The Hawaii Ironman that we have come to love actually has very humble beginnings. Back then, the race was practically humdrum, quite unlike the grandiose event that gets staged today. Competition rules regarding race getup or acceptable hydration beverages were nonexistent as well. But the race, especially the first two conducted in 1978 and 1979, were nonetheless interesting because of some colorful personalities who dared to take the unlikely challenge given by then-Commander John Collins.
Who is John Dunbar?
Dunbar was a 24 year old college student back in 1978. An avid health buff, he would frequently join athletic competitions in Hawaii. A soft-spoken and a good natured fellow, he had no qualms about running in an all-women’s charity race while donning a shirt that read “Token”.
Dunbar was stationed in the island when he became a member of the US Navy SEALS. Having been in this military organization, Dunbar was then no stranger to grueling training. Upon hearing of the race that Commander Collins devised, Dunbar immediately signed up.
Race day of the 1978 Hawaii Ironman
Dunbar was certainly ready to take on the competition though he had been up practically the rest of the night organizing his race supplies. An excellent swimmer, he took to the ocean as soon as then-Commander Collins signaled the start of the race. He would consequently dominate this portion, with an astounding lead of 20 minutes over Gordon Haller, his closest opponent during this leg of the race.
Dunbar would not immediately get to start the bike leg of the competition for he had to first borrow a pair of cycling shorts. Throughout this and the marathon leg, Dunbar would be chased furiously by the older Haller. And the latter would catch up on Dunbar four times, first when he had his legs massaged by his support crew, and second, when he badly needed to make a stop to urinate.
But Dunbar’s prospects of winning first place would soon become dim during the marathon leg. His support crew was somewhere out there lost. Having no one to give him the badly needed hydration, he would slowly deteriorate.
Finally, his support crew found him. But ten miles to the finish line, already quite disoriented from both exhaustion and dehydration, Dunbar’s crew would inform him that his drinking water had run out. Having nothing else but beer in the van, his support crew had no choice but to give him two cans of the alcoholic beverage.
This would prove disastrous for it would worsen Dunbar’s physical condition. He would stumble into parked cars and would accuse his crew of attempting to poison him and sabotaging his race. But he would slog through, and would eventually complete the race 34 minutes after Haller crossed the finish line, thereby securing second place for himself.
Race day of the 1979 Hawaii Ironman
Dunbar was livid for losing the first place to Haller in 1978. So the following year in 1979, he would sign up for the race once more. But he vowed to himself that this would be his last Ironman and so prepared furiously for it.
Race day would be postponed the following day Sunday because of extremely stormy weather. But fans and competitors all the same gathered that Saturday. Dunbar, who is friends with Haller, also a retired Navy, challenged Haller to do the course, just the two of them, one on one.
That Sunday morning, the storm had not completely subsided yet. With the announcement that the race will proceed anyway, Dunbar would gather his swimming trunks from his van with blaring music to change from his Superman costume. The swim leg was particularly perilous, with competitors slicing through six feet high waves. Dunbar would finish third during this leg.
At the bike leg, Dunbar would chase Tom Warren furiously but he’d be overtaken by the only woman competitor that day, Lyn Lemaire. Warren would subsequently finish first in the bike, followed by Lemaire.
At the marathon, Dunbar would chase Warren at high speed. But the older Warren would prevail and Dunbar would complete the course almost 50 minutes after Warren crossed the finish line.
Dunbar, much like Haller and all the other folks who joined the first two Ironman competitions, would remain largely in the background. But Dunbar would continue to be active in the triathlon arena long after even though he vowed that the 1979 race would be his last.