More than blue skies and sunshine is drawing visitors to Hawaii these days. While many come to play, others arrive to test themselvs against sun and sea in the now-famous Ironman triathlon. The starting point, the once sleepy village of Kailua-Kona on Hawaii's Big Island, is known to television viewers the world over as a result of ABC's coverage of the Ironman competition. No longer, though, is this merely an autumn attraction; the curious arrive year-round to follow the route taken by athletes in this punishing event held only this past week.
Contemporary endurance triathlons began in Honolulu in 1978 when 15 athlets gathered to learn whether they could successfully complete the already established distances of the 2.4-mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the 112-mile Around Oahu bike race and the 26.2-mile Honolulu Marathon.
The first triathlon, called Ironman, was the brainchild of Navy Cmdr. John Collins. The single newspaper article about the races labeled the 15 entries "crazies," a term that stuck for a number of years. Nobody outside of a few family members and friends paid much attention. Gordon Haller, a Navy man, won it in a time of 11 hours, 46 minutes, 58 seconds, and the event was largely forgotten.
In 1979, Tom Warren of San Diego arrived on the scene to outdistance 15 other entries with a time of 11:15.56. Lyn Lemaire of Boston was the only woman to compete, finishing in 12:53.38. Sports Illustrated had sent a writer to cover the competition and the Ironman gained nationwide exposure, but people still called the athletes "crazies."
Crazy or not, some who read the SI article had to try what was then labeled "the most grueling human endurance event in history." ABC-TV producers sent a "Wide World of Sports" crew to film the 108 participants who entered the 1980 race, and viewers later saw Dave Scott, a masters (over age 18) swimmer from Davis, Calif., steal the show by winning in 9:24.34.
The following year the event was moved from Honolulu to Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii in order to handle the 350 athlets clamoring to endure a long day of competition in the hot Hawaiian sun.
It took some as long as 24 hours to finish, but John Howard of Encinitas, Calif., a Pan American Games and Olympic cyclist, covered the new course in 9:38.0. Linda Sweeney of Phoenix, Ariz., was the women's winner with a time of 12 hours. Once again ABC-TV filmed the event, and suddenly the world sat up and took notice.
No longer were the triathletes "crazy." Many were professionals in the fields of science, medicine, law and business. Anyone who completed the Ironman earned a dollop of fame. Soon, more than 200 triathlons, of varying lengths, sprang up across the United States. A new cult of sports heroes had been formed.
As triathletes grew stronger and faster, trainers and coaches firmly oposed to long-distance endurance regimes, non-specific training and the possible damage that cross-training could do to the body began to take look at the benefits of cross-training. Triathletes became so obsessed with preparation, especially for Hawaii's Ironman, the granddaddy of them all, that they left jobs to train full time. Many of their spouses left them. It was not unusual for an athlete to swim 5 to 10 miles, bike 200 to 300 miles and run 40 to 75 miles each week. All that took time from business and family.
It also captured the imagination of the public as an exciting spectator sport.
In February, 1982, the men's Ironman race produced an early winner in San Diego aquatics instructor Scott Tinley, who finished in a record 9:19.41, defeating past winner Dave Scott in an exciting battle before the sun set.
At the same time, 580 other runners were still out on the course in the darkness along Queen Kaahumanu Highway. Rumors were that there was a tough contest for the first-place woman, and the crowds buzzed as Julie Moss, a petite California lifeguard racing Ironman for the first time, ran around hte corner into town, dazed, tired and worn out.
Suddenly Moss stumbled, fell to her knees, staggered to her fet, ran stiffly, then stumbled again. She tried again to run with only 50 yards to go, fell to the ground and crawled the last few feet. Then she collapsed across the finish line.
Strong stuff and ABC-TV caught it all.
However, Kathleen McCartney, from Newport Beach, had closed the lead and with Moss just seconds away from finishing first, McCartney passed her, not noticing Moss on the ground. It was a full 60 seconds before McCartney learned she was first and had set a record of 11:09.40.
It was the most widely viewed "Wide World of Sports" episode ever televised, according to the network, and if there was any doubts that triathlon were catching on, it was erased.
This year (in 1983 the Ironman was held in October, having been switched from spring to fall) there were more than 1,575 entrants All had one thing in common: their love of triatlons, especially the Ironman.
The unsung heroes and heroines of the Ironman are the 3,000 volunteers who work to make it a success; they serve as water-safety personnel on surf-boards, build and assemble bicycle racks, set up showers and cover them with palm fronds. These same volunteers ferry water and ice to desolate aid stations along the lava desert, quarter thousands of oranges, make guava jam sandwiches and provide bananas and chocolate-chip cookies for the athletes on race day. They staff the aid stations until every competitor has finished.
Today, the majority of Big Island residents, especially those in the west, have come to think of Ironman as their race. Typical Hawaiian aloha spirit spills into the streets, overflowing on race day. For volunteers and spectators, as well as participants, the Ironman has become more than an endurance event. It is a race in which everyone is emotionally involved. And Kailua-Kona is now a training center for some of the world's best athletes.