Tomorrow, the Ironman World Championship takes place on Kona Island, Hawaii. Now in its 34th year it remains the definitive endurance hallenge for those crazy enough to test their bodes to the limit with a 3.9 km swim, 180 km bike and a marathon.
This year 1,800 athletes will compete and it's not all about winning, most will just be happy to complete the course. These days, of course it's an institution, and completing it gives you the title of 'Ironman' which means you can bleat endlessly about your achievements for the rest of your life to anyone. Qualification for the event is based on a series of Ironman triathlon events that are held all over the world, it's a serious test of endurance for serious athletes and about 90% of entrants make it to the finish line in anywhere between 8 and 17 hours.
Gordon Haller the original 'Ironman'
The undisputed king of the contest is Australian Craig Alexander, who has won three of the last four, his 2011 time of 8 hours, 3 minutes and 56 seconds a record. Over 50 million people will watch the event on television around the world.
It wasn't always so advanced, the first ever Ironman was held in 1978, when a group of US naval officers were debating which type of athlete was the fittest – the swimmer, the cyclist or the runner. So to settle the debate once and for all, Commander John Collins put together a race that combined the three disciplines on the island of Oahu. Fifteen men and one woman competed that day and twelve finished it. The first title of 'Ironman' went to Gordon Haller who finished with a time of 11 hours, 46 minutes and 58 seconds. Collins himself finished the race in a little over 17 hours.
Australian Craig Alexander
These days competitors have all the advantages of the best in sports technology, equipment, and training techniques. Henry Forrest, one of those intrepid Ironmen who completed the first race recalled a different time: "In 1978 we didn’t have: aerobars, toe clips, carbon fibre, titanium, clip-on shoes, tri suits, heart monitors, nutrition or advanced training methods. And of course, there was no such thing as a tri bike. They were all unheard of back then … probably a good thing … I had enough trouble figuring out how to ride the Free Spirit [a bicycly he borrowed to compete that day]! I had not been on a bicycle since junior high school, and only rode the Free Spirit a couple of times prior to race day."
Julie Moss legend of Ironman
The event was organised the next two years but interest was limited until Sports Illustrated ran a story about the event, which saw athletes from all around the world look to enter. So it was in 1980 the race was transferred from Oahu to the black lava-strewn, pock-marked landscape of Kona Island. There the athletes ran under a scorching sun in 45 mph crosswinds and a barren landscape.
Julie Moss crawls to the finish line in '82
ABC broadcast the race in '81 and '82 and the setting helped add to the exotic and extreme nature of Ironman. The women's race in '82 saw the leader Julie Moss collapse 20 yards form the finish line and crawl the remaining distance to cross the line. Although she lost the race millions had witnessed a seminal endurance sports moment that made the event global. ABC’s Jim McKay, among the most experienced sports broadcasters in history, called it the most inspiring sports moment he had ever witnessed.
By Hugo Mc Cafferty