40 Years of Ironman: The First Winner, Gordon Haller, on Fueling With Coke and Mid-race Leg Massages

Swimmers at Ironman World Championships in Hawaii
Swimmers at Ironman World Championships in HawaiiHandout/Getty Images Sport / Getty Images

When Gordon Haller toes the line on Oct. 13 for the start of the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii, much will be different in comparison to his first Ironman: the location (the Big Island vs. Oahu), the number of competitors (15 vs. 2,000+), his prospects of winning (nil vs. being a favorite), and most importantly, the toll on his body from the 40 years that’ve past since the inaugural event in 1978.

About the only thing that’ll be the same is the daunting challenge that’s made the king of endurance sports so legendary: the 2.4-mile swim, the 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run on gassed legs. Haller won’t come close to replicating his 1978 victory, most likely finishing about 6-7 hours behind the leaders. The victory for him will be in finishing—at the age of 68.



The Birth of the Ironman

In 1977, after running a PR of 2:27:34 in the Marine Corps Marathon earlier that year, Haller came to Hawaii to run the Honolulu Marathon. He had to drop out at the six-mile mark, but fate was at play. There was a friend at that very point who talked about a race in the works that fit Haller’s multi-sport experience perfectly: a combination of the Waikiki Roughrider swim, the Around-Oahu Bicycle Race, and the Honolulu Marathon.

Two weeks later he was in the home of race organizer and fellow Navy man, John Collins, talking with 15-20 other athletes about the challenge ahead—debating whether swimmers, bicyclists, or runners were the most fit. Truth be told most were just hoping to finish.

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“We weren’t that serious about it,” says Haller, the only person who’d completed the bike race leg, which was a two-day stage race. “Technically, it wasn’t a race, except for a couple of us who decided to make it one.”

Two months after that meeting, on Feb. 18, 15 men stood on the beach at the start, each with a boy on a board accompanying them to make sure they didn’t drown.

IRONMAN World Championship swim
IRONMAN World Championship swim Tom Pennington / Staff / Getty Images

Haller, a competitive swimmer and runner at Pacific University as an undergrad, came out of the water in eighth place, 20 minutes behind the leaders. He climbed onto his steel-framed bike, made up eight minutes, and finished 12 minutes behind the man in front, his friend John Dunbar.

“Once I survived the swim, I thought I could win it. I knew I was the fastest cyclist and runner,” Haller says.

Haller came within sight of Dunbar at 15 miles, caught him at 18 miles, and the two leapfrogged for a couple miles, as Haller had to stop to get leg massages from his support team leader—something that would now be illegal, of course.

“He looked so bad when I caught him at 21, I figured I had it,” Haller says. “I ran the last 5.2 miles pretty fast, in about 30 minutes. I had two guys running with me. One guy was carrying a Coke and another with a bottle of water. Back then we didn’t have rules about aid during the race.”

Dunbar’s team ran out of water, resorting to supplying beer, and Dunbar finished second of the 12 finishers, about 30 minutes behind Haller, who won with a time of 11:46:58.

Cyclist competing in IRONMAN World Championship
Cyclist competing in IRONMAN World Championship Sean M. Haffey / Staff / Getty Images

Haller’s History With the Sport

The 1978 victory may have been Haller’s last championship win, but it certainly wasn’t his last Ironman-distance competition. The Kona World Championships this October will be his 25th 140.6-mile race, including two only a week apart in 1998. Not all of the competitions were Ironman-branded races, though.

Haller and the other original racers were involved in a trademark dispute with Ironman and consequently banned from Kona after 1989, but were invited back for the 20th anniversary in 1998. His last Ironman came in 2013, at the 35th anniversary, when he finished in 15:37.

While he’s added five years in age since then, his goal is to actually finish faster. In fact, Haller hopes to beat his 1978 time of 1:20 in the swim (“I’d like to think I could do it as fast as the first time, because I wasn’t very fast”) and the 1978 6:56 mark on the bike (“Instead of a steel-framed bike, I’ll have my Cervelo P2 carbon fiber bike”). He’ll be much slower on the run, given 40 years, arthroscopic knee surgery this spring, and a 2009 hip resurfacing surgery.

“I’m now a cobalt-chromimum man, in addition to being an Ironman,” he joked.

His goal for the run is about 5:30.

The Growth of Ironman

While the distances have stayed the same since that inaugural race 40 years ago, the popularity has grown tremendously. This year there are 41 Ironman-branded 140.6 races that are expected to have just shy of 100,000 participants.

Did Haller expect the sport to grow that much?

“Not after my first one,” Haller says. “The notoriety we got was about one paragraph near the back of Runner’s World. But the 1980 Sports Illustrated article brought a lot of people in, and then ABC’s Wide World of Sports covered it. In February of 1982, when Julie Moss [who will also be returning to race this year] had her famous meltdown, she became the picture of the agony of defeat, and it really took off.”

The Future of the Kona

Whatever changes Ironman may continue to undergo, Haller will probably be there to experience it. Despite his age, he expects to do at least one more after the 40th anniversary in Kona.

“It could be my last, but I don’t want it to be,” Haller says. “I’m thinking I’ll do at least one more when I turn 70, and when I get to 70, why not just do the 50th anniversary? And then it will only be two more years until I’m 80….”

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