How did Ironman triathlon start? Read on to find out the history of how a race in Hawaii became the world’s most iconic triathlon event.

From the searing heat of the barren, black lava fields to the island’s treacherous gusting winds, the Ironman World Championships – held every year in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island – is as much a battle against the elements as one to conquer its colossal distances.

2.4 miles of sea swimming in warm, crystal-clear waters; 112 miles of cycling up and down a baking ribbon of tarmac; and 26.2 miles of running in soaring temperatures as competitors fight the 17-hour cut-off time.

But why Hawaii and why those particular distances? We look back at Ironman history to see how the original Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon got started in 1978.

Ironman Beginnings

Though triathlon was beginning to gain traction as a participation sport in California in the mid-1970s, it was the Ironman that broke through the young sport’s minority foundations and brought multi-discipline racing into the popular consciousness. It’s toughness, its character and its inspirational athletes would mean that before long, everyone had heard of ‘the Ironman’.

Rather than the catchphrase of ‘anything is possible’ that now epitomises the event, its beginnings were perhaps a more experimental ‘is it possible?’

For The Love Of The Sport

It’s often reported that the idea for the first Ironman came about as a challenge to see whether swimmers, cyclists or runners were the best endurance athletes, a debate brought about in jocular discussions of five-time Tour de France winner Eddy Merckx’s superior VO2 max.

In reality, the event’s conception was simply about giving the endurance community on Oahu something new to do, created by two people who were passionate about the sports of swimming, cycling and running.

It was the brainchild of Judy Collins, who’d fallen in love with run-bike-swim events at the now historic Mission Bay Triathlon, held in San Diego, California, by the San Diego Track Club on 25 September 1974. Feeling the same draw to the sport that thousands of athletes to come after her have shared, Judy began her passion for mapping out triathlon courses.

A few years later, Judy and husband John, a commander in the US Navy who’d also completed that Mission Bay event with their children Kristin and Michael, came to be based in Honolulu, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. It was here, in early 1977, that Judy was determining the course for a new, gruelling and as-yet-untitled triathlon event.

Courses Contemplated

The format was decided upon during a quiet table talk during a Running Relays awards ceremony on Valentines Day, Judy trying to decide on a fitting bike route for her long-distance triathlon – the first-ever on Hawaii – and John discussing aerobic sport and an article about cyclists’ oxygen uptakes with run and swimmer friends.

Then the conversations merged. “Every bit of my triathlon plan was in place on 14 February 1977 but for which course for the bicycle leg,” said Judy. “John made a good suggestion. It fit. There was no argument.”

With that matter-of-fact decision, the course was set as a combination of three of Oahu’s most challenging sporting events. The 2.4 mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim would be the first leg – the name alone telling of the swells and currents that competitors would have to deal with. John’s contribution was the Around-Oahu Bike Race – a two-day 115-mile cycling event that would be reduced to 112 miles but tackled in a single day. Finally, the event would culminate with the course of the Honolulu Marathon – a full 26.2 mile run due to be tackled under cooler evening conditions.

Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life!

Hawaiian Iron Man Entry Form

It was this same day that John said to Judy: “Whoever finishes first we’ll call him the Ironman,” a phrase that’s persisted through media myths over the years, yet was only actually heard by Judy. It was the same night that the pair had said to one another, “If you do it I’ll do it,” and also that whoever managed to finish the event would be able to talk about it for the rest of their lives.

This even made it onto page five of the entry form for the inaugural event – “Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life!”

The colossal distances were certainly a challenge tailored to the Long Slow Distance (LSD) training philosophy favoured the Collinses and their group of likeminded endurance-hardened friends. But the event was also ‘no big deal’ in the minds of its founders, coming as it did after their tackling of the annual 140-mile Oahu Perimeter Relays course, for which they’d run through day and night.

“Our triathlon was a worthy long distance event but just another such one on the calendar,” says Judy. “An audacious, delightful combo, yes, but ‘no big deal,’ in my mind.”

The First Event Announcement

The Collinses decided the event would take place in February 1978 after the following year’s Oahu Perimeter Relays and their around-the-island triathlon event was announced even before it has a name. The couple stood together at the lectern of the 1977 Waikiki Swim Club banquet on 23 October to give the world its first insight into what would become Ironman.

Judy introduced the long-distance triathlon, a demonstration event for the club, before John described the courses, which was enough to generate a lot of laughter from the assembled swimmers.

Despite the disbelieving reception at the implausible distances, Judy and John pushed forward with their plans, unaware that this three-sport challenge would eventually go on to become the world’s most iconic and inspirational triathlon.

It took the commitment of both Collinses to bring the event to fruition. “Neither of us would have put it on without the other,” said Judy. “Think Wright Brothers. The two of us got that airplane off the ground.”

The Iron Man Gets Its Name

In early 1978, the event got its name. “We knew a long distance runner who could keep going and going,” said Judy. “His nickname was ‘Iron Man’. We would have to keep going and going to get around the island in our triathlon. Our event name went on our triathlon logo, The Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon.”

The date was set for February 1978 and missing the opportunity to get the news into running and swimming club newsletters, the Collinses called a newspaper and radio station to help spread the word out about a gruelling new event that nevertheless seemed to capture the imaginations of an adventurous few.

The original Ironman logo was screen printed onto entrants’ own T-shirts (Source: Pinterest)

Athletes paid their $5 entry fees, which covered John’s finisher trophies – ‘iron men’ made of bent, soldered copper pipes with a large nut for its head set on a simple piece of wood.

The fees also went towards the screen-printing supplies to transfer to logo onto entrants’ own t-shirts and the packets of Electrolyte Replacement with Glucose (ERG) powder provided. This was a drink formulated by biochemist and San Diego Track Club runner Bill Gookin dubbed Gookinade.

The Class Of 1978

The appeal of the Ironman brought in 18 entrants in that first year. That start list included John Collins, but not Judy who had crashed in the lead up to the event in a year where she’d posted personal-best times. The list also included US Navy Seal, John Dunbar, and Gordon Haller, a Naval Reserve lieutenant.

Despite no competitor having the Ironman-specific coaching methodologies or pacing strategies that are now well documented, most of the athletes weren’t new to of all-day exercise.

“In 1977, one tri entrant was training to break the swim record of the Molokai Channel,” says Judy. “Another had run 100 miles on a track, I was the first woman to swim island to island, John and a friend had run a 50k while another participant had run 100k.”

While bike technology was a far cry from the standards enjoyed by Ironman athletes today – and indeed, getting hold of a road bike on the island at all was tricky – its competitors were no less hungry for the latest advances in sports nutrition.

“We sought the popular ‘state of the art’ nutrition regimen for distance events,” said Judy. “Then it was ‘Carbohydrate Loading’ and, for us, the runner electrolyte drink we provided, Gookinaid.”

Each competitor also had their own support crew who would stick close to them throughout the event, even paddling out to accompany their athlete during the swim. Some competitors shared vehicle support that first year. It was also mandatory for the support team to carry dimes as part of their job was to call in the athlete’s position from pay phones on the course!

The First Ironman Triathlon

The inaugural Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon was held on 18 February 1978 on Oahu. An informal, low-key affair, the event was a far cry from the pomp and ceremony that surrounds Kona today.

So it was that following a pre-race meeting in the Collins’ living room, 18 intrepid athletes headed out into a windy February morning in the rainy season and onto Waikiki Beach for the event’s start.

Three turned out to be not so intrepid after all, changing their minds at the sight of the surf line outside the reef. This left 15 competitors – all men and most unknown to the Collinses – who would be in with a chance to complete the event and brag for the rest of their lives.

There was no online live tracker in 1978! (Source: Pinterest)

All 15 starters finished the swim, the fastest of them Archie Hapai, who left the ocean after 57:35 in the water but called it a day after the bike. Only 13 athletes completed the bike course, which circumnavigated the island anti-clockwise from Waikiki Beach to Aloha Tower in Honolulu.

John Dunbar was the first competitor to stow his bike and get out onto the marathon after a 7:04:00 bike split, his 20-minute lead after the swim slimmed by a fast-chasing Gordon Haller, who posted the fastest bike time of 6:56:00.

Ironman Triathlon History - Gordon Haller in the first-ever Ironman
Gordon Haller won the first-ever Ironman, an event on a much smaller scale than it is today. (Photo: Karim Agaoua, Wikimedia Commons)

Haller overtook Dunbar on the run with an impressive 3:30:00 marathon, completing the event in the still-respectable time of 11:46:58 – free, of course, from finishing carpet, timing gantry and Mike Reilly calling him home – to become the first-ever Ironman.

However, this first event wasn’t really about the winner, times or placings – the goal was just to finish, which is why each of the 12 athletes who completed the course collected one of John’s small Iron Man trophies.

In finishing the inaugural Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon, each athlete achieved an outstanding feat of human endurance worthy of celebration decades later. Without these trailblazing triathletes and the will of the Collinses to bring ‘just another event’ to Hawaii, triathlon’s most iconic race wouldn’t have the legacy, compelling stories or power to inspire that makes Ironman so magical.

Sincere thanks to Judy and John Collins for their help in fact-checking the events of the first Ironman triathlon for this article. You can find out more about the Ironman founders’ memories at their website.

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