This magazine was complicit in the creation of Ironman. It was far from fated that the mother of all triathlons begin in Hawaii. It happened because a dozen hypercompetitors at a 1977 Oahu banquet for an around-the-island running event got into a debate sparked in part by an SI story that had called cyclist Eddy Merckx the world's fittest athlete. The competitors argued about which sport's athletes were the fittest, and they ended up challenging one another to an event that would combine Oahu's longest tests of endurance: a 2.4-mile open-water swim, a 112-mile around-the-island bike race and a 26.2-mile marathon. The first Ironman, with 15 participants, was held the following February.
A year later SI again unwittingly spurred interest in the event. After the second Ironman, in 1979, the magazine's Barry McDermott wrote a 10-page feature focused on '78 winner Gordon Haller, '79 champion Tom Warren and two-time runner-up John Dunbar, a former Navy Seal. Wrote McDermott, "They all shared a common reason for being there (some called it a curse): an addiction to inordinate amounts of exercise."
McDermott brushed their every stride with sterile pathology. Of Warren, who finished in 11:15:56, McDermott declared, "Every time [he] wins, he is cursed to try again. With thirst unslaked, this albatross around his neck, he sails on and on."
How deliriously wrong that was. When the article appeared, thousands of runners, swimmers and cyclists read of the Ironman competitors' compulsions and said, "Whoa, whoa, I chart my pulse rate. I keep a log of every mile I cover, every calorie I eat. People tell me I have no pain threshold. And where, exactly, is the 'curse' in trying again?"
One end of Our Great Bell Curve turned out to be tireless metabolic furnaces, all thinking they were perfectly sane. They flocked to subsequent Ironman races in reinforcing profusion—especially after ABC began televising the event in 1980—until organizers had to impose strict qualifying standards for the field. (This year there were 1,251 men and 397 women.) Last Saturday's 25th-anniversary race, won by Peter Reid and Lori Bowden of Canada, was the world championship of an international Ironman series of 24 races. A shorter triathlon is in the Olympics. Over the years roughly 500,000 have completed the daunting, 140.6-mile Ironman distance. That old curse now looks like a blessing.
What fires one's metabolism? Science says our mitochondria, the tiny organelles in every cell that manipulate oxygen and food to release energy. If you inherit good ones, you can go forever. Those so gifted have always been with us, but as running, biking and swimming boomed in the 1970s, they formed a new meme pool. And out popped the Ironman triathlete.
"I was a swimmer at UC Davis," recalls Dave Scott. "I wasn't fast, but I had an uncanny ability to recover." He was a fair runner, a decent biker, so he entered the Ironman in 1980 and slashed almost two hours from Warren's record by finishing in 9:24:33. A mitochondrial miracle.
He exploited his remorseless competitive nature to take six Ironmans in eight years and changed everything, even himself. Crossing that first finish line, Scott displayed the smooth subcutaneous suet of a swimmer. But year by year, learning more about training and nutrition, he grew greyhound lean. His best time, 8:10:13, would be almost an hour and a quarter faster than his first.
Needing room for the growing field of competitors, the race moved to Kona on the Big Island in 1981. The stark, brutal course has been Hawaii's true gift to grit. The Kailua Bay swim start seems to be 1,648 flailing tuna fleeing a massive purse seine. The heartless, glaring lavascape of the Queen Kaahumanu Highway and the battering winds off Mauna Kea are wearing, drying, overheating. Scott led a generation in figuring out how to endure them.
But would the race ever appeal to the general public? The answer came on Feb. 6, 1982. Julie Moss, 23, rode to a huge lead off the bike and was eight minutes ahead of Kathleen McCartney with eight miles to go in the marathon. But Moss didn't pace herself. A quarter mile from the finish she collapsed and sat staring at the street for three minutes. She staggered on and fell again with 100 yards to go, then 50, then 15. McCartney ran past Moss to win without knowing Moss was lying there, five steps from the end. Twenty-nine seconds later, Moss crawled in, her hand clawing at the painted stripe as if it were a lifeline.