The Ironmen

Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.

Outside magazine, October 1997

The Ironmen
They invited us to their masochists’ ball. Amazingly, we accepted.

By John Tayman

‘We were the first that ever burst / into that silent sea,” quoth Coleridge. Nothing as definitive has ever been proved in the ongoing squabble over who begat triathlon, but archaeological evidence recovered from the
grounds of the San Diego Track Club suggests a plausible origin of the Ironman. Back in the Nixonian dog days of 1974, several club members began stringing together a trio of disparate workout routines ù swimming, biking, running ù in the hope that variety would make the aerobic grind less boring. Lost to history is the name of the first gaunt athlete to
organize this regimen, but one seminal figure from the San Diego era has been identified. Captain John Collins, a U.S. Navy submarine commander and triathlon pioneer, smuggled the concept to Hawaii, where he proposed that three established endurance events ù the Waikiki Rough Water Swim, the Around-Oahu Bike Ride, and the Honolulu Marathon ù be combined
into one 140.6-mile-long sadomasochistic death march. “The myth says a bunch of drunks came up with it in the midst of an argument over whether runners or swimmers were more fit,” Collins says. “Which is more or less true.”

Thus on the bright, still morning of February 18, 1978, Collins and 14 other men ù including the seven hardy souls pictured here ù burst into the waters off Oahu’s Sandsuzie Beach and jump-started the Hawaii Ironman. Nine racers eventually staggered to the finish line, paced by another Navy athlete, 27-year-old communications specialist Gordon Haller,
who won the race with a time of 11 hours, 46 minutes ù almost four hours longer than will be required by the winner of this year’s race. “It’s more competitive now, that’s for sure,” notes Haller (front), a horribly fit veteran of 66 subsequent triathlons. And what hath the original Ironmen wrought? For one thing, a widening outward of the far boundaries of
human endurance, an increase in hubris and daring that cleared the way for lunatic-fringe events such as ultramarathons and the Raid Gauloises. For another, a heightened awareness of the profitability inherent in that expanded endurance, from Timex watches bearing a certain trademarked proper noun to new concepts in high-performance nutrition. Nutrition, in fact, has
probably made the longest strides since 1978. “I ate toast every ten miles or so and even stopped for a bowl of chili,” recalls Collins of his Ironman inaugural. “This, as you can imagine, was a huge mistake.”

Photograph by Erik Aeder

promo logo