KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii — When approximately 2,500 of the planet’s most elite athletes enter the waters of Kailua Bay during the early morning hours of Oct. 13 and wait nervously for the deafening cannon blast, they’ll be eager to become part of a historic timeline that began four decades ago. Since it first started on Feb. 28, 1978, on the island of Oahu, the IRONMAN World Championship has become the ultimate test of physical endurance and human will—more than mankind ever intended.
On that day 40 years ago, the race’s first-ever finisher, Gordon Haller, was one of 15 athletes who arrived in Waikiki to face a challenge originally proposed by Honolulu-based Navy Commander John Collins and his wife Judy Collins, combining Hawaii’s three toughest endurance races—the 2.4-mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim, 112-mile Around-Oahu Bike Race and 26.2-mile Honolulu Marathon. The rest is, simply, history.
“Barring a real fluke, I knew I had won it,” says Haller. “When I crossed the finish, they asked me if I was in the race—I said, ‘I was,’ and they said, ‘Well, you’re done.’ We designed the [first] IRONMAN to be a challenge to the finish, not a race. It proved to be a challenge for all. Only two didn’t finish, and one of them chose to be support for another participant.”
But Haller ingrained a standard that more than 260,000 athletes worldwide now attempt to ditto on a yearly basis, taking the world championship’s 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile marathon head-on.
There’s no better example of athletic grit than 2017 champion Patrick Lange. Last year, the German standout not only proved he was the world’s top triathlete—finishing in eight hours, one minute, 40 seconds—but also broke the overall course record, previously set by Australia’s Craig Alexander (8:03:56) in 2011. Before that in 2016 in his IRONMAN World Championship pro debut, Lange finished third with a 2:39:45 run, cracking the 27-year old marathon course record set by American Mark Allen in 1989.
“Last year’s achievement of winning the IRONMAN World Championship in Hawaii was a lifetime dream come true,” Lange says. “I’ve dreamed of winning that race since I was a little kid and even up to these days it sometimes seems a little surreal—especially considering the fact that I thought about giving up during my bike ride. I just did not have the legs I was hoping for and the distance between the leaders and me just seemed insurmountably big.”
But Lange will be challenged by countryman and 2014 champion Sebastian Kienle, who finished fourth last year.
“My motivation to compete in this race is as big as ever,” Lange says. “My main goal is to be at my personal best, and if I can be at my top level, the big goal is to step up on the podium again.”
Tom Pennington/Getty Images for IRONMAN
The record-breaking theme continues in the women’s race, too. Last year, Switzerland’s Daniela Ryf collected her third consecutive win on the Big Island with a stellar finish of 8:50:47. And just a year prior, she set a new women’s course record after crossing the finish in 8:46:46—a stat set in 2013 by three-time world champion, Australia’s Mirinda Carfrae.
“Every race is different and needs another strategy—2017’s race was a real challenge,” Ryf says. “I’m really looking forward to racing again on the island…It’s not about counting titles—I like to find out how fit I can get.”
Carfrae, who bowed out of last year’s competition to focus on her motherhood duties, will be returning with the hope of clawing her way to another Hawaiian title.
“I’m just excited to be back in shape with another opportunity to race the best athletes in the world,” Carfrae says. “The addition of our baby girl Isabelle has given me a new outlook on everything. I’ve had an absolutely wonderful career centered around this event, but I’m coming back because I love the challenge and I really believe I can still contend with the best in the sport.”
Last year’s fifth-place finisher Heather Jackson is also a contender in 2018. The American made her world championship pro debut 2015 and was the first U.S. woman to cross the finish. In 2016, she danced in the circle of glory by becoming the first stateswoman to podium at the world championship in 10 years.
“Last year, I felt I performed to my expectations, minus one little blip in the Energy Lab,” Jackson says. “I went through that 10-minute bad patch and essentially lost my chance at a spot on the podium.
“My motivation this year is just to go out and show myself a time and personal performance that aligns with all of the hard training. Every chance to toe the start line at the world championship is an honor. And my Daida—my grandpa—who is 93 will be watching, so I want to make him proud.”
This year’s race has grown to a competitor field representing 82 countries, regions and territories, from six continents. Professional and age group athletes attempt to qualify for the IRONMAN World Championship either through worldwide IRONMAN (full-distance) or IRONMAN 70.3 (half-distance) races, or by legacy or lottery. Historically, this makes up the world championship’s largest and most international athlete field. Geographically, athletes from the United States stand atop the participant numbers, 640, with the largest amount coming from California (91), Hawaii (45), Texas (44), Colorado (38) and New York (35). Internationally, the pack is headed by Germany (215), followed by Australia (208) and the United Kingdom (130). The youngest competitor is Wolfgang Drake, 20, of West Point, New York, while the oldest is Hiromu Inada, 85, of Yachiyodai Higashi, Yachiyo-shi, Japan.
“If your goal is to reach your personal best, then that’s your motivation day-in and day-out,” Lange says. “Hawaii is one of the most special places for me on Earth, so I just know that as soon as my feet touch ground there, I’m going to give it my best.”
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images for IRONMAN
2018 IWC historical facts and stats, provided by Ironman
• 72% of participants (1,791 athletes) are male
• 28% of participants (685 athletes) are female
• 43 is the average age of registrants this year
• Six athletes will be celebrating their birthday on race day
• Six countries, regions or territories are sending athletes to the IRONMAN World Championship for the first time—American Samoa, Isle of Man, Lithuania and Seychelles
• 1,082 competitors representing 629 different TriClubs from around the world are racing at this year’s IRONMAN World Championship (44% of the field)
• Nine new IRONMAN and IRONMAN 70.3 races were established in 2018
• More than 5,000 volunteers will help make the IRONMAN World Championship a success.
How to watch
NBCSN will have live coverage of the 2018 IRONMAN World Championship beginning on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. In addition, live streaming coverage will be available across NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app, IRONMAN.com and IRONMAN Now on Facebook Watch.