The Ironman triathlon did not immediately become popular. In fact, its first staging in 1978 was fairly unexciting and the competition went rather unnoticed. Except for a short piece in a Honolulu paper about the race which was won by Gordon Haller, not much media coverage was dedicated to it. But the multi-sport arena will forever be changed when sports journalist Barry McDermott decides to cover the 1979 Hawaii Ironman and its winner Tom Warren.
Who is Tom Warren?
Tom Warren, a native of San Diego, California, was a 35 year old fitness fanatic during the late 70s. Back in his native San Diego, Warren managed Tug’s Tavern, a business he’d owned for 10 years. A popular hangout among locals, it featured a bar on one floor where Warren would be every night serving the regulars himself. On another floor was a health club complete with its own sauna and a whirlpool bath, as well as weight machines.
Living in San Diego which had a bustling sporting community, it was inevitable for Warren to hear of the Ironman event held in Hawaii. In 1979, he packed his gear and spent $1,000 to travel to the island of Oahu.
Eve of the 1979 Hawaii Ironman
Race day was supposed to be on a Saturday, January 13, 1979. However, Then-Commander John Collins decided to postpone it to Sunday, January 14, to allow for the stormy weather to subside.
That Saturday night, fans as well as participants of the Ironman all gathered at the welcome dinner. The fans’ attention was all focused on Haller and John Dunbar, who during the 1978 competition, raced against each other furiously to the finish line.
Among those who gathered was Barry McDermott, a journalist for the Sports Illustrated Magazine. McDermott was originally in Hawaii to cover a golf tournament in Honolulu. Having gotten wind of the upcoming Ironman, McDermott decided to stay and see the race for himself. Warren, on the other hand, having only joined in 1979, and the fact that he was an unknown in Hawaii’s sporting community, was not given any notice.
Race Day of the 1979 Hawaii Ironman
With the storm not having fully subsided, the participants gathered at the starting line at the beach. Incidentally, thirteen dropped out leaving only fifteen of the original twenty eight who signed up.
It was 27 year old Ian Emberson who got out of the water first. Warren soon followed after four minutes. John Dunbar would follow immediately after, staggering from exhaustion and cold. Haller, the original Ironman, would be left zigzagging in the ocean for nearly two hours after his navigator had to be rescued out of the violent seas.
During the cycling leg, Warren would overtake Emberson, an exceptional swimmer but quite inexperienced at cycling. Warren’s closest rival during the second portion of the race was Lyn Lemaire, the first ever woman to compete in the Ironman and the only female during this particular event. Warren would go so fast that his support crew of two would have difficulty chasing after him.
Warren ditched his bike at the finish line of the second leg and immediately took to running. Certainly no stranger to marathons, he had run from his native San Diego to Tijuana, Mexico and then back just for the fun of it.
As Warren slogged through, a local marathoner Johnny Faerber would join in and offer the former encouragement. But Warren didn’t really need this, for he’d already decided that he’d win the race. Having only eaten a piece of roll and a fresh orange, he plodded through, though the pain in his legs was becoming more severe. Finally, he reached the finish line in 11 hours, 15 minutes, and 56 seconds, to the astonishment of a group of spectators who had been waiting to see who would lead the race – Haller or Dunbar.
Dunbar would come in second, followed by Emberson at third, and Haller at fourth place. After the race, Haller and Warren would set off to relax in a Jacuzzi and exchange stories about their training regimen until midnight. Warren soon got hungry so he tried to find someone to accompany him. But no one was strong enough yet after the grueling race. So Warren set off on his own at 1:30 a.m. to look for a place he could grab some really early morning breakfast.
Tom Warren, the unknown San Diego native who conquered the second Ironman triathlon, would be featured heavily by journalist Barry McDermott in his article with the Sports Illustrated Magazine, which incidentally, was the first ever coverage of the race by the mainstream media.