The History of Ironman

Ironman: the name alone can make even more seasoned athletes sweat! This intense physical test of endurance and stamina is NOT for the faint of heart.  As we say in the south, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen! Ironman has a rich history, and in its short 40-year existence has grown from 15 participants to over 2000! These participants are from all over the globe, and there are over 40 qualifying events to make it into the Ironman World Championship.

Ironman requires participants to swim 2.4-miles (3.86 km), bik 112-miles (180.25 km), and run a 26.22-mile (42.20 km) marathon. This format remains unchanged from the very first Ironman triathlon held in 1978. It is now referred to as the Ironman World Championship.

Ironman is no small feat. It requires participants to complete the full course, with no breaks, within 16-17 hours from the start of the race.

Triathlon as a sport dates back to the 1920’s in France. Called ‘Les trois sports’, or ‘the three sports’, it involved swimming across the river Marne, a 12k bike ride, and a 3k run.

There’s quite a story behind the creation of Ironman itself. There was no big gathering of great minds planning out the where’s and why’s of the event. Instead, it all started with a debate. One day, during the award ceremony for the Oahu perimeter relay, a debate started over which group of athletes was stronger...swimmers or runners. Well, an athlete and Navy commander by the name of John Collins had recently read in a magazine that a cyclist, Eddy Merckx, had been declared the strongest athlete in the world, and so he proposed that cyclists were the strongest. Collins then came up with an idea to settle the debate...they’d hold a triathlon in which participants would take part in several existing competitive courses in Hawaii: the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the Around-Oahu Bike Race, and the Honolulu Marathon.

That first Ironman competition had 15 participants, 12 of whom finished. The winner of that historic first competition was Gordon Haller, with a completion time of 11 hours, 46 minutes, and 58 seconds. He became the very first person to earn the coveted title of Ironman.

The following year, Lyn Lemaire became the very first female Ironman, finishing fifth overall in the race with a time of 12 hours, 55 minutes, and 38 seconds.

In the following years, as word got out about Ironman, it became necessary to limit the number of participants. There are currently about three dozen different qualifying competitions across the globe. Participants are rated on a points system, and the top 50 males and top 35 females are selected to compete in the Ironman World Championship. Starting in 1981, the event has been held in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii. In fact this year is the 40th anniversary of that first Ironman!


Written on the instruction sheets for that very first Ironman competition was, “Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life!” This became a slogan of sorts for Ironman, and to this day participating in this competition definitely gives you something to brag about! And the sense of accomplishment is truly like no other.

The History of Triathlon

A relatively new sport, triathlon is exploding in popularity in recent years. What started out as an alternative to track training soon took on a life of its own, and now there are estimated to be over 4 million participants in triathlons as of 2017. It is one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S., with athletes from all walks of life!

The concept of triathlon as a sport dates back to the 1920’s in France. Called ‘Les trois sports’, or ‘the three sports’, it involved swimming across the river Marne, a 12k bike ride, and a 3k run. The first event to be specifically called a triathlon occurred in San Diego on September 25, 1974. This started out as an alternative to track training. All triathlons involve swimming, cycling, and running, although distance varies between competitions.

Triathlons gained the status of an Olympic sport in 1989, making it the quickest sport to receive Olympic status. And in 2000, during the Sydney Olympics, triathlon was one of the events for the first time. Simon Whitfield of Canada became the first ever men’s triathlon Olympic gold medalist, while Bridgette McMahon of Switzerland earned gold in the women’s Olympic triathlon event. And in 2016, the Paratriathlon event was added to the Paralympic lineup.

When it comes to race format, there are several lengths, some country-specific. The U.S. has four main formats. The sprint, also called a half-Olympic, is half the distance of an Olympic level triathlon. Then there is the Olympic, also known as the standard course. The 70.3 (named after the total miles traveled) is also called a half Ironman, and finally there’s the 140.6 is also known as a full Ironman.

History of Ironman

Arguably the most well known triathlon event, Ironman has a unique origin story. It all started with a debate. One day, during an award ceremony, a debate started over who was stronger...swimmers or runners. Well, an athlete and Navy commander by the name of John Collins had recently read in a magazine that a cyclist, Eddy Merckx, had been declared the strongest athlete in the world,  and so he proposed that cyclists were the strongest. Collins came up with an idea to settle the debate...they’d hold a triathlon in which participants would take part in several existing competitions on Hawaii: the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the Around-Oahu Bike Race, and the Honolulu Marathon. In fact, this year is the 40th anniversary of that first Ironman event!


Whether you’re just getting started in the world of tri or whether you’re a seasoned triathlete, knowing the history of triathlon gives you a whole new way to appreciate it!