Categorized | Featured, Multi-sport, Sports

35 years of Ironman

(Photo courtesy of Peter Reid Miller)

(Photo courtesy of Peter Reid Miller)

Bob Babbitt | Ironman

I sit with this group of legends behind me all day, every day. It is a constant reminder of where it all began, of our all-so-special Ironman roots.

Peter Reid Miller was on assignment covering the second ever Ironman Triathlon for Sports Illustrated and the photo that is on my wall captures the magic of what soon would become an iconic event.

It was on the island of Oahu in the winter of 1979, just a few moments before the start of the second ever Ironman Triathlon. Fifteen people stood on San Souci Beach that morning and, just like the year before, 12 would eventually finish the 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and 26.2 mile run.

I can identify eight people in the image and three of those racing that day – Gordon Haller, Tom Warren and Lyn Lemaire – would one day become proud members of the Ironman Triathlon Hall of Fame along with the two creators of the event, Commander John Collins and his wife Judy.

Ironman start 1979 on Oahu.  (Photo courtesy of Peter Reid Miller)

Ironman start 1979 on Oahu. (Photo courtesy of Peter Reid Miller)

What can you tell from this image? If you look closely, plenty. The tops of the palm trees are standing at attention so it’s obvious the wind is howling. Howling winds usually mean rough, choppy seas and this morning would not disappoint.

The friends and family who gathered there to watch their relatives and total strangers take on this bizarre 140.6 mile adventure are dressed in jeans, jackets and hooded sweatshirts, very unusual for a typical Hawaiian morning.

The winner of the first Ironman the year before, Gordon Haller, is in the center of the image with a full not-so-aerodynamic beard and sporting a red, white and blue Speedo. The Navy SEAL Haller beat in 1978, John Dunbar, is staged third from left, and is wearing an orange and black Speedo plus a scuba mask rather than swim goggles for his rematch with Gordon Haller.

The previous year, Dunbar led Haller by about 12 minutes when he started the marathon, but Haller out-ran him by over 30 minutes to leave Dunbar in second. Haller’s come-from-behind win would go on to become a tradition at the Ironman.

At other races, in other places, people could go off the front, build a big lead and cruise to victory.

But not in Hawaii … and not at the Ironman.

Tom Warren ended up winning the 1979 Ironman. Tom was a local San Diegan who owned a tavern called Tug’s which was located a quarter mile from the beach.

‘Tug’ was a nickname Tom brought with him from childhood. It turns out that he had so much energy as a kid that he was always nagging anyone and everyone in his neighborhood to go bike riding, swimming or running with him.

He was that always-looking-for-action kid who moved seamlessly from one activity to the next and he would tug on your sleeve and never let up until you gave in and joined in on the fun.

My roommate in San Diego at the time was Ned Overend, who would one day become the best mountain biker in the world. One problem: mountain bikes had yet to be invented.

So Ned was working as a mechanic at San Diego Suzuki while I ran a PE program at a small private school. Ned and I read about that 1979 Ironman in Sports Illustrated, devoured Peter Read Miller’s photos, and were intrigued.

The article showcased Tom Warren and both Ned and I had competed in Tom’s Tug’s Swim Run Swim event, so we were at least familiar with the man.

To find out more about this Ironman event before sending in our $25 entry fee, we set out to track him down. I called him on the phone at Tug’s.

“I’m happy to meet with you,” said Warren. “Come by my office, which is on the west side of the street just south of Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach.”

Not a problem. We rented an apartment in the area so it was close by. Only one issue.

There weren’t any buildings on the west side of the street south of Crystal Pier. It was a parking lot.

When we arrived at the parking lot, we noticed a large motor home with a bike bungie corded on the back and running shoes hanging from the passenger side mirror. As I approached the door to the motor home, Tom Warren emerged, smiled, stuck out his hand and welcomed us both.

“Guys, welcome to my office!”

Tommy had a roll of dimes in the console between the two seats so that he could make business calls from the pay phone that was located 50 feet away. In between calls he would run, ride and swim and, if it was still light out, he’d do it all again.

He took us to his home and showed us where and how he trained for the Ironman. He had built a sauna and rode his bike in there for hours at a time to acclimatize to the Hawaiian heat.

Remember, there were no books or websites on training for the Ironman back then. In its first two years, only 30 people had attempted it and only 24 had actually finished. Tom Warren was our link to an event we had only read about.

He was our mentor, our Iron Guru.

Ned and I went to a local police auction not long after that meeting and purchased bikes. Mine cost $75 and the back end had been burned in a fire. Since I had no idea how to change a flat, I bought solid rubber tires and waxed them on to the rims.

I also added foam grips to the handlebars, mounted a Radio Shack Radio on there so I could listen to tunes while I rode, installed a Fuzzy Raccoon seat cover for a tad more cushion and added panniers, a sleeping bag and a tent because I figured people swam 2.4 miles and rode 56 miles day one, camped out, then rode back to Waikiki on day two and ran the marathon.

Do it all in one day? Who could do that?

On race day I was dressed in a long sleeve cotton shirt, had race number 3 because I was the third person to send my entry fee in and became the only person in history to do the Ironman wearing khaki shorts … and a leather belt.

When I came out of the water feeling very lucky to actually be alive, I spotted my support crew – there were no aid stations back in 1980 – and they helped me get ready for the bike ride. My race day nutrition consisted of enough Hawaiian Sweet Bread to feed a small village plus all the Gatorade I could find.

Twenty-five miles into the ride, I was busy tuning my radio in to anything but static when I noticed one of my crew members on the side of the road. Just like in the Tour de France, he was getting ready for a handoff. I reached out and the exchange was perfect.

I now was the proud owner of a Big Mac, fries and a coke.
And it tasted awesome.

Next up was a root beer snow cone at mile 80, followed by a 45 minute full body massage between the bike and run that was accompanied by a boom box playing some very mellow Hawaiian music.

As I was about to head off on the marathon, I was told by an official to get on a scale to see what I weighed.

The science was this. If you lost 5 percent of your body weight during the Ironman, the officials would pull you out of the race for safety reasons. After getting weighed, a crew member was kind enough to refuel me with Hawaiian Sweet Bread and Gatorade. As I waddled my way through Waikiki, the locals continued to be totally oblivious to the 108 crazy people running through their city.

At mile four, there was another scale awaiting me. As I stepped on, I could hear an animated walkie- talkie conversation:

“Can you give me that number again?” said a voice on the other end. “This guy has GAINED four pounds. You can’t GAIN weight during the Ironman!”

I guess I could.

A number of miles later, as I ran through the darkness towards the finish with the lights of my support crew’s car illuminating the road in front of me, I was sure there would be cheerleaders, or a band, or something awaiting us at the finish in Kapiolani Park.

There was nothing.

I spotted a white chalk line on the blacktop and slowed. There was a light bulb above me suspended from a wire. I heard a voice to my right coming out of the darkness:

Mystery Voice: “Hey you.”

Me: “Yeah?”

MV: “Are you in the race?”

Me: “Yeah…”

MV: “Well… you’re done.”

Not quite what you would call a Mike Reilly “You are an Ironman’” moment.

But even without any fanfare, there was something about that experience, about that day, that changed me forever.

Completing the Ironman helped me change my perception of myself and what I could accomplish. Finishing the Ironman gave me this business card that I have carried with me ever since that constantly reminds me that I can accomplish anything in life that I set my mind to.

I didn’t think I could complete the event in one day and I did. I learned the power of the mind and the power of taking small bites out of large tasks. If you think of 140.6 miles, it can be overwhelming and you’re defeated before you begin.

But if you break everything up into small chunks, you can do anything. A 2.4 mile swim? Easy. You never think of it as 2.4 miles. It’s 1.2 miles to the turnaround boat and before you know it, you’re already halfway to that boat. Every thought is a positive one and you spend your day smiling and succeeding, one mile and one bite at a time.

Over the years, Ironman has proven that it is much more than just an event that the professionals up at the front are winning or losing.

It’s an event that has always been about changing lives and changing perceptions.

Part II

When I look at the photo on my wall and see Gordon Haller and John Dunbar, it reminds me that in year one Haller came from behind and ran Dunbar down.

That tradition has continued through the years with the great Mark Allen getting run down from behind in 1984 and 1987 by another Ironman legend named Dave Scott.

People forget that, even though Allen might have been one of the most talent triathletes ever, during his first six attempts in Kona he always came up short to Mr. October, Scott. It was in 1989 and the battle called IronWar where Mark Allen finally beat “The Man” in the most famous head-to-head race in Ironman history.

After winning his first Ironman World Championship, Allen went on to win five more and went out the way any true champion would love to script it.

After announcing that 1995 would be his last race in Kona, Allen came from 13 minutes behind to catch Germany’s Thomas Hellriegel during the last few miles of the marathon to win his sixth, and last, Ironman title.

Ironically, that same year, seven-time champion Paula Newby Fraser, the Queen of Kona, proved that even the very best are vulnerable at the world’s most important race.

She collapsed a quarter mile from the finish and Karen Smyers ran by her for the win. Newby-Fraser would have to wait until 1996 to record her record eighth title.

But while Newby Fraser’s collapse was a classic, the most important moment in Ironman history happened a number of years earlier, in the winter of 1982.

Julie Moss, a first time Ironman participant, led for most of the marathon before collapsing within yards of the finish line. ABC’s Wide World of Sports cameras were there to capture the drama when, after getting passed by fellow first timer Kathleen Hearst for the win, Moss actually got on all fours and crawled to the line before collapsing across it.

When Wide World of Sports switched from the Ironman coverage to something else that day, the phone lines at ABC went crazy.

People around the U.S. wanted to know if this young, freckle-faced redhead wearing the way-too-big-for-her-head trucker hat was okay. The last thing they saw on television was Julie Moss being carried off on a stretcher.

While Ironman had been on ABC in both 1980 and 1981, the 1982 coverage and Julie Moss somehow touched a nerve.

Dave Scott and John Howard had won in 1980 and 1981, but they both looked like they had just finished a jog around the block. There was no drama and the feeling was that the viewers at home really couldn’t relate to world-class athletes handling a 140.6-mile event without working up much of a sweat.

But this was different. Viewers had a front row seat for Julie Moss’ struggle. It got everyone watching at home wondering what it was about, this finish line on the Big Island of Hawaii that was so important that this young woman would actually crawl to get there.

Julie Moss and Kathleen McCartney were flown to New York the following weekend after the Ironman show aired to show the American public that Moss was okay, that this bizarre new event had not killed her, and she wanted to come back and do it again.

The key is that, after watching Julie Moss’ courageous crawl, people could now relate to the Ironman in a way they hadn’t before and could see themselves signing up for this adventure of a lifetime.

The demand was so huge that a second Ironman was added for 1982, this one in October. 580 athletes started the February 1982 Ironman and 850 went to the line in October of the same year.

A national series of shorter distance events kicked off in June of 1982 and triathlon, and the Ironman, became a must-do.

Julie Moss helped viewers around the world realize that Moss wasn’t racing anyone else that day but herself. And, by willing herself across the line, even on all fours, she was a winner as well.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, leg amputee Jim MacLaren set out to prove that as an amputee he could not only finish the event, but that by going 10:42 with a prosthetic leg, he could be in the top 20 percent of everyone in the race.

When John MacLean of Australia became the first paralyzed athlete to make all the cut off times and finish Ironman in 1997 (he missed the bike cut off time in both 1995 and 1996), he opened the door for other paralyzed athletes like Carlos Moleda, David Bailey, Marc Herremans and Andre Kajlich to push the envelope on what someone using a handcycle and a racing chair could accomplish on the Kona Coast.

“When I’m racing the Ironman,” four-time Ironman Handcycle Division World Champion Carlos Moleda (above) says, “its a level playing field. In that race, on that day I am challenging the heat, the wind and the course, just like everyone else.”

Dick Hoyt could relate. He wanted to make sure that his son Rick has the same opportunities as anyone else in life.

Rick was born as a spastic quadriplegic with Cerebral Palsy, but early on he made it clear to his dad that he wanted to participate in running and triathlon events.

Dick Hoyt showed the American public what a father will do for his son when he not only refused to institutionalize Rick, but made the decision to include him in his racing and training.

Team Hoyt attempted the Ironman World Championship for the first time in 1988 and didn’t finish. The following year, in 1989, they did finish and the coverage of their achievement was a huge part of the Ironman television show and showed the world what a father and son could do together.

As we head into the next 35 years of the Ironman World Championship, so much has changed. Over the years we have seen the introduction of lighter and faster bikes, the addition of a 17-hour cut-off time, aerodynamic handlebars and helmets, clip in pedals, heart monitors, race wheels, customized nutrition programs and wattage meters.

While so much has changed, so much of what makes the Ironman so life-altering has stayed exactly the same. There is absolutely no difference between the 1,800 folks who gather each October in Kailua Bay and the 15 hearty souls on San Souci Beach who greet me every morning. In front of every single one of them lies a day of adventure, a day of testing their limits and a journey into the unknown.

(Bob Babbitt is the co-founder of Competitor Magazine, a six-time Ironman World Championship finisher, the co-founder of The Challenged Athletes Foundation, a 2012 inductee into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame and the 10th inductee into the Ironman Triathlon Hall of Fame.)

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