Famous Triathletes: Tom Knoll

Back when the Ironman was conceptualized, folks who heard the idea thought it was outrageous. Who would have thought that years later, it would become such a popular event that even acquiring slots for the race would become difficult. But as with any remarkable event, Hawaii Ironman too started small. Among those who have a significant part in its humble beginnings is Tom Knoll.

Tom Knoll(image via www.the-two-malcontents.com)

Tom Knoll
(image via www.the-two-malcontents.com)

Who is Tom Knoll?

Tom Knoll was with the United States Marine Corps when he got acquainted with triathlon. Prior to his introduction to the sport, he was already very much into running. In his 40s in the early 1970s, Knoll would join younger Marines during their 10-mile lunch runs. He grew so fond of the sport that he would eventually run hundred-mile distances, a discipline which has come to be known as ultrarunning.

Race preparation for first Hawaii Ironman

Knoll, much like fellow original Ironman Dave Orlowski, was among those present during the awarding ceremony of the Oahu Perimeter Relay in 1977 where then-Commander John Collins famously challenged them for a three-part race. Being so used to grueling races, Knoll did not think twice about joining the competition.

As it would turn out, however, it would take quite long for the event to really materialize. But as soon as the go signal for the race was given, Knoll was among those who, without second thought, signed up. And to prepare for the three-discipline event, he would train in all three sports every single day months prior to the scheduled February 18, 1978 race.

Race day of first Hawaii Ironman

Race day of the first ever Ironman couldn’t be more favorable. The sea was calm though the competitors were a little anxious during the first leg for some saw what looked like a shark in the water at the start of the swim. Most of the competitors slogged through the second portion of the race as the majority were not that experienced with the bike. Knoll, for his part, took the swimming and bike legs in a slow but steady pace. Because of this strategy, he performed quite well in the third leg, having the third best finish in the marathon. Overall, he placed sixth, though he was at least a decade older than the other competitors.

Post-Ironman endeavors

After participating in the inaugural Ironman, Knoll returned to his first love – ultrarunning. He would go on to use his unlikely hobby to help raise funds for causes he feels so strongly for. It all started way before the Ironman, actually, when he was asked for a donation by a charity back in 1976. Instead of handing out money, he organized a charity run. He ended up raising $500 for his effort, a sum that was far bigger than he could have ever given upfront.

In 2008, he did the Freedom Run Across America with his son Warren. Fellow original Ironman Dave Orlowski ran with them during the first three days of this endeavor, proceeds of which went to a handful of institutions like the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) co-founded by Bob Babbitt.

In October of that same year, Knoll flew to Kailua Kona to return Orlowski’s support. Orlowski was coming back for the first time to the race after his participation in the 1978 Hawaii Ironman. Orlowski was as well dedicating his run to dear friend Henry Forrest, who at that time, managed to still fly from Georgia to Hawaii though he was already battling pancreatic cancer. Barely a month after this, Forrest sadly succumbed to the dreaded disease.

In 2011, Knoll reached his goal of raising one million dollars for his chosen charitable institutions. But he’s not stopping yet. In fact, he’s preparing for yet another cross-country run scheduled for 2013.

Sources:

Original Ironman Tom Knoll Raises $1 Million for Charity

Original Ironman Tom Knoll

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: Ian Emberson

Hawaii Ironman has become such a renowned event that folks from all walks of life, whether professional triathletes or otherwise, vie for coveted competitor slots year after year. But difficult as it may be to imagine, not everyone who join the race aim to earn a living or even become famous from it. There are actually folks like Ian Emberson who participated in a handful of Ironman races yet did not at all consider the event as a competitive race.

Ian Emberson(image via oceanswims.com)

Ian Emberson
(image via oceanswims.com)

Who is Ian Emberson?

Ian Emberson was born in Caracas in Venezuela. Growing up, he would spend much of his time swimming in the open waters of the West Indies and the Bahamas. He eventually moved with his family to Hawaii due to his father’s job. He would grow very fond of the island, its waters and beaches as well as its people that he would decide to stay in Hawaii for good.

Emberson would found the Maui Channel Swim while still in his early 20s. This event is the only the inter-island openwater relay race in the world to this day. Later on, he would also establish the Maui ‘Aumākua 2.4 Mile Swim and will be largely known to the sporting community because of these two accomplishments. But aside from these achievements, Emberson too, who at the time was working as a restaurant manager for a hotel in Honolulu, belongs to the original twelve finishers of the inaugural Hawaii Ironman.

Race day of the 1978 Hawaii Ironman

The water and weather conditions were favorable on that early Saturday morning in February 18, 1978. Most of the folks who enlisted arrived at the beach start before sunrise. Of the eighteen that originally signed up, three would decide to back out though.

The usual excitement pre-race hung in the air. Loud music was blaring from the speakers of a parked van owned by John Dunbar, one of the competitors. He would later change from his Superman costume to his swim gear as the race start time was nearing.

The fifteen competitors all raced to the calm water as soon as then-Commander John Collins signaled the start of the competition. With years of openwater swimming under his belt, it’s then no wonder how Emberson would splash out of the water first.

He would proceed to the second leg of the race using a women’s bicycle which he had borrowed and trained on a few days before the race. Prior to this cycle training, Emberson had no bike experience whatsoever.  But in spite of this, he would manage to complete this portion in 7 hours and 47 minutes.

At the start of the marathon, he changed into a pair of run-of-the-mill running shoes, slogged through the run portion, to finally nab the fourth place, clocking a finish time of 14 hours, 3 minutes, and 25 seconds.

Succeeding Ironman endeavors

Emberson would again join the 1979 Hawaii Ironman and again register an astounding swim time of a little over an hour. Having better training, he managed to complete the Ironman with an overall improved time, finishing 2 hours and 20 minutes earlier than in 1978.

In 1988, he got invited by then-owner of the Hawaii Ironman Valerie Silk to compete in the 10th anniversary of the event. To further illustrate just how much he does not consider the Ironman as a competitive race, he ran the marathon in canvas sneakers. But while this was the case, he managed to finish the race with an even more improved time as compared to his 1978 finish.

Contributions to the openwater swimming arena

Openwater swimming is no doubt Emberson’s first love. Through the years, he would not only serve as race director for the inter-island races which he founded, but he would join in the relay swims too. He’s now busily working in the financial sector, and though he’s relinquished his openwater race director duties to his wife Coco, he still manages to show up at events to inspire the new generation of openwater swimmers.

Sources:

Ian Emberson

Channelling Greatness

Ironman

Ian Emberson: From Day One, And Still Today, A Swimmer Extraordinaire

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

Famous Triathletes: Judy Collins

Many credit then-Commander John Collins for the creation of Ironman, the most grueling multi-sport competition in the world right now. If not for his wild idea to combine the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the Around Oahu Bike Race, and the Honolulu Marathon in one nonstop race, there wouldn’t be an Ironman in existence.

The unlikely concept for a race may be credited to John Collins, but handling the many aspects of the competition, specifically during the first two staged in 1978 and 1979, may be attributed to Judy Collins.

Who is Judy Collins?

Judy is none other than then-Commander John Collins’ wife. A housewife tending to two teenage kids in the mid 1970s, Judy would still find time to pursue her interest in sports. In fact, joining athletic competitions would become a family affair for the Collinses then, with husband and wife, as well as their two children Michael and Kristin, running in track meets together.

Judy and John Collins(image via www.thepanamanews.com)

Judy and John Collins
(image via www.thepanamanews.com)

Participation in the first modern triathlon

John Collins was in 1974 stationed in San Diego, California. Both avid health buffs, John and Judy would practically be in every masters athletic competition in and around the area, which back then weren’t that many. Having gotten wind of the 1974 Mission Bay Triathlon organized by Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan, the couple eagerly signed up.

Race day was a late Wednesday afternoon on September 25, 1974. Judy, then 35 years old, placed 30th while the Commander was somewhere in the 22nd or 23rd place. Their children Kristin and Michael placed 33rd and 34th, respectively.

Contributions to Hawaii Ironman

The Collins family had to move to the scenic island of Oahu in Hawaii in the late 1970s due to the Commander’s job. In the island, it was not uncommon for families of armed forces personnel stationed there to each take turn to organize athletic competitions.

Having issued the unlikely concept for a race during a 1977 Oahu Perimeter Relay, the Commander would often get asked by those who have heard about it. Finally, in 1978, it was the Collins family’s turn to host an event, and the husband-and-wife team ultimately decided on staging the Ironman.

Preparation for the first Ironman was of course tedious. After disseminating information about the event, Judy helped organize manpower for the upcoming competition. Fortunately, Hank Grundman and Valerie Silk, then-owners of a chain of fitness shops in Hawaii, agreed to extend support.

Then crucial details for the event such as race course, rules, and other guidelines had to be straightened out. Judy was involved in ironing out said aspects. She also assisted in the tedious tasks like assembling trophies from scratch, the design of which was created especially by the Commander.

John Collins took part in the first ever Hawaii Ironman. Judy did not join the race though. Instead, she was her husband’s support crew that day.

Triathlon in Panama

In 1980, the Collinses again had to move for the Commander got assigned back to the mainland United States. Years would pass and the couple would have no idea how popular and successful the event they had conceptualized had become. Though Kristin and Michael would represent the Collins family to a handful of Hawaii Ironman competitions for years to follow, the couple would remain unacquainted of the event’s renown.

In the mid 1990s, John and Judy were already residing in Panama, in the scenic port city of Portobelo in Colon Province. Seeing as how the city was an ideal location for a triathlon, they wasted no time in organizing competitions there. John and Judy assisted in setting up a local triathlon association as well and eventually handed down the race organizing to the said group. In 1997, John and Judy would return to Hawaii Ironman and from then on would serve as ambassadors for triathlon, traveling to other countries to further spread the sport.

Sources:

Triathlon – The Early History Of The Sport

An Officer and a Gentleman – John Collins

Right Time, Right Place. Triathlon’s Roots Run Deep In San Diego.

Famous Triathletes: John Dunbar

The Hawaii Ironman that we have come to love actually has very humble beginnings. Back then, the race was practically humdrum, quite unlike the grandiose event that gets staged today. Competition rules regarding race getup or acceptable hydration beverages were nonexistent as well. But the race, especially the first two conducted in 1978 and 1979, were nonetheless interesting because of some colorful personalities who dared to take the unlikely challenge given by then-Commander John Collins.

Who is John Dunbar?

Dunbar was a 24 year old college student back in 1978. An avid health buff, he would frequently join athletic competitions in Hawaii. A soft-spoken and a good natured fellow, he had no qualms about running in an all-women’s charity race while donning a shirt that read “Token”.

John Dunbar(image via www.triatlet.com)

John Dunbar
(image via www.triatlet.com)

Dunbar was stationed in the island when he became a member of the US Navy SEALS. Having been in this military organization, Dunbar was then no stranger to grueling training. Upon hearing of the race that Commander Collins devised, Dunbar immediately signed up.

Race day of the 1978 Hawaii Ironman

Dunbar was certainly ready to take on the competition though he had been up practically the rest of the night organizing his race supplies. An excellent swimmer, he took to the ocean as soon as then-Commander Collins signaled the start of the race. He would consequently dominate this portion, with an astounding lead of 20 minutes over Gordon Haller, his closest opponent during this leg of the race.

Dunbar would not immediately get to start the bike leg of the competition for he had to first borrow a pair of cycling shorts. Throughout this and the marathon leg, Dunbar would be chased furiously by the older Haller. And the latter would catch up on Dunbar four times, first when he had his legs massaged by his support crew, and second, when he badly needed to make a stop to urinate.

But Dunbar’s prospects of winning first place would soon become dim during the marathon leg. His support crew was somewhere out there lost. Having no one to give him the badly needed hydration, he would slowly deteriorate.

Finally, his support crew found him. But ten miles to the finish line, already quite disoriented from both exhaustion and dehydration, Dunbar’s crew would inform him that his drinking water had run out. Having nothing else but beer in the van, his support crew had no choice but to give him two cans of the alcoholic beverage.

This would prove disastrous for it would worsen Dunbar’s physical condition. He would stumble into parked cars and would accuse his crew of attempting to poison him and sabotaging his race. But he would slog through, and would eventually complete the race 34 minutes after Haller crossed the finish line, thereby securing second place for himself.

Race day of the 1979 Hawaii Ironman

Dunbar was livid for losing the first place to Haller in 1978. So the following year in 1979, he would sign up for the race once more. But he vowed to himself that this would be his last Ironman and so prepared furiously for it.

Race day would be postponed the following day Sunday because of extremely stormy weather. But fans and competitors all the same gathered that Saturday. Dunbar, who is friends with Haller, also a retired Navy, challenged Haller to do the course, just the two of them, one on one.

That Sunday morning, the storm had not completely subsided yet. With the announcement that the race will proceed anyway, Dunbar would gather his swimming trunks from his van with blaring music to change from his Superman costume. The swim leg was particularly perilous, with competitors slicing through six feet high waves. Dunbar would finish third during this leg.

At the bike leg, Dunbar would chase Tom Warren furiously but he’d be overtaken by the only woman competitor that day, Lyn Lemaire. Warren would subsequently finish first in the bike, followed by Lemaire.

At the marathon, Dunbar would chase Warren at high speed. But the older Warren would prevail and Dunbar would complete the course almost 50 minutes after Warren crossed the finish line.

Dunbar, much like Haller and all the other folks who joined the first two Ironman competitions, would remain largely in the background. But Dunbar would continue to be active in the triathlon arena long after even though he vowed that the 1979 race would be his last.

Sources:

Ironman

Famous Triathletes: Lyn Lemaire

The sport of triathlon, specifically the Ironman, has always been dominated by men. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the unlikely concept originated from a close circle of friends and colleagues, led by then-Commander John Collins, a group composed mostly of men. But while this was the case, there are actually a handful of women whose contributions cannot be discounted.

There’s Judy Collins, John’s wife, who assisted the Commander in organizing the first Hawaii Ironman competitions in 1978 and 1979. There’s Valerie Silk as well, who handled the Hawaii Ironman race from 1980 to 1990 and is partly responsible for making the event the most popular triathlon competition in the world.

Female triathletes too have made significant contributions to the sport.

Who is Lyn Lemaire?

Lyn Lemaire, a native of Santa Monica, California, has always been into sports since she was a little kid. In high school, she took interest in swimming. She excelled in the sport and took part in four US national championships while still in high school.

In college, she attended UCLA and took up biochemistry. She took to the sport of basketball this time. Again, she did extremely well in this discipline that she actually played various positions at collegiate games.

In her senior year, she took her bike and did a 1,500-mile cycling trip from Vancouver, Canada all the way to Los Angeles, California. She loved the experience so much that she did the cycling trip again, only this time, she traveled around England and northern Europe. Though she covered a lot of miles on her bike, she did not really consider competing in the sport at first. For one, she thought the sport was “silly” for those who raced needed to train really hard. For another, she did not know of any women who actually did competitive cycling back then.

Then in 1975, Lemaire entered the US National Time Trial Championships and consequently placed second at the 25-mile individual cycling event. The year after, she again qualified for said competition. This time, she placed first and simultaneously set a new record for finishing in an astounding time of 1:00:06.7. The same year in 1976, she qualified for the US National Track Championships and placed third overall for the 3,000-meter track event.

She defended her title in the US National Time Trial Championships the following year in 1977. In 1978, she again took part in said event as well as the US National Track Championships, placing second and third, respectively.

First female to complete an Ironman

Being active in the sporting arena, it did not take long for Lemaire to get wind of the Ironman triathlon held in the island of Oahu. Excelling in all three disciplines included in the Ironman, she was confident that she can conquer this competition as well. So she flew to Hawaii and enlisted for the 1979 Hawaii Ironman race.

1979 Hawaii Ironman

1979 Hawaii Ironman
(image via running.competitor.com)

The race was moved from January 13 to January 14 due to stormy weather. Originally, 28 folks signed up. But thirteen dropped out, one of them a woman, because the bad weather that Sunday morning still hadn’t subsided. This left Lemaire as the only female competitor that day and the first ever since Ironman’s inception a year prior.

Race day at the swim leg, Ian Emberson emerged first. Tom Warren soon splashed out of the water, followed by John Dunbar, Mike Collins, and finally, Lyn Lemaire. Gordon Haller, 1978’s winner, was still left zigzagging in the swells of the ocean for his navigator had to be rescued out of the water.

At the bike leg, Warren was leading the race and he was closely followed by Dunbar. But Lemaire soon gained in on Dunbar. Lemaire managed to maintain top speed at the bike, and was just ten minutes behind Warren. However, she had to stop eight times at the last ten miles due to leg cramps, causing her to finish second in this race.

Though Lemaire had a twenty one minute lead over Dunbar, he soon ran past her at the marathon portion. At 23 miles into the run, she hit the wall from exhaustion. Though it crossed her mind to drop out, she did not. She continued to slog through, eventually finishing the run in 5 hours and 10 minutes, subsequently securing the fifth place finish for herself.

Sources:

Lyn Lemaire

Ironman

The Fifth Best Iron Man Is a Woman, Versatile Lyn Lemaire

US National Time Trial Championships 1975-1981

US National Track Championships

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

Famous Triathletes: Valerie Silk

The unlikely challenge from then-Commander John Collins resulted in none other than the Ironman race. But his idea for the grueling competition did not immediately take off. And if not for the contribution of one woman, this very popular endurance competition would not be where it is today.

Who is Valerie Silk?

Many recognize and acknowledge Valerie Silk as the mother of the Ironman race. But everything about the race would have been entirely different had Silk refused the responsibility of handling the race after John Collin’s departure from Hawaii.

John Collins and Valerie Silk
(image via www.shygiants.com)

Back in the 1970s, Silk and then-husband Hank Grundman were the proud owners of a chain of fitness gyms in Hawaii. The couple inevitably got involved in the dynamic sporting community in the island due to their involvement in said business.

In 1978, the couple worked closely with the Collins family when the latter’s turn to host an athletic competition in the island came up. Silk and then-husband Grundman would grant Gordon Haller a free gym membership and training in preparation for his Ironman race. Pre- and post-race, the couple’s involvement was crucial too as they helped ensure manpower for the inaugural race.

On the third staging of the Ironman in 1980, John Collins and family had to leave Hawaii permanently. This prompted the Commander to find someone who would take over the organization of the Ironman. Having worked with Valerie and Hank for the race, the Commander requested the couple to take over the event upon his leaving.

Silk was reluctant of the responsibility for she already had a lot on her plate, what with handling a chain of fitness clubs. Add to the fact that the prior races used up their resources considerably. But his then-husband was successful in persuading her, and though unwilling at first, she took to heart the handling of the race. She will subsequently become almost solely responsible for the event’s growth during its crucial early years.

Modifications to the race

Silk put into effect changes that would prove to be beneficial for the Ironman race and for the sport of triathlon as a whole.

Transferred to Kona

A key change was the race’s move to the island of Kailua-Kona. Silk’s primary reason for this was safety. With participants increasing in number, the island of Oahu just wasn’t big enough to accommodate a large crowd.

Race month changed

Another modification was moving the race from February to October. Silk was concerned that February was a stormy month. She made the move as a consideration for the athletes as well so that they’d no longer have to train in the winter and subsequently be subjected to Kailua-Kona’s punishing humidity and heat during February.

Set up qualifying races

Silk established the qualifying races for the Ironman race as well. Though this development meant that the organizers won’t accept just about every applicant, the qualifying races helped ensure safety for all the competitors.

Ironman goes professional

1985 was a landmark for Silk as well, for it was during this year that she finally decided for the Ironman to become pro. Leaving behind the amateur race arena meant more sponsors, which was beneficial business-wise for the Hawaiian Triathlon Corporation.

Established the IronKids

Providing the Ironman experience to everyone was one of Silk’s foremost aims. So she put into motion the IronKids Triathlon Series so that children aged 7 to 15 can take part in this life-changing sport as well. Since its inception in 1985, the event has been participated in by thousands of kids. It served as the starting ground for some of the big names in the sport such as Hunter Kemper who won five times, and Lance Armstrong who won twice.

Valerie Silk may have had to relinquish the organization of the Ironman in 1990, but her decade-long run as owner and race director of the event certainly were years well spent.

Sources:
If Valerie Silk Had Gotten Her Way, There May Never Have Been An Ironman

Valerie Silk – USA Triathlon Athlete Profile