As Gordon Haller approached the finish of the first-ever Ironman triathlon in 1978, he was running alone. There were no cheering throngs along the marathon route into Honolulu's Kapiolani Park, no public-address announcer screaming his name and no TV cameras.
He just kept running quietly through the darkness toward the lights.
"I got there, crossed the finish line and there's like three people there," recalls Haller. "And one guy says, 'Are you in the race?' I said, 'Yeah,' and he said, 'Well, you're done.' So that was it."
Haller, now 65, laughs about the paucity of pomp. "It was a real exciting finish," he jokes.
Haller, a 27-year-old Navy communications specialist at the time, was the first winner of what is now known as the Ironman World Championship. He completed the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike route and 26.2-mile marathon run on Oahu in 11 hours, 46 minutes, 40 seconds, more than a half-hour ahead of runner-up John Dunbar.
Now, triathlon is an Olympic and Paralympic sport in the mainstream of the endurance world, and the Ironman World Championship is known across the globe. When this year's race is held on Oct. 10, it will draw nearly 2,200 athletes, far more fans and international media coverage.
But in 1978, just 15 athletes crashed into the water to start what was considered a bizarre fringe event. The entry fee was only $3, there were no aid stations and the race was so obscure that few paid attention to the athletes running through Honolulu and pedaling around the island.
Only 12 finished. Honolulu Advertiser sports writer Dick Fishback called the triathlon a "gut-buster" and far beyond what "most mortals" could do. The race began close to 7:30 a.m., with Haller finishing just after 7 p.m. Fishback compared Haller to TV's "Bionic Man."
Today, Haller lives in Bella Vista, Ark., and works as a program analyst at Walmart's corporate headquarters in Bentonville.
As an athlete, he's far more than just the answer to a trivia question. Haller has completed 23 Ironman races and about 30 other triathlons of varying distances. He's been back to do the Ironman in Hawaii 16 times (most recently in 2013) and has a career best of 10:58, set in 1980. He also does bike and road races, open-water swims and events of all kinds, including swim/run and bike/run races. Plus, he was on the three-man U.S. world championship team in the military pentathlon in 1981.
Still, he'll be known for winning that first Ironman on Feb. 18, 1978. He and the other 14 entrants were attempting something that had never been done. He recalls the moments before the race, when he was standing next to an 11-year-old boy who was going to accompany him on a paddleboard during the swim.
"We looked out at the ocean and I said, 'You think you can do this?' And he turned to me and said, 'You think you can?'" says Haller, laughing at the memory. "That part I remember well. And he did, and I did."
"They'd invented a race for me"
If anyone was primed to be an Ironman, it was Haller.
In high school in Forest Grove, Ore., he wrestled, played tennis and ran track and cross country. In college at Pacific University, he lettered in swimming, soccer, track and cross country.
But it was when he was stationed in Hawaii with the Navy that he raised his fitness to a new level. In the early 1970s he ran more than 450 miles in a month a couple of times, and in one seven-week stretch he did four marathons and a practice marathon. Because of his duty schedule -- he worked long, consecutive days followed by three days off -- he would pack his first and third days off with workouts (sandwiching a rest day).
He says he loved the cross training and simply wanted to test himself.
"I'd get up and do a long run, come back, have breakfast, do a long (bike) ride, come back, have a nap, go swim and then run in the evening," he says. "So basically I'd do two Ironmans every eight days. It wasn't hard. I was 23. I recovered fast and I did take naps a lot."
In November of 1977, he ran a personal-best time of 2:27 in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., and then tried to do the Honolulu Marathon in December. After six miles, he was forced to drop out because of a nerve problem in a leg. But right at that point, watching the race, was a friend.
"He told me they'd invented a race for me," says Haller. "He told me what it was, but that they didn't have the distances figured out yet. I said, 'Well, I do that all the time, so I'm sure I can do that.'"
Navy Cmdr. John Collins and his wife, Judy, had the idea to put on a race combining the routes of the 2.4-mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the Honolulu Marathon and the Round the Island Bike Race. Haller says he went to a meeting at the Collins' home to discuss the details of the race with others interested in doing it, and there it was decided what the one-day triple-endurance test would entail.
"Most had done the Honolulu Marathon, probably half of them had done the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, but I was the only one who'd done the Round the Island Bike Race," says Haller. "I didn't tell them it was a two-day stage race."
The bike route -- originally 115 miles around Oahu -- had to be shortened to 112 to fit in with the swim and run.
Haller recalls thinking that he had a good shot at winning the triathlon because he believed he was the best cyclist and fastest marathoner, but he'd never done a swim of that distance and knew others were better.
His assessment proved correct. He was eighth in the swim but first in the bike. When he started the run he was 13 minutes behind Dunbar, but ran a 3:30 marathon, passing his friend for good at the 21-mile mark.
After finishing, Haller waited with friends for Dunbar to finish. They had reservations on a dinner cruise.
"But he was too late to get onto the cruise," says Haller, with a laugh. "We missed it."
Still going strong
Haller has plenty of reminders of that race 37 years ago. For one, his friends sometimes introduce him to strangers as the guy who won the first Ironman. And, after the company magazine ran a story on him recently, Haller was recognized as he was getting set for a swim at a local pool. Plus, he's given numerous interviews and autographs at almost every event he's entered.
Also, he has a box in his home of the clothes he wore in that race: the helmet, shoes, shorts, shirts and bike gloves, as well as the trophy, the 6-inch welded black pipe figure with a nut for a head.
But mostly, Haller can get a sense of his place in triathlon history by watching the growth of triathlon. He's been amazed by how fast it grew and how popular it is. Doing an Ironman race, he says, has become a sort of ultimate test for weekend warriors to elite athletes.
"People see it on TV and think, 'Gee, I'd sure like to do that,' or, 'I wonder if I can do that?' or 'I can do that,' " he says. "There's different ways to look at it. I know a lot of people have said that watching Julie Moss crash and burn in 1982 was a big decision-maker for them because they wanted to try it."
When Haller goes back to do the race on the Big Island now, he's a celebrity. He's marched in the Hall of Fame parade (he was inducted into the Ironman Hall of Fame in 2003) and is stopped by people who want to have their picture taken with him or get his autograph.
After the anonymity of that first race, the crowds in Kona now for race week -- the event was moved to the Big Island in 1981 -- would have been hard to comprehend, he says. When he last did the race in 2013, he finished in 15:37:47. He hopes to go back again in 2016 and certainly in 2018, the 40th anniversary of his victory.
He's learned to adapt his training to his age, and has overcome a hip resurfacing in 2009 and knee surgery in 2000. No longer does he do the mass running miles.
He has a converted bedroom in his house with a bike trainer, treadmill, weight machine and free weights. He still runs, but he also walks a lot. Plus, cross training allows him to stay fit while allowing legs and feet to recover.
"I'm a little smarter," he says. "If there's a day when I just don't feel like it, I won't work out. I figure if my body doesn't want to do it, why push it? I'm 65."