More than a race

Everyone knows the story of how John Collins invented the Ironman, but what’s been lost is the story of the women who made Ironman Hawaii into something magical…

It started in 1978 at the Primo Beer Fun Run in Honolulu, on the island of Oahu. John Collins, an officer in the United States Navy, had just finished the race and was enjoying a beer with friends. A debate sprang up about who the best endurance athletes were: swimmers, cyclists or runners. By odd turns and after a few more beers, they decided to settle the argument in the least reasonable way possible.

Someone had heard of a sport called triathlon and proposed combining the courses of three local events into a single race. The contestants would follow the 2.4-mile course of the Waikiki Rough Water Swim, then pedal the 112 miles of the Around Oahu Bike Race (a two-day event), and cap it off by running the Honolulu Marathon course. In the decades since, the rest of the story has been gradually whittled down in the oral tradition’s haste to “…and the rest is history”. What’s been forgotten by the masses is just how messy the rest of the story is.

Fifteen men entered the water on 18 February 1978. Three contestants didn’t finish. A navy communications specialist named Gordon Haller passed Navy SEAL John Dunbar shortly before the finish line and took the victory. For winning, everyone called Haller ‘the Ironman’, the title Collins invented half-jokingly just before the race. The name stuck, and eventually became the official title for the event itself.

To Collins’ surprise, he was asked to put the event on the next year. Barry McDermott, a journalist for Sports Illustrated, heard about the event and decided to come see it for himself. He wound up writing a 10-page feature story about it. Bob Iger, head of ABC Sports, read the piece and told producers at ABC’s Wide World of Sports to get in touch with Collins. Collins told the producer that the event wouldn’t work for television. “It’s about as exciting as watching grass grow.”

“Don’t worry about that,” the ABC rep said. “We make grass growing look good.” It was agreed. What began as an alcohol-fuelled argument was about to become a spectator sports event. But after the 1979 race, Collins received orders from the navy transferring him to a new assignment, and the Ironman was suddenly without a  caretaker.

CHANGING HANDS

Collins knew that he had at least created something people were interested in doing. He wanted to see it survive in order for them to enjoy it. He asked a local gym owner named Hank Grundman if he was interested in taking it on. Hank and his wife, Valerie Silk, were co-owners of the Nautilus gym franchises on Oahu. Hank had been an enthusiastic supporter from the start. Valerie, on the other hand, had no interest in the affair. She viewed it as a distraction from their business that they could ill afford.

Hank took it on anyway and Valerie wound up a reluctant accomplice. The argument over assuming responsibility for the race drove another small wedge into the widening space between Valerie and Hank, and soon after the 1980 race they filed for divorce. Hank got the Nautilus franchise in the settlement, leaving Valerie without a job. That was stressful enough, but what she felt even more profoundly was a sense of emptiness.

“I was always an organiser of things. I didn’t miss the gyms when I left. That had always been Hank’s idea and his business. But it was scary to be without a direction.” She asked him if he’d let her take on the Ironman. Even today, she doesn’t know why. “I wasn’t really into the race, but I had an idea to turn it into something really wonderful. I’d never done anything like that before, had no idea what I was getting into. I think if I had, I’d have never done it.” Hank gave it to her without argument.

Valerie Silk (pictured behind Mark Allen) 1989

THE IRON LADY

Entries for the 1981 race exceeded Honolulu’s capacity. Valerie needed more room. She looked for viable alternatives and found one on the big island of Hawaii. The west side of the island was less densely populated and the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway had just been finished. It would make for ideal accommodations and racing if she could negotiate the new challenges it would present. With so many athletes on a highway course, the self-supported format would no longer be practical. There would have to be dedicated aid stations. That meant supplies, volunteers, and rule changes. It was going to be different.

Her faith in what she was doing grew stronger after the 1981 race. She developed a strong empathy with the athletes. “It was the experience of a lifetime for them,” she says. “I made the Ironman motto ‘more than a race’. And it was. It was a party. It was a vehicle to accomplish something. You got to know the personal lives of the competitors. It was compelling. Back in the early 1980s they were all considered kooks. I remember one athlete who came from the Midwest. He worked in an office and would train indoors for long hours during the winter. He came to Hawaii and had a blast at the race, but when he got back home everyone in his office just looked at him and asked, ‘Did you get that out of your system?’ It was so hard for many of them to be misunderstood like that. Even their families had a difficult time understanding what possessed them to do this. I developed a kind of mother instinct to take care of them.”

The race barely made enough money to stay afloat in its first three years on Hawaii, let alone enough to earn Valerie a living. Yet her ideals and commitment infected the town of Kona. ABC’s Wide World of Sports continued to broadcast the race and applications increased every year: from 108 contestants in 1980 to 381 in 1981 to more than 550 people in February 1982.

THAT’S BUSINESS, BABY

It was only a prelude to bigger changes. In 1982 Anheuser Busch was looking for a way to grab attention for a new product, tentatively named Budweiser Light. The company explored the possibility of sponsoring the Ironman. A man named Rodney Jacobs approached Valerie with a deal for a three-year, $15,000 contract. It was good money, but Wide World had already negotiated exclusive film rights. Valerie explained that they’d have to negotiate with ABC first. “But he was a smooth talker and told me, ‘Don’t worry about that. I know the guys at ABC. This is how the industry works. We’ll make everything okay with them. Trust me.’ And I did trust him. Big mistake,” she remembers. Valerie took Jacobs at his word and signed the contract with Budweiser.

To Valerie’s dismay, she found out that Jacobs had a reputation for being two-faced, and he wasn’t welcome at any of the major networks. “I looked right at him and said, ‘You lied to me.’ And he just smiled and said ‘That’s just business, baby.’”

Wide World’s producer Brice Weisman sympathised with Valerie and worked out an impromptu deal with the Budweiser crew. They could film the race, but the Wide World film crew had first priority on coverage and the commercial team had to stay out of any shots. Everyone felt things had been settled until about midway through the race, when Weisman confronted Valerie with more bad news. The Budweiser team was not holding up their end of the bargain. They were getting in the line of the ABC cameras and ruining multiple shots.

That evening, after the winners had crossed the finish line, Weisman took Valerie aside to one of the ABC vehicles. He told her that the Budweiser crew had ruined all their footage and that he doubted they had anything usable for the annual telecast. It became almost impossible to even look strong in the face of Weisman’s criticism. Suddenly there was a commotion outside. Valerie remembers one of the ABC crew members knocking on the van and telling him he needed to get back outside. “‘You need to see this,’ the guy told him. Brice just said ‘Yeah, sure,’ and kept showing me tape.” The crew member returned, pleading for Weisman to stop what he was doing and get outside. He finally relented while Valerie stayed behind in the van and cried as the tapes continued to run. She never saw Julie Moss crawl across the finish line in one of the greatest moments in sports history.

Valerie found Julie in the medical tent afterward, sitting up on a cot after getting medical attention. She looked up at Valerie plaintively. “Valerie, do you think second place is good enough to get a slot to come
back next year?”

“I told her ‘Sure, Julie. You can come back next year.’ But all I could hear was the voice in my heart saying ‘Are you kidding? This is over. There’s not going to be an Ironman next year’” I was certain that this was the end of everything.”

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PROFESSIONAL CALIBRE

The crew from Wide World of Sports had a different view. ABC rushed production of the Ironman segment in two weeks. It was the most-watched episode of the show’s history. Entry applications for the next Ironman race poured in from around the world. Ironman didn’t die. Iron-mania was born.

Silk soon had more people applying than Kona could accommodate. She capped participation at 1,200 entrants, believing it was the greatest number of people who could be in the event without overcrowding the party. With so many people interested in coming, it became evident to Valerie that her old way of doing things, with discretionary slots and judging applications based on sincerity and creativity, couldn’t continue. Some kind of qualification system had to be set up.

In 1984 Timex negotiated a licensing deal for an Ironman-branded watch. Originally called the ‘Triathlon’, Timex finally bought rights to the Ironman name and logo in 1986. It quickly became the company’s most popular watch, and remains so today. By the time Valerie sold the Ironman franchise, the licensing deal with Timex was worth more than the actual race series many times over.

But with more money came more problems. Long-distance triathlon had accumulated enough participation to begin building a kind of pyramid. As the awareness base grew broader, the potential height of its talent increased. The consistently exceptional performance of these men in Hawaii and in other races demonstrated that they were of a professional calibre. The problem was that they weren’t getting professional-grade compensation. Valerie cared about the pros as much as any of her Ironman competitors and felt that something should be done to help them. She also recognised that other prize money races would draw the big-name athletes away from Ironman and hurt its television viewership and participation rate. The matter came to a head in 1985.

CUTTHROAT POLITICS

Larry King, the husband of tennis star Billie Jean King and a sports promoter, had learned about the Ironman. He convinced the pros that there was a way to get more money. If they stuck together and attended or boycotted races as a unified group, they could pressure organisers to put up cash rewards. The athletes agreed. Even the reigning Hawaii champion Dave Scott joined the cause. King also saw an opportunity for himself. He was personally acquainted with the organisers of the Nice International Triathlon in southern France. If he could choke Ironman out of its pro contingent, there was an opportunity to woo ABC to broadcast – and get a bonus for himself in the process.

With his “union” in hand, King paid Valerie a very intimidating visit in Hawaii. Valerie remembers King telling her about his plans in the language of threats, saying that he was “giving her fair warning that he was out to leave her in the dust,” and that “You’re going to have to give prize money to your top athletes or your little party is going to be over.” Scheduling their race less than a month prior to Valerie’s, the Nice organisers intended to give the athletes too little time to recover from the exertion in order to run well in Hawaii. The athletes themselves went all the way to Bob Iger at ABC.

Iger called Valerie after meeting with them, telling her that there were grumblings of continuing the boycott if they didn’t get offered some form of payment either in prize money or royalties from the television broadcast. He bluntly explained ABC’s stance. “He told me, ‘Valerie, as far as ABC is concerned, triathlon is a wart on an elephant’s rear end.’ I think the athletes didn’t understand the scale of things. The triathlon media had given them all this adulation, but ABC was getting better ratings out of bowling and boxing in those days. I understood how the athletes felt, and I knew that ABC was watching for what I’d do. They never pressured, but they definitely took a wait-and-see attitude.”

A man offered Valerie a way out with an offer of $100,000 for a prize purse for the Ironman (she prefers to keep his name and intentions confidential). Valerie accepted. She was happy to do it and believed in her decision, but King and the prize money issue made her realise that the only thing behind her was the line she’d crossed. Though not in the way he intended, Larry King did put an end to Valerie’s little party. It was no longer an event at which people could gather and celebrate their collective passion. It had become a professionally staffed, professionally contested sport.

“As soon as people found out there was money on the table to be won, everything changed. Everyone wanted to be a part of it. Frankly, I was surprised at just how much it changed people’s perceptions. The thing with King, that kind of stuff always wore me out. Once it got into the business and politics, I really wanted out. There are tremendous cutthroat politics in big sports. I just wanted my event, and I had no stomach for the politics.”

THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED

While the money was a welcome source of income, it was of secondary importance. Valerie’s employees became concerned early on that she was too attached to her athletes. The all-hours phone calls kept coming in, as did the letters. She sent out more than 400 birthday cards every month. Even when they capped race participation and instituted a qualifying system for the Hawaii race, Valerie held 50 or so slots which she doled out at her own discretion. “People got pretty creative in how they begged to get in the race,” she remembers. “One time I got a package of letters from an entire first grade class asking to let one child’s father into the race. Another man promised to name his unborn daughter after me if I let him in.” He got a race slot, but the girl was named Emily at birth. Not that it bothered Valerie. The man wound up making a few more trips to Kona.

But even 50 slots were precious few to give out. “It was hard to give out those slots,” she says. “No. It was brutal.” Every yes carried the weight of a dozen nos. A friend and fellow race organiser gave Valerie a piece of advice: “Don’t stay so long that you can’t look at the scrapbooks.” She never forgot that.

“I stayed too long,” she admits. In 1990 Valerie sold the Hawaii Triathlon Corporation, owner of the Ironman brand, for $3 million to Dr. James Gills, a Florida ophthalmologist who had grown to love Ironman through his own participation. For many athletes who had been there for Ironman’s first decade and witnessed those that followed, that was the day the music died. Yet for her, the band had stopped playing long before.

NO HAWAII RETURN

Dr. Gills expanded Ironman to include several more races throughout the United States, South America, Asia and Europe over the next 19 years. In 2002, WTC bought the rights to the Nice triathlon. The event that had threatened to end Valerie’s party became Ironman France. In 2008 Jim Gills sold WTC to Providence Equity Securities, a large private equity firm, for an undisclosed amount estimated between $50 million and $80 million.

Valerie’s story ended the moment the deal with Dr Gills was signed. There was no return, no reprise, no gradual fading into the background. She moved to San Diego in 1990, shortly after the deal was completed, then moved on to Florida to help take care of her ailing mother and father in 1995. She never returned to Hawaii. She doesn’t know how many Ironman races there are in the world today. She wasn’t aware that WTC had created an equally expansive series of 70.3-mile races. She doesn’t know who the Ironman World Champion is. She doesn’t read any triathlon-related news.

But she does still keep in touch with Emily, the girl who was almost named after her, just as she does with hundreds of others. Friends from around the world continue to call her. In her own way, Valerie never left Ironman. She took with her the parts she loved the most. “I never cared about finishing times. I liked the pro athletes as much as anyone, but I always found myself cheering for the everyman athletes. I always wanted to make sure the guys at the back kept coming to do the race. When someone started talking to me about some new bike or diet or training plan, my eyes just glazed over. It was about the people.”

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