Ironman Triathlon World Championship

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Ironman Triathlon World Championship

Type of Holiday: Sporting
Date of Observation: Saturday nearest the full moon in October
Where Celebrated: Kailua-Kona, Hawaii
Symbols and Customs: Awards Dinner, Carbo-Loading Party, Leg-Shaving, Lottery, Underwear Run


The Ironman Triathlon began with a challenge from a naval commander named John Collins in 1978. He was sitting at the awards ceremony for a local running race in Honolulu, where he was stationed at the time, and got involved in a heated debate over which athletes were in the best shape, runners or swimmers. Collins, who was both a runner and a swimmer himself, had been reading about Tour de France legend Eddie Merckx and suggested that cyclists were the fittest of all. Then he issued a challenge he was certain would settle the matter: a race that would combine the Waikiki Rough Water Swim (a local swimming race), a bike ride around the entire island of Oahu, and the Honolulu Marathon. His enthusiasm for the idea inspired him to jump up on the stage during a break in the ceremony, grab the microphone, and announce the competition to everyone present, saying that the winner would be declared the "Ironman."

Only fifteen people rose to the challenge that first time in February 1978, and only twelve-Collins among them-actually crossed the finish line. The winner was Gordon Haller, an amateur athlete and taxi cab driver who completed the three events in eleven hours, forty-six minutes, and fifty-eight seconds. The Navy transferred Collins a couple of years later, and the owners of a local health club to whom he bequeathed the event ended up getting divorced. But Valerie Silk, the wife, took charge of the race and moved it from Oahu, the most populous and traffic-congested of the islands, to Kona, on the western side of the Big Island of Hawaii, in 1981. Instead of fighting traffic, the competitors now had to battle "mumuku" crosswinds and scorching temperatures as they ran 26.2 miles and biked 112 miles along the highway that cut through Kona's fields of rough black lava. When combined with a 2.4 mile ocean swim around a rectangular course, the event represented a little over 140 miles of grueling physical effort.

The Ironman Triathlon remained a relatively unrecognized event until ABC's "Wide World of Sports" began covering it in 1980. Then, in 1982, television viewers watched in horror as the women's leader, a college student named Julie Moss who had entered the race to gather information for her senior thesis on exercise physiology, collapsed from exhaustion and dehydration just a few yards from the finish line. Another competitor passed her but Moss wouldn't give up. She crawled the last twenty yards on her hands and knees, inspiring the admiration of athletes everywhere and triggering a boom in the event's popularity by showing that finishing the race was a huge accomplishment in itself. Now the race is watched on television by more than 100 million people worldwide.

Today the Ironman Triathlon World Championship, as it has been named to distinguish it from other triathlons that have sprung up around the world, attracts over 1,700 competitors from more than fifty countries and 5,500 volunteers. Another 50,000 spectators gather to watch, especially along Ali'i Drive in downtown Kona, where the running race ends. Women have participated in the event almost from the beginning, and there is now a physically challenged division in which wheelchair-bound athletes can compete. The date has been moved to the Saturday nearest the full moon in October to give athletes from colder climates more time to train and to make it easier for competitors who don't finish the race before dark.

Belgian Luc Van Lierde was the race's first international winner, running his record-breaking contest in 8:04:08 in 1996. He won the Triathlon again in 1999. The fastest women's time is held by eight-time champion Paula Newby-Fraser. The Zimbabwean ran the Triathlon in 8:55:28 in 1992 for her fifth victory.


Awards Dinner

On the day after the triathlon, an awards dinner is held at the King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel, which has served as the triathlon's headquarters since 1988, for about 4,000 people. The winners of each division of the race are recognized and $560,000 in prize money is handed out, but the biggest applause is reserved for the first-place man and woman, who receive $110,000 each.

Carbo-Loading Party

The King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel also caters a carbo-loading party for competitors and Ironman enthusiasts-usually more than 2,000 people-on Thursday evening before the Saturday event. Although the hotel must hire dozens of extra people just to keep the buffet line from running out of plates or pasta, the hotel regards it as a great boost for business.


It is customary for all Ironman competitors, even the men, to shave their legs before the race. In addition to keeping their legs cooler and making it easier for them to take off their wet suits after the swim, it's less painful to treat "road rash"-abrasions caused by falling during the running or biking race-on hairless legs.


Before John Collins left Hawaii, he was assured by the new organizers of the triathlon that a few spots would always be kept open for "ordinary" athletes-in other words, not elite Ironman competitors-because these were the kind of people who entered the first race in 1978. Today, with a qualifying system to restrict the number of entrants and a seventeen-hour time limit, the Ironman still awards 200 spots by lottery to individuals who have not been in any of the qualifying races. There have been a number of notable competitors among this group, including the oldest (Robert McKeague, age eighty, who finished the race in 16:21:55) and the first to complete the race using a wheelchair and a hand-powered bike (Dr. Jon Franks, 1994).

Underwear Run

On the Thursday before the Saturday on which the triathlon takes place, there is a light-hearted race down Ali'i Drive by Ironman athletes-women as well as men-wearing only their underwear. The run is held early in the morning so as not to tire the runners by making them race in the heat of the day, and it gives them a chance to run off some of their nervous tension while at the same time raising money for the Ironman Foundation.

Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
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Rugby teacher Hywel Davies on his return home after completing the Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Hawaii.
COVENTRY Triathletes' Steve Howes cemented his place among the top athletes in his age group as he set a new personal best at the Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.