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

This past weekend, Ironman celebrated the 40th anniversary of its very first 140.6-mile race.

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This weekend, Ironman celebrates the 40th anniversary of its very first 140.6-mile race. We set up a call between two original finishers who had some funny and heartfelt insights into the race they helped put on the map.

Dave Orlowski has been battling leukemia for four years. He should probably be taking it easy this weekend, but that’s not his style. Ten years ago, on February 18, 2008, Orlowski returned to Waikiki Beach on the island of Oahu—site of the first Ironman in 1978—to complete the very same course he and 11 others did all those years ago. This Sunday, on the 40th anniversary of the original Ironman, Orlowski will once again set out to cover those same 140.6 miles. It’s a day he’s been looking forward to for a decade, and he’s not about to let cancer get in his way.

Orlowski finished third in 1978 with a time of 13:59:13. The winner that day was Gordon Haller in 11:46:40. The original Ironman champion will celebrate the 40th anniversary this weekend by competing in the Tritonman Triathlon in San Diego. Triathlete set up a call between the two earlier this week to hear some stories about February 18, 1978, and the crazy ride the sport has been on ever since.

Triathlete: What comes to mind when you think back to wading into the water at Waikiki before the start 40 years ago?

Haller: I remember talking to my paddler—some 11-year-old kid. I asked him if he thought he could do it. He just smiled and said, “you think you can?” I figured if he was confident then I should be too.

Orlowski: My biggest concern before the start was the bike. I knew I could swim and I knew I could run, but whether or not I could ride a bike around Oahu was a complete unknown. I didn’t have a bike until a few days before. I didn’t have any bottle cages, so I wore some cutoff jeans so I could put some money and a map in the pockets.

Haller: Did you wear those things for the whole ride?

Orlowski: Yep. I’ll have a chafing conversation with anybody. I guarantee I’ll win.

Triathlete: What are the strangest things you guys ate during the race?

Haller: It wasn’t strange to me at the time, but I had these RNA tablets that were supposed to replace your body’s protein so you didn’t break down muscle. And I had this drink called Body Ammo. That actually made me feel better as the race went on.

Orlowski: My diet was a little less scientific than Gordon’s. I stopped at gas stations and grabbed water, bananas, Hershey’s bars and Coca-cola. I had to sprint through a grocery store because I left my bike outside and Hawaii isn’t exactly crime free. I would’ve been out of the race if my bike had been stolen. I also stopped at McDonald’s and sat down and had a whole meal.

Triathlete: How heated did the competition get?

Haller: John (Dunbar) started the run 12 minutes ahead of me and I knew my marathon PR was 12 minutes faster than his. I figured it’d come down to a dead heat and then I could beat him in a sprint. I’m sure he was thinking the same thing. I caught him at 15 miles, but then had to stop with a cramp. Caught him again at mile 17 and had to stop for a bathroom break. Caught him again at 19 and had to stop for another massage because of the cramps. Then I caught him at 21 and realized the only way to pass him was not to stop. By then he was looking like death and I was starting to feel pretty good. I had two guys running with me for the last five miles—one carrying Coke and the other carrying water—and managed to do those last five miles in a little more than 30 minutes.

Orlowski: I got off the bike in sixth place and couldn’t walk. My legs kept buckling and I’d fall over. But where I finished didn’t matter to me. It wasn’t a race, it was just about finishing the thing. After about two miles I finally got my legs underneath me and started ticking off miles at a pretty good clip. Then my legs blew up between miles 17 to 22. I was dying. Then my support van pulled alongside and there were my parents who had come to surprise me. At that point I was practically dying and crawling on a guardrail. I can’t imagine what it was like for my parents to see that. My dad was a loving guy, but he never showed a lot of emotion. But I remember he gave me a hug and said, “you can do this.” That gave me the spark I needed at that point. I looked up and felt some kind of divine intervention and just started going. I ran passed the fifth-and fourth-place guys and ended up in third. But it wasn’t about the place. Gordon might’ve won, but on all of our trophies it just said “finisher.”

Triathlete: Flash-forward nearly 40 years and the Ironman brand has been valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. What comes to mind when you see where the sport has gone over the past four decades?

Orlowski: That seems to be the most common question when people talk to one of the original racers. If we would’ve known that back then, I’m sure we would’ve wanted a piece of that, but it wasn’t about a business on that day. I’m an athlete, not a businessman. When I look at where Ironman is today, I think about what it’s done for people. It’s helped people who are physically challenged. It’s helped people through cancer and heart disease. It’s done so much for so many people for so many different reasons. And it’s done so much for my own life. It’s picked me up when I’ve been down. It’s why I know that there are no struggles in my life that I can’t get through.

One last thing I want to say is that we wouldn’t have been a part of this and none of it would’ve been possible without the vision of John and Judy Collins. Every time I talk about that original race, I want people to know that this was really all their doing. After I did the original course in 2008, I felt like the history of the sport was getting lost a bit. I don’t want that history to get lost. And the history is that John and Judy Collins created all of this.

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