How Iron Man Happened

Ironman Founders Judy and John Collins Look Back


"Isn't this the 30th anniversary of something?" Yes, indeed.

Thirty years ago John and Judy Collins put on the first endurance triathlon in Honolulu, Hawaii. They had dreamed up the idea when they were co-chairs of the 1977 Run-Swim in Honolulu. The annual biathlon at Ala Moana Beach Park on Oahu was a competition between the Waikiki Swim Club and the Mid-Pacific Road Runners Club. It was a sprinters event.

John and Judy were veterans of the 2.4 mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim and the 26.2 mile Honolulu Marathon and their swim friends, Sid and Dan Hendrickson, were on the same track. The four were on two sides of age forty, recent additions to the ranks of recreational athletes. Their finish times showed that they had a talent for hanging in there. They and their friends followed the news of endurance events on the mainland. Judy and John remember talking about the Western States 100 mile trail run and the Ride and Tie horse and runners competitions in California, the Pike's Peak foot races in Colorado. They heard about the 1000+ mile Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska and the periodic reports of new records for cycling across the U.S. A prize had been offered to the first airplane to cross the English Channel powered by a human. In Hawaii a new record had been set for swimming the Molokai Channel.

The two couples had been doing longer events themselves since moving to Pearl Harbor from Coronado, California. They had first met at swim workouts of the Coronado Masters Association. Their running had improved their swimming and vice versa. In 1977 John and Dan would complete a 50k run while Judy and Sid and John and Dan ran on concurrent relays in an ultramarathon run fest. Judy swam over 9 miles from Lanai to Maui on Mother's Day, the first woman to swim from one Hawaiian Island to another. All four had run their best times for their teams in the Oahu Perimeter Relay. The friends speculated one particular night about an endurance event for the island of Oahu that would suit both swimmers and runners and in which they might outlast their faster colleagues.

John and Judy and their children, Kristin and Michael, had been in the Mission Bay Triathlon of 25 September 1974. That was the first run-bike-swim race to be called a triathlon. Don Shanahan and Jack Johnstone had conceived and organized the event for the San Diego Track Club.

In 1977 there was yet to be a triathlon in Hawaii. The Collins family had done some bicycling and some short triathlons. There was the usual talk of making the upcoming short biathlon a longer event. That led Judy to think again about likely island settings for a long triathlon. How many miles of swimming were the aerobic equivalent of the marathon. How much running equated to the aerobic toll of the Roughwater. How much biking should be added to a long run and swim to be a tie-breaker, to settle the good-natured aerobic rivalry between swimmers and runners. Each person would do well in either the run or the swim then be on equal footing for the part for which none were prepared - the bike ride. But where to do it? John suggested taking existing club events off the shelf and combining them. No math needed. No aerobic equivalents. The sites were set. What about simply swimming the Waikiki Roughwater, running the Honolulu Marathon route and connecting the two with a bicycle ride around the island on the bike club course. That way the day would begin and end at Kapiolani Park. Judy remembers a chorus: "If you do it, I'll do it." Agreed. The Collinses would follow through on their idea for an all-day swim-bike-run on Oahu. The Hendricksons would do this long triathlon with them.

Judy and John unveiled their inaugural Hawaiian Triathlon at the annual Waikiki Swim Club Banquet in mid-October 1977. The four who had committed became five, six, seven. If the first event turned out to be a success, the plan was to promote it as a club activity the next year. There would then be an annual sprint biathlon and a yearly distance triathlon to spice up the schedule for Honolulu swimmers and runners.

Thirty years later in 2008 the 1970's endurance events continue to cast their spell on recreational athletes. One can still read about the Western States 100, the Ride and Ties, Pikes Peak and many more. Thaws in Alaska now affect the courses of the Iditarod Sled Race. There has been a bicycle Race Across America for many years. The 135 mile Badwater Run from Death Valley to Mount Whitney - a solo achievement in 1977 - is now an annual event. It was won a few years ago by a 41 year old woman who then finished first again at age 42.

On 18 February 1978 15 persons stepped off the beach to swim 2.4 miles off Waikiki, to circle the island for about 112 miles on a bike and to finish up the day with a 26.2 mile marathon. The Oahu swim-bike-run distances are now repeated by thousands each year in settings all over the world. Those triathletes who make it to the annual Ironman Triathlon World Championship, at Kona, Hawaii in October, are fit, trained, talented, young to old, and fast. John and Judy Collins' proposal for a long day of exercise with friends - the first endurance triathlon - has been taken over by the sprinters.

Happy 30th Anniversary Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon

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