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Imagine if the winner of the first Olympic Marathon in 1896, an elaborately mustachioed Greek by the name of Louis Spyridon, was still around to tell you what it was like to run in that event.
Better yet, imagine if you looked over at the guy running next to you in a local 10K and recognized him as none other than Louis himself, straining to finish on the podium in his age group.
This is the reality with Gordon Haller, winner of the first “Iron Man” competition in Oahu back in 1978. As the first Ironman world champion ever, Haller finished the event in 11 hours, 46 minutes, and 58 seconds on the original course that mirrored the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the Around- Oahu Bike Race, and the Honolulu Marathon. Now a veteran of 17 Ironman World Championships, Haller was in San Diego this past February to help celebrate Ironman’s 40th anniversary, in part by participating in the Tritonman Triathlon at Mission Bay.
It’s a race mostly between collegiate tri clubs and teams, so Haller labored unknown and unnoticed as tri-suited teenagers flashed past him on all sides.
He didn’t even make it into the post-race photo collage on the event’s website. But there he was, still as quietly competitive, hypochondriacal, and obsessively goal-driven as ever.
To hear Haller talk, he has had every disease known to man and is ever on the verge of a career- ending injury, or just recovered from one.
In other words, he is the triathlete’s triathlete. A national treasure hiding in plain sight. Living, breathing sports history.
A man defying his remarkable past by not looking back. He has a coach for heaven’s sake. A wetsuit, a tri suit, a shiny new bike.
“I didn’t walk a step,” he huffed proudly as he crossed the Tritonman finish line in whatever place it was. At 67 years old, it was a goal he could still wrap his arms around.
“Very, very few of these people know who I am,” he said.
I asked him if he found that ironic—that the guy who pretty much started it all was there racing, smack in the middle of the field, and no one had a clue.
“Yeah, it does, pretty much,” he said. But then he added that most people are ignorant of history, anyway. Why should they remember him?
At the post-race ceremonies Haller was introduced to the crowd and shook hands with several of the young athletes, 50 years or so his junior. The gap seemed as insurmountable as that first Ironman race.”
“I do feel a connection,” Haller said, contemplating his legacy relative to the kids. “Well, almost a disconnection, especially on the bike when they go by me so fast.”