Maybe it was at the 18-mile-marathon-turnaround during the 1982 Hawaii Ironman World Championship that a then 23-year-old Julie Moss first discovered what champions are made of. She had just passed the huge Budweiser beer inflatable that marked the spot that year. Leading the pack, her wheels were getting weary and nemesis Kathleen McCartney was in her peripheral. “That blonde golden goddess in her perfectly white shorts and white top with rainbow logos … and she is running fast,” Moss recounts for an audience at the Outspoken Summit in Tempe, Arizona, earlier this month.
There was something intimidating about McCartney: “The rainbow ribbon in her ponytail that perfectly matched her outfit. Who does that? It unnerved me,” Moss remembers. “She has the time to get the tiny details right. She’s so well prepared. She knows what she’s doing … sometimes it does come down to those little details. It bugged me.”
And then it got personal. A Cal Poly student, surfer, and professional procrastinator, Moss was underprepared to complete a full Ironman and McCartney’s coordinating rainbows triggered self-doubt. The red-haired rookie ran hard to mile 23, and then it was no longer personal. “Who the F is Kathleen? I didn’t care. I just cared about getting one foot [in front of the other],” Moss says, recalling the physical pain she was enduring. At this point in the race, Moss started walking between aid stations, feeling like she’d fallen on her sword. Then it clicked. “That moment where I knew that it wasn’t about Kathleen,” she says. “It got to be more about this fight—this idea that as layers get stripped off, you start discovering more of yourself … forget winning the race, just find a way to keep going. Find that value in yourself that drives you forward.”
At age 60, Moss is a storied triathlete with many wins over a long pro career—the most famous being that gritty 1982 finish, which she wrote about in her recently released book “Crawl of Fame.” Moss didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming an athlete, and she was clueless about triathlon. But in 1981 she happened to hear Jim McKay’s voice on ABC’s Wide World of Sports: “And now from the Big Island of Hawaii, the 1981 Ironman Triathlon …” The iconic announcer had the surfer girl glued to the TV. “I was totally checking out that beautiful island, and the raw beauty of those men in Speedos standing on the beach. It really got my attention,” Moss laughs. She was drawn in by the tight camera shots during the marathon, to the racers’ faces. “It’s pain, it’s suffering, and it’s something else that I can’t quite put my finger on. Is it grit? Is it determination? I don’t know what it is, but it grabs me.
“That Ironman stuck with me for days, and then I got this crazy idea. ‘Why don’t I do the Ironman? It’s in Hawaii, can I take my surfboard?’” Despite apathy toward sports competition, Moss first had to convince her college advisor that the 1982 IM race would be a good school project, and then she had to talk mom into paying for the trek ($85 IM entry fee, no qualification required). Done and done.
Moss arrived on-island three and half weeks before the race, with little training leading into the event (she bonked at both the Oakland and Mission Bay marathons, but still managed respectable finishes). In Hawaii, she had accommodations via family connections (hotel not in the budget) and befriended athletes who took her under their wings. She did a time trial, she swam a lot, biked everywhere.
Putting Ironman on the Map
Race-day morning, Moss says she felt prepared, she’d ticked all the boxes. Happy but a little nervous, she made her way to the Kona pier where all the camaraderie and aloha spirit had evaporated. Suddenly (and unexpectedly), the competition got real. Once in the water, she kept diving down, letting the quiet soothe her. When the cannon blast went off, Moss says she felt immense relief. “I’m just going to enjoy this day.” She found open water alongside the pack, where she could go it alone. “The swim went really well,” she says, remembering the cheers as she came into the transition. “It’s exciting, ok this is what I imagined it to be.”
Moss had one goal on the bike, which she kept reminding herself of: “Don’t eat your Snickers bar until you get to the 25-mile at Waikoloa.” The Kona gods would not be with her. The stashed fuel melted before she could eat it. “I took the only calories that I brought with me and threw them in the lava field—no penalties then,” she says. An ABC television crew nearby, Moss remembers wiping her chocolaty hands on the back of her black shorts, looking at the camera and saying, “Aloha!” Never mind that she was riding in the non-aero position the whole way and wearing a skateboard helmet (“cheaper, more holes for ventilation”).
“That ego pops up in just insidious ways,” Moss says. “Here I am, 23 years old, on the television show that I’ve dreamed about.” She was also in second place at that point, the woman to watch, and that made her think, “What am I going to do with the rest of my day?”
At the transition tent, there was drama. During a hasty clothing change, the front clasp on Moss’s jogging bra (a device still in the works during the early 80s) breaks. She eyes two female volunteers. “This total Goldilocks moment,” Moss remembers. “Um, you’re too big … but you’re just right. Can you please give me your bra?” In a show of solidarity, the size-appropriate volunteer stripped off her Budweiser t-shirt and handed over the brassiere.
Moss kept a steady pace in the marathon, eventually finding herself in first place. But that 23-mile marker and McCartney’s rainbows were coming up. By mile 25, Moss was physically breaking down. “It was a long downhill into town,” she recalls. Despite her churning gut, she opted to bypass a Sizzler bathroom. “I’m going to win this race,” she remembers thinking.
This next part is why triathletes of all stripes love Moss so much. On the way toward the home stretch, her legs buckle. “When I crashed to the ground … so did everything in my blender,” she recalls. “Now I’m sitting on the pavement … in hot, talk-about-chocolate, mess. And there’s my ABC camera truck, up close and personal. Nowhere to hide. There was that moment I just wanted to disappear.”
But she heard that inner voice, “Get up. Take charge of this situation.” Using her arms, Moss pivoted her way to standing, and wobbly walked down to the bottom of the hill and turned onto Ali’i Drive. Three running-strides later, down again with a pivot back up. Another few yards, drill repeated. She hears the crowd quietly saying, “You can do it, go.”
Volunteers help her, but she shoos them away over DQ concerns. On her feet again and in first place, she can see the finish line, the night lights, her mom.
“And then I go down for the fourth and final time,” Moss tells the Outspoken audience. She could no longer pivot her weight—her arms weren’t working. “And then I see Kathleen McCartney—her tanned legs, those white shorts, that rainbow logo—go right past me. I was hurt. That was a pain worse than physical pain. That was me seeing my self-worth being dragged across the line by somebody else. And I hung my head and I mourned that for a couple of seconds.” Her ego stripped clean, Moss began to crawl. “It took me 25 seconds to get to the line.”
It was no longer about winning, it was about not giving up on herself. “That came to me. I really got it,” she remembers of that historical crawling finish. “When you push yourself to limits and keep finding more, you are a champion.” She placed one hand over the finish line, rolled over onto her back, looked at the moon, and thought, “I am worthy of being an Ironman.”
Fast forward to 2017, Moss’s pro career done but she was still racing as an age-grouper, determined to win the IM World Championship in her division. It was to be her Hawaii swan song that year, but she DNF’d after the bike despite being “the girl who doesn’t quit.” She told the Outspoken audience that she’d probably come into the race a little cocky, not as prepared as she should have been. Winning was paramount; big mistake, she concedes. “I have to survive Kona with grace and courage,” she admits.
Perseverance is Moss’s brand. “Quitting was not how I could finish my relationship with Kona,” she says. After qualifying for the 2018 championship, Moss came to Kona race-ready and with the mindset of “just finish.” On Oct. 13, Moss crossed the Kona line for the last time, then stopped and turned around. “I stood there and just looked at everybody, cheering, and looked back at that piece of real estate—that changed my life—with such gratitude.” She then turned and walked into son Mats arms (the 24-year-old finished the race 82nd in his division with a time of 10:22:09) and was hugged by ex-husband and tri legend Mark Allen. An IM trilogy.
Moss finished the day third in her age-group with a time of 12:08:40. For her, Kona is about “the character that you bring to the race, and your character will change over the course of that day. You will get stripped, and you will find new character, new strength, new reasons to keep going,” she says. “But you have to have an absolute bottom line when it comes to endurance, and you have to have a bottom line when it comes to life. When you know your bottom line, and you’re secure in that, you can move mountains.”