Famous Triathletes: Ken Shirk

Hawaii Ironman has always been a special race. It is one of the few athletic events that truly test a person’s endurance and resolve. Year after year too, Hawaii Ironman is graced by colorful personalities such as the ultramarathon runner everyone refers to as “Cowman”.

Cownman with Scott Tinley at the 1985 Hawaii Ironman(image via bbke.blogspot.com)

Cowman and Scott Tinley at the 1985 Hawaii Ironman
(image via bbke.blogspot.com)

Who is Cowman?

Born Kenneth Ivan Shirk, Cowman got into sports at a tender age. In high school, he excelled in tennis, basketball and swimming and got handed the All Round Sportmanship Award at his high school graduation.

In college, he took up associate arts and dabbled in artistic pursuits such as creating murals and assisting in setting up theater stages. He joined the cross-country team too where he got started in running. He tried skiing as well and as can be expected, excelled in said sport eventually. To help in his schooling, he got into construction work and while at it joined a labor union as well.

When unrest in Vietnam arose, he decided to join the US Army National Guard. He did so because he didn’t want to be conscripted to Southeast Asia to kill people, saying he’d rather “defend my country here at home”.

Pioneer trail runner

Cowman ran his first ever marathon race in 1967. Around that same year, he decided to pursue a different a path and lived in the mountains instead. He moved north of Lake Tahoe where he stayed in a log cabin, chopped his own firewood, did his own fishing, and kept a horse for recreational riding.

His new residence in the mountains did not stop him from pursuing his love for sports. Ever the athlete, he ran the wilderness trails when the weather permitted. During the winter, he would ski too, all while working in the construction industry and serving as a volunteer fireman.

In 1976, Shirk ran the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, becoming the second man, after close pal Gordon Ainsleigh, to have completed the challenging course on foot.

How he became Cowman

During America’s bicentennial in 1976, he wanted to celebrate big by painting his whole body red, white, and blue and streaking through the streets. He added a pair of bovine horns fastened to a helmet to his getup and then ran naked. From then on, he got called “Cowman” and has since been joining various races using the moniker.

Ironman endeavors

1979 was Cowman’s first ever participation in Hawaii Ironman. Though his bovine horns weighed at least 3 pounds, he wore them through the rest of the course, even through the swim leg. As can be remembered, this race was the first ever Ironman that got featured in mainstream print media via Sports Illustrated, an influential sports magazine.

Cowman was featured in the Barry McDermott article along with 1979 winner Tom Warren, 1979 runner-up John Dunbar, 1978 winner Gordon Haller, the first ever female Ironman Lyn Lemaire, and notable pioneer triathletes like Ian Emberson and Henry Forrest.

As Hawaii Ironman got bigger and bigger, changes to the competitive and race rules became inevitable. Cowman, unwavering in his horn-wearing tradition, eventually got disqualified from entering USA Triathlon-sanctioned events. Even so, he would still run the Hawaii Ironman and may actually be the only person to have participated all races since 1979 both officially and unofficially.

Other race endeavors

Cowman eventually moved to Hawaii. He has since been joining races around the scenic island. In fact, he is one of the four runners to have joined all the Big Island International Marathon, otherwise known as the Hilo Marathon, since the event’s inception in 1997. Though nearing 70 years old, he still travels to the mainland United States to join dear friend Gordon Ainsleigh during the annual Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.

Sources:

Ken Shirk

Western States pioneers are still running strong

Think Dennis Rodman is wild and Jerome Bettis is tough? You need to get out more

“Cowman A-Moo-Ha”

Big Island’s “Final Four” doing BIIM’s Early Bird

Ironman Hawaii 1979 Official Results

Famous Triathletes: Dave Orlowski

Triathlon is arguably the most heavily participated sport today. Its founders Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan certainly didn’t expect the sport to take off that successfully. After all, their main aim for staging the first modern triathlon was just to provide some variety to their track trainings. Even Hawaii Ironman creator John Collins was astonished with how popular the event has become.

Much like the above mentioned founders, the original Ironman competitors like Dave Orlowski (who now races for Team Timex) surely did not foresee that the fledgling sport he participated in 1978 would become the much anticipated event that it is today.

Dave Orlowski(image via www.slowtwitch.com)

Dave Orlowski
(image via www.slowtwitch.com)

Who is Dave Orlowski?

A fitness enthusiast in his early 20s, Dave Orlowski found his way to the scenic island of Hawaii due to his job with the Marine Corps. In 1977, Orlowski was among the huge crowd that attended the awards ceremony of the Oahu Perimeter Relay. He would overhear the friendly argument over which athlete was fittest: the swimmer, the runner, or the cyclist.

Orlowski was present too when then-Commander Collins took to the stage during the intermission to issue the unlikely challenge to the crowd. Most laughed, but not Orlowski. In fact, he would go on to face up to this dare and become one of the original twelve finishers of the first ever Hawaii Ironman.

Race preparation for first Hawaii Ironman

As it would turn out, it would take months from the day then-Commander Collins issued the dare for the race to actually come into fruition. If not for the prodding of friends and colleagues, Hawaii Ironman would not have been staged in 1978.

But as soon as the 22-year old Orlowski knew that the event was a go, he immediately proceeded to get ready for the race. His training regimen consisted of regular running. An excellent swimmer specializing in distance events, he did two or three times of swimming weekly in the Marine Corps base as well, with each session totaling one to two miles.

A week prior to the event, Orlowski was lent a Sears Free Spirit bicycle by a fellow Marine. He trained on the equipment though rode no more than 30 miles on it. He figured that he had ridden a bicycle as a kid, so perhaps he won’t have such a hard time on the bike come race day.

For the support crew, Orlowski was able to solicit the help of fellow Marines. A vehicle was arranged as well to accompany him, dear friend Henry Forrest, as well as another Marine competitor throughout the course.

1978 Hawaii Ironman recollections

The weather that early Saturday morning in February 18, 1978 was very favorable. With hardly any ripples in the sea, the fifteen competitors took to the water to start the first leg of the race. Some competitors got nervous though for they spotted what seemed to be a shark in the clear water, which a mile into the swim later disappeared.

Prior to starting the bike leg, Orlowski changed into his bike and run gear – a pair of cut-off denim shorts. Figuring there’d be no definite time when he’d see the support vehicle, he needed somewhere to put his money so that he could easily stop at stores along the course to buy his nourishment. So he cut a good pair of blue jeans to have something to wear with pockets in them.

Fairly inexperienced with the bike, the second portion of the race was difficult for him. But he slogged through and finished the 122-mile ride. At the marathon, he resorted to walking for he couldn’t find his legs. Four miles into the run, he got his stride back. Through the bike and run legs, he would stop at gas stations and a McDonald’s to get himself some food.

As he was cresting Diamond Hill, his leg cramps started to become very severe that he needed to hold at the guardrails along the road just so he could heave himself up. Then his support crew showed up and from it emerged his parents who flew to Oahu just to see him race. It turned out this was all the motivation he needed. He found his strength again and from there basically ran the entire length to the finish line. He would subsequently place third, clocking in a time of 13 hours, 39 minutes, and 13 seconds.

Sources:

Original Ironman Dave Orlowski

Ironmanlife: Dave Orlowski Remembers Henry Forrest

Famous Triathletes: Frank Day

The inaugural Hawaii Ironman may have only been attended by fifteen people, but the twelve who have managed to complete the grueling race have earned the distinction of being the original Ironmen. One of these twelve brazen folks is Frank Day.

Frank Day(image via www.slowtwitch.com)

Frank Day
(image via www.slowtwitch.com)

Who is Frank Day?

Frank Day served in the United States Navy for five years as a nuclear engineer and later as a medical doctor to a destroyer squadron in the late 1970s. While studying medicine in the US Naval Academy, Day along with his fellow students would be made to run the track competitions in the island like the Honolulu Marathon. This is so they would have firsthand experience as to the rigors of exercise and therefore be more efficient at helping heart attack survivors as well as sedentary patients on how to work out safely. Since then, Day had gotten the running bug and would never fail to squeeze in running even during his busy work week in the US Navy.

Race preparation

Day was unable to find a house that would be of comfortable running distance from his office in the Pearl Harbor naval shipyard. He bought a bike to ride it to and from work instead. While cycling from home one late afternoon, he heard a brief advertisement on the radio about a race that would include the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, The Around-Oahu Bike Race, and the Honolulu Marathon in one nonstop competition.

The 33-year old Day immediately thought the concept was outrageous. But while cycling back home, he had time to ponder the idea, thinking that he might just be able to do it after all. So upon reaching home, he called the radio station that ran the ad and got the contact number of the fellow in-charge of the race.

As it turns out, that person would be John Collins, who like Day, was an officer of the US Navy as well. In fact, they worked in adjacent buildings in the Pearl Harbor naval shipyard. So Day went to see Collins the day after and the latter would be successful in convincing Day to join the first Ironman race.

Day was no stranger to running grueling marathons. He was knowledgeable at the bike too, though his rides were no longer than 10 miles each time. To convince himself that he would be able to manage the first leg of the race, he did a mile of swimming in a local pool.

Race day of the first Hawaii Ironman

The early morning start of the inaugural Ironman was just right. The water was calm, with barely any ripples in the sea. Ian Emberson would splash out of the water first, followed by Tom Warren and John Dunbar. Upon finishing this portion of the race, Day would take a 20-minute shower afterwards before starting the bike leg. Twenty miles into the race, Day would pass by Henry Forrest, who was struggling with the gears of his borrowed bike.

Day started the marathon in quite fantastic shape. But ten miles into the run, he would start to feel really exhausted yet his support crew would push him on. At mile twelve of the marathon, Day decided to stop at a McDonald’s and he fetched himself the largest drink. Forrest would run past while Day was resting.

After about 30 minutes, he would recover and run the succeeding four miles, and essentially walk the remaining thirteen miles to the finish line. Day finished eighth overall, after Henry Forrest who on the other hand nabbed the seventh place.

Post-Ironman endeavors

Frank Day would enlist in the 1979 Hawaii Ironman, hoping to finish in 12 hours or less. But stormy weather plagued this second Ironman, and his bike wheels would flatten twice during the second leg. But he took on the marathon all the same, though he had lost valuable time already. Eventually though, he would decide to officially drop out for he saw it was impossible to attain his target, plus his support crew needed to work the following day.

Day did not race in the Hawaii Ironman again after his DNF in 1979. But he would continue to be active in the multi-sport arena long after. Utilizing his engineering and medical backgrounds, he would proceed to invent the PowerCranks, a tool which can help improve an athlete’s performance on the bike.

Sources:

Original Ironman Henry Forrest

Frank Day recalls Ironman 1978

Memories of ’78: Original Ironman Frank Day Can’t Throw It Away

Famous Triathletes: Henry Forrest

The Hawaii Ironman is undoubtedly one of the most special multi-sport races in the world right now. And this isn’t only because it’s a grueling competition, but more so because of the folks who take part in it year after year. Each has a rousing story or two of perseverance. And one of the folks that have a particularly inspiring Hawaii Ironman tale is Henry Forrest.

Henry Forrest(image via www.slowtwitch.com)

Henry Forrest
(image via www.slowtwitch.com)

Who is Henry Forrest?

In the late 1970s, Henry Forrest was working with the Marine Corps and was stationed in the island of Oahu. A fitness enthusiast who would run to and from work, Forrest would practically be in every athletic competition held in the island, which back then were held mostly during the weekends. Forrest’s triathlon pursuits would later be known worldwide because of his participation in the first ever Hawaii Ironman in 1978.

Race preparation

Forrest would not have heard of the unlikely race had it not been for his wife Lou. Upon seeing a press release in the local paper detailing the grueling competition conceptualized by then US Navy Commander John Collins, Lou immediately informed his husband about it.

Henry’s reaction was one of surprise, saying that the concept was crazy. His wife encouraged him all the same. He later changed his mind though, thinking that he might just be able to do the race. After all, he was quite an excellent runner, and he did some swimming with the Marine Corps as well. Now, his only problem would be to teach himself again how to ride a bike for he has not ridden one since junior high school. Though his friends disagreed about his intention to participate in the race later on, he would proceed to preparing for the Ironman.

He sought the help of friends and colleagues to acquire a bike. Days prior to the race, an officer of the Marine Corps informed him that he had a 10-speed bike Forrest could borrow. The wicker basket at the front and the child seat at the back had to be removed though. He familiarized himself with the gears and did some training on the bike days before.

His plan was simple. He just needed to get through the swim portion and struggle through the bike leg. After these, he should have no trouble with the marathon, he thought.

Race day of the first Hawaii Ironman

Forrest and his support crew Lou and Nolan, a friend, got to the starting line at the beach at dawn. Participants and spectators soon started to pour in, and those who didn’t know him mistook his name as Henry Forrester, for when introduced, he would say “Henry Forrest, sir” briskly.

At the swim leg, he wore his running shorts and alternated freestyle, breaststrokes and backstrokes and got through fairly all right. After emerging from the water, he didn’t bother to change his wet shorts for he didn’t have a pair anyway. Besides, he thought this would lessen his transition time. He donned his running shoes, again thinking that doing so would reduce his transition time later, and immediately started the bike leg.

Though unskilled with the bike, he didn’t think it would be hard. After all, he would be sitting all the way through. But not knowing how to manipulate the gears was disastrous for it only made his ride at the steep portions of the course much harder. But he pedaled through and eventually completed this portion.

Once at the marathon leg, his spirits were up. Finally, he was at the last leg, and he was good at it. But perhaps due to the unfamiliar pedaling movements he made earlier, his body felt quite uncoordinated at the start of the run. But he ran mechanically, and one mile into the marathon, he felt his stride come back. He ran through the dark streets amid the light rain.

As he was nearing the finish line, he thought maybe there’d be crowds of people to cheer him on his triumph. But as he reached it, there were only three, Lou and Nolan, and a race official with a stop watch, waiting for him in the dark. He’d finished in 15 hours, 30 minutes, and 14 seconds, placing 7th overall.

Henry Forrest would go on to complete 6 Ironman races. In his later years, though he was no longer a competitor, he would be in the races to cheer on the participants. In 2007, he was diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas and would succumb to the disease on November 6, 2008.

The Ironman didn’t turn professional until the latter part of the 1980s. There weren’t big cash prizes at the first few years of the competition. But this didn’t stop men like Henry Forrest from chasing their athletic pursuits and consequently inspire other regular folks to conquer their dreams.

Sources:

Original Ironman Henry Forrest

Ironman Pioneer Henry Forrest Passes Away

Ironman