Categorized | Multi-sport, Sports

Ironmanlife: Orlowski recalls Ironman origins

(Kevin Mackinnon catches up with one of the original Ironman competitors)

Dave Orlowski vaguely remembers the debate. It was after a running race. While he was enjoying a beer and checking out the women in the bar, Commander John Collins and one of Orlowski’s co-workers from the Marines, Tom Knowles, were part of a group arguing over who the fittest athlete in the world might be.

He really got himself into trouble the next morning when he got to work and Knowles asked him if he was going to do the race.

“What race?” Orlowski asked.

“That Ironman thing we were talking about yesterday,” Knowles said. “Give me your $5 and I’ll put you in.”

So began Dave Orlowski’s Ironman career. He’d run marathons before, but when he forked over his entry fee, he didn’t even own a bike. He picked up a Free Spirit from Sears and, about a week before the race, he did a 30-mile ride.

He didn’t have any bike shorts, so he found some cut off jeans to wear.

“Back then, we didn’t think we could finish something like that,” he said. “It wasn’t a race, it was something we were just trying to survive.”

John and Judy Collins gave each competitor a piece of paper before the start with a few rules and a course description. According to the Ford Ironman World Championship media guide, 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!’

The next time you’re having a panic attack over whether or not you’re best to get your energy from PowerBars or Gels, or can’t decide if you’re best to hammer down some Energy Blasts, think about Orlowski’s nutrition plan for the first Ironman in history in 1978.

A few of his Marines buddies were supposed to be supporting him and Knowles, but he was fully aware they wouldn’t be around all the time so he threw some money in his jean shorts.

“I tried to keep eating bananas and oranges,” Orlowski remembers. “But I also stopped at McDonalds. A Big Mac, fries and a shake. There was lots of Coke and Hershey Bars, too.”

At one point, Orlowski found himself in desperate need of an energy fix, so he left his bike at the side of a grocery store and ran in for more food. He hadn’t thrown a lock on the bike, so he was a bit worried it wouldn’t still be there when he got back. Luckily enough it was.

Despite his lack of bike training (I’m not going to really count that 30-miler), Orlowski managed to finish the bike under eight hours.

“My legs kept buckling at the start of the run,” he remembers. (Go figure, Dave!)

Those legs finally started to come back a bit, and he started to actually do some running. The wheels fell off again by 17 miles, though. He tried everything to try and loosen up his quads. He kept rubbing Ben Gay into his legs, but it wasn’t helping.

As he hit the hill by Diamond Head at 22 miles into the marathon, he was a wreck. He was literally pulling himself along crash barrier on the side of the road. That’s when he saw the vision. His parents were suddenly there to encourage him.

Turns out they weren’t a vision. They had decided to fly in and surprise their son. Once they got to Honolulu, though, they couldn’t figure out how to find him.

Asking people didn’t seem to help – the Ironman, with 15 participants, wasn’t exactly big news. As luck would have it, though, Orlowski’s parents managed to find the Marines who were providing support for their buddies.

“My parents came over and gave me a hug and a kiss,” Orlowski said. That support gave him the burst of energy that got him moving towards the finish line again. In the end, Orlowski would finish third.

His splits were 1:09:15, 7:51:00, 4:59:00. He just got in under 14 hours – 13:59:13.

He still remembers the elaborate finish line: Judy Collins standing next to a car holding a stopwatch. He thinks there might have been a couple of other people, too.

Finisher shirts? Awards?

“Judy and John Collins had silk-screened the shirts on their kitchen table,” Orlowski remembers. “I think they used a pizza tray. Then, when we finished, we printed “finisher” at the bottom of the shirts.”

John Collins constructed a finishers trophy for everyone in the race. It was made up of a bunch of copper tubing and bolts he soldered together.

“He didn’t have enough of the same bolts,” Orlowski remembers, “So my trophy had some different size bolts from the rest.”

Orlowski wanted to do the race again in 1979, but got sick and had to pull out. He didn’t return to the Ironman for 24 years – when he was invited back in celebrate the 25th anniversary of the race in 2003.

He was hooked – he returned every year and volunteered (he’s typically the guy in the water who makes sure people make the last run onto the ramp) until 2008, when he decided it was time to give the race a shot again.

That year he managed to lose 52 pounds and figure out how to swim with the shoulder he’d had replaced and finish his second Ironman 30 years after he’d done his first.

Since then he’s been on a tear, trying to finish every Ironman in the world. On Sunday he’ll be doing his 16th.

Ironically, Orlowski aims to finish his Ironmans between 14 and 15 hours – not that much slower than he did way back when.

“I just enjoy being out there with all the people,” Orlowski said.

We enjoy getting to celebrate one of Ironman’s original 15, and the third of 12 finishers. One of the men who proved anything is possible.

Thanks Dave.

(Reach Kevin Mackinnon at

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.