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

History of Triathlon: 1980

The 1979 Hawaii Ironman Triathlon was fraught with logistical problems due to stormy weather during competition day. But while this was the case, the event will long be recognized as one of the most important in the history of triathlon as it was instrumental in further bringing the sport to the public.

Ironman on Sports Illustrated

The 1980 Hawaii Ironman Triathlon saw entries increase almost tenfold, thanks to an in-depth article about the 1979 Ironman which got featured on Sports Illustrated. Columnist Barry McDermott was on assignment to cover a golf tournament in Hawaii. Having heard of the upcoming three-sport race, he proceeded to the island of Oahu to document the event.  Entries increased to 108 in 1980 from a meager 15 the year prior after McDermott’s piece on the influential magazine appeared.

This picture is part of ‘Ironman” by Barry McDermott, article published in Sports Illustrated May 14, 1979. (image via tri247.com.au)

John Collins posted from Hawaii

By this time, the Collins family was in the process of packing up all of their belongings as Commander Collins got a transfer order. Commander Collins, aware that he will no longer be able to organize the 1980 event as well as the succeeding competitions, had to look for someone to take over his place.

He convinced Hank Grundman, the owner of two fitness clubs in the area, to take on the task. Commander Collins handed Grundman the “race box”, a shoe box used to store the entries. Commander Collins, when prompted by Grundman about what he wished in exchange for handing over the race, said that he wanted slots to always be reserved for ordinary folks, and that his family could always participate. Grundman then entrusted the race box to his then-wife Valerie Silk for safekeeping.

Television Coverage

Incidentally, among the dozen entries was a letter from ABC Sports. To secure the right to document the race, the show called Commander Collins well ahead of the staging of the third Ironman. The Commander agreed on the condition that the arrangement won’t cost him any money, and that ABC will bring its own equipment and crew.

Familiar Faces in the Crowd

Much like the second Ironman, this race in 1980 brought together longtime local athletes as well as prominent triathletes from around the country. There was Gordon Haller, the title holder for the first ever Ironman in 1978. Henry Forest and Ian Emberson, who both participated in the two prior races, were in attendance too. Tom Warren, the San Diego native who took the 1979 Ironman title, came back to compete as well. Ken Shirk, better known as “Cowman” for his quirky race getup, joined too.

Dave Scott won the 1980 Hawaii Ironman Triathlon. Furthermore, the competition was participated in not only by Americans, but by Australians as well. The race is not only crucial for having gained coverage from a major television network, but because it is the first Ironman event that attracted international participants.

Sources:

An Officer and a Gentleman – John Collins

History of Ironman

Ironman Triathlon