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.


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: Early 1900s

Modern triathlon, as we know it today, didn’t appear until the 1970s. However, organized multi-discipline races akin to the sport that we’ve grown to love definitely took place in the United States and in France in the early 1900s. The folks who took part in said races then, though not strictly triathletes, can very well be considered the pioneers of the sport.

Here are a few of those familiar names:

Max Emmerich

Max Philip Emmerich of Inidianapolis, Indiana was both a gymnast and a track and field athlete. He took part in the three-discipline event which consisted of the 100 yard dash, shot put, and long jump during the 1904 Summer Olympics held in St. Louis, Missouri. Emmerich consequently took home the gold for his country USA during this event, which incidentally, was the first ever recorded race that used the term “triathlon”.

Track and field event during the 1904 Summer Olympic Games
(image via sportslistoftheday.com)

John Grieb

Philadelphia native John Grieb was among the sportsmen who participated in the 1904 Summer Olympics. Much like Emmerich, Grieb too was a trained gymnast and track and field athlete. Grieb represented the USA at the athletics triathlon race during said event and placed second overall.

William Merz

Another American, William Merz, participated at the triathlon event during the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri. Merz, too, was trained in the disciplines of track and field and gymnastics like fellow Americans Emmerich and Grieb. William Merz, meanwhile, placed third overall thus cementing the United States’ domination of the triathlon event at the 1904 Summer Olympics.

George Eyser

Another remarkable athlete who took part in the 1904 Summer Olympics was George Eyser. Though he finished last overall at the Games’ triathlon event, Eyser earns the distinction of being the first ever paralympic athlete. Incidentally, triathlon was not the only event Eyser participated in. Donning a prosthetic leg, he joined a handful other gymnastics competitions as well and took home six medals all in one day, three of which were gold. It will take more than 50 years before another athlete with physical disabilities will follow suit and also compete at the Olympic Games.

Lulu Helmet

Triathlon’s appearance at the 1904 Summer Olympics was brief. And there are no accounts of the sport being practiced outside of the Olympic arena. However, in France, this was not the case. In fact, a variety of multi-sport races have been staged in the country, primarily in and around Paris. These races were recorded as early as 1902 and involved the disciplines canoeing, running, and cycling.

These races eventually grew in popularity and more and more commuters in and around Paris started to join. With the growth in the number of participants came some modifications to the sporting events as well. Canoeing was instead replaced with swimming, perhaps to better facilitate the increasing number of competitors.

Including swimming may have been a good move for it drew the support of an established swim club, the Petit Perillon. The association consequently hosted its very own triathlon competition which comprised of a 7K bike leg, a 5K run, and a 200m swim. This particular competition was dominated by a woman named Lulu Helmet, who may just as well be considered the very first female triathlete who won an organized triathlon race.

It is important to note that while the multi-sport competitions in France may have been very similar to the modern version of the sport that we have grown to love, said races are not really considered as formal triathlon events. Even pioneer organizations International Triathlon Union and the USA Triathlon do not regard the French races as the official forerunner of the modern triathlon, and instead credits San Diego, California as the genuine birthplace of the sport.


Max Emmerich

John Grieb

William Merz

La merveilleuse Histoire du Triathlon

History of Triathlon: 2011

2011 was witness to two new world records being made at the Ironman Europe and Hawaii Ironman races. The year also saw crucial milestones occur within the sport’s national governing body USA Triathlon. This year marked the passing of one of the most influential and inspirational masters triathlete as well.

Vanhoenacker sets new Ironman record

Marino Vanhoenacker has been joining duathlons and triathlons since 1997. He tasted his first major success in 2001 when he took 5th place in Ironman Florida. He has been competing regularly except in 2002, and has since won a handful of Ironman and ITU Long Distance Triathlon World Championship titles.

July of 2011 was extra special for Vanhoenacker though for he set a new Ironman record. He clocked an astounding 7 hours, 45 minutes, and 58 seconds at the 2011 Ironman Austria, beating fellow Belgian Luc Van Lierde’s 1997 record by over four minutes.

Death of Charlie Futrell

August 19 of this year marked the death of an inspiring masters triathlete, Charlie Futrell. Futrell, as can be remembered, joined the 1992 Hawaii Ironman, his first ever race in Kailua-Kona. Futrell was 72 years old at that time and was declared 3rd overall and best American finisher for his age group category. Two months prior to his death, Futrell took part in the Central Florida Triathlon Series in Clermont, Florida where he became the oldest person to ever finish a USA Triathlon-sanctioned event. He was 92 years old.

Masters triathlete Charlie Futrell crossing the finish line of the Central Florida Triathlon Series held in Clermont, Florida
(image via www.trijuice.com)

Alexander makes new Hawaii Ironman record

Australian Craig Alexander has been competing in triathlons since 1997. Though largely self-taught in this grueling endurance sport, Alexander managed to win two Hawaii Ironman golds in 2008 and 2009. In 2011, Alexander decided to work with renowned triathlon coach Chris Carmichael. Their collaboration proved highly favorable for it resulted in Alexander setting a new record of 8 hours, 3 minutes, and 56 seconds at the 2011 Hawaii Ironman, beating Luc Van Lierde’s 1996 Hawaii Ironman record.

USA Triathlon celebrates milestones

2011 saw a handful of landmarks for the national governing organization USA Triathlon. At the end of this year, USA Triathlon’s membership was over 140,000. The organization, through the Officials Program it initiated in August 1987, trained and certified race directors and triathlon coaches as well, which totaled to more than 500 and 2,100, respectively, by the year’s end. Lastly, the number of triathlon clubs officially affiliated with the USA Triathlon was close to one thousand by December of this year, further proof of the sport’s continuing growth in the country.


Belgian Man Breaks an Ironman Record

Charles Futrell, 92, journeyed from Laurel High coach to champion triathlete

Craig Alexander

History – USA Triathlon

History of Triathlon: 2010

2010 saw the implementation of crucial procedures to keep the sport of triathlon clean and free from performance-enhancing drug use. The year was also witness to the remarkable performances of elite triathletes as well as the holding of competitions with huge monetary prizes.

ITU initiates anti-doping measures

2010 was the year that saw the commencement of the International Triathlon Union’s Athlete Biological Passport system. The mechanism, which adheres to the standards set by the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA), was set in place to specifically deter blood doping. At least 140 triathletes, most especially those of Olympic qualification level, will now have their blood and urine tested from three to five times within a year to ensure their biological markers are within acceptable levels.

McCormack repeats feat

2010 marked Australian Chris McCormack’s ninth year of racing at the Hawaii Ironman in Kailua-Kona. Though McCormack has proven his mettle with his remarkable 2007 Hawaii Ironman win, many were banking on German Andreas Raelert to dominate the race. Raelert was after all younger and had an impressive third place win at his first ever Hawaii Ironman race in 2009.

On race day, just a few miles to the finish line, McCormack and Raelert were running side by side. McCormack, after cooling off with one of the sponges he tucked in his race jersey, handed said sponge to Raelert, after which they shook hands. At the last aid station, both grabbed drinks. McCormack, however, took this opportunity to outrun his opponent, making it the Aussie’s second Hawaii Ironman gold.

Chris McCormack wins the 2010 Hawaii Ironman
(image via www.everymantri.com)

Bennett dominates ITU and USA Triathlon events

Laura Bennett’s triathlon career spans years. Among Bennett’s most notable competitions was at the 2008 Athens Olympic Games where she missed the bronze medal by a whisker for her country USA.

2010 was a noteworthy year for Bennett as well. She participated in a host of ITU World Championship races and became the best-ranked American finisher and 10th overall. She performed remarkably at a handful of USA Triathlon-sanctioned events as well, during which she grabbed another USA Triathlon elite national title. She was subsequently named the 2010 USA Triathlon Olympic and ITU Athlete of the Year for her achievements during the year.

Even bigger prize purse

The Hy-Vee World Cup is well-known in the triathlon crowd for its substantial monetary prizes. In fact, a total of $700,000 was distributed during its inaugural race in 2007, the biggest prize purse at the time.

Three years later, the Hy-Vee World Cup again became the first ever in the history of triathlon to give a staggering total prize purse of $1 million for a one-day event in 2010.


ITU starts Athlete Biological Passport testing

Chris McCormack

Laura Bennett Athlete Bio

History of Triathlon Timeline

History of Triathlon: 2006

2006 proved to be another dynamic and eventful year for the sport of triathlon. It was when milestones within the national governing body USA Triathlon occurred. The year also saw longtime professional triathletes conquer their goals and be subsequently acknowledged for their achievements. The International Triathlon Union (ITU) undertook measures to shorten its sanctioned races during the year as well.

Kemper given highest recognition by USOC

On April 5, 2006, Hunter Kemper was given the 2005 SportsMan of the Year award by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). This makes Kemper the first ever triathlete to receive the highest recognition given by the USOC.

Hunter Kemper named 2005 SportsMan of the Year by USOC
(image via www.usatriathlon.org)

McCormack records remarkable Hawaii Ironman win

Australian Chris McCormack has been in the sport of triathlon since the mid 90s. In fact, he made himself and his native Australia proud in 1997 after becoming the first ever triathlete to win a gold each from the ITU World Championships and ITU World Cup events all within the same year.

Then a newcomer to the Hawaii Ironman race circuit, McCormack failed to finish at his first attempt at the race in 2002. The following year in 2003, he placed 59th overall. He again made a bid for the top spot in 2004 but unfortunately failed to finish once more.

In 2005, after months of training under Hawaii Ironman great Mark Allen, McCormack managed to finish sixth. Finally in 2006, he grabbed the silver medal after finishing in second, next to German Faris Al-Sultan.

ITU sets in motion shortening of its races

The year saw the International Triathlon Union commence the process to formally shorten the race course of its long established ITU Long Distance Championships.

On August 2006, the proposal to do so was officially stated as among the items to be discussed during the ITU congress in Lausanne in Switzerland the following month.

In the proposal, the ITU Long Distance Championships was recommended to be shortened to 3k-80k-20k from the longtime swim-bike-run distances of 40k-120k-30k. The ITU cited concerns over safety of long distance races such as the Ironman as one of the reasons for the move.

Said recommendation was passed in September by the ITU, though this was not without vehement opposition, particularly from triathletes around the globe who competed in the long distance races of the ITU before.

USA Triathlon celebrates milestones

By the end of the year, USA Triathlon reached more than 80,000 members. This national governing body’s sanctioned races reached more than 1,800 during the year as well, the highest by far since the organization’s founding in 1982.


Chris McCormack

ITU to “distance” itself from ultra racing?


History of Triathlon: 2002

Triathlon competitions have become so popular that races continued to crop up around the globe. As with anything that enjoys such prominence, the sport got inevitably plagued with controversies, like the doping charges lodged against Spencer Smith, and the funds misuse and election fraud allegations against the International Triathlon Union (ITU).

2002 stands out though as controversies were particularly rife during the year.

Triathlon event causes stir

In the beginning of the year, the Lancaster Family YMCA Triathlon made the headlines. The race had been held annually since 1982, with a volunteer group comprising of local fire and police personnel handling the traffic for the event.

Lancaster YMCA Triathlon
(image via www.slowtwitch.com)

However, in 2002, the eight-member volunteer group all voted against working for the race. The organizers of the event had to hurriedly find security help for the race scheduled September 7, 2002.

The disagreement was really over Lancaster Family YMCA’s reading of Harry Potter excerpts to children enrolled in the group’s after-school program. The volunteer security group accused this chapter’s Christian association of not serving the will of God and instead promoting witchcraft.

Instead of dampening the prospects of the fund-raising competition, the controversy it got embroiled in only made it more popular, with over 600 triathletes turning up on race day.

Prestige status for ITU Triathlon World Cup

Discord over race scheduling occurred between the world governing body ITU and the national federation USA Triathlon during the year.

The conflict started when USA Triathlon green-lit the 2002 Lifetime Fitness Triathlon scheduled July 20 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Said race had more than $180,000 USD prize purse.

ITU, on the other hand, had long set the date for its 2002 Corner Brook ITU Triathlon World Cup on July 21. This race, meanwhile, had only $60,000 USD prize purse.

It’s known that triathletes vying for a spot on their respective country’s Olympic triathlon team compete in as many Olympic-qualifying races as they can to earn world ranking points. To differentiate its World Cup event, and to attract more competitors, the ITU then designated its event as a “prestige” race with higher points.

Prior to this, the usual points granted to ITU World Cup top ten placers were: 500 (1st); 463 (2nd); 428 (3rd); 396 (4th); 366 (5th); 339 (6th); 313 (7th); 290 (8th); 268 (9th); and 248 (10th).

With the prestige status of the 2002 Corner Brook ITU Triathlon World Cup, higher points were granted as follows: 750 (1st); 695(2nd); 642 (3rd); 594 (4th); 549 (5th); 509 (6th); 470 (7th); 435 (8th); 402 (9th); 372 (10th), with 20% higher points applying down to the 50th place.

Triathlete disqualified from competing

Kelly Guest, a member of the Triathlon Canada Team, was sent home before the commencement of the 2002 Commonwealth Games. On July 14, Guest’s sample A urine turned up positive for the prohibited performance enhancing drug nandrolone.

Guest, along with coach Paul Regensburg, requested that sample B urine be tested. This too came back positive on July 30, prompting a 2-year competition ban. Guest denied nandrolone use and cited that the nutritional supplements he’d been taking may be what caused the positive drug test result.

Guest placed 2nd during the 2001 Canadian Triathlon Championships, next to the triathlon Olympic gold medalist Simon Whitfield. This made Guest the number-two-ranked Canadian triathlete at the time the doping infraction was handed out.


Potter books cause stir in Pennsylvania Town

This Week’s Sign of the Apocalypse

Lancaster Family YMCA Triathlon

Olympics article archive

Team Canada send triathlete home

Triathlete tests positive

Triathlete Guest’s positive doping test confirmed

‘Unstable urine’ doesn’t answer doping case

History of Triathlon: 1999

Preparations for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games were already in full swing in 1999. In the meantime, the sanctioning body that has been greatly instrumental in finally getting triathlon approved by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) celebrated a crucial milestone during the year. Controversies around the sport’s drug testing mechanisms arose in 1999 as well.

10th anniversary of the ITU

The International Triathlon Union or ITU was established in April of 1989 by 30 triathlon-representing nations. Since the sport did not have an official international governing body, which in turn was preventing it from achieving medal status in the Olympics, the ITU was formed to consolidate all efforts towards triathlon’s inclusion in the Olympic program. ITU’s principal thrust has been achieved with triathlon finally getting included in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.

Team USA chooses triathlete to carry the flag

In July 1999, Team USA met to determine who will carry the country’s flag during the Opening Ceremonies of the 13th Pan American Games. Team USA athletes nominate their choice and captains from each sport then cast their respective votes. That year, the honor went to Karen Smyers.

Triathlete Karen Smyers was USA’s flag-bearer during the Opening Ceremonies of the 13th Pan American Games
(image via enduranceplanet.com)

Smyers, as can be remembered, took home the gold for the United States during triathlon’s first appearance in the Pan American Games in 1995. And on July 23, 1999, Smyers led the 704-strong Team USA during the games’ opening ceremonies in the Winnipeg Stadium, now known as the Canad Inns Stadium in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Controversy over Ironman disqualification

It was not until 1985 that Hawaii Ironman became a professional competition wherein elite athletes could compete for prize money. And until the Ironman brand got sold to the now-owner of the race World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) in 1990, there was no drug testing mechanism in place.

Fast-forward to 1998 when England’s Spencer Smith competed in the Hawaii Ironman, who placed 5th overall in the USA Triathlon-sanctioned race. Prior to the race, Smith underwent a routine drug testing as required by the International Triathlon Union (ITU), the international governing body to which the USA Triathlon is affiliated.

Smith was informed by his national federation, the British Triathlon Association (BTA), that the lab results for his Sample A urine turned up positive for nandrolone, a prohibited performance enhancing drug. Sample B, which was taken on the same day as Sample A, was then tested on December 1998. This came up positive as well, prompting the USA Triathlon to finally disqualify him.

On March 29, 1999, Smith appeared before the BTA’s Disciplinary Panel to appeal the case. Smith won this and the BTA dismissed USA Triathlon’s charges of doping for lack of evidence.

USA Triathlon then appealed to the ITU Appeals Board on June 9, 1999, citing that the BTA cannot interfere with the case as the 1998 Hawaii Ironman which Smith competed in was not under BTA’s jurisdiction.

Smith then sought assistance from the Supreme Court of British Colombia, citing, firstly, that the USA Triathlon’s charges and subsequent appeals were baseless. Secondly, that the ITU Doping and Appeals Board cannot hear the case as it is not under their jurisdiction. All the same, on September 21, 1999, a three-person panel from ITU Doping and Appeals Board met, and dismissed USA Triathlon’s appeal for lack of evidence.

The USA Triathlon, citing section 5.11 of ITU’s Doping Control Rules which states “An athlete or National Federation that loses a hearing or an appeal to the ITU Executive Board Doping Hearings and Appeal Board has the right to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport”, then filed an appeal with the Lausanne, Switzerland-based CAS to validate the offence and therefore mete out the two-year competition ban on Smith.


History of Triathlon Timeline

Karen Smyers’ Career Highlights

Flag Bearer “Crushed” By Selection

If Valerie Silk Had Gotten Her Way, There May Never Have Been an Ironman

Ironman World Championship: Drug Testing For Dummies

Spencer Smith article archive

Collection of Sports-Related Case-Law