Ironman's first champ, Gordon Haller, looks back 25 years

<strong><em>Photo: Gary Newkirk/Allsport</em></strong>

[Editor's Note: This article was originally published on Active on October 20, 2003.]

The Ironman Triathlon, the 140.6-mile physical challenge, marked its 25th anniversary Saturday on the Big Island of Hawaii.

But the expected crowd of 25,000 spectators, the national television audience and the champion's check of $100,000 are a far cry from the sport's humble beginning in 1978.

The first Ironman Triathlon was contested to settle a debate among a group of friends over who was the fittest athlete—a runner, cyclist or swimmer.

The 2.4-mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the 112-mile Around-Oahu Bike Race and the 26.2-mile Honolulu Marathon each existed as separate events, so to determine who was truly the "Ironman," the group decided to put all three events together, back-to-back-to-back.

That argument caught the ear of Gordon Haller, who had long been testing his body not only while serving in the Navy as a communication specialist, but also in his spare time. He overheard the discussions for the race on the streets of Honolulu after dropping out of the Honolulu Marathon.

"I thought, 'Oh yeah, I'll do that,'" he said. "I used to do workouts like that all the time."

Several years before the idea for the Ironman was born, Haller's Navy work schedule had him essentially doing six days' work in five days, leaving him with 80 hours of free time—or, in his mind—time to challenge his fitness.

"During the 80 hours off, I'd pretty much do an Ironman on the first and third days and rest the day between," he said. "I'd get up and run 10 miles or so in the morning, ride (the bike) 100 miles, come back, take a nap and grab a snack. Then I'd go hang out by the pool, swim a couple thousand meters, and then I'd usually go out and run another 10, 15 miles."

After following that routine for an extended period of time, Haller was transferred to Southern California, where he even turned getting to work into a physical challenge.

"I didn't even have a driver's license back then," Haller said. "I'd ride the bike to work on Monday, then run home. On Tuesday, I'd run to work, then ride the bike home. It was about 9 miles each way."

That routine continued throughout the work week, with a "more intensive" workout for both Saturday and Sunday, Haller said.

"I was still running about 100 miles a week then, also," he said. "Now that I think back on it, I did take a lot of naps back then."

So, resting back on his past experiences, Haller wanted to win that first Ironman, which had a grand total of 15 participants, and an even smaller crowd.

"I knew when it came to cross training, I was going to be the fastest runner in the race," said Haller, then 27. "Maybe the riding would be the key and the running would just take care of itself.

"I pretty much thought it was another long workout."

Even though Haller had done workouts that simulated a triathlon, he had never done all three events without a break. Peter Reid, this year's Ironman World Champion and last year's runner-up, said that tests mental ability almost more than physical ability.

"I always approach Ironman as a problem-solving day," Reid said. "You deal with them, move on, and focus on what you're doing at the moment. It's just problem solving all day long."

After 11 hours, 46 minutes and 58 seconds of problem solving, Haller won the race, earning the title of the first Ironman.

"The next day, I had never been so tired in my life," he said. "Lying there, you think, 'Do I want to get up? No. Do I want to move? No.' You think about it, but then again you might not be totally awake. I think I slept about 12 hours after that. Every little move I made hurt."

A quarter of a century later, despite the emergence of Ironman events across the globe, the Hawaii race is still triathlon's greatest prize.

"It's a really tough course, with all the rain, the heat and the humidity," said Lori Bowden, who has finished in the top three every year since 1997. "Everyone going here is at 100 percent. No one here is thinking, 'I've got a (more important) race in a couple weeks.'"

Haller, now 53, returned this year—as he has nearly every year, in addition to competing in other Ironmans across the globe—to a race with 100 times more competitors than its original. He finished this year in 14:19:41; his best time is 10:58, set at the 1979 race.

"It's sort of like the way marathons were a long time ago," Bowden said. "People thought people who ran marathons were a bit of a freak. But now, so many people love the Ironman distance. There's a race almost every weekend that you can do."

Most of the 1,500 competitors come from the 50,000 people who enter Ironman qualifying races around the world. Another 4,346 entered the race lottery, which awards 150 spots to American citizens, 50 to international athletes and five to physically challenged athletes.

"It's been a great experience for me," said Haller, a computer programmer/consultant who lives in Denver and works in Nashville. "I've logged 70,000 miles on these legs. I've had one knee surgery and the cartilage in my knees is nearly to the bone. But I can still run, and I can still bike. So I keep working at it."

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