by Kathleen McCartney
I look at my February 6,1982 IRONMAN race as so much more than just a single-day event; as more than just "The Crawl" with Julie Moss; and more than my moment of victory. At the very young age of 22, IRONMAN shaped my concept of what is possible, and I’ve carried that attitude with me since that day 36 years ago. In a way, my first IRONMAN was the starting line to the rest of my life. Being an IRONMAN has been a lifelong journey and I feel the power of that race woven through my life now more than ever.
My IRONMAN journey began when I was a 21-year-old college student at UCSB. I came over to Kona, Hawaii as a spectator for the 1981 IRONMAN—the fourth installation of the race, but the first year it was held on the Big Island. As I stood on the seawall edging Kailua Bay race morning, I took a long look at the turnaround boat 1.2 miles out to sea: "Captain Bean’s Glass Bottom Boat," as it was known. I was immediately and completely impassioned by the challenge and sense of adventure brewing in the water that morning. Even though I wasn’t a swimmer, cyclist or runner, I suddenly and desperately wanted to be in the water on that start line, heading out to achieve the impossible with the rest of the pack.
With the blast of the starting gun at 7 a.m., February 14, 1981 my IRONMAN dream was born.
The original goal was to just finish the 1982 race. I figured I could do it in about 15 hours. Over the next year leading up to my crowning race, not only did I get strong and fit, more importantly I discovered my passion for triathlon and a well of untapped endurance fitness and competitive spirit. At just four months before my first IRONMAN as a test of my readiness, I surprised myself and won the first two half-distance events that I entered (the 1981 Santa Barbara Triathlon and the 1981 Superfrog Triathlon—where I also came ninth overall). That changed everything. I arrived on the Big Island of Hawaii believing I could win.
That achievement makes every day feel a little brighter, a little warmer, and more peaceful, like a bright glow shining from within.
In Kona three days before race day, I went to a carbo-loading party and had a chance to meet other triathletes. That’s when I met Julie Moss for the first time. There was a lot of talk about the contenders, including Julie, who had been logging some pretty crazy training miles over the three weeks leading up to race day. When I got back to my condo that night, I was feeling pretty confident and couldn’t wait for race day!
I woke up the next morning violently sick; so sick that by three in the afternoon (two days before race day) I had to be hospitalized. I spent the night at the Kona Community Hospital hooked up to an IV. All that I could think about was how I could get out of the hospital and on to the start line. I didn’t even care about winning anymore, I just wanted to finish. I was discharged from the hospital at noon the day before the race.
After a sleepless night, I got out of bed at 4 a.m. and managed to force down a banana and toast—my first solid food in days. I felt pretty weak and hoped the rain and winds would get up to gale force and the race would be postponed one more day so I could get my strength back! No such luck.
The gun went off at 7 am and it was my turn to head out to Captain Bean’s Glass Bottom Boat to see what I was made of. I got out of the swim 12 minutes slower than I expected in a pathetic 1:32. I felt so exhausted and beat up that I said to myself "this is what it must feel like to finish an IRONMAN!" I got out of the swim 21 minutes behind the lead women.
As I headed out on my bike to Hawi, I kept feeling stronger and stronger. The more opportunities I had to eat and drink, the better I felt. Unbeknownst to me, I clocked the fastest women’s bike split of the day with a 5:51.
Running up the hill out of T2, my legs felt so fresh I felt like I hadn’t even ridden my bike! The volunteers told me I was in sixth place, still 21 minutes down. It was quite a seemingly insurmountable deficit heading into a marathon, but I was so happy to be racing and knowing my dream of finishing was just a marathon away!
By mile 6 of the marathon, I moved into second place behind Julie Moss. I was completely shocked by the strength and rhythm that I was building throughout the day.
My first encounter with Julie came with 8 miles to go. As I was approaching the turnaround marker, (a giant inflatable Bud Light can), I saw Julie running towards me. As she got a little closer, I could see that she didn’t look too good and that her form was breaking down. As she passed by me, I looked into her eyes, then down at my watch to get a split. She didn’t return my glance. After the turn, I checked my split and saw that I was 8 minutes down with 8 miles to go. I felt that if I could just keep up the pace and run my own race, I could catch her.
It was getting dark as I approached the turn on to Al'ii Drive and I still hadn’t caught Julie. I had no idea that she had collapsed and was struggling to get to the finish line ahead of me. I never gave up hope of catching her, and kept pushing through, looking desperately to see her up ahead and hoping to pass her at any moment. Finally, I couldn’t run any more because for the first time all day, the ABC camera crew was an arm’s length in front of me and I was forced to stop. I yelled out "Where’s the finish line?" Then the camera truck moved forward and a medal was placed around my neck. "Am I first?" I asked. I went crazy with amazement, astonishment, shock, and the most overwhelming joy I had ever experienced. I was an IRONMAN...and I had won!
Once my feet hit the ground my thoughts turned to "where is Julie?" And the rest is history.
I consider it an honor that Julie and I will forever be linked in pioneering the sport and in IRONMAN history.
When I sum up what being an IRONMAN is to me over my 36-year journey, it’s really all about the people I've met along the way, and the camaraderie of our triathlon community—one that has always been there for me as a network of support and source of strength at every stage of my life. I was at the lowest point in my life emotionally and physically following my divorce in 2010 after a 25-year marriage. I realized I needed an IRONMAN-sized dream to rediscover my inner champion and strength. I reached out to my former rival, Julie Moss, and, as friends and teammates, we went back to Kona in 2012 to celebrate our 30th anniversary of the 1982 race together. Our return had a meaningful influence on my life and I’m grateful to Julie for sharing that journey and growth with me.
People often ask me what it feels like to be an IRONMAN world champion. The best way I can describe the way it feels is that it gave me another positive layer to my life and being. That achievement makes every day feel a little brighter, a little warmer, and more peaceful, like a bright glow shining from within. But the most meaningful and powerful gift of being an IRONMAN world champion is, without a doubt, that it led me to a friendship and IRONMAN journey with my dear friend, Mike Levine.
Mike is a 1982 and 1983 IRONMAN finisher and at age 69, a stage 4 pancreatic cancer warrior. When I met Mike in January of 2017, he had given up on life and had spent much of the previous 18 months laying on a couch waiting to die. I invited him out for a bike ride to see if I could make a difference. We went on an hour ride along the coast in San Diego. He was weak, broken and exhausted, but he seemed to light up spending time with me doing what he once loved. I sensed a spark of life after that first ride and I invited him out for another ride.
Mike told me I had breathed the life back in to him. I got him back into triathlon training and then he came up with the dream to do IRONMAN again. He was accepted as an IRONMAN Ambassador for the 2017 IRONMAN World Championship. Our plan was to race together and prove that you don’t have to let cancer dictate your life—that there is still room for IRONMAN-sized dreams! (Read our article on the pair from October, 2017.)
Come race day, the heat of the Big Island proved too much for Mike's chemo-ridden blood vessels and we had to withdraw at mile 53 of the bike. But just getting to the start line and dreaming of the finish was a victory. Hope is a victory, and our IRONMAN journey continues as we continue to inspire and mentor others who struggle with cancer or life challenges. Our mission is to comfort and inspire others and raise awareness for pancreatic cancer funding and research and cross a lot of finish lines together along the way! We hope to be back in Kona this fall for the 40th anniversary of IRONMAN to celebrate life and hope with a magical run down Al'ii Drive—proving once again that Anything is Possible.