“October 1982 was my first Ironman. It was a race I was going to do once, then get serious about my life! I had a secret goal that I told no one about, and that was to finish in the top 100. Unfortunately the Ironman had a different plan, one that was more nightmare than dream.”
At five minutes to 7:00am I was floating in Kailua Bay on race morning waiting the starting cannon to sound the beginning of one of the toughest days in sports. It’s a day that can be filled with life-altering greatness, or just as easily with dream shattering derailments. Yes, it was intimidating! The only things I knew about the race came from watching the race on television earlier that same year. I had no idea what it was really going to take to get from the start line in Kailua Bay to the finish line on Ali’i Drive.
I was feeling uncertainty and the unknown at stratospheric levels. I was so nervous race morning that I’d barely been able to choke down a piece of toast and a yogurt for breakfast. I’d checked everything in my transition area a hundred times without really doing anything. I’d spit in my goggles for the tenth time to keep them from fogging up as the countdown clock ticked off the final seconds to the start. I was a mess, but it was exciting!
There were about a thousand athletes in the race that day. Yes, it was much easier to get into the Ironman World Championships in 1982. You called up the Ironman office, had them send you an entry form, and that was it! Return it with a headshot and a check and you were in.
One of the greatest champions in our sport was on the line that day as well. Dave Scott. He had won his first title already and was back hoping to win number two! By the end of 2.4-miles of swimming it indeed looked like Dave was right on track for another title. He exited the water in first place.
But there was an unknown just seconds behind him…me! I kept scraping his feet the second half of the swim as he set the pace for the two of us. Clearly at that point I was ecstatic. I was out of the water with the leader of the race, and that leader was the best Ironman distance triathlete in the world at that time.
Half way through the bike near the turn around at Hawi, I was still with Dave and we had opened up a five-minute gap on the rest of the field. A while later I figured it was time to break the silence. I pedaled up next to Dave and asked, “Hey Dave, when we’re done with the bike you want to go for a run!” I gave a big dumb smile that seemed to confuse him even more. Dave wasn’t exactly into having a conversation. He kind of grumbled, then clicked his bike into a big gear and took off. So I clicked my bike into a big gear…and I heard this horrendous sound that no healthy derailleur makes. A key piece of it had snapped off. My chain was stuck in the 54/11, not a gear designed to battle the headwinds that were building in front of us for the next fifty-miles.
I tried desperately to force the bike to shift, but nothing happened. The level was limp with no tension on it. I slammed on my brakes and jumped off my bike hoping that some miracle would happen and I’d find something to reattach that was loose and then I’d be back in it. It took a minute to figure out what had happened, but like those moments in a bad dream where you don’t want to see what you’re facing, I could see that the metal mount where the lever cable attaches to had snapped off. Metal broken. Shifting impossible. Finishing an excruciating unreality.
My Ironman was done just past the halfway point of the bike. Dave went on to win his second title that year. I didn’t even achieve the most basic goal of the day, which was to finish. I had to go into an even more basic mode. How the heck was I going to get back to town and my hotel? Basics. I stuck my thumb out and hitched a ride.
Fortunately in 1982 there was a small bit of traffic sifting through out on the Queen K Hwy. A local guy in a pickup stopped and offered to take me all the way to the transition area where I knew my parents would be. It was a long drive with very little thought or talk. I wasn’t even disappointed yet because I was still in shock. I’d trained every single day I’d had off from my job that year. I’d fit in sessions on the other days at odd times that really weren’t ideal but at least I got them in.
This was a one-time dream, to be an Ironman finisher. I knew that when I got home it was going to be the rest of my life facing me, not just one race that didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped. The guillotine of Ironman reality had beheaded my last fling with an uncertain adventure.
I was still in shock and still in my stinking sweaty race gear when that kind soul with the pickup dropped me off at the transition area. I spotted my dad on a staircase that gave him enough elevation that he could see every athlete coming into the bike-to-run transition area. He looked stressed to say the least. I’m sure he had gotten reports that I was up at the front of the race, but then no report. No marshals stopped when I dropped.
I was still in shock and still in my stinking sweaty race gear when that kind soul with the pickup dropped me off at the transition area. I spotted my dad on a staircase that gave him enough elevation that he could see every athlete coming into the bike-to-run transition area. He looked stressed to say the least. I’m sure he had gotten reports that I was up at the front of the race, but then no report. No marshals stopped when I dropped. They followed Dave, so no one knew where I was or what had happened. I walked up behind my dad and tapped him on the shoulder. Now he was the one trying to make sense of everything. I’d been in the lead with Dave Scott, but there I was standing next to him clearly out of the race. In the years that would come I’d learn this was not the only thing that could go wrong at the IRONMAN World Championship. I have a list of things as long as just about anyone’s.
On this particular day I experienced the nerves of nerves first thing in the morning. Then came a high of highs exiting the swim with the best in the sport. And then the incredible meter stayed pegged at unbelievable all the way through the bike turn at Hawi as Dave and I rode together. But then came the sound of metal snapping. Everything turned upside down like a nightmare where you want to run but you can’t even get your feet to hit the ground. It took the entire ride back to town in the pickup truck to really cemented in my brain what had just happened and what it meant. I’d failed in my most basic part of the dream…to finish.
I returned home thinking my eight-month diversion into triathlon was finished in a very inglorious fashion. I was 24-years old and it was time to really figure out what I was going to do with my college degree. Then the phone rang. The guy on the other end was inviting me to a race in Nice, France that was going to take place in six weeks! They would pay my flights and cover all my expenses! Of course the answer was a quick yes! The week after that I was on a bike ride by myself getting ready for the Nice race when I ran into another dream changer named George Hoover. He asked me to be on a triathlon team that a local investment firm had started. They would pay me a stipend so I could just train! Forget the career path in the lab. I was seeing my triathlon diversion might be a means to pay the rent. But more importantly I also saw that something gnawing at my heart since Kona now had a way to take shape.
At the Ironman in 1982 I didn’t finish the race. I didn’t even reach mile 70 of the bike, which is where the reality of Ironman really starts to sink in. But I’d been with the best in the world for over four-hours of racing that day, which is nearly half the time it takes the fastest to complete the course! A new dream had been percolating and fermenting without a means to help it be possible. The dream? Maybe…just maybe…if I took my time to develop as a triathlete I could become the champion of that great race! Now it was looking like I might have that chance.