Essays and Correspondence

Judy MacGregor Collins:

Her happiest triathlon memory

And the story behind the Iron Man name

Judy and John Collins are the Founders of The Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon in Honolulu Hawai’i on 18 February 1978. It was the first triathlon in Hawai’i and the first long distance triathlon in the world, a swim-bike-run of 140 miles. Here is what Judy recalls about the night they made their decision in February 1977. It was a Monday night, a work-day evening.

On 14 February 1977 Judy MacGregor Collins made a pledge that she and John Fletcher Collins would introduce triathlon to Hawai’i in February 1978.  It would be an endurance event that would use a bike leg to link the Waikiki Roughwater Swim course with the course of the Honolulu Marathon.  Judy had been mapping out triathlon courses in her head since the Collins family had done a 10-leg, 10 mile, run-bike-run/swim event in California in September 1974. It was called the Mission Bay Triathlon. That “triathlon” reminded Judy of biking and swimming and running during childhood years in Coronado California and Honolulu Hawai’i.

The Collins family moved to Honolulu in 1975 in time for the Waikiki Roughwater Swim on Labor Day. Judy and John signed up for run training in the Honolulu Marathon Clinic in early 1976. In the 1970’s the family followed the endurance events that were popular on the mainland. Judy thought that she and John should volunteer to put on a long distance triathlon. This would be their chance to be in an endurance event in Honolulu that did not require airfare. It would be on the island they called home, O’ahu.

John did not know that Judy had been talking about triathlon courses with other long distance swimmers who also ran the marathon. The last piece of Judy’s triathlon planning was the location of the bike leg. Judy had copies of the maps and rules for the rest of the triathlon because the swim and run legs were annual events which Judy and John had entered.

On that night Judy and John made their way to the awards ceremony for the annual 140 mile O’ahu Perimeter Relays. Judy would accept the awards for the Waikiki Swim Club (WSC) Wahines; John for the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard (PHNSY) Yardbirds. Each was a Captain of a Relay Team that year.  They sat outside with their running relay teammates that night.  They were in separate conversations at a picnic table. 

Judy summed up her Roughwater Swim and Marathon triathlon plan to friends. Where should the bike leg begin and end?

John moved to sit beside Judy when he heard the word “bicycle” in Judy’s conversation. John suggested using most of the course of the 115 mile annual bicycle ride around the island. It fit! Better yet, that meant that each of the three legs of their triathlon was already a popular annual event. The rules and courses and permits were known to many on the island. That made the planning easy. There would be a new challenge for local athletes. Finish all three popular events without a stop. Swim 2.4 miles, bicycle 112 miles, then run 26.2 miles to cross the triathlon finish line in Kapiolani Park.

Judy and John agreed on an entry requirement for the triathlon. Each entrant must have a support vehicle, as required for the running relays, and a paddler guide for the swim. The date would be February 1978, one month after the 1978 “140 mile O’ahu Perimeter Relays.” Judy added up the distances of the triathlon legs in her head. 140 miles! That was a good omen. Plus, the swim start and the marathon finish would be at Kapiolani Park, Waikiki. Judy had thought the bike leg was a bit long at first. Soon she decided the geography of the course was perfect.

Judy and John Collins said to each other, “If you do it I’ll do it.”  Swimmer-runners Sid and Dan Hendrickson said the same. Runners Lew Felton and Bill Larson said theywould help. Swimmer Bill Earley said they could use his VW van. Earley’s van and the Collins 1968 VW camper had been support vehicles for the Perimeter Relays the week before. The details came together fast. Done! It was a joyous moment.

The triathlon plan was complete that Monday night, 14 February 1977. The final course had been mapped out in a few minutes of quiet table talk, between the team awards. All was decided but the exact date, 52 weeks away. Swimmer Bill Earley suggested that Judy and John announce the triathlon, as a surprise, at the annual banquet meeting of the Waikiki Swim Club that Fall. Judy and John did that. They announced their new event on Friday, 11 November 1977. When the two stood behind the lectern Judy described the triathlon, John described the swim, bike and run legs. Their around-the-island triathlon announcement really was a surprise. The swimmers laughed!

Judy did not recall the day of their triathlon decision until she found that date in a box of 1970’s papers in 2002. But she never forgot how happy she felt that night. She did recall that the name of their proposed triathlon would probably be The Waikiki Swim Club Triathlon. Or there would be no special name at all. The February 1978 WSC newsletter calendar would list a date – in mid-February, an activity – triathlon, the location – Sans Souci Beach, the organizers – Judy and John. Perhaps there would be a map sketch and a list of what to bring. It would be one more club activity, a Show (up)and Go event. Judy Collins and John Collins had organized the event a year in advance.

Many months later John talked with Judy about adding some low cost and home-made extras to their triathlon and some paperwork. Good ideas. Fun. Those extras led to a small fee for expenses, an entry form, additional rules and a distinctive triathlon name!

The legs of Judy and John’s 1978 triathlon course on O’ahu are now swum and biked and run by triathletes everywhere. Shorter triathlons are now in the Olympics. For Judy Collins the peak moment of triathlon magic has always been the minute they agreed on the triathlon course around the island. It was sealed with their words to each other on 14 February 1977, “If you do it, I’ll do it.” Judy wanted to jump up and click her heels!

In 1977 and 1978 Judy and John knew they would need a steady aerobic pace to swim, bike and run around the island. Aerobic capacity and long, slow distance were popular conversational topics. Coach Jack Scaff at the Honolulu Marathon Clinic told the runners to find their long distance running pace. He said they would know it when they had the feeling they could “keep going forever.”

Judy and John admired the tireless rhythm of a Shipyard runner who was called “Iron Man” by other runners. “Iron Man” could run for hours without slowing down. That is why Judy and John included his run name as inspiration when they decided to name their triathlon. Future Race Director Valerie Silk would change the “Iron Man” triathlon name to one word, “Ironman,” a few years later. By then the Collins family had left the Hawaiian Islands and Silk had moved the triathlon from Honolulu to Kona, Hawai’i.

The anniversary of Ironman origins, for Judy Collins, is 14 February, every year. A Monday night in 1977, the decision by Judy Collins and John Collins to put on an endurance triathlon, a moment of delight never to be forgotten. That happy memory fills Judy’s head every February and spurs her to go outside, to move. A few days later is the anniversary of 18 February, 1978, the birthday of the Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon. Something else is special about the 14 February date and Ironman triathlon. It was on 14 February 1981 that Valerie Silk moved the Triathlon from O’ahu to the Big Island of Hawai’i. Kona, Hawai’i has been the hometown of Ironman Triathlon ever since.

Judy Collins now paces herself with words that are versions of an “Iron Man” mantra. It is a silent chant to guide her when she swims or bikes or runs. The words remind her how fast or slow to go. The four lines explain why she and John named their Honolulu event “The Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon.” Her training goal, then, and now, is to experience the “keep going forever” feeling of a tireless pace. The mantra ends with “On-on!” That is the call of the Hash House Harriers, a run club with many groups around the world. Judy and John have been active for many years with the “Hashers” in Panamá City, Republic of Panamá.

Judy Collins’ Ironman Mantra

“The Ironman name

means a long distance pace.

Your long distance pace

will come with a feeling.

The feeling is

you can keep

going forever.

At your Ironman pace

you’ll keep moving,

‘On-on!’ ” ©2020

©2022 <> Judith MacGregor Collins