Today marks the 35th running of the Ironman World Championship. For event founders Judy and John Collins, it has been a long road, but the couple now has an opportunity to sit and take in the spectacle of the event.
The story of how Ironman came to be has transformed through years of retelling. The most popular versions of the tale center on a bunch of Navy SEALs who devise a race to settle a debate about who the best athletes are — bikers, runners or swimmers.
In reality, the event began with the Collinses, who had participated in competitive races such as the Honolulu Marathon and Waikiki Roughwater Swim and were inspired to push boundaries.
“I had been thinking of triathlons since our family did a run, bike, swim event in 1974, before they were even called triathlons,” John Collins said. “Later that day we explained to our swim coach why we had missed our master’s swim practice and he told us it was the stupidest thing he had ever heard of.”
Despite his disinterest, the swim instructor added a triathlon to the Optimist Club of Coronado’s list of events for its annual Sports Fiesta. The Optimist Triathlon is now the longest continuously run triathlon in the world.
Ironman has not always been the celebrated event it is today though. In the early days, it was not well understood by the public.
“I remember there was a cartoon in the Honolulu paper after the first Ironman,” said Michael Collins, son of John and Judy. “It showed a guy in a hospital bed with a second place trophy. The caption was, ‘I only came in second. The winner died.’ ”
Michael is competing today, something he does every five years.
Further evidence of how strange the event seemed to the outside world came when Sports Illustrated’s Barry McDermott wrote the now legendary article on the 1979 running.
“That morning 15 people, including a woman, had ignored the boundaries of sanity and started the contest,“ McDermott wrote. “They all shared a common reason for being there, a very compelling reason (some called it a curse): an addiction to inordinate amounts of exercise.”
In 1979, the race was primitive. There were not aid stations every few miles and athletes competed sometimes into the next day.
McDermott would go on to summarize the daring athletes’ accomplishments, but the article served as a launching pad for the event — bringing a national spotlight to a sport that was relatively unknown.
Before 1979, the Collinses were challenged to garner even local support.
“I remember in 1979 we were planning on getting a little help because we lost $25 on the first one and that was with a $5 entry fee,” said John. “I went to Hawaii Visitors Bureau and talked to them and they told us that they have more visitors than they want that time of year — the race was in February at the time — and people are just going to borrow a bicycle from someone and sleep on a friend’s floor and not spend any money.”
Things are different now.
In a 2012 newsletter, the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce cited an Ironman study completed by Markrich Research showing the event brings in about $1.4 million annually. The study said participants stay about eight days on the Big Island and a total of about 12 days statewide. The athletes don’t come alone, the study said, but bring, on average, 2.6 companions.
Ironman competitors, their travel companions and everyone coming to the state for the event spend about $25 million, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
This year, there are 2,166 registrants competing in the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run, representing 48 states and 52 countries. The largest number of U.S. athletes competing come from California (111), Hawaii (54), New York (53), Texas (49) and Colorado (47). Internationally, Australia (260), Germany (204), Canada (141), Great Britain (88) and Switzerland (73), are most represented.
As the hordes of exhausted athletes run across the finish line, the Collinses can reminisce about the early days and how far the event has come, but Ironman is hardly recognizable to its founders.
“I feel quite detached now,” said Judy. “We started this to separate our talents — you could call them — from the sprinters. We would never have lasted in a sprint event, but we knew we could last all day just don’t make us go fast. Now these athletes are sprinters. I really don’t identify with it, this is a whole different crowd.”
John agreed that they likely could not hang with the elite athletes the competition draws today.
“It’s no coincidence the cut off time is within just 21 seconds of my first finishing time.”