HERITAGE: THE HAWAIIAN IRONMAN. In 1978, at the request of Navy Commander John Collins and his wife Judy, Valerie Silk organized the first ever Ironman-distance triathlon. The race combined the 2.4-mile Honolulu open water swim with a 112-mile cycle race around the island of Oahu and a marathon along the Honolulu Marathon course.

 

Commander Collins proposed the three-stage race as a challenge to a small group of his Navy Seals. Thus was a legendary sporting event born.

Word of the unusual new race spread quickly. In order to ensure the safety of the athletes, Valerie moved the race from Honolulu to the Big Island of Hawaii in 1981. 

And the rest is ultra-sports history. Let there be no doubt: Valerie Silk is the matriarch of Ironman. She raised it, nurtured it and protected it in its earliest days. And Ironman's patriarch—its originator, creator, architect and founder—is Retired Navy Commander John Collins. Others are sometimes suggested as Ironman's founder, but it is none other than John Collins.

   L to R: Judy Collins, John Collins, Lynn Van Dove, Valerie Silk and a long-time Hawaii race photographer at the Cantina, Kona, in 1990 (Valerie's final year as head of Ironman)

L to R: Judy Collins, John Collins, Lynn Van Dove, Valerie Silk and a long-time Hawaii race photographer at the Cantina, Kona, in 1990 (Valerie's final year as head of Ironman)

 

A reminiscence of the early years of the Hawaiian Ironman

I wrote these words many years ago while reminiscing about my first visit to the Hawaiian Ironman

The Bud Light hot air balloon sat tethered in the gardens of the Kona Surf Hotel while athletes from around the world loaded their plates with pasta and greens. It was the night before they would attempt a little-known feat called “The Bud Light Ironman Triathlon”. The huge balloon huffed steady breaths of fire that seemed to keep pace with the slow, healthy heartbeats of 2,000+ triathletes. Officially known as carbo-loading, some jokingly referred to this pre-race dinner as their “Last Supper”. A symbolic preparation for the test that lay ahead.

The night was warmed by humid winds off the Pacific and every inhalation was sweetened by plumeria and hibiscus, while throngs of hopeful muscled athletes, legs shaved smooth to shorten their swim times, joked and boasted about their previous races. But hidden below the camaraderie and excitement was apprehension and doubt. Tomorrow they would test the limits of their endurance and resolve, and some would never cross the finish line. In the words of scholar Joseph Campbell, “They would not achieve the adventure”. It was the early 1980's and the Hawaiian Ironman was still new and still imbued with Aloha.