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He was taking the gale head-on now, but at least I the stinging rain had stopped and his mind was still working. Keep concentrating, Tom Warren told himself. Still 20 miles to go, most of it into that awful wind, the same gale he had been fighting for 120 miles and almost nine hours. The bass drum in his leg was getting louder, and his head flopped sideways.
Up ahead stood a man and his wife, paunchy, middle-aged Hawaiian tourists, watching a spectacle outside their ken. Past the astonished couple the runner stumbled, shirtless, eyes down, concentrating to avoid delusion and shock. Finally the tourist could be quiet no longer. "Go, Iron Man!" he shouted. "Go, Iron Man!" Tom Warren, age 35, shuffled off. Still 20 miles to go. And the others were back there chasing him.
The athlete had been stung by a jellyfish and partially blinded by salt water. He had been lost and confused. Physically he was a mess. But still he kept on in this, the Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon, an event that involved swimming 2.4 miles in perilously stormy seas, then bicycling 112 miles around the island of Oahu, followed by a 26.2-mile marathon run. A fellow in a Superman outfit was among the competitors. They all shared a common reason for being there, a very compelling reason (some called it a curse): an addiction to inordinate amounts of exercise.
Warren did not want to take leave of his agony and look up at the distracting grandeur of the distant mountains. A man endures torture believing the end will come. On a bet Warren once did 400 sit-ups in a sauna. The man he bet against was to keep count, but he wilted in the intense heat and quit after 300. "You're crazy," he told Warren. Warren did the last 100 alone in the sauna. The prize was a bottle of beer.
That morning 15 people, including a woman, had ignored the boundaries of sanity and started the contest. It was a Sunday in January, the stormy season for Honolulu and the middle of one of the worst stretches of weather in recent years. In six days, five feet of rain had fallen in Hilo on the nearby big island of Hawaii. Now the waters off Waikiki boiled and frothed, stirred by winds of 40 miles per hour. A Navy officer of two decades of seagoing experience could not get his boat out of the harbor. That meant there would be only one rescue vessel in seas of four to six feet during the swim from the War Memorial Natatorium to Hilton Channel. The competitors were undeterred. This was a legal way to prove their toughness.
Originally 28 people had said they would enter—including three with shaved heads, one of whom wore an earring. Of those only 16 milled about in the early-morning darkness. The sky was black and the wind bent the palm trees. The vote was 13-3 to race. A balking, apprehensive woman entrant wondered why. "Everybody has to make their own decision," yelled a man in a rain slicker, one hand holding the hat on his head. "It's just like life." The woman walked away. She had dropped out of school and trained for a year to be in the contest. Still, she figured her life was worth more than that.
The Iron Man contest was born when someone wondered what would happen if endurance tests in swimming, bicycling and running were piled on one another in a single event. Twelve people finished the 1978 Triathlon. Three did not. One fellow turned delirious and quit. Another inexplicably said that he would run only 14 miles in the marathon. And the third wrecked his bike. He was unhurt, naturally, being an Iron Man, but his fretful father persuaded him to retire. All finishers received five-inch-high trophies made of nuts and bolts, each with a hole in the top, or, you might say, the head.
It would seem not much of an award for so great an effort, but the significance of the event is that there is no apparent significance. No prize money is involved, and little fame; last year's winner, bearded Gordon Haller, a 28-year-old retired taxi driver, was delighted to read a short race report in a Honolulu newspaper. Better yet, friends started sending him mail addressed "Iron Man." The 1978 event began as an experiment and included a mixed bunch of casual entrants. One fellow could barely tread water. Another bought a bicycle and learned to ride it the day before the race. In the run, a contestant stopped at McDonald's for a soft drink. The man who won the swim had a bad knee from an old karate injury and needed eight hours to complete the marathon. Organizer John Collins, a Navy commander, did not foresee that Gordon Haller and a college student named John Dunbar would bite the athletic bullet and almost kill themselves in the first contest.
Last year Dunbar splashed out of the ocean with a 20-minute lead over Haller. As Haller chased him the rest of the day, Dunbar slowly crumbled. He was not adequately prepared. The night before, he had been up until midnight packing supplies. After the swim he had to borrow cycling shorts for the bicycle ride, and then his support van became lost. Ten miles from the marathon finish, and hallucinating, Dunbar ran out of drinking water and guzzled two cans of beer.
Haller caught Dunbar four different times. On the first two occasions Dunbar had stopped to have his legs massaged. The third time he had stopped to urinate. Finally Haller passed Dunbar for good and finished in 11 hours and 46 minutes, running the last five miles in 31 minutes as Dunbar's physiological warning lights flashed and alarm bells sounded. Dunbar's time was 12:20. At the end he was staggering into parked cars and accusing his support-van driver of trying to poison him.