SI Vault
Barry McDermott
May 14, 1979
To earn that title, Tom Warren victoriously swam 2.4 miles through rough seas, bicycled 112 miles and all ran a marathon, all in a single day of agony
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May 14, 1979


To earn that title, Tom Warren victoriously swam 2.4 miles through rough seas, bicycled 112 miles and all ran a marathon, all in a single day of agony

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That was totally out of character for the 25-year-old Dunbar, a blond, open-faced fellow who is very good-natured and shy around strangers. He ran in a women's race last year wearing a T shirt that read TOKEN. But there is a serious side to Dunbar, and he had seethed ever since his 1978 defeat. When people mime his hardened competitive spirit, they clench their fists and make chomping, biting gestures, evidently comparing him with an implacable snapping turtle.

In the Navy Dunbar had been a member of the Seals, an elite underwater demolition group. On ambush training patrols, Seals are not allowed to swat mosquitoes, and during 23 weeks of schooling they are at times in mud all but three hours a day: that is when they sleep. One of the tough parts is log training, when a group of men run with a 300-pound log on their shoulders, shouting, "Kill." Seals are supposed to have the highest divorce rate, as well as dropout rate, in the military, but they think it unfair to them to be considered only as zealots who, on bets, bite heads off chickens or eat glass. They say they are looking for challenges.

Dunbar's rival, Haller, also was in the Navy. "The Seals aren't so tough," he says. "There were a few in my unit and I was tougher than they were."

Haller grew up in Forest Grove, Ore. as a studious, bashful sort. He took a degree in physics at Pacific University. Since then he has raised a beard, learned to modulate his voice at radio broadcast school, taken a speed-reading course, let his hair grow, studied the power of positive thinking, shed his timid ways and resculpted his body on exercise equipment. Around strangers he wears tight T shirts and subtly pops his muscles. Old friends don't recognize him. The revamped Haller finds joy in odd accomplishments; he is, for example, an expert on TV cartoon trivia. Someday he hopes to run cross-country—that is to say, across the entire country, the continental United States. Meanwhile, his average yearly income runs between $4,000 and $5,000. He gave up driving a cab and now repairs roofs. More exercise to be had doing that.

Competing is Haller's real profession; he will sign entry blanks the rest of his life. "I'm good at it," he says. "If you've got a talent, don't waste it. Also, I like the feeling of power." During the months preceding the defense of his Iron Man title Haller trained back home in Oregon, running and swimming through fog, cold, rain, ice and snow, and pedaling his bicycle indoors on rollers. He drove 80 miles round trip several times weekly to exercise on Nautilus equipment. He has seen the movie Superman twice. A favorite scene is when the man of steel scans Lois Lane's lungs for cancer. Haller will not date a girl who smokes. He says he is happy.

Some people associate times of their lives with popular songs or love affairs. Haller does it with injuries. Thus, 1972 was the year he sprained his ankle four times. And he will never forget 1969. He was sick then for nine months, a siege precipitated by his exaggerated regimen. He was working out three times a day, had two girl friends, was staying up all night to study for exams and was preparing to run the quarter mile and half mile in a track meet. In succession he had mononucleosis, strep throat, hepatitis, dysentery, tonsillitis and trench mouth. His legs became paralyzed. "Then I really got sick," he says. His convulsions were so severe that he suffered a double hernia. "It was a good time to lay back and reflect on life—what was left of it." Haller lost 28 pounds in one week. "At the end of the week, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and I ate my first meal," he recalls.

Haller played the trumpet to ease the boredom of convalescence. Then his face became partially paralyzed. But worse, he felt, was the deterioration of his athletic skills. Frantically he fought against it. "I liked my crutches because they were building up my triceps," he says. Haller sneaked a rubber inner tube under his bedcovers and surreptitiously exercised with it, and, when nobody was home, he slipped outside and ran around the block. His time was 3:12, a minor disappointment. He rested and slept for three days, then did it again in 2:52. There is a big star in Haller's workout log for Jan. 5, 1970, the day the doctors pronounced him cured.

Now, on a spooky morning on Oahu, the competitors contemplated the start of this year's Iron Man contest. Ahead were hours promising pain, mental anguish and significant physical danger. John Dunbar arrived at the starting line wearing a Superman costume sewn by the sister of one of his support crew. Also present was "Cowman," 34, a bearded 6'3" individual weighing 215 pounds who competes in distance runs while wearing "caveman pants" and a buffalo hat made of fake fur with two large cow horns protruding from it. Another fellow had on a football helmet. Haller huddled in a rain jacket. And Tom Warren paced nervously. Warren had arrived as an unknown quantity from San Diego, where he owns a bar called Tug's Tavern. His trip cost $1,000, suggesting he could be just as serious about the event as Gordon Haller or John Dunbar. "Some people would take the $1,000 and buy furniture, but this is something you'll have with you for the rest of your life," Warren said.

That may be the essence of this type of contest. In San Francisco there is a man with a curlicued, waxed mustache four feet wide. It has changed a dull life. Writers interview him, and women are fascinated. Crowds part before him, and celebrities ask for his autograph. To Warren, the Iron Man contest does much the same thing. Warren is a blithe, irrepressible imp who speaks in an almost breathless voice, his eyes magnified behind his glasses. He says he does a secret type of sit-up and claims the bad feature of racing is that it interrupts his training routine. "I could never associate racing with pain," he says. "It's like going to school. You have to take exams to find where you stand."

On superficial inspection the triumvirate of Warren, Haller and Dunbar might appear to be the same person, one fanatic inhabiting three bodies. However, there are differences. Warren is able to combine a lust for training with the successful operation of his tavern, while Haller would be content never to work another day. Dunbar is somewhere in the middle. Believing that physical conditioning can become a cult activity, he vowed that this Iron Man contest would be his last, win or lose.

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