The Ironman Explodes

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“Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life”. A registered trademark today, that was a hand-written exhortation in the rules pages that were handed out to competitors when they set out on the first Ironman Triathlon on February 18, 1978. That day, fifteen non-qualifying participants took up the seemingly insurmountable challenge of conquering 140.6 miles of sea and land on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. Two decades on, the triathlon would find its place in the Olympics but the Ironman competition, the elite grind for the elite human, would remain its own exclusive club. Tapping into a physical addiction that borders on the insane, the sporting world had discovered the ultimate individual test of athletic punishment.

No image captured the Ironman competition more profoundly than that of Julie Moss, the 23-year old graduate student who collapsed in the third stage of the race and subsequently crawled her way to the finish line. Moss entered the 1982 Hawaii Ironman Championship as part of her thesis on physiology and training. She was in the lead at the marathon run when her body simply gave out and shut down. Moss was suffering from dehydration, malnutrition, and extreme exhaustion. With just 100 meters to go, she prostrated on all four limbs and managed to drag her lifeless body to a 2nd place finish. Kathleen McCartney, who was 20 minutes behind Moss before she caved in, ended up winning the race. The sight of Moss with her hands and knees on the ground, digging for every ounce of energy remaining in her system, struck a chord among millions of viewers who saw her on ABC’s Wide World of Sports when the event was telecast.

The Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii was the brainchild of U.S. Navy officer John Collins, who along with his wife Judy, took part in off-beat swim/bike/run exercises. The first of those was held in 1974 by the San Diego Track Club whose members were searching for lighter workouts to complement the rigors of training for marathons. The three-part discipline back then comprised of a 10k run, 8k cycle, and 500-meter swim, or just a fraction of what the future Ironman Triathlon would demand. When Collins and his wife moved to Hawaii in 1975, they suggested combining the three long-distance competitions that already existed on the island: the Waikiki Roughwater Swim (2.4 miles), the Around-Oahu Bike Race (115 miles) and the Honolulu Marathon (26.2 miles). The idea came up after the Collins and fellow recreational athletes were debating which athletes were the fittest. Cycling came into the mix when it was pointed out that Belgian cyclist Eddie Merckx was reported to have the highest oxygen consumption rate (VO2) of any sportsman.

As if a marginal community of extreme athletes was waiting to be discovered, it didn’t take long for the Ironman Triathlon to explode. By chance in 1979, Sports Illustrated was covering a golf tournament in Hawaii when they also decided to write an article about an obscure grueling contest they referred to as possibly being the supreme fitness test of the day. ABC caught the story and eventually flew a crew out to Hawaii to stitch a 43-minute segment on a group of unknown athletes who were competing in an unknown sport. The risk paid off and the results were spectacular. Viewers were awestruck by the three-part endurance race where victory could be defined by just crossing the finish line and not necessarily by taking first place. In 1982, the year Julie Moss assumed iconic status, the event became the top-rated show at ABC’s Wide World of Sports. A year later, a thousand competitors were signing up and another thousand were being turned away. By 2012, the Ironman World Championship, now part of NBC as a standalone program, would win its 16th Sports Emmy Award on television.

The business property of the Ironman brand took off as well. Collins, the original visionary of the grueling human experiment and the person who coined the term “Iron Man”, stayed on for just the first year before handing the reigns over to Frank Grundman and Valerie Silk, a couple that ran a local Nautilus Fitness Center. Following her divorce, Valerie Silk continued managing the Ironman until selling it in 1989 for $3 million to ophthalmologist Dr. James Gills, who further expanded the brand and the prize money by creating the World Triathlon Corp. (WTC). By 2008, endurance sports around the world were being picked up by private equity firms, and WTC which now held the rights to 53 Ironman and half-Ironman (70.3) distance events, fell into the hands of Providence Partners for an estimated $85 million. In 2015, Wanda Group, a China-based sports and media conglomerate, purchased WTC for $650 million.

What started as an exercise in super human feats morphed into a global phenomenon and a badge of honor. For a day’s work, those who can complete the course within official time constraints- 2hrs:20min swim, 8hrs:10min bike, 6hrs:30min run- receive the official and lifelong designation of an “Ironman”. Gordon Haller, a U.S. Navy communications specialist, won the inaugural Ironman Triathlon with a time of 11hrs:46min. Four decades later, Germany’s Jan Frodeno lowered the time in the World Championship to a record 7hrs:51min (2019). On the women’s side, Switzerland’s Daniela Ryf is the all-time greatest at 8hrs:26min (2018). Similar to the Olympics, the Ironman celebrates the spirit of athletic possibilities, but its extreme challenges allow mere mortals to leap into super men and women.

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