The Tin Can Ironman

First, swim 2.4 miles. And be sure to complete that task in under two hours and twenty minutes. Then, change gears — and outfits — and start off on a bike ride; it’s a leisurely 112 miles, and you have another eight hours and ten minutes to complete that. When done, run a marathon in under six hours and thirty minutes. Complete this grueling, extreme triathlon and you’ll be considered an Ironman. This has been the case since February of 1978, when fifteen men took to the oceans and beaches of Hawaii in the first-ever Ironman Triathlon. Twelve of them finished, with Gordon Haller, a former Naval communications officer and local cab driver, coming in first by 34 minutes. Second place went to a Navy SEAL named John Dunbar.

The race was close, though — much closer than that 34-minute gap would suggest. Per various reports, Dunbar led the race after the swim and bike. (This was true even though Dunbar apparently finished the swim only to realize that he didn’t have any bike shorts, per one triathlon fan site — and, therefore, had to find a pair to borrow before continuing onward. That probably wasn’t all that big of a concern; in a retrospective piece on Haller 25 years after that first-ever Ironman, USA Today reported that Haller took a shower at a nearby hotel after the swim and before the bicycling leg.) But the footrace proved to be Haller’s strongest of the three, and with about five miles to go, the cab driver caught the SEAL, taking a lead he’d not relinquish.

In large part, that was because of Dunbar’s less-than-adequate preparations. (The lack of bicycle shorts were the least of the concerns.) Each of the triathletes had a “support team” — a group of people who followed the swimmer-cyclist-runners around, typically in a van, and made sure that their competitor was in good health and otherwise able to complete the race. But Dunbar’s support team wasn’t up to the task. The van got lost, keeping Dunbar without water for longer than he should have been. And later — with about ten miles left in the race — the support team had even worse news for Dunbar: his water supplies had run out entirely. Dunbar’s legs began to cramp, resulting in a game of tit-for-tat. Dunbar twice needed to take a break to have his aching muscles rubbed; each time, Hellar would seize the opportunity and take the lead, only to relinquish it again after Dunbar’s legs were able to continue.

Ultimately, though, dehydration proved to be a foe greater than any human adversary. Cramping was only a warning sign; as Sports Illustrated reported, Dunbar began to hallucinate.

With no other option, Dunbar’s support team handed him the only drinkable liquid they had available — two cans of beer. This staved off the dehydration, allowing Dunbar to finish the race. But it should go without saying that downing that much alcohol while physically in shambles isn’t the breakfast of champions. Sports Illustrated continued: “Haller passed Dunbar for good and finished in 11 hours and 46 minutes, running the last five miles in 31 minutes as Dunbar’s physiological warning lights flashed and alarm bells sounded. Dunbar’s time was 12:20. At the end he was staggering into parked cars and accusing his support-van driver of trying to poison him.”

While Dunbar did not win, he did complete the race, a significant task in its own right. He is also probably the only person to complete it drunk.

Bonus Fact: Hawaii has hosted the hallmark Ironman race (now the “Ironman World Championship”) every year since the inaugural one in 1978. Dunbar isn’t the only one to lose it due to dehydration — far from it. Most famously, in the 1982 Ironman, a racer named Julie Ross fell — literally. Just yards from the finish line, her body gave out and she ended up crawling to the finish line shortly after the eventual winner passed her. Unlike Dunbar’s collapse, Ross’s was seen around the world. ABC’s Wide World of Sports broadcast parts of the 1982 Ironman, including her plight. Millions watched it happen, and the clip is now available on YouTube, here.

From the ArchivesMarathon Madness: The similarly crazy (moreso, probably) results from the marathon at the 1904 Summer Olympics.

Related: A “survival cup and hydration manual.”