Back in the Good Old Days, i.e., before the 1970’s, it may be hard for young folks to believe, but there was no such thing as a triathlon. Triathlons simply did not exist, not until a dozen or so military guys drinking in a bar in Honolulu, arguing about which endurance sport was toughest, came up with the idea of the IRONMAN TRIATHLON. They threw together the classic 2.4-mile Rough Water Swim, a 112-mile bike ride circling Oahu, and the Honolulu Marathon for one humdinger of an event.
The first iteration of the Ironman Triathlon was limited to that small number of military guys, 13 if I recall correctly, and the winner was Portland’s Gordon Haller, a Coast Guard officer. The military guys did not see fit to take it further: they had jobs to do. But Valerie Silk Grundman, a co-owner of the Nautilus of Honolulu franchise, saw a huge potential in this infant sport. The next year the Nautilus Club grabbed the ball and ran with it, preventing this great new sport from being stillborn.
ABC Wide World of Sports (“The thrill of victory; The agony of defeat”.) also smelled a winner. They sent Jim Lampley and Diana Naiad to Honolulu to cover the story. Being drawn by the scent of something big and new in the endurance world, I found myself on the starting line in Honolulu, without a clue if I could handle this new challenge or not. My biggest question mark was the swim leg: I saw myself as an ultra-distance runner, not a cyclist or a swimmer. Somehow, I survived, and dummy that I am, I came back to do the IRONMAN five more times before the idea of enough-is-enough entered my calculations.
Most people do not know that the first iterations of the IRONMAN were all in Oahu, not Kona. The bicycle course took us straight through the main street of Waikiki, with no traffic control along the entire 112-mile route. In 1982, because of traffic control and better financial conditions, Valerie Silk moved the triathlon to Kona on the Big Island, Hawaii. Exploding outward from Hawaii like a starburst, the nascent sport of triathlon grew exponentially, even to the point of becoming an Olympic event.
In early February of 2022, nostalgia pulled me back to Hawaii, more than four decades after my first foray into the world of triathlon. Sylvia and I had been COVID-locked-up for too long, and we needed to get out. Fully vaccinated and with our boosters, we ignored the COVID demons and made our escape.
Our first stop was Honolulu, where I swam the four-kilometer IRONMAN course that I had swum before the race was moved to Kona. The sun was shining down on me, the water was warm, caressing and so refreshing. I felt that I was just short of being in Heaven. Every bit of scenery, the taste of the ocean, brought back memories of that first swim. As I swam, I remembered my uncertainty back then, when I wasn’t very confident about being able to finish what I had started, hoping that this long swim would get over with soon. Then it was over, and so was my nostalgic swim. But it is still up here in my head, as it will always be.
Our next stop was Kona, on The Big Island, today’s home of the IRONMAN triathlon. In February of 1982, exactly 40 years ago, Kona hosted their first IRONMAN. Here in Kona the weather is reliably sunny, the swim course is in a calm bay, and traffic control on the bike and run courses excellent. It made sense to move away from Oahu.
I was here to swim, to experience the same course where I swam 40 years ago this February, an anniversary of sort. The swim start was on a tiny beach near the King Kamehameha Hotel. It is difficult to imagine that several hundred swimmers were cramped into that wee beach, but that is how it really was. For today’s swim, there were just a handful of tourists wading about, along with what looked like wannabe triathlon lookalikes in tight and tiny Speedos, a couple with painful-looking sunburns. The swim course is lined by white buoys, spaced a couple of hundred yards apart, running parallel to a shoreline wall built of lava stones. Two kilometers out, turn around and swim two kilometers back. The water is extremely clear, so clear that a truck tire 35 feet down on the bottom looks like a Lifesaver candy. Colorful fish, thousands of them, ignore me as I swim. How many generations of these fish were descended from their ancestors that I saw 40 years ago? I want to stop and just take it all in, store some images and feelings of it up for when I get home, so I pause and look around for a short while. (During competition we never had the luxury of relaxing. We were all in a gigantic hurry.) When I got back to the small starting beach, a new set of waders and wannabes was prancing about. (They reminded me that Kathleen McCartney, the top female triathlete that year, named it “Dig-Me Beach” for all the posers.)
For the rest of our holiday in Hawaii, I did a few more swims, none memorable. We went on a whale watching cruise, ate too much good food, relaxed in the sun and relished our time in the sun. Should I go back again in another 40 years? By that time I will be 127 years old, so probably not. This time, though, it was perfect. I couldn’t ask for more.
We were in Kona the last week in January. I swam the Ironman course three times – enjoyed immensely.
Best, Kermit Yensen