The Story of the Ironman

When the first Ironman Triathlon was held in 1978, some said that it simply could not be done.

BY | UPDATED 8 MONTHS AGO

Photos IRONMAN 40th ANNIVERSARY

When the first Ironman Triathlon was held in 1978, it was an event so demanding that when it was started, some said that it simply could not be done.

Today however, it is has grown into a worldwide series of officially sanctioned races. Have you ever wondered what it was like to hold the first Ironman race of its time? When the first event was held in Hawaii, just 12 finishers had the stamina to cross the finish line. Now, the ultimate triathlon experience is now a major force in the sporting world. We’ve managed to track down Geoff Meyer, the Managing Director of Ironman Asia, to tell us all we want to know about how the event got its start. 

Q:  How did the actual Ironman distance of 2.4 – 122 – 26.2 miles come to be set in stone?

Geoff Meyer: The idea of the IronmanTriathlon came about during an awards ceremony for the 1977 O’ahu Perimeter Relay in which a group of friends debated on which type of athlete is more fit – runners or swimmers.

On this occasion, US Navy Commander, John Collins, pointed out that a recent article in Sports Illustrated declared that a Belgian cyclist had the highest recorded “oxygen uptake” and perhaps, cyclists were fitter than other athletes. An avid endurance racer himself, Collins proposed the idea of combining the 2.4 mile (3.9km) Waikiki Roughwater Swim with 112-mile (180km) Around-Oahu Bike Race, followed by a 26.2-mile (42.2km) Honolulu Marathon as an ultimate challenge for endurance race enthusiasts and with 15 participants in the first year, the first Ironman Triathlon was born.

Pre-race briefing in 1978

Q: What was it like at the first ever Ironman and what were some difficulties managing such a long distance event with a comparatively small number of competitors?  

Geoff Meyer: The first ever Ironman took place on 18th February 1978 with 15 competitors that were mostly comprised of American Marines. Each participant, including Collins who also participated in the first edition of the triathlon, had a team providing drinks and nutrition throughout the duration of the event. Each wore swimming trunks, cut-off jeans, and no clip-on pedals.

Twelve participants finished the first edition of the tournament. A taxi driver and fitness enthusiast, Gordon Haller, was crowned the “original” Ironman after crossing the finish line in 11 hours, 46 minutes, and 40 seconds.

Finishers of the 1978 Ironman

In the first year, the event was relatively small and organisers did not face any major difficulties or issues. It was not until the third edition that there was a dedicated operations team working on the logistics.

Q: When did the idea of expanding the brand and event take root? How did you take the event onto the international stage and turn it into a series?

Geoff Meyer: During the second edition of the Ironman Triathlon, Californian athlete Tom Warren finished the race with the time of 11:15:46. It attracted the attention of Sports Illustrated magazine and athletes fromall over the world got interested in the event.

In 1980, Collins decided to hand over the event to a local health club as he was being transferred out of Hawaii. Valerie Silk took over the supervision and made the decision to move the race from the tranquil shores of Waikiki to the barren lava fields of Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii. Against the new backdrop, athletes would need to cover 140.6 miles by sea, bike, and foot while battling crosswinds of 45mph (70km/h), 95-degree (35 deg C) temperatures and scorching sun. The Ironman Triathlon then became the benchmark against which all extreme sporting challenges would be measured.

The event gained traction in media and with ABC Sports broadcasts of the 1980 and 1981 editions, the event continued to generate interest from athletes, however, Ironman’s signature moment would be at the 1982 edition.

With the men’s championship title already claimed, ABC Sports zeroed in on the women athletes. Julie Moss, a college student from San Diego, captured everyone’s hearts and attention when she started to crawl towards the finish line after her legs gave out with a little more than 20 yards to go. Despite fellow competitor Kathleen McCartney winning, the whole event which was televised worldwide, and people were inspired by the determination they saw from Moss.

Instantly, competing in the Ironman became the hot ticket that the organisers instituted a qualifying system in order to keep the race filed more manageable.

Q:  What do you think draws people to this test of endurance and willpower? There are longer ultramarathons and various other tests of the human spirit held in many parts of the world, but the Ironman, especially a qualifying slot at the Kona World Championships, is consistently quoted as THE place to be at. Why do you think this is so?

Geoff Meyer: Even after 40 years, Ironman remains the toughest one-day event that tests the limits of the human body – something that always capture people’s imagination.

The Ironman World Championship in Kona is the Mecca of the Ironman Triathlon, there have been so many inspiring and compelling stories that happened there which continues to motivate athletes from all over the world and establishing it as the most iconic endurance event in the world.

The strict and rigorous qualifying criteria mean that only up to two per cent of IRONMAN athletes competing make the cut each year; making the event an ultimate dream and bucket list race for all triathletes the world over.


The Ironman 70.3
Sometimes known as the Half-Ironman, the Ironman 70.3 is half the distance of the full event and is a held all over the world as well.  Singapore hosted an Ironman 70.3 for six years before logistics concerns cause dthe event to be dropped. The 70.3 refers to the total number of miles in the race, which includes a 1.9 km (1.2-mile) swim, 90 km (56-mile) bike ride and 21.1 km (13.1-mile) run.


Hosting an Ironman Event
With the Ironman Triathlon on a steady rise internationally, more countries are bidding for the rights to host one, but Geoff Meyer notes that there is a strict criteria to be met before the organisers will consider a location.

He explains, “When looking at locations for the race, Ironman organisers look at the quality of stay they can give the athletes and the infrastructures the city offers to deliver a safe and good event. These infrastructures includes the airport and its facilities, roads and road conditions, venues, and accommodation.”

Other important considerations include support and approval from the Police Services, Public Works & Road Services, Medical & EMT / EMS Services and community networks.

Within the Southeast Asian region, the notable Ironman 70.3 races happen in Phuket, Bintan and Danang. Full Ironman races happen in Subic Bay and Langkawi. 



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