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.
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.
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.
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.