Famous Triathletes: Erin Baker

Back in the early days of triathlon, female triathletes were few and far between. Though there were a handful of women who joined modern triathlon’s inaugural race in 1974, female triathletes didn’t figure as much in the following races that were staged. In fact, it was not until 1980 that a female triathlete in the person of Lyn Lemaire competed at the second ever Hawaii Ironman race.

Triathlon has since then been regularly participated in by women. There’s Karen Smyers, for instance, as well as Julie Moss. And then there’s Erin Baker, who was not only well-loved for her astounding performance in races, but was also well-known for her advocacies that would later change the way triathlons were conducted.

Erin Baker (image via legendsoftriathlon.com)

Erin Baker
(image via legendsoftriathlon.com)

Who is Erin Baker?

Erin Baker, a native of New Zealand, is considered by many as one of the best female triathletes the sport has ever seen. Baker’s first foray into the sport of running was in the early 1970s. During an annual picnic for the company where her father worked, Baker decided to join the friendly track and field race usually held to cap off the gathering.

Along with the mixed crowd of children and adults, Baker would run her fastest and would finish the race in first place. Clearly showing potential for said sport, she would later be encouraged by her mother to pursue running competitively. Following her mother’s advice proved to be auspicious for three years later at 15 years old, she would be declared champion during her first ever cross-country competition.

Professional triathlon career

Erin Baker holds the distinction of winning a total of 104 out of the 121 races she joined. But of these races, a few stand out for this remarkable female triathlete. 1984 was memorable for it was her first entry into the sport as a professional triathlete.

Racing in the world championships in Nice, France was noteworthy, too, as it was from this competition that she bagged three long course championship titles. She no doubt would have added another Nice championship title to her feat had she not refused to start at one race. She did this to protest the inequitable distribution of prizes, for it turned out, the winner in the men’s division was going to be awarded a brand new car while the winner for the women’s won’t receive a similar reward. Due to her protests, the organizers changed the directive and instead ruled that whoever gets to the finish line first gets to win the car.

In 1986, she entered and won her very first Ironman triathlon competition in New Zealand. Though Hawaii Ironman had shot to worldwide fame in 1982, Baker could not travel to the island state. This was due to a 1981 conviction she received for throwing explosive devices during a rally to protest the arrival of South Africa’s rugby team in New Zealand.

Through the help of the Hawaii Ironman organizers, she’d be able to travel to the island state in 1987 and consequently win the championship for the women’s division that year. She’d go on to take another Hawaii Ironman championship title in 1990, as well as three second-place wins in the competition.

In 1989, she became the first ever ITU World Champion. Due to this feat as well as her other contributions to the sporting world, New Zealand’s Halberg awards would choose her as the New Zealand Sportsperson of the Year.

In 1990, she represented her native country to the Commonwealth Games and bagged the Women’s Demonstration Triathlon prize. She would go on to take two more New Zealand Ironman championship titles before her retirement in 1994.

For a great podcast interview with Erin Baker, visit the “Legends of Triathlon” podcast.


Triathlon Champ Erin Baker Becomes A Woman On The Run

Erin Baker

New Zealand’s Wonder Woman

Erin Baker interview

Catching up with the greats: The ITU’s first World Champion Erin Baker

Famous Triathletes: Mike Pigg

Modern triathlon may be a comparatively young sport, but no doubt it’s been graced by some of the most remarkable pioneer triathletes the world has ever seen since its inception nearly forty years prior in 1974. And one of these astounding triathletes is Mike Pigg.

Mike Pigg(image via legendsoftriathlon.com)

Mike Pigg
(image via legendsoftriathlon.com)

Who is Mike Pigg?

Mike Pigg grew up and to this day still lives in Northern California, near the birth place of the sport of triathlon. When he was 10 years old, he got into swimming and was active in the sport for four years. After that, he participated in cross-country running well into his second year in college.

Not fully decided what career path to take, and after having watched Dave Scott win the 1983 Hawaii Ironman, he decided to go full time as a professional triathlete. His typical work week would include training rides of at least 225 miles, running from 30 to 50 miles, as well as swimming from 15,000 t 25,000 yards.

Though trained in both swimming and running, incidentally, these are not the sporting disciplines that he is best known for. During the peak of his success in triathlon in the 1980s, he was especially feared for his power on the bike.

Mike Pigg at the first ITU Triathlon World Cup Series

Like every triathlete who truly loves the sport, all of his competitions are memorable for him. Of course, there are select races that he performed quite notably in. Arguably one of the most memorable was at the first ever ITU Triathlon World Cup Series in 1991.

It is crucial to remember that triathlon was then barely seventeen years old. During this stage in the sport, triathlon’s main movers were working furiously to get it into the Olympic program. And staging the event in 1991 was to prove to the International Olympic Committee that the sport, though quite new, was backed by an efficient system and that it was practiced by a considerable number of people worldwide.

Mike Pigg’s dominance during this race was particularly special for it was when numerous triathletes from different countries participated in. His winning of the race, touted by triathletes themselves as one of the world’s toughest race course, was astounding as it not only proved his mettle as an endurance athlete, but it also cemented the United States’ ascendancy over the sport.

Hawaii Ironman endeavors

Prior to his ITU Triathlon World Cup Series win in 1991, he was already a regular competitor at the Hawaii Ironman in Kailua-Kona. In fact, he took 7th place in his first ever race in the island in 1985. Determined to get to the top, he trained furiously, and from 7th, improved his position to 4th, and finally to 2nd in 1988.

However, while he was swimming, biking, and running to the top, he unfortunately caught a stomach infection that severely affected his performance. Though this was the case, he nevertheless set to his Hawaii Ironman trainings for the upcoming 1989 competition. Though struggling during the race for being unable to digest food on the fly, he still managed to finish 15th. He would take three years off to recover from the affliction. His return and subsequent 16th place finish at the 1993 Hawaii Ironman was what caused him to finally let go of his Ironman championship bid.

Olympic Distance Triathlon endeavors

Though he no longer raced at the Hawaii Ironman due to his physical maladies, he continued dominating Olympic distance and off-road triathlons. These races were more to his liking for they were not as physically draining as the ones done in Kailua-Kona. He would go on to join more than 150 races and would win practically half of all these. And during his 17-year stint as a professional triathlete, he would receive the US Olympic Committee Male Triathlete of the Year award from 1993 through 1996.

For a great podcast interview with Mike Pigg, visit the “Legends of Triathlon” podcast.


Ironman Profiles: Mike Pigg – Hard Work Almost Took Him To The Ironman Pinnacle

Pigg Power – Mike Pigg

20 years of ITU World Cups: Q&A with Mike Pigg

Famous Triathletes: Karen Smyers

Endurance sports, perhaps due to their inherent difficulty, have always been dominated by men. This is true for the highly popular sport of triathlon. Back then, female triathletes were practically unheard of. But as the sport grew, remarkable women such as Lyn Lemaire and Julie Moss would start to join triathlons.

Another woman in the person of Karen Smyers competed proudly alongside male triathletes as well.

Karen Smyers(image via www.enduranceplanet.com)

Karen Smyers
(image via www.enduranceplanet.com)

Who is Karen Smyers?

Karen Smyers was born in Corry, Pennsylvania in September 1, 1961. Quite avid of sports, she would join organized teams early on. Later while attending college in Princeton University, she would compete in track and field as well as swimming.

After graduating from college, she found her life incomplete without any athletic endeavor. Fortunately, one of her friends was into triathlons. She would join this friend during trainings and would find this new endurance sport quite appealing.

In 1984, Smyers raced as an amateur at a triathlon competition. She did fairly well that she would have won the $500 prize money had she entered as a professional competitor. This boosted her confidence so much that she decided to compete as an elite triathlete starting 1985.

She did not find it difficult to decide to go professional full-time when the company she worked for went underwater four years later in 1989. She was after all in great shape. Surely she could make a living competing in triathlons.

Memorable races

Smyers’ decision to go elite was certainly auspicious. That same year in 1989, she competed at the ITU Triathlon World Championships and placed an impressive fourth place win.

The following year, she would train and consequently race at the 1990 ITU Triathlon World Championships. This race was quite memorable for Smyers. Running in fourth at the marathon leg, she would chase after Joy Hanson and Carol Montgomery who were running side by side, and race leader and 1989 ITU Triathlon World Champion Erin Baker.

Having placed fourth just the prior year, all she was aiming for was to place third overall. But halfway through mile four of the marathon, she would successfully overtake Montgomery and Hanson, and eventually, Baker, thus winning her first ITU Triathlon World Champion title that year.

In 1995, Smyers made a remarkable feat after taking home first place from the inaugural triathlon race at the 1995 Pan American Games in March. Barely seven months later, she would race and subsequently take first place at the 1995 Hawaii Ironman in October. A little over a month after, she would again compete and be declared champion at another ITU Triathlon World Championships in November. So far, no other female triathlete has yet matched Smyers 1995 accomplishments.

1996 was another fruitful year for her professional triathlete career for she won the top prize at the ITU Long Distance Triathlon World Championships. Though she was sidelined for the entire part of 1997 after cutting her hamstring from a freak accident, she was determined to get back to racing in 1998. But misfortune struck once more for she got hit by an 18-wheeler truck during one of her training rides.

Though traumatized from the accident, this did not prevent her from training for upcoming competitions. In 1999, she would be the country’s flag-bearer for the Pan American Games as well as be chosen as the United States Olympic Committee’s Triathlete of the Year. She would also place second in the 1999 Hawaii Ironman.

But her challenges were evidently not over yet. At one race, she had a terrible bike fall that caused damage to her collarbone, one that was severe enough for her to not finish, her very first DNF in her then 17-year elite career. As if that was not enough, she would test positive for thyroid cancer and be under a six-hour surgery to remove the cancerous cells in December 1999.

In 2000, Smyers boldly tried out for the US Triathlon Olympic Team though was unsuccessful in her bid. In 2001, she would be declared the USA Triathlon National Champion.

Smyers would continue to race professionally and receive prestigious awards. in 2009, she would be inducted to the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame to honor her numerous contributions to the sport of triathlon.

For a great podcast interview with Karen Smyers, visit the “Legends of Triathlon” podcast.


She’s Always on the Move

Karen Smyers Biography

A few thoughts from Karen Smyers, Hall of Famer

Famous Triathletes: Ken Shirk

Hawaii Ironman has always been a special race. It is one of the few athletic events that truly test a person’s endurance and resolve. Year after year too, Hawaii Ironman is graced by colorful personalities such as the ultramarathon runner everyone refers to as “Cowman”.

Cownman with Scott Tinley at the 1985 Hawaii Ironman(image via bbke.blogspot.com)

Cowman and Scott Tinley at the 1985 Hawaii Ironman
(image via bbke.blogspot.com)

Who is Cowman?

Born Kenneth Ivan Shirk, Cowman got into sports at a tender age. In high school, he excelled in tennis, basketball and swimming and got handed the All Round Sportmanship Award at his high school graduation.

In college, he took up associate arts and dabbled in artistic pursuits such as creating murals and assisting in setting up theater stages. He joined the cross-country team too where he got started in running. He tried skiing as well and as can be expected, excelled in said sport eventually. To help in his schooling, he got into construction work and while at it joined a labor union as well.

When unrest in Vietnam arose, he decided to join the US Army National Guard. He did so because he didn’t want to be conscripted to Southeast Asia to kill people, saying he’d rather “defend my country here at home”.

Pioneer trail runner

Cowman ran his first ever marathon race in 1967. Around that same year, he decided to pursue a different a path and lived in the mountains instead. He moved north of Lake Tahoe where he stayed in a log cabin, chopped his own firewood, did his own fishing, and kept a horse for recreational riding.

His new residence in the mountains did not stop him from pursuing his love for sports. Ever the athlete, he ran the wilderness trails when the weather permitted. During the winter, he would ski too, all while working in the construction industry and serving as a volunteer fireman.

In 1976, Shirk ran the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, becoming the second man, after close pal Gordon Ainsleigh, to have completed the challenging course on foot.

How he became Cowman

During America’s bicentennial in 1976, he wanted to celebrate big by painting his whole body red, white, and blue and streaking through the streets. He added a pair of bovine horns fastened to a helmet to his getup and then ran naked. From then on, he got called “Cowman” and has since been joining various races using the moniker.

Ironman endeavors

1979 was Cowman’s first ever participation in Hawaii Ironman. Though his bovine horns weighed at least 3 pounds, he wore them through the rest of the course, even through the swim leg. As can be remembered, this race was the first ever Ironman that got featured in mainstream print media via Sports Illustrated, an influential sports magazine.

Cowman was featured in the Barry McDermott article along with 1979 winner Tom Warren, 1979 runner-up John Dunbar, 1978 winner Gordon Haller, the first ever female Ironman Lyn Lemaire, and notable pioneer triathletes like Ian Emberson and Henry Forrest.

As Hawaii Ironman got bigger and bigger, changes to the competitive and race rules became inevitable. Cowman, unwavering in his horn-wearing tradition, eventually got disqualified from entering USA Triathlon-sanctioned events. Even so, he would still run the Hawaii Ironman and may actually be the only person to have participated all races since 1979 both officially and unofficially.

Other race endeavors

Cowman eventually moved to Hawaii. He has since been joining races around the scenic island. In fact, he is one of the four runners to have joined all the Big Island International Marathon, otherwise known as the Hilo Marathon, since the event’s inception in 1997. Though nearing 70 years old, he still travels to the mainland United States to join dear friend Gordon Ainsleigh during the annual Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.


Ken Shirk

Western States pioneers are still running strong

Think Dennis Rodman is wild and Jerome Bettis is tough? You need to get out more

“Cowman A-Moo-Ha”

Big Island’s “Final Four” doing BIIM’s Early Bird

Ironman Hawaii 1979 Official Results

Famous Triathletes: Julie Moss

Hawaii Ironman did not immediately become popular. The inaugural race only attracted over a dozen brazen folks. Though the number of competitors doubled the following year in 1979, half of them backed out due to stormy weather. It wasn’t until 1980 that more than a hundred competitors signed up, all thanks to the Sports Illustrated article about Tom Warren. But what really brought the event to world renown was broadcast media’s coverage of Julie Moss.

Julie Moss(image via einestages.spiegel.de)

Julie Moss
(image via einestages.spiegel.de)

Who is Julie Moss?

Hawaii Ironman may have been started by a group of fiercely athletic military men, but not all pioneer triathletes are hard core sporty folks. Julie Moss is one such example. Then a graduate student in 1982, her passion was surfing. But aside from this, she was not really into competitive sports.

She flew to Hawaii for two reasons. First, she wanted to experience firsthand the rigors of this race for she was doing a thesis on the training and physiological requirements of endurance sports. Second, joining the Hawaii Ironman was her way of bonding with her then-boyfriend Reed Gregerson, a triathlete. As it would turn out, her participation in the race will prove to be pivotal, both for her and for the sport of triathlon.

Race preparation

Moss firmly believes that she works most efficient when under pressure. So instead of going into training as soon as she and Gregerson signed up, she didn’t start until 20 weeks from the race. Her first plunge into training was a half-Ironman triathlon in Santa Barbara, California in September 1981, where she did fairly well. She then proceeded to join the December 1981 Oakland marathon, one that ended in disappointment after experiencing exhaustion and dehydration at mile 20 of the course.

She almost decided not to pursue the big race when on Christmas eve, Gregerson broke up with her. Though devastated, the desire to graduate was more urgent. After all, her mother who works as a teacher and put her through school single-handedly had already put a lot of money into her Kona race. So instead of sulking, she did a race in Mission Bay in San Diego, California in January 1982 to further prepare.

Two weeks before race day, she flew to Hawaii where she stayed at least 35 miles from Kailua-Kona. Intending to utilize the remaining one week to ramp up her performance on the bike, she decided to add said commute distance to her planned bike training, which overall amounted to almost 400 miles the week before race.

Race day

Moss was among the group of leading women when she emerged from the water after 1 hour and 11 minutes. Donning a Lycra skinsuit someone sourced for her instead of the usual bike shorts and tank top she initially planned to wear, she finished the second leg in 5 hours and 53 minutes. While transitioning to the marathon phase, Moss’ bra strap broke. She pleaded with a volunteer to lend hers, which the latter reluctantly surrendered.

She was trailing marathon leader Pat Hines, a professional cyclist and a member of the first ever elite triathlon group Team J David, during the third leg. However, a few miles into the run, Hines dropped out due to severe leg cramps. Moss only became aware that she was leading the race about 8 miles from finish although news crews on helicopter and camera van have already been tailing her after Hines’ departure.

Six miles from finish, Moss would start to deteriorate. She’d labor from aid station to aid station, occasionally asking those near how far her closest opponent was, who turned out to be elite athlete Kathleen McCartney of Team J David. Though she joined the race with no ambitions of winning it, it all changed when she became the marathon’s forerunner.

Running only on bananas and water the whole day as well as lacking rest pre-race, her legs would start to give in one mile from finish. She would fall a handful of times yet still be able to maintain her lead. But as she was nearing the finish line, she would stagger and buckle and eventually would be unable to hold her legs up.

Though well meaning spectators rushed to her aid, she shooed them away for she didn’t want to get disqualified. Finally, 10 yards from finish, with only her arms having their strength, she started to crawl. As she was struggling her way through the crowds, McCartney, who had no idea about Moss’ plight, ran past and claimed the women’s first prize. On all fours, Moss would plod through and crawl and cross the finish line 29 seconds after McCartney.

Moss may not have gotten first prize, but her indomitable spirit was captured on camera. The race, which is by far the most dramatic and remarkable in Hawaii Ironman history, would eventually be shown on Wide World of Sports and inspire thousands to take up the sport of triathlon.


17 Hours to Glory

Triathlon: Winner Who Didn’t Finish First

Julie Moss’ Agony in Defeat Was Appalling, But Love’s Labor Made Her a Star

Famous Triathletes: Tom Knoll

Back when the Ironman was conceptualized, folks who heard the idea thought it was outrageous. Who would have thought that years later, it would become such a popular event that even acquiring slots for the race would become difficult. But as with any remarkable event, Hawaii Ironman too started small. Among those who have a significant part in its humble beginnings is Tom Knoll.

Tom Knoll(image via www.the-two-malcontents.com)

Tom Knoll
(image via www.the-two-malcontents.com)

Who is Tom Knoll?

Tom Knoll was with the United States Marine Corps when he got acquainted with triathlon. Prior to his introduction to the sport, he was already very much into running. In his 40s in the early 1970s, Knoll would join younger Marines during their 10-mile lunch runs. He grew so fond of the sport that he would eventually run hundred-mile distances, a discipline which has come to be known as ultrarunning.

Race preparation for first Hawaii Ironman

Knoll, much like fellow original Ironman Dave Orlowski, was among those present during the awarding ceremony of the Oahu Perimeter Relay in 1977 where then-Commander John Collins famously challenged them for a three-part race. Being so used to grueling races, Knoll did not think twice about joining the competition.

As it would turn out, however, it would take quite long for the event to really materialize. But as soon as the go signal for the race was given, Knoll was among those who, without second thought, signed up. And to prepare for the three-discipline event, he would train in all three sports every single day months prior to the scheduled February 18, 1978 race.

Race day of first Hawaii Ironman

Race day of the first ever Ironman couldn’t be more favorable. The sea was calm though the competitors were a little anxious during the first leg for some saw what looked like a shark in the water at the start of the swim. Most of the competitors slogged through the second portion of the race as the majority were not that experienced with the bike. Knoll, for his part, took the swimming and bike legs in a slow but steady pace. Because of this strategy, he performed quite well in the third leg, having the third best finish in the marathon. Overall, he placed sixth, though he was at least a decade older than the other competitors.

Post-Ironman endeavors

After participating in the inaugural Ironman, Knoll returned to his first love – ultrarunning. He would go on to use his unlikely hobby to help raise funds for causes he feels so strongly for. It all started way before the Ironman, actually, when he was asked for a donation by a charity back in 1976. Instead of handing out money, he organized a charity run. He ended up raising $500 for his effort, a sum that was far bigger than he could have ever given upfront.

In 2008, he did the Freedom Run Across America with his son Warren. Fellow original Ironman Dave Orlowski ran with them during the first three days of this endeavor, proceeds of which went to a handful of institutions like the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) co-founded by Bob Babbitt.

In October of that same year, Knoll flew to Kailua Kona to return Orlowski’s support. Orlowski was coming back for the first time to the race after his participation in the 1978 Hawaii Ironman. Orlowski was as well dedicating his run to dear friend Henry Forrest, who at that time, managed to still fly from Georgia to Hawaii though he was already battling pancreatic cancer. Barely a month after this, Forrest sadly succumbed to the dreaded disease.

In 2011, Knoll reached his goal of raising one million dollars for his chosen charitable institutions. But he’s not stopping yet. In fact, he’s preparing for yet another cross-country run scheduled for 2013.


Original Ironman Tom Knoll Raises $1 Million for Charity

Original Ironman Tom Knoll

Famous Triathletes: Dave Orlowski

Triathlon is arguably the most heavily participated sport today. Its founders Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan certainly didn’t expect the sport to take off that successfully. After all, their main aim for staging the first modern triathlon was just to provide some variety to their track trainings. Even Hawaii Ironman creator John Collins was astonished with how popular the event has become.

Much like the above mentioned founders, the original Ironman competitors like Dave Orlowski (who now races for Team Timex) surely did not foresee that the fledgling sport he participated in 1978 would become the much anticipated event that it is today.

Dave Orlowski(image via www.slowtwitch.com)

Dave Orlowski
(image via www.slowtwitch.com)

Who is Dave Orlowski?

A fitness enthusiast in his early 20s, Dave Orlowski found his way to the scenic island of Hawaii due to his job with the Marine Corps. In 1977, Orlowski was among the huge crowd that attended the awards ceremony of the Oahu Perimeter Relay. He would overhear the friendly argument over which athlete was fittest: the swimmer, the runner, or the cyclist.

Orlowski was present too when then-Commander Collins took to the stage during the intermission to issue the unlikely challenge to the crowd. Most laughed, but not Orlowski. In fact, he would go on to face up to this dare and become one of the original twelve finishers of the first ever Hawaii Ironman.

Race preparation for first Hawaii Ironman

As it would turn out, it would take months from the day then-Commander Collins issued the dare for the race to actually come into fruition. If not for the prodding of friends and colleagues, Hawaii Ironman would not have been staged in 1978.

But as soon as the 22-year old Orlowski knew that the event was a go, he immediately proceeded to get ready for the race. His training regimen consisted of regular running. An excellent swimmer specializing in distance events, he did two or three times of swimming weekly in the Marine Corps base as well, with each session totaling one to two miles.

A week prior to the event, Orlowski was lent a Sears Free Spirit bicycle by a fellow Marine. He trained on the equipment though rode no more than 30 miles on it. He figured that he had ridden a bicycle as a kid, so perhaps he won’t have such a hard time on the bike come race day.

For the support crew, Orlowski was able to solicit the help of fellow Marines. A vehicle was arranged as well to accompany him, dear friend Henry Forrest, as well as another Marine competitor throughout the course.

1978 Hawaii Ironman recollections

The weather that early Saturday morning in February 18, 1978 was very favorable. With hardly any ripples in the sea, the fifteen competitors took to the water to start the first leg of the race. Some competitors got nervous though for they spotted what seemed to be a shark in the clear water, which a mile into the swim later disappeared.

Prior to starting the bike leg, Orlowski changed into his bike and run gear – a pair of cut-off denim shorts. Figuring there’d be no definite time when he’d see the support vehicle, he needed somewhere to put his money so that he could easily stop at stores along the course to buy his nourishment. So he cut a good pair of blue jeans to have something to wear with pockets in them.

Fairly inexperienced with the bike, the second portion of the race was difficult for him. But he slogged through and finished the 122-mile ride. At the marathon, he resorted to walking for he couldn’t find his legs. Four miles into the run, he got his stride back. Through the bike and run legs, he would stop at gas stations and a McDonald’s to get himself some food.

As he was cresting Diamond Hill, his leg cramps started to become very severe that he needed to hold at the guardrails along the road just so he could heave himself up. Then his support crew showed up and from it emerged his parents who flew to Oahu just to see him race. It turned out this was all the motivation he needed. He found his strength again and from there basically ran the entire length to the finish line. He would subsequently place third, clocking in a time of 13 hours, 39 minutes, and 13 seconds.


Original Ironman Dave Orlowski

Ironmanlife: Dave Orlowski Remembers Henry Forrest

Famous Triathletes: Bob Babbitt

Triathlon events always bring together a mixed bunch of folks. Some are there for the fame and the monetary rewards, while there are those who join to satisfy their curiosity about this very popular sport. But regardless of personal backgrounds or motivations for joining, one thing seems to be common among those who join triathlons, and that is this: having the guts to attempt to conquer the most difficult of elements, and come out a better person in the end.

One of those who were changed forever for the better by the sport of triathlon is Bob Babbitt.

Bob Babbitt(image via www.usatriathlon.org)

Bob Babbitt
(image via www.usatriathlon.org)

Who is Bob Babbitt?

Bob Babbitt was a Physical Education teacher who moved from Chicago, Illinois to San Diego, California in 1978. In late 1979, he read Barry McDermott’s piece on Tom Warren in the Sports Illustrated magazine. He got so inspired by the story of the 1979 Hawaii Ironman champion as well as the other athletes featured that he wanted to give the event a try as well.

Preparing for the 1980 Hawaii Ironman

Back then, there were hardly any books about race training and nutrition. Though jogging was in full swing, thanks to folks like Dave Pain who helped launch running as a sport, folks who wanted to learn more about the ins and outs of athleticism on their own had no reliable materials they could turn to.

Because this was the case, Babbitt immediately considered approaching Warren. No other individual would be more qualified than him to teach Babbitt how to train for the event. Warren was after all the 1979 Ironman.

So Babbitt called Warren, and was able to convince the latter to mentor him and roommate Ned Overend. Babbitt and Overend trained furiously for the upcoming January 10, 1980 Ironman to be held in the island of Oahu. They would do hundreds of laps in a 15-meter apartment pool just so they could cover the 2.4-mile swim required for the event.

They each bought a bike, and his was from a police auction, complete with a charred seat end. Because he had no idea how to change a flat tire, he outfitted his new secondhand bike with solid rubber tires.

His first Hawaii Ironman race

Babbitt flew with Overend and their support crew to Hawaii. He sincerely thought that he was going to do the race for two days so he brought a tent and sleeping bag with him.

January is storm month in Oahu. Days prior to the event, the organizers decided to move the swim leg to the protected Ala Moana Channel because the site for the Waikiki Roughwater Swim was too perilous. Fairly inexperienced in open and deepwater swimming, Babbitt made sure to swim at the shallow portion of the channel and somehow splashed out of the water unscathed.

He would proceed to do the second portion of the race donning a pair of beige shorts with a belt, and a long-sleeved shirt with pockets sewn at the back to store bags of Hawaiian sweet bread, his race food of choice. He’d slog through the bike which he’d rigged with a transistor radio on its fuzzy handlebars just so he’d have company during the long ride. He fitted it with panniers too to carry his tent and sleeping bag.

Through the race, he’d be fed by his crew with Big Mac, fries, and Coke, as well as a snow cone. He’d even gotten a 45-minute massage. His marathon was practically all walking and when he got weighed at one of the med stations, the aide was astonished that he’d gained instead of lost a few pounds, due to all the Hawaiian sweet bread he’d eaten.

Nearing the finish line, he couldn’t believe that he was able to do the race in one whole day. He expected to see crowds of people and a brass band to cheer and welcome his momentous finish. But all he saw ahead was a light bulb and the finish line drawn in chalk on the pavement. The official who was there asked him if he was part of the race, to which he replied a positive, in turn receiving a brisk reply that he’d completed the race.

Contributions to the multisport arena

Anticlimactic as the finish was, the race forever changed Babbitt’s life. He would go on to co-establish a magazine, the Competitor, dedicated solely to multi-sports. He would also later assist in putting up Competitor Radio, which to this day, is the premier source for multi-sport news in the broadcasting media. He would also create the Brooks Muddy Buddy Ride and Run Series which features fun obstacle races for the family and for folks who are just looking to unwind.

Babbitt would also become one of the founding directors of the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) which assists folks with disabilities pursue their athletic dreams. Babbitt would also be later inducted to the Ironman Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2002 and to the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2012.


Running Down Memory Lane: 25 Years of Competitor

Bob Babbitt: Triathlon’s Greatest Ambassador, Ironman’s Spirited Soothsaye

Funky dude Bob Babbitt

More insight into Bob Babbitt

In the beginning there was Bob Babbitt

WTC Honors Bob Babbitt with Ironman Hall of Fame Induction

Famous Triathletes: Frank Day

The inaugural Hawaii Ironman may have only been attended by fifteen people, but the twelve who have managed to complete the grueling race have earned the distinction of being the original Ironmen. One of these twelve brazen folks is Frank Day.

Frank Day(image via www.slowtwitch.com)

Frank Day
(image via www.slowtwitch.com)

Who is Frank Day?

Frank Day served in the United States Navy for five years as a nuclear engineer and later as a medical doctor to a destroyer squadron in the late 1970s. While studying medicine in the US Naval Academy, Day along with his fellow students would be made to run the track competitions in the island like the Honolulu Marathon. This is so they would have firsthand experience as to the rigors of exercise and therefore be more efficient at helping heart attack survivors as well as sedentary patients on how to work out safely. Since then, Day had gotten the running bug and would never fail to squeeze in running even during his busy work week in the US Navy.

Race preparation

Day was unable to find a house that would be of comfortable running distance from his office in the Pearl Harbor naval shipyard. He bought a bike to ride it to and from work instead. While cycling from home one late afternoon, he heard a brief advertisement on the radio about a race that would include the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, The Around-Oahu Bike Race, and the Honolulu Marathon in one nonstop competition.

The 33-year old Day immediately thought the concept was outrageous. But while cycling back home, he had time to ponder the idea, thinking that he might just be able to do it after all. So upon reaching home, he called the radio station that ran the ad and got the contact number of the fellow in-charge of the race.

As it turns out, that person would be John Collins, who like Day, was an officer of the US Navy as well. In fact, they worked in adjacent buildings in the Pearl Harbor naval shipyard. So Day went to see Collins the day after and the latter would be successful in convincing Day to join the first Ironman race.

Day was no stranger to running grueling marathons. He was knowledgeable at the bike too, though his rides were no longer than 10 miles each time. To convince himself that he would be able to manage the first leg of the race, he did a mile of swimming in a local pool.

Race day of the first Hawaii Ironman

The early morning start of the inaugural Ironman was just right. The water was calm, with barely any ripples in the sea. Ian Emberson would splash out of the water first, followed by Tom Warren and John Dunbar. Upon finishing this portion of the race, Day would take a 20-minute shower afterwards before starting the bike leg. Twenty miles into the race, Day would pass by Henry Forrest, who was struggling with the gears of his borrowed bike.

Day started the marathon in quite fantastic shape. But ten miles into the run, he would start to feel really exhausted yet his support crew would push him on. At mile twelve of the marathon, Day decided to stop at a McDonald’s and he fetched himself the largest drink. Forrest would run past while Day was resting.

After about 30 minutes, he would recover and run the succeeding four miles, and essentially walk the remaining thirteen miles to the finish line. Day finished eighth overall, after Henry Forrest who on the other hand nabbed the seventh place.

Post-Ironman endeavors

Frank Day would enlist in the 1979 Hawaii Ironman, hoping to finish in 12 hours or less. But stormy weather plagued this second Ironman, and his bike wheels would flatten twice during the second leg. But he took on the marathon all the same, though he had lost valuable time already. Eventually though, he would decide to officially drop out for he saw it was impossible to attain his target, plus his support crew needed to work the following day.

Day did not race in the Hawaii Ironman again after his DNF in 1979. But he would continue to be active in the multi-sport arena long after. Utilizing his engineering and medical backgrounds, he would proceed to invent the PowerCranks, a tool which can help improve an athlete’s performance on the bike.


Original Ironman Henry Forrest

Frank Day recalls Ironman 1978

Memories of ’78: Original Ironman Frank Day Can’t Throw It Away

Famous Triathletes: Ian Emberson

Hawaii Ironman has become such a renowned event that folks from all walks of life, whether professional triathletes or otherwise, vie for coveted competitor slots year after year. But difficult as it may be to imagine, not everyone who join the race aim to earn a living or even become famous from it. There are actually folks like Ian Emberson who participated in a handful of Ironman races yet did not at all consider the event as a competitive race.

Ian Emberson(image via oceanswims.com)

Ian Emberson
(image via oceanswims.com)

Who is Ian Emberson?

Ian Emberson was born in Caracas in Venezuela. Growing up, he would spend much of his time swimming in the open waters of the West Indies and the Bahamas. He eventually moved with his family to Hawaii due to his father’s job. He would grow very fond of the island, its waters and beaches as well as its people that he would decide to stay in Hawaii for good.

Emberson would found the Maui Channel Swim while still in his early 20s. This event is the only the inter-island openwater relay race in the world to this day. Later on, he would also establish the Maui ‘Aumākua 2.4 Mile Swim and will be largely known to the sporting community because of these two accomplishments. But aside from these achievements, Emberson too, who at the time was working as a restaurant manager for a hotel in Honolulu, belongs to the original twelve finishers of the inaugural Hawaii Ironman.

Race day of the 1978 Hawaii Ironman

The water and weather conditions were favorable on that early Saturday morning in February 18, 1978. Most of the folks who enlisted arrived at the beach start before sunrise. Of the eighteen that originally signed up, three would decide to back out though.

The usual excitement pre-race hung in the air. Loud music was blaring from the speakers of a parked van owned by John Dunbar, one of the competitors. He would later change from his Superman costume to his swim gear as the race start time was nearing.

The fifteen competitors all raced to the calm water as soon as then-Commander John Collins signaled the start of the competition. With years of openwater swimming under his belt, it’s then no wonder how Emberson would splash out of the water first.

He would proceed to the second leg of the race using a women’s bicycle which he had borrowed and trained on a few days before the race. Prior to this cycle training, Emberson had no bike experience whatsoever.  But in spite of this, he would manage to complete this portion in 7 hours and 47 minutes.

At the start of the marathon, he changed into a pair of run-of-the-mill running shoes, slogged through the run portion, to finally nab the fourth place, clocking a finish time of 14 hours, 3 minutes, and 25 seconds.

Succeeding Ironman endeavors

Emberson would again join the 1979 Hawaii Ironman and again register an astounding swim time of a little over an hour. Having better training, he managed to complete the Ironman with an overall improved time, finishing 2 hours and 20 minutes earlier than in 1978.

In 1988, he got invited by then-owner of the Hawaii Ironman Valerie Silk to compete in the 10th anniversary of the event. To further illustrate just how much he does not consider the Ironman as a competitive race, he ran the marathon in canvas sneakers. But while this was the case, he managed to finish the race with an even more improved time as compared to his 1978 finish.

Contributions to the openwater swimming arena

Openwater swimming is no doubt Emberson’s first love. Through the years, he would not only serve as race director for the inter-island races which he founded, but he would join in the relay swims too. He’s now busily working in the financial sector, and though he’s relinquished his openwater race director duties to his wife Coco, he still manages to show up at events to inspire the new generation of openwater swimmers.


Ian Emberson

Channelling Greatness


Ian Emberson: From Day One, And Still Today, A Swimmer Extraordinaire