Ironman Triathlon: Distance Running, Swimming and Biking in One

If climbing a few flights of stairs already leaves you panting at the top step, then you would no doubt pass out if you try to finish even the first leg of the Ironman Triathlon—a combination race of long distance running, swimming, and biking, which must be finished all in a row by an individual.

Considered as the most challenging race and endurance event across the globe, the Ironman Triathlon is an annual race held in Hawaii since 1978. It started out when U.S. Navy Commander John Collins proposed that there be a race combining swimming, running, and biking. It was then just an answer to the long-standing debate between the local athlete clubs on which athlete is greater—the swimmer, the sprinter, or the cyclist.

Thus, on February 18, 1978, Hawaiians held the first Ironman Triathlon. It was participated in by 15 individuals. Twelve completed the three-pronged race, which consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run—definitely a piece of cake. And the first to cross the finish line that day? A former Navy communication specialist named Gordon Haller. Considered the first ever Ironman, he completed the race in 11 hours, 46 minutes, and 58 seconds. Well, nothing’s really amazing if someone had run, swum, and biked for half a day without rest, right?

Today, held by the World Triathlon Corporation around October each year, the race is still held in Hawaii—the swimming leg in Kailua-Kona Bay, the cycling stretch on the lava desert to Hawi, and the running marathon by the shores from Keauhou to Kailua-Kona.

Thousands of athletes and non-athletes alike flock to Hawaii each year to participate and test their endurance in the Ironman Triathlon. Before the competition, participants are briefed on the rules and parameters of the competition. And, I bet, not a few had permanently etched in their brains the Ironman’s trademarked motto printed on the last page of the rules hand-out as if to challenge the racers—“Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life!” If only that motto is so easy to carry out on your own.

But then, the motto doesn’t say you should win so you can “brag for the rest of your life,” does it? That’s why for many people who join it, winning is actually just icing on the cake—and the “cake” is finishing the race.

Julie Moss is the best example. Not really much of an athlete, she joined the Ironman marathon in 1982 simply to get data for her exercise physiology thesis. She was leading the race and was only few hundred yards away from the finish line when fatigue and dehydration finally took their toll on her body. Videos documenting her struggle to finish the race show Moss constantly buckling, falling to the ground, and picking herself up only to walk on like a drunkard on Jell-O legs.

Kathleen McCartney, the participant coming next to her, was a good 20 minutes behind her. But because of Moss’ falls, she caught up and got to the finish line a few seconds before Moss. Not a few TV stations aired Moss literally crawling the last few yards to the finish line. Now, how many people in the world can complete such a series of long distance running, swimming, and biking? Well, count in everyone with an iron will.