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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Most of the Iron Man contestants keep precise training diaries. To them they are canceled checks to peruse fondly. Haller logs not only every shred of physical activity, but also each morsel of food and the time it was consumed. Junk food is underlined. He records his pulse rate, his sleeping time, injuries and the quality of the day. Tom Warren not only chronicles his daily exercise but makes copies that he sends each month to friends around the country. Most of them get thrown away; some do not. Fifteen years ago Warren swam for the University of Southern California. He has a standing bet with each year's swim team that he can do more exercise mileage per month than the entire team can do in practice. Coach Peter Daland reads Warren's monthly exercise tallies to the squad. Once Warren rode his bike from San Diego to Los Angeles, rolling onto the Southern Cal campus and into the natatorium to hand-deliver the workout sheet. The swimmers applauded.

Opinions differ as to what worthy competition is, what toughness is. To some, it is playing in a Super Bowl—or making enough money to drive a Mercedes-Benz. Last year a television-network president was interviewed at a college basketball game in New York City. Since then he has been replaced, which is perhaps immaterial, but at the time he commented that he was in his office daily at 7 a.m., and ate both lunch and dinner at his desk. He had taken a limousine uptown to see the first half of the basketball game but had to return to the office right after the interview. He usually knocked off around midnight, he said. There were a wife and kids at home. The contest he was competing in may not have been for everyone, but he said he was happy.

Among the Iron Man entries was an individual with a master's degree in exercise physiology, another with a degree in accounting, a fellow applying to law school, a research anesthesiologist, the treasurer of a San Francisco leasing company and Haller with his physics degree. Disparate as their backgrounds were, they shared a common bond. Henry Forrest, a Marine stationed in Jacksonville, N.C., had hitched rides on military transport planes to get to Honolulu. Until the 1978 Iron Man Triathlon, he had not ridden a bike since the fourth grade and had become lost during the race. He hoped to improve on his performance this year. People thought his name was Forrester, because when introduced he said rapidly, "Henry Forrest, sir."

Pedaling along during the first part of the bike race, Warren reflected that this would be a momentous day. His presence near the lead was surprising. A businessman closing in on middle age, he had less time for training than the unemployed Haller and Dunbar. When Dunbar, disgusted at the event's one-day postponement, had impulsively announced on Saturday that he would challenge Haller to do the course that day—just the two of them, man against man—off to the side stood Warren, unnoticed. No one thought to challenge the saloonkeeper. So Warren went down to a Waikiki bar, drank beer in solitude and watched a week-old television replay of the Hula Bowl.

While Haller and Dunbar were with friends, Warren was staying alone in a cut-rate hotel that had black-and-white TV sets with 12-inch screens. After 8 p.m. he couldn't be reached by phone. Warren had not trained in four days. He felt fat. And the weather was getting worse. Reports from the mountains mentioned snow and waterfalls where the water was being blown upward by the fierce wind. That night Warren turned up at dinner with some fans of the Iron Man contest; he was, by and large, ignored. The discussion centered on the merits of Haller and Dunbar, on which of those two had the better chance to win. Eventually Warren spoke up. "I just want to be a factor," he said. In the movie Rocky, Sylvester Stallone, playing a heavyweight challenger, said, "I just want to go the distance." Warren would not contradict the notion that the race would belong to Haller or Dunbar, but he wanted to go the distance, too, to be a factor.

Warren has owned his bar in San Diego for 10 years. It is a business not lacking in competition. The record for Thursday-night taco dinners is 1,519. The Sunday breakfast record is 1,003 omelets. One floor of Warren's four-level, $220,000 house is "Tug's Athletic Club." It has a whirlpool bath, a sauna and a weight machine. He also owns apartments and a five-bedroom, 80-year-old house that he and 15 friends once occupied. When he runs on the beach he stops at lifeguard stations to write down business ideas. His grammar isn't perfect, but in his business that is good cash-flow strategy.

With all of the entrants, Warren shares the love for competition, but, surprisingly, he hates gambling. "The gratification of winning money isn't as high as the discomfort of losing, therefore the odds are bad," he says. But he will bet on his body. For fun, he even competes over the time he can sit in the whirlpool. "Fat people are tough to beat. Especially women with those little skirts on their swimsuits."

Warren remembers when he first realized he was different. There was a boy in his neighborhood, a good swimmer, and the boy's parents urged the youngsters to race. Warren hesitated. The parents insisted. Tom Warren won, and afterward he cried, not because he won, but because he had to win.

In college he was a good swimmer, but teammates were better. They had been swimming seriously since infancy; he had started organized competitive swimming when he was 16. Warren will not play racquetball anymore and this is why. One regular opponent had beaten him repeatedly. Warren improved and finally won. The other fellow refused to play again. Warren wanted to keep beating him. He has not married; he is afraid he would always be badgering his children to work harder.

After a dozen miles of bicycling, Warren caught Emberson on a steep hill overlooking the Pacific, a point where the wind was so bad Warren's support car almost was blown off the road. The Californian bored ahead and broke the other man like a dry stick. Emberson swims five miles a day and carries his ocean gear to work, just in case conditions are conducive to swimming the channel between Oahu and Molokai, a 26-mile trip. But he is not a cyclist and had run only one marathon.

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