The 1978 Hawaii Ironman Triathlon may have only drawn a handful of participants, but it no less proved that a grueling three-sport race is not at all impossible to accomplish. A year after its first staging, Ironman Hawaii was again conducted by the Collins family in 1979.
A day late
The second official Hawaii Ironman Triathlon was supposed to be held on a Saturday, January 13, 1979. However, Commander Collins had to postpone the event for one day due to extremely stormy weather.
Race Day – January 14, 1979
Commander Collins gave the go signal to proceed with the competition the next day, Sunday. However, it didn’t start at 7:00 a.m. as planned. Commander Collins was extremely worried that someone might drown in the turbulent sea. His concern was further raised by the fact that there was only one rescue boat for the swim leg. With the sea still so rough, a veteran Navy officer who volunteered manpower and his sea vessel was unsuccessful in bringing the boat out of the harbor.
High winds were a problem too, and Commander Collins was concerned that the condition might make for an even more stressful bike leg for the participants. All the same, a handful of eager fitness buffs showed up to join. Originally, 28 individuals signed up. However, with the weather having only slightly improved, some backed out leaving only 15 to compete in the race.
Gordon Haller, who placed first during the 1978 Ironman, again joined with the aim of repeating his accomplishment of the prior year. John Dunbar, a college student who placed second in the 1978 Ironman, participated too. Dunbar, wearing a Superman costume that stormy Sunday morning, was dead set on dominating this competition as he vowed this will be his last Ironman. Ian Emberson and Henry Forest, who finished 4th and 7th respectively in the 1978 Ironman, were in attendance too.
Familiar faces from the local athletic crowd weren’t the only ones present. The competition brought together relatively unknown and interesting personalities as well. There was Ken Shirk who spectators referred to as “Cowman,” who donned a fake fur buffalo hat with very prominent cow horns protruding from it. There was Tom Warren as well, a San Diego native who spent $1,000 just to attend the competition in the island state.
The first leg was a perilous passage from the War Memorial Natatorium to the Hilton Channel. Each participant was accompanied by a paddler to serve as navigator. 40 minutes into the swim, Jamie Neely, Haller’s guide, had to be rescued for he was really terrified for his life. This caused Haller the swim leg, finishing only in the 9th place after 112 minutes of zigzagging through the sea for having no guide.
The official results record San Diego native Tom Warren in the 1st place, finishing at 11 hours, 15 minutes, and 56 seconds. John Dunbar came in 2nd, followed by Ian Emberson in the 3rd place. Gordon Haller, due to a disastrous swim, placed 4th overall. In 5th place was 27-year-old Lyn Lemaire from Boston. She was the only female competitor at the time and therefore became the first ever female Ironman finisher.