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The Origins of Ironman: How Kona Became Kona

Bob Babbitt shares what happened, and Brad Culp explains why it mattered.

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From a slightly misinformed challenge between 15 men to the worldwide television spectacular it is now, the Hawaii Ironman has come a long way over the years. As we gear up for the return of the Ironman World Championship in Kona after a three-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, two Iron-experts look back and walk us through some key events that shaped this race.

If You Can Walk By Wednesday

It all began so simply. “In 1977 our team ran in the Oahu Perimeter Relay,” said Ironman co-founder John Collins during an interview with journalist Carol Hogan that appeared in the 1983 Ironman program. “A week after the relay they had a party and awards ceremony at a beer garden. Well, they gave out awards and served beer all day and after a lot of beers we got into the usual argument where the swimmers claimed they were better runners than the runners were swimmers. After this argument had gone on for a while I said, ‘We have three big endurance events here every year, the Waikiki Rough Water Swim, the Around Oahu Bike Race—I didn’t know they did that in two days—and the Honolulu Marathon. So if we could just string all three of them together then whoever won could lay claim to being an Ironman.’ I got up on stage and announced there would be this competition,” he said. “I told you, I’d had a lot of beer.”

The entry fee was $3 and 15 men started the first ever Ironman on Feb. 18, 1978, at San Souci Beach. With no roads closed to traffic, each athlete was required to have their own support crew. Taxi driver and 2:27 marathoner Gordon Haller had a spectacular crew. They even carried a spare bike so he could use one for the uphill portions of the course and one for the flats. John Dunbar’s crew, on the other hand, ran out of water during the marathon and ended up giving the Navy Seal beer instead. Haller won that first ever Ironman when he caught Dunbar 20 miles into the marathon. Collins, who didn’t just organize it, but raced in that first event, said something that still applies today: “I always thought success in the Ironman was being able to walk by Wednesday.” -Bob Babbitt

RELATED: Recalled: The 1978 Hawaii Ironman and Legend Dave Orlowski

Competitors prepare themselves for the inagural Hawaii Ironman.

The origin of Ironman is probably the most retold story in all of endurance sports. It’s right up there with Pheidippides running 26.2 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce the defeat of the Persians, and then promptly keeling over and dying. But unlike the marathon, Ironman’s origin story isn’t embellished and many of the people who were there in Oahu in 1978 are still here to retell the tale.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the swimmers were the ones who started trash talking the runners, which ultimately led to the first Ironman. Unfortunately for them, the distances agreed upon for that inaugural race have meant that swimmers have been humbled by Ironman for over 40 years since. -Brad Culp

RELATED: How Long is Ironman? A Look at How the Ironman Distance Came to Be

Can’t get enough Ironman World Championship coverage? Visit our Kona Hub for news, analysis, history, photo galleries, and so much more – new stories added daily from our team on the ground at the Big Island.

Julie Moss crawls to the finish in 1982. Photo: Carol Hogan/Courtesy of Ironman Photo: Carol Hogan/Courtesy of Ironman

It Was Called the Ironman

In 1979, Sports Illustrated came to Oahu for the second edition of the race and put together a huge feature story showcasing that year’s champions Tom Warren and Lyn Lemaire. It was the first time a woman had participated in the event and Lemaire cycled her way up to second place overall at one point and ended up taking fifth among the 15 total starters and 12 finishers. The Sports Illustrated article then led to more media attention and 108 starters the next year. Tom Warren appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, while ABC’s Wide World of Sports covered the event for the first time in 1980.

Everything changed after the February 1982 race—the real birth of reality television. People from around the U.S. watched Julie Moss, a 22-year-old college student from San Diego, fall apart at the seams while leading the race. She was less than a half-mile from the finish when she simply ran out of gas and, after collapsing, wobbled like Bambi as she tried over and over again to get to her feet. Nothing worked. In the chaos, Kathleen McCartney, also a college student, didn’t realize she had passed Moss, who was at that point 50 feet from the finish and lying in the street. At some point the ABC cameras panned back to Moss as she got on all fours and crawled to the finish, collapsing with an arm across the line and a smile on her face. As she was carried off on a stretcher, ABC cut away to another sport and the American viewing public lit up the network’s phone lines wondering what the hell had happened to this red-haired, freckle-faced young woman wearing a much-too-big trucker hat who could have been their daughter, their kid’s babysitter, or their next-door neighbor. She didn’t look like an über athlete—exactly why she, her quest, and her challenges were so relatable. -Bob Babbitt

40 years later, the finish line is nearly unrecognizable. Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images

It’s remarkable that Ironman had a larger profile in mainstream American media 40 years ago than it does today. Sports Illustrated doesn’t come to Hawaii these days, and it’s unlikely the winner will appear on the cover, should an American ever win again. What’s also remarkable is the growth of Ironman’s profile internationally over the past 40 years, and that’s thanks in large part to Julie Moss’ legendary crawl to the finish. If social media were a thing back then, that moment likely would’ve received more impressions than any other in triathlon history. It made Ironman cool, and it gave the young sport the ultimate marketing push.

The rapid globalization of Ironman and triathlon since then has been unparalleled by any other sport. There are now Ironman races in 57 countries and 120 of the world’s 195 countries have national governing bodies for triathlon. While you won’t find a triathlete on late-night TV in America, the sport’s relative obscurity in the country that created it hasn’t stopped triathletes from becoming bona fide superstars in their own nations: Daniela Ryf is a very big deal in Switzerland and has shared Sportsperson of the Year honors with Roger Federer; Jan Frodeno is a household name throughout Germany; Terenzo Bozzone has been on cereal boxes in every grocery store in New Zealand. All three have made hundreds of thousands of dollars a year racing Ironman, which is something Julie Moss never could’ve imagined as she crawled down Ali’i Drive with no prize money awaiting her on the other side of the finish line. -Brad Culp

Rick and Dick Hoyt tackle the Ironman. Photo: Lois Schwartz

Anything Is Possible

Dick Hoyt and his son Rick were never going to win an Ironman. But they could win the hearts of anyone and everyone who partic- ipated in or spectated the toughest day in endurance sports. People watching at home sometimes have a problem relating to elite athletes like Dave Scott, Paula Newby-Fraser, or Jan Frodeno. But they can relate to a father who will do whatever it takes to make his son happy. That is the essence of Team Hoyt. Rick was diagnosed with spastic quadriplegia with cerebral palsy at birth and, after Dick pushed Rick in a charity running event for an injured hockey player, Rick told Dick that he loved it. “Dad, when I’m running it feels like I’m not handicapped.”

After having issues in Kona in 1988 and pulling out of the race, in 1989 Dick pulled Rick in a raft during the swim, carried him on the front of the bike during the ride, and then pushed him in a jogger during the marathon. On the ride, Dick was hauling himself, Rick, and the bike—a total of more than 350 pounds—up the hills and into the wind of the Big Island. When Dick sprinted across the finish line on Ali’i Drive for the first time, Team Hoyt showed the world once and for all that at the Ironman anything really is possible. -Bob Babbitt

RELATED: From the Archives: From 5K To Ironman, Team Hoyt’s Unbreakable Bond

Anything is Possible. Thanks to what the Hoyts started, no one will again have to ask, 'Can I be an Ironman?'

We often talk about the pros when it comes to the most impactful athletes in the history of Kona, but it’s not a stretch to say that Rick and Dick Hoyt did more to bring Ironman to the masses than any other athletes over the past 42 years. Your non-triathlon friends and family members likely don’t know or care who Daniela Ryf or Jan Frodeno are, but many of them have read or seen the Hoyt’s story and were moved by it.

The Hoyts are one of the most inspiring tales that’s ever been exported from the Big Island, and in turn they’ve sparked some of the most remarkable stories that have taken place in Kona over the past three decades. When Brent Pease, an age-group athlete from Atlanta, finished his first Ironman in Louisville in 2010, his brother, Kyle—who has cerebral palsy—asked if people in a wheelchair could do an Ironman. Brent had no idea, but after a quick Google search, he learned about the Hoyts, and the brothers set off on a mission to finish Kona. Eight years later, that dream was realized and Kyle became the second quadriplegic to be an Ironman World Championship finisher.

The Pease brothers are now inspiring the next generation of athletes who truly embody the Ironman mantra of “Anything is Possible.” Thanks to what the Hoyts started, no one will again have to ask “Can I be an Ironman?” -Brad Culp

Thomas Hellriegel rides to a second-place finish in 1998, a year after leading a German podium sweep. Photo: Harry How/Getty Images

Enter The Germans

From 1978 to 1993, American men took 42 of the 51 podium spots in Kona, including every first-place finish. Since Australia’s Greg Welch became the first non-American man to win in 1994, U.S. men have occupied just 10 of 78 podium spots, and the only two victories were Tim DeBoom’s back-to-back wins in 2001 and 2002.

Germany’s Thomas Hellriegel, aka “Hell on Wheels,” announced his presence with authority in 1995 when he built a 14-minute lead on five-time Hawaii Ironman champion Mark Allen going into the marathon. Allen took the lead around mile 23 to win his sixth and final Ironman World Championship, while Hellriegel had to settle for second. His plan was to ultimately become the first German to win the most important race in the sport. He would come up 2:25 short that day. “I was excited to take second in 1995, because it was my first time in Kona and I had no idea what to expect,” Hellriegel recalled.

The next year, Hellriegel’s race was even more impressive. He came off the bike with Belgium’s Luc Van Lierde—who was doing his first-ever Ironman and his first marathon. Despite running a 2:46:55 marathon, Hellriegel ended up second again, as Van Lierde ran 2:41:48 to break Allen’s course record. “After that race I wasn’t happy with second, because I expected to win,” Hellriegel said. “I think the worst place to finish is second. If you’re fourth or fifth you don’t think what you could have done to win the race. I spent the entire next year trying to figure out how I could go two minutes faster.”

After his “disappointing” second in 1996, on a very tough day, all the stars aligned and Hellriegel not only won in ’97 but he also became the first German Ironman World Champion. He was joined on that podium by fellow Germans Jürgen Zack in second and Lothar Leder in third—the first time three countrymen had shared the top three steps since 1988. -Bob Babbitt

The 1997 race marked the true changing of the guard, when Hellriegel led a German podium sweep, which helped usher in the generation of German dominance we see today.

“It was a huge story in Germany when I won in 1997,” Hellreigel said. “The major newspaper in the country had a huge headline that said ‘Germany has the toughest man in the world!’ And to have Jurgen in second and Lother in third helped to make the Ironman even more important in Germany.”

How big a deal was it in Germany to win the Ironman World Championship? Ask Faris Al Sultan. “In 2004, I finished third behind Normann (Stadler) and did two interviews,” Al Sultan remembered. “After I won in 2005 I did two interviews a week for 50 weeks straight. It was amazing.” The contrast in media attention in Germany between standing on the podium and being the world champion was huge. Later, Stadler won his second title in 2006, Sebastian Kienle won in 2014, Jan Frodeno in 2015, 2016, and 2019, and Patrick Lange in 2017 and 2018. The German men have now won the last six Kona titles in a row, taking 11 of the last 18 spots on the podium. -Brad Culp, Bob Babbitt

RELATED: The 16 Greatest Triathletes of All Time

That’s the beauty of racing at this level—redefining what’s possible."

Chrissie Wellington wins her fourth IMWC in 2011. Photo: Alvis Upitis/Getty Images

The Evolution of Ironwomen

In 2004, Chrissie Wellington was working in Nepal and riding her bike around the mountains. When she returned to the U.K., she fell in love with the sport of triathlon and thought that one day she might be able to make it to the Olympics. Her coach, Brett Sutton, suggested instead that she race Ironman Korea, and the next thing you know she was in Kona treading water in Kailua Bay. She was new to long distance, new to Kona, and new to the other top women in the race.

She came off the bike in the lead and—despite not wearing a hat, visor, or sunglasses but with a smile that lit up the island—she earned her first of three straight Ironman World Championship titles before adding a fourth in 2011. In her five-year iron-distance career, she was undefeated, winning Kona four times and breaking the iron-distance world record at Challenge Roth twice. Plus, in 2009, she broke Paula Newby-Fraser’s 17-year-old Ironman World Championship course record when she went 8:54:02. -Bob Babbitt

RELATED: Recalled: Chrissie Wellington’s Sparkling Kona Debut

“I don’t think she had any idea how good she was until she raced Kona that first time. She came along and pushed the reset button on what was possible in Kona.” That’s what three-time Ironman world champion Mirinda Carfrae had to say about Chrissie Wellington—the woman who pushed her and her peers to the incredible speeds we see today.

As a newcomer to Ironman in 2007, Wellington wasn’t aware of those norms nor her own talent. While her victory debut remains one of the biggest surprises in Kona history, it was her progression over the next four years that left a lasting impact. After 17 years without any women getting remotely close to Paula Newby-Fraser’s course record, there was a growing sentiment that perhaps Newby-Fraser was a once-in-a-sport athlete and no one else would ever come close to the mythical nine-hour mark.

But then in 2009, Wellington broke Newby-Fraser’s course record by 84 seconds. Since then, Wellington’s mark has been bettered nine times by five women (from four different countries).

Taking out the outlier race of 2018—when the run course was changed and conditions were as benign as they’ve ever been—the torrent of speed that Wellington set off seemed unfathomable just 10 years ago. Daniela Ryf’s official Kona course record stands at 8:26:18 (from 2018). Anne Haug won in 8:40:10 in 2019 under more normal conditions. In the years after Wellington came to Kona, Paula’s 8:55 went from untouchable to unexceptional.

“When an athlete [like Chrissie] comes in and raises the bar, it resets everyone’s mind in terms of what’s possible,” Carfrae said. “That’s the beauty of racing at this level—redefining what’s possible. Chrissie definitely led the way toward the racing we see now.” -Brad Culp

Bill Bell competed in over 300 triathlons and 32 Ironman events. Photo: Irean Khan/ Getty Images

A Fountain of Youth On The Island

The orthopedic reality is that after a runner turns 50, personal best times are not very likely. But if you incorporate swimming, cycling, and running into your life and move into triathlon, you can actually get faster as you age. Sister Madonna Buder did her first triathlon when she was 52 and her first Ironman at 55. The athlete known as the “Flying Nun” became the oldest woman to finish Kona in 2006 when she went 16:59:03 at the age of 76. Robert McKeague became the first 80-year-old to finish Kona with a time of 16:21:55 in 2005. When it comes to the Ironman, age really is just a number.

Bill Bell recently passed away at the age of 97 after first getting into running and triathlon in his 50s. His first Ironman was in February of 1982. “I put my brother in the ground before he was 70,” Bell said when he was 93. “He smoked, drank, and didn’t eat well, and he was always telling me that I would kill myself by doing all of this swimming, cycling, and running. Triathlon is the reason I’m alive, it’s why I have had such a great life and it’s the best sport ever invented.”

Bell ended up doing over 300 triathlons and 32 Ironman races. “I talk to people at retirement centers all of the time,” he once said. “If you leave a lawn mower on the front lawn and don’t use it, the thing will just rust out. The human body is the same. Walk the stairs, ride a stationary bike, and do water aerobics, but never stop moving.” -Bob Babbitt

There’s something to be said for not burning too many matches while you’re young. The pros and age-groupers we see ripping up a race like Kona in their 20s and 30s aren’t likely to be racing Ironman in their 70s. But many of the 70-and-up athletes we see in Kona these days aren’t just finishing the race, they’re getting faster as they get older.

At 72, Chicago’s Bobbe Greenberg won the 70-74 age-group at the 2018 Ironman World Championship on the most pleasant race day the Big Island has ever served up. In 2019, in grueling conditions, she knocked 22 minutes off her time to defend her title in 14:07.11. Greenberg, who didn’t exercise a single minute in her life until her late 50s, is also a likely candidate to become the first woman to finish Kona in the 80-84 age-group, given that she’s nearly three hours below the cutoff and doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. Looking ahead, the way the times have trended for the oldest competitors over the past five years, it won’t be a surprise if the first person to finish Kona in their 90s is a woman. -Brad Culp

Today, the Kona pier is packed, and although the race can't get much bigger, it will likely get much more diverse. Photo: Getty Images

The Future

Records are made to be broken. Athletes and courses change; sports change. Though it feels historic to us, at 42 years young, Ironman is one of the most nascent sports on earth. And the records, faces, and abilities we see today would’ve seemed impossible to those first competitors in 1978.

The question now is how much faster athletes of all ages, abilities, and nationalities can get over the next four decades in Hawaii—and where they’ll come from and what they’ll look like. Ironman has expanded rapidly into new parts of the world in the last 10 years—with first-ever races announced in India, Russia, and a massive growth of events across China. While some of those things were put on hold in the wake of COVID-19, when races were hard hit around the globe, the number of athletes competing on the Big Island from countries that have never had a Kona qualifier before will likely grow. With it, the race will grow as well: 2022’s race will see the debut of a two-day format of racing, one for men and one for women, to create more spots on the Kona pier for those who qualify.

Today’s Ironman world champions are racing nearly four hours faster than the original Iron men and women—that’s a huge amount of time. And today’s field of athletes looks very different from that group of men standing on San Souci Beach in 1978. Going another four hours faster is almost definitely beyond the limit of human potential, but there could come a day when the current records look somewhat pedestrian, and the Hawaii Ironman field looks older, younger, with a wide range of bodies and abilities, and more like the world as a whole. The sport has come a long way since its inception, and it’s not done yet. –Brad Culp

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