"They had no idea at the time that they were starting a huge phenomenon that changed so many people’s lives."
A pair of filmmakers are working to raise money to tell the epic story of the first-ever 140.6-mile triathlon.
It’s been 40 years since 15 intrepid (and perhaps slightly crazy) souls took on the seemingly unthinkable task of swimming 2.4 miles in the Pacific Ocean, cycling 112 miles around the Hawaiian island of Oahu, and then trudging through a full 26.2-mile marathon to complete the first Ironman triathlon.
What started as a challenge from U.S. Navy Commander John Collins to settle the debate of which athletes were the most fit—swimmers, cyclists or runners—would become a catalyst for the rise of triathlon and ultra-distance endurance sports around the world, especially after Sports Illustrated published a 10-page story on the second Ironman race in 1979.
Now two ambitious filmmakers have embarked on the epic endeavor of capturing the historic inaugural Ironman in a documentary.
Andy Hendrickson a professional comedian, writer, and actor with a background in journalism, is spearheading an Indiegogo fundraising campaign to create a film called “The Original Ironmen,” which will tell the story of that inaugural race in 1978 and also highlight the journey of original finishers Dave Orlowski and Gordon Haller as they compete in the 2018 Ironman World Championship on Oct. 13 in Kona. Hendrickson’s dad, Dan Hendrickson, was one of the finishers of that original Ironman race.
If they reach their $35,000 goal before the Indiegogo campaign ends on April 13, Hendrickson says he and project partner Nick deGrazia will be able to start the filming and development process that he hopes will lead to the documentary debuting in mid-2019. They’ve also enlisted the help of film and TV producer Maria Grace Greco and graphic artist Jason Vogel to help with the project. As of March 30, the campaign had raised about $26,000. Interested backers can contribute as little as $10 or as much as $5,000, the latter of which will come with an executive producer credit.
“We want to talk about the origins of the race, but I also want to the tell the story of who these guys are,” says Andy Hendrickson, 47, who earned a college degree in journalism. “To me it’s more than just about triathlon. These guys were part of that old-school generation that didn’t necessarily brag about things but just did things to see if they could be done. They had no idea at the time that they were starting a huge phenomenon that changed so many people’s lives. They’re just good, humble, solid old-school guys.”
The first Ironman was held on Feb. 18, 1978, only about 10 weeks after Collins announced the concept for a race combining the three existing long-distance competitions already on the island: the 2.4-mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the 115-mile Around-Oahu Bike Race and the 26.2-mile Honolulu Marathon. The original Ironman, which included a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike leg and a 26.2-mile run, was won by Haller in 11 hours, 46 minutes, 58 seconds.
Compared to today, everything about that first Ironman was primitive. Although each athlete had his own support crew, triathlon-specific training, apparel, nutrition, or bikes didn’t exist. Dan Hendrickson says his bike broke down on the course, but so did the family car his wife was driving with his tool kit. As a result, he had to wait more than 2 hours until a Honolulu cop loaned him a wrench to fix it. He eventually went on to finish 11th in 20:03:28.
“I remember it was a very long day,” says Hendrickson, 80, a retired Navy SEAL who remains active and still competes in triathlons. “I knew I could finish if I didn’t get injured. But you have to remember the tactical decision tree we had constructed for that event was pretty well irrigated with Primo Beer, so you might get slightly different recollections of what we were trying to do and how it all played out.”
John Dunbar, a Navy SEAL who was leading the original race at the start of the run section, faded to second after he ran out of water on the marathon course and his support crew resorted to giving him beer instead. Meanwhile, Orlowski famously wore cut-off jean shorts during the ride and the run so he could carry money in case of an emergency. It turned out to be a genius idea because he eventually stopped at a McDonald’s to re-fuel and went on to finish third in 13:59:13.
Participants paid a $10 entry fee to cover some of the costs to put it on. Collins handmade the original trophies and competitors made their own T-shirts.
Orlowski and several friends tried to swim, bike, and run the entire original race course on the 40th anniversary in February, but heavy rains and flash floods didn’t allow them to finish.
“I’m interested in seeing what makes them tick and also what they think is the next big thing is. It’s always good to talk to innovators like these guys,” says deGrazia, 33, who has worked in a variety of TV, video and film jobs in New York City during his career. “To get a group of guys out there and create an event and say ‘let’s do this’ and then the fact that most of them endured and finished it, too, is astonishing. They could have just decided it wasn’t worth it for any number of reasons and walked off the course at any point, but they finished. I don’t think it would have become what it is today without their efforts.”
Andy Hendrickson says he tried to get established filmmaking production companies to bite off on the project. But when that didn’t go the way he wanted it to, he and deGrazia decided to do it on their own.
“About three years ago, I was remarking about what an interesting story it was and started digging in to see if anyone had told the great stories about the origins of the event,” he says. “The cool part is that I’ve been overwhelmed from the positive feedback I received from people in the triathlon community and people in the military community and even people who are non-athletes who just think it’s a really cool, inspiring story.”