Recalled: The First Ironman By the Numbers

On Feb. 18, 1978, a new event was born. We take a look back.

Photo: Ironman

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Forty-four years ago this month, the very first Ironman triathlon took off on the shores of Hawaii’s Waikiki Beach. The brainchild of married couple Judy and John Collins, the “Iron Man” (as it was called then) combined the three toughest races in Hawaii into one event: The 2.4-mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim, 112 miles of the Around O’ahu Bike Race, and the 26.2-mile Honolulu Marathon. The goal? To offer endurance athletes an opportunity to do something longer and more epic than they’d ever done before. Here’s a look back at the infamous day, by the numbers. 

18: The number of athletes who registered for the race; three of whom opted out before the gun went off, reportedly changing their minds after seeing the raging surf crashing outside the reef. 

12: Number of athletes who crossed the finish line that day. Three athletes dropped out along the way, reportedly “because they ran out of time and needed to get to work.”

0: The number of women who participated in the original event. 

$5: The amount each participant paid to enter. The entry fee went towards fuel, including packets of “Gookinade,” an electrolyte replacement powder formulated by biochemist and runner Bill Gookin (the product is still around, although it now goes by Vitalyte). The cost also covered the finisher trophies—stick figure “Iron men” that John Collins made out of soldered copper pipes and a large nut for the head. 

3: Pages that made up the rule book written by the Collins and given to each participant, highlighting various athlete expectations (like having to provide a support vehicle and a paddler guide for the swim) and a course description. The last page included the now famous tagline: “Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life!”  

57 minutes, 35 seconds: The fastest swim split of the day, posted by Archie Hapai, a 31-year-old student at the University of Hawaii and a decorated Vietnam veteran who entered the race to avenge a DNF during a 26-mile open water swim a month prior. “I don’t remember all of the reasons I did the [Ironman], but not finishing the Molokai to Oahu swim along with the faith of my fellow club swimmers probably had something to do with it,” Hapai said in 2011.

6 hours, 56 seconds: The bike split posted by Gordon Haller, which bested the field by eight minutes. Haller, a former Navy Communications Specialist who was driving a cab for a living at the time, came into the race with a 2:27 marathon PR and often ran several times a day between fares. 

13 minutes: The lead that John Dunbar, a 24-year-old former Navy SEAL, had on the field when he set out on the run. (The story goes that when Dunbar’s support crew ran out of water, he reached for cans of Budweiser instead.) Eventually, the swift-footed Haller (who posted a 3:30 marathon split to Dunbar’s 4:03) ran into first place, earning the victory in 11 hours, 46 minutes, and 40 seconds. Haller went on to complete some two dozen Ironmans. “We were just a bunch of ordinary guys who decided to do it. And other people saw that and decided to do it too,” he said of his motivation to enter the inaugural event. 

RELATED: The Original Iron Men on Racing, Chafing, and Heart, 40 Years Later

1980: The year the Collins gave ABC’s Wide World of Sports the go-ahead to film the race. When the footage landed in living rooms across the planet, triathlon truly took off. 

1981: The year the race moved from the tranquil shores of Waikiki to the village of Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii, where it has remained ever since—until this year.

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