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: 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: 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

History of Triathlon: 1979

The 1978 Hawaii Ironman Triathlon may have only drawn a handful of participants, but it no less proved that a grueling three-sport race is not at all impossible to accomplish. A year after its first staging, Ironman Hawaii was again conducted by the Collins family in 1979.

A day late

The second official Hawaii Ironman Triathlon was supposed to be held on a Saturday, January 13, 1979. However, Commander Collins had to postpone the event for one day due to extremely stormy weather.

Race Day – January 14, 1979

Commander Collins gave the go signal to proceed with the competition the next day, Sunday. However, it didn’t start at 7:00 a.m. as planned. Commander Collins was extremely worried that someone might drown in the turbulent sea. His concern was further raised by the fact that there was only one rescue boat for the swim leg. With the sea still so rough, a veteran Navy officer who volunteered manpower and his sea vessel was unsuccessful in bringing the boat out of the harbor.

High winds were a problem too, and Commander Collins was concerned that the condition might make for an even more stressful bike leg for the participants. All the same, a handful of eager fitness buffs showed up to join. Originally, 28 individuals signed up. However, with the weather having only slightly improved, some backed out leaving only 15 to compete in the race.

Starting line of the 1979 Hawaii Ironman Triathlon (image via arkansasoutside.com)

Familiar Faces

Gordon Haller, who placed first during the 1978 Ironman, again joined with the aim of repeating his accomplishment of the prior year. John Dunbar, a college student who placed second in the 1978 Ironman, participated too. Dunbar, wearing a Superman costume that stormy Sunday morning, was dead set on dominating this competition as he vowed this will be his last Ironman. Ian Emberson and Henry Forest, who finished 4th and 7th respectively in the 1978 Ironman, were in attendance too.

Familiar faces from the local athletic crowd weren’t the only ones present. The competition brought together relatively unknown and interesting personalities as well. There was Ken Shirk who spectators referred to as “Cowman,” who donned a fake fur buffalo hat with very prominent cow horns protruding from it. There was Tom Warren as well, a San Diego native who spent $1,000 just to attend the competition in the island state.

Results

The first leg was a perilous passage from the War Memorial Natatorium to the Hilton Channel. Each participant was accompanied by a paddler to serve as navigator. 40 minutes into the swim, Jamie Neely, Haller’s guide, had to be rescued for he was really terrified for his life. This caused Haller the swim leg, finishing only in the 9th place after 112 minutes of zigzagging through the sea for having no guide.

The official results record San Diego native Tom Warren in the 1st place, finishing at 11 hours, 15 minutes, and 56 seconds. John Dunbar came in 2nd, followed by Ian Emberson in the 3rd place. Gordon Haller, due to a disastrous swim, placed 4th overall. In 5th place was 27-year-old Lyn Lemaire from Boston. She was the only female competitor at the time and therefore became the first ever female Ironman finisher.

Sources:

Ironman

Historical Triathlon Results – 1978

Historical Triathlon Results – 1979