Monday, August 6, 2018

26:20 on the Kona IM Course, The Smiling Walt Stack

Let Me Take You Back to 1981

"Start off slow...and taper back."    Walt Stack

 Triathlon has become such a highly regulated sport these days, eh?.  There are governing organizations, certifications on many levels, with ever changing rules and regulations.  We occasionally need to take a look back to the pioneers of our sport, those adventurous souls who, when presented with the idea of swim long, bike long, then run a marathon thought, “Now that sounds like fun!”  Mostly they did this on faith and faith alone. 

“Cowman” Ken Shirk, one of these early pace setters, was able to complete the entire original Kona course wearing a cow head complete with horns.  Why would he want to do that you ask?  (The answer doesn't come to me immediately either.)  And he's completed many more since. A strong individualist, he fit right in to the then prevalent mindset of people at the far end of the endurance sport bell curve.  Ken’s pedigree includes being the second man to finish the Western States 100 mile race. Or, more accurately, the second human to finish the event not horse bound! 

"Cowman" Ken

His Ironman swim required a modified breast stroke which Ken labeled the “cow stroke.”  Well, of course.  Wouldn’t you?  I don’t know how many times he’s finished the event, both as a legal registrant, and I’m told as a bandit, but it seems the event has gotten too big, gone in another direction, for the Cowmans of life.  Sad.

Many of you were not born in February 1981, the year Walt Stack toed the line in Hawaii. The race was still in February back then and this would the first time for the Big Island course, the race having been run in Honolulu from 1978 - 80. It had just gotten too big to be contested in the populous state capitol.

San Francisco's Walt Stack was part of Ironman before everyone and his brother was labeled hero, a real larger than life guy. He’d done countless races before coming to the Big Island and had established himself as a legendary figure in our young sport.  Not fast, but steady, he could always be counted on to be one of those still standing at race’s end. (Seven years later he would do a very cute Nike commercial.

And, from a piece about Walt in Sports Illustrated: "Stack was out running the hills near his home. It should be called climbing. He was with a group of young women from his running club, the Dolphin South End Runners, when suddenly, one of them recalls, "I heard a sharp crack. I looked back, and Walt was stretched out on the sidewalk, bleeding from a cut on the head. 'Walt, what happened?' I yelled.  " 'That's what comes from being a dirty old man,' he said. I dropped back to look at your legs, and I ran into an overhanging branch.' "  If you'd like to read the whole article - it's particularly good - go to

His first, and only, Ironman in Kona was in 1981 when there was only one Ironman, no WTC and no separation of pro’s and age groupers.  Everybody was an age grouper!  You need to remember that these were the early developing days of the sport and we didn’t know a great deal about aerodynamics on the bike, refueling or nutrition, and if you mentioned compression it was assumed you were speaking about the compression ratio of your car’s engine.  Ironman had no swim or bike times, no cut offs, and only a rudimentary course.  

The swim had no buoys, no course, and according current Swim Director Jan War, “You just swam out to a canoe and back.”  When asked about turn around help for any competitor not from Kailua-Kona, or perhaps the directionally challenged in ocean navigation, to aid even finding the turn around boat, he laughs loudly as one who knows the punch line of a joke before you do.  According to Jan, his predecessor, crusty Mo Matthews, was fond of reporting, “If they can’t find the turn around boat, they shouldn’t be doing the race.” 

 Stack was ready for the event and at 73, the oldest ever competitor to attempt the distances.  After a 3+ hour swim and leisurely bike, history has it that he was pretty tired on the run. So, he just eased off the course, lay down in someone’s yard, and took a nap.  Once refreshed, he set off on his 26 mile jaunt and near it’s conclusion got hungry.  So what do you do when your stomach starts talking, head for the restaurant naturally.  The Kona Ranch House which used to be on Palani Road but is no more.  The way I heard it, he was eating his waffle breakfast, reading the morning paper, with the results of “yesterday’s” Ironman race in it. The race in which he was still competing!

 Once breakfast was finished, he got back out on the course, finished the event in a speedy 26 hours and 20 minutes, and still holds the record for longest race time in Kona.

 It’s a shame that the sterility of present day doesn’t seem to have a place for Cowman, the Amazing Walt Stack and countless other characters who put this event into the national spotlight..  But they are the rocks on which this sport is built.  And if you happen to be walking around Kona one day and spy a guy with cow horns on, don’t simply assume him an asylum escapee but walk over, shake his hand and say thanks.  Maybe he'll share with you some of the finer points of the cow stroke!

Images: Google images

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