To Become Ironman

It’s race day … just over eight hours ago an air horn launched hundreds of determined athletes into the clear warm waters of Kailua Bay. The rough water swim lasted only an hour and the bike ride was just over four. The final 3-hour run is nearly complete and the finish line is within sight. Imagine the feeling of being in the lead! For the last hour you haven’t seen a single competitor as they are all behind the leader. The finish line looms wearily between you and the limits of human endurance. As the crowd’s screams barely register, your psyche transports a reluctant body across the final fleeting line. Exhausted after 3,500 swim strokes, 24,000 pedal turns, and 40,000 strides, the real journey towards that line started many years, strokes, turns, and strides ago. Crossing it, you haven’t won a great race, but rather you have become something greater—an Ironman.        

No one knows this more than two-time Ford Ironman World Championship winner Tim DeBoom. He is a world-class athlete from Colorado who has placed 4th (2007), 3rd (1999), 2nd (2000), and 1st (2001, 2002) in “the world’s most prestigious one-day endurance event.” Like many triathletes, Tim began his career to “see if I could do it.” The goals progressed from there to “Can I race as a professional—Yes—can I earn money—Yes—can I win?” Well, yes, he did a lot of winning. It all started after his first Ironman, here on the Big Island, which he describes as “one of my favorite places in the world and I know that it will always be important to me, even when my career is over. No other venue has had the same influence over the direction of my life. The people here are very special and I respect the Island immensely.”

Many Ironman competitors like Tim respect the race here in Hawai‘i because it is the birthplace of the Ironman phenomenon and is considered the pinnacle race of the sport. Ironman was conceptualized on O‘ahu in 1977 after a group of competitors from the 5-man O‘ahu Perimeter Relay debated which group of athletes were more fit—bikers, swimmers, or someone else. To solve the dilemma, Navy Commander John Collins and his wife Judy proposed a simple solution. Take all of the most difficult races around O‘ahu, combine them into one and, in what would become a part of Ironman legend, Collins said, “Whoever finishes first, we’ll call the Iron Man.”

In 1978, after 11 hours, 46 minutes, and 58 seconds, Gordon Haller was the first athlete to earn the title “Ironman.” He managed to pass US Navy Seal John Dunbar during the marathon portion after Dunbar’s “support crew” substituted beer when the water ran out too early. Since its humble beginnings, the Ironman race has grown into a worldwide event attracting top triathletes from 50-plus countries and all 50 states. Although Ironman competitions are now held on every continent, the Ford Ironman World Championship takes place on the Big Island of Hawai‘i, giving it the characteristic grueling conditions that have since defined the event.         

To compete in the Ironman Hawai‘i and earn a place in what Tim calls “a big family…a very fit one,” takes years of dedication and training. For most participants, to just finish requires that they train 18-24 hours a week for at least a year. To be a champion is a whole different story. “Success,” as Tim puts it, “comes at a price.” “The training and suffering I've put in,” says Tim, “and the time away from family and friends that is required to reach my goals is tough at times.” Tim shares this experience with every person who has completed the race. “We have a connection that is tough to beat. It is almost like we’ve been on a battlefield together, and at the end of the day, we all have our stories.”

To support these elite athletes’ quest to earn the title Ironman, The Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows has developed a series of health and fitness retreats with a focus on endurance sports called the Iron-Fit Program. Partnering with professional athletes and champions in the sport, such as Tim, the program facilitates and encourages newcomers and experienced athletes to compete in long distance triathlons. Using The Mauna Lani as a home in Hawai‘i and training base, triathletes benefit from year-round training programs and the experience of “Team Mauna Lani’s” professional athletes.

As one of the Iron-Fit ambassadors, Tim has great insight into what it means to compete and win these prestigious long-distance competitions. Even before he has finished an event, he is usually already formulating a plan of attack for the next event. However, the Ironman, he explains, is more than just about that next event. “It is a remarkable experience to finish the Ironman, and an incredible accomplishment.” The ups and downs of the sport have taught him how important balance is in his life. An understanding he can no doubt pass along to others who seek to follow in his footsteps and bicycle tracks. Like the old adage goes, “Winning isn’t everything.” For an Ironman, success is measured on how you made it to the end, not on who made it there before you. As Tim puts it, “From the first place finisher to the last, we’ve all covered the same distance and when the day is done, it is pretty special to be a part of that group.”

Although most Ironman athletes will never experience what it is like to finish first, it seems you really don’t win an Ironman but rather finish slightly ahead of everyone else and somewhere slightly behind your personal best. Even for Tim, “Win or lose…it is always a satisfying feeling crossing the finish line of any event, so I always remember to make that my priority.” Over 30 years ago, the race originated to decide who was the best competitor. What came out of that debate is the true Ironman legacy—that win or lose, for those who finish, they have crossed a line where few others have dared to tread and earned the name—Ironman!

The Ford Ironman World Championship is set for October 8, 2011. For more information, visit For more information about Team Mauna Lani, upcoming training camps and the year-round Iron-Fit Program, contact The Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows (808) 885- 6622 or visit

Ironman Notables

  • The first Ironman was held in 1978 after a group of Navy Seals argued about who was the fittest athlete, in which Commander John Collins suggested the best way to settle the debate was to combine three events: the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the Around-O‘ahu Bike Race and the Honolulu Marathon. Whoever finished was a real “Ironman.”
  • Nearly 1,800 triathletes will compete in the 140.6-mile journey.
  • More than 80,000 athletes compete each year for slots to the Ford Ironman World Championship and the Ironman World Championship 70.3. 
  • The swim is 2.4 miles (cutoff 2hrs and 20min), the bike is 112 miles (cutoff 10hrs and 30min from the beginning of the race) and the run is a full marathon (26.2 miles). Competitors have 17 hours to finish the triathlon.
  • Each year, a television crew of approximately 40 people covers the 140.6-mile course under challenging logistics and communication starting at 3am until 2am for 90 minutes of enthralling television for fans and athletes alike.
  • Tri-athletes train an average of seven months for the Ford Ironman World Championship. The average hours per week devoted to training for the World Championship is between 18 and 24. Average training distances for the three events: 7 miles per week swimming, 225 miles per week biking and 48 miles per week running. Many athletes also cross-train with yoga and weight training among others.
  • Race numbers: 200,000 cups, 30,000 bike bottles, 26,000 gallons of fluid replacement, 600 bottles of sunscreen, 5,500 volunteers line the course and more than 50 million people worldwide watch the event on TV.

This editorial was published in the Sep-Dec 2011 issue of Big Island Traveler magazine ©2011 Traveler Media

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