Famous Triathletes: Tom Warren

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.

Tom Warren

Tom Warren
(image via www.digplanet.com)

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.

Sources:

Ironman

Famous Triathletes: Gordon Haller

The Ironman triathlon finally got staged in 1978. Though it was only contested by 15 folks, three of whom unfortunately failed to complete the course, this competition will forever be remarkable for it is where some of the legends of triathlon came from.

Who is Gordon Haller?

Gordon Haller was then a 27 year old fitness enthusiast. A graduate of Physics from the Pacific University, Haller joined the US Navy as a Communications Specialist. He would later retire and do an assortment of jobs while in Hawaii.

In 1978, Haller was a taxi cab driver working the night shift. During the day, he would sleep and wake up past noon to do his workouts which would usually be running, cycling, or swimming. He’d then have a nap before going back to work.

Haller would often join local athletic competitions in the island, which back then, weren’t that many. At the Honolulu Marathon in 1978, Haller signed up along with a friend. But midway through the race, his foot injury acted up. Figuring he wouldn’t be able to do his usual fast pace, he decided to drop out as an official entrant. Still, he wanted to accompany his friend all the way through the course. Haller was at the local bike shop waiting for his friend to emerge. That’s when he overheard the shop owner talk about the dare then-Commander John Collins made.

Haller immediately thought that, indeed, he definitely can do this type of race. After all, he was already training in swimming, running, and cycling. The only difference is that this time, all three disciplines will have to be done continuously.

First ever Ironman triathlon

Haller was quite confident for aside from his usual workout routine, he’d been offered free training by the Nautilus Fitness Club in preparation for the race, courtesy of then-owners Hank Grundman and Valerie Silk.

Race day was on February 18, 1978 at the island of Oahu. Of the eighteen that had originally confirmed, only fifteen would proceed to start the race. After splashing out of the water, Haller proceeded to a nearby hotel to take a shower and change into his bike getup.

He then hopped on a borrowed high-geared bike. He had to switch to his trusty Raleigh tour bike which he normally uses to go to work when he reached the steep hills for the other bike became too difficult to pedal.

All the way through the two legs, Haller would be chasing John Dunbar, a college student who was his toughest opponent. Haller caught on Dunbar when the latter was having his legs massaged. He got past him too when Dunbar stopped to urinate. Surely he must be faster than this younger fellow for he kept catching up on him, Haller thought.

Gordon Haller and John Dunbar
(image via blog.naver.com)

Lastly, at the final leg of the race, Dunbar started to crumble from heat exhaustion and dehydration. Though his support crew finally found him after getting lost, their water supply for Dunbar had run out. Having no water to give him, they handed him beer, which Dunbar thirstily downed. He’d later become delirious, stumbling at parked cars.

Haller was meanwhile gunning it to the finish line. He mustered all his strength and completed the remaining 5 miles in astounding 31 minutes, finishing officially at 11 hours, 46 minutes, and 58 seconds. Dunbar would finish second at 12 hours and 20 minutes.

Second Ironman triathlon

The 1979 Ironman triathlon was fraught with logistical issues. Then-Commander Collins even had to move the race a day later because of extremely bad weather. The seas were perilously high making it impossible for a seasoned Navy officer to steer his sea vessels which he volunteered for the race out of the harbor. With only one rescue boat, thirteen of the original twenty eight competitors dropped out.

Haller was one of the brazen souls who would continue. He plunged into the high seas along with his navigator Jamie Neely. Unfortunately, Neely had to be rescued, leaving Haller without a guide in the ocean. This caused him his race, taking him almost two hours to swim back to the beach.

Tom Warren, a San Diego native, would snag the first place. John Dunbar, who donned a Superman costume during the race, and Ian Emberson, finished second and third respectively. Due to a disastrous swim, Haller would finish fourth.

Haller would continue to join triathlons and marathons, even flying to other countries like New Zealand just to do so. But unlike younger contemporaries who have enjoyed generous coverage for their athletic pursuits, Haller would remain in the background. But though this was the case, he’d successfully earned the distinction of being the first ever Ironman in history.

For a great podcast interview with Gordon Haller, visit the “Legends of Triathlon” podcast.

Sources:

Gordon Haller

Original Ironman still racing hard

Ironman

Ironman’s first champ, Gordon Haller, looks back 25 years

Competitor Radio interview with Gordon Haller