morning like everyone else. I was waiting for the starting cannon completely enveloped in uncertainty. None of us knew if we’d be able to find what it would take to cross the finish line. But I knew if I could, that something inside of me would be changed forever.
Yes I was also hunting another goal. I wanted to be the very first across that amazing finish line. But that wasn’t the spark that put each of those first six races in the rarified air of human experience.
Today IRONMAN is somewhat more of a “normal” thing. Most people know someone who has crossed the finish line at an IRONMAN if not having done it themselves. It’s a change of perspective like this. What if you were walking along the beach and kicked something with your toe only to look down and see a huge diamond laying in the sand. You would be amazed. You would go home and tell all your friends what just happened! But if you found a diamond every time you walked on that same beach it would eventually lose some of it’s luster.
I’m certainly not saying the dream of IRONMAN is any different today than it was in the past. But you may have to look past the vast community of those who have finished the distance to see that even with all of that, IRONMAN is still completely amazing. It’s uncertain. It’s still unpredictable. You will be demanded to go beyond your fears and open the door to your fullest capabilities to complete it. Dreaming to finish an IRONMAN is just as priceless and precious today as it was 40-years ago!
If you missed any of the other two posts in this series, here they are:
I am the Founder and CEO at Mark Allen Coaching. I am proud to have been voted in an ESPN global poll "The Greatest Endurance Athlete Of All Time." During my multi-sport career I won the Ironman Triathlon World Championship six time, the inaugural Triathlon World Championship at the Olympic Distance in Avignon, France, and at one point in my career I won 21 straight races across every derivation and distance. It was a great career, but that's all it would ever be unless I was able to share all of the experience and methodology we invented long before smart watches, power meters, and flashy uniforms. That's why I started Mark Allen Coaching, as a way to return to others at least the part of the gifts I received.