(This article first ran in Arkansas Outside on March 14, 2012)
“That morning 15 people, including a woman, had ignored the boundaries of sanity and started the contest.” Barry McDermott
Many amateur athletes believe that the Ironman World Championship Triathlon Hawaii is the pinnacle achievement in athleticism. It would be tough to argue with that opinion. There is a good reason that the phrase “Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life” is trademarked. Beginner Triathlete advises that to even consider training for the Ironman, your base training should already be rounding out at 8 hours a week as their recommended training program progresses to 15-18 hours a week. Modern triathlons include everything from the super sprint distance with a 400m swim, 10k bike, and 2.5k run to the Ironman distance of 3.8k swim, 180k bike, and 42k run. But in the early 1970s, triathlons were a novel idea in the outdoor sports arena.
Triathlons had been held in California, which is where Commander John Collins and his wife Judy discovered them. The first triathlon was at San Diego’s Mission Bay on September 25th, 1974, and consisted of a 5.3-mile run, a 5-mile bike, and a 600-yard swim. Individual long-distance swimming, biking, and running events were already in place on Oahu but as athletes often do, there was speculation as to which athletes were truly better conditioned. After a road run event, a squabble broke out between members of the Mid Pacific Road Running Club and the Waikiki Swim Club as to which group was fitter. A Sports Illustrated article had recently declared Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx as having the highest recorded oxygen uptake. Realizing the opportunity for a test to settle this argument Cmdr. Collins and his wife, building on their experience with the burgeoning triathlons in California, helped organize a trial of all three sports. That trial would become the Ironman.
The first Ironman Hawaii was held on February 18, 1978. Of 15 starters, only 12 finished. None were female. Judy Collins had planned to participate along with her husband, however, she was forced to withdraw a few days before the event. In 1979, more competitors registered to start but due to a one-day delay caused by severe weather and dodgy conditions in the dawning hours of race day, only 15 made it to the starting line. One of those 15 was a woman named Lyn Lemaire. Lyn, born Eleanor Lynette Lemaire, was a California girl who excelled as a high school swimmer and college basketball player while she earned a degree in biochemistry from UCLA. During her senior year of college, Lyn started cycling and after graduating she moved to Boston and continued cycling. In 1976 she set the record at the US Nationals in the 25-mile time trial at 1:00:06.7. She also won the title in 1977 and came in second in 1975 and 1978. She had the experience as a swimmer and a cyclist but there is no mention of her ability as a runner.
One of the best accounts of Lyn’s endeavor on Oahu that day is a Sports Illustrated article by Barry McDermott. While the author spends much of his page space talking about the top men in the competition, their jobs, training, and reasons for entering the race, very little of Lyn’s history is mentioned, it is what the author chooses to include about Lyn that I find significant. When she passes one of the top male competitors, he apparently asked his support crew “Is she in this race?” Lemaire smugly turned and waved. And in Mr. McDermott’s account of the race, as Lyn closed within five minutes of leader Tom Warren on the bike portion, he would ask “Where is the girl?” over and over. Lyn did not win that second Iron Man contest, nor did she come in second despite holding that spot for part of the bike section. She came in fifth overall, but will forever be known as the First Ironwoman, finishing in 12 hours 55 minutes, and 38 seconds, just an hour and 40 minutes behind the winner.
Today, many athletes know about 8-time Ironman World Champion Paula Newby-Fraser. Most have seen the video of Julie Moss collapsing within sight of the finish, crawling to the line, giving everything she had to just get across even after it was clear she would not finish first. Lyn Lemaire paved the way. Actually, she swam, biked, and ran the way.