The World’s First Ironman Winner Walks Among Us

By Rhonda Rathje
October 8, 2015
Ironman Gordon Haller leans against his bicycle and holds his awards

After a full day at work, and after the dinner table is cleared, most people put their feet up. Gordon Haller puts his into running shoes. Not many athletes work out at 10 p.m., but Gordon isn’t like everybody else. He’s an Ironman, and he has been since he won the first competition in Hawaii in 1978.

Not only did Gordon win; he also helped create the event. He was running the Honolulu Marathon in 1977 and realized his body hadn’t fully recovered from a recent race, so he stopped running where a friend happened to be watching. That friend knew of Gordon’s typical three-part workout routine, and he told him about plans for a new sporting event.

“He said there was a race invented for me with swimming, biking and running. Then I saw a notice in the paper about a meeting to talk about the race. I joined the planning team, and we took the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the Sea Spree Festival bike race and the Honolulu Marathon and put them together,” Gordon said. The Ironman was born.

“I’ve always lived an Ironman lifestyle,” Gordon explained. He’s kept a training log since 1969 and four decades later, he still works out an average of 1.5 hours a day.

“At first, my training log was a tool to help me be faster and healthier, but it evolved to become a journal. It’s satisfying to record each workout, and it helps me remember where I was when significant things happened in my life,” Gordon said, adding that a training log can help track what you eat, how much you sleep, your heart rate, weight, illnesses, body fat, blood pressure and more.

As a result of his lifelong focus on fitness, Gordon feels he has more energy and endurance than most people, which he says helps him at work. He balances his athletic pursuits with his full-time job as a programmer analyst at the Walmart corporate office in Bentonville, Arkansas.

“I design my workouts to maximize my performance, and I plan my tasks to do the same for my work,” Gordon said. “When I start on something, I see it to the finish.” That explains why he’s still participating in marathons and Ironman events more than 37 years after he earned the first Ironman title. In fact, he often does two Ironman competitions a year, inspiring others with his seemingly endless stamina.

“I consider marathons a time to do soul searching. I know what I’m made of and I just keep going. If you think you might not make it, you might not,” Gordon said. “It is interesting to me to see how I’ll cope with whatever comes up. We can have high winds, rain, humidity, heat, tacks on the road, hills, rough or cold water. It’s fun to meet other competitors and hear their stories. It’s just an amazing experience every time I do it.”

Recently featured in Sports Illustrated, Gordon represents athleticism at its finest. He discovered his love of running in the first grade and has been setting the pace ever since. 

“Our teacher didn’t hear the recess bell, and none of us was brave enough to tell her. She let us run around the school one lap, so we made a race of it and I was second. My friend beat me, and that got my competitive juices up,” Gordon recalled. He fully realized his abilities six years later.

“One day in seventh-grade PE, we had to run three laps for leaving towels out in the locker room. My friend ran ahead, but after a lap, I decided he wouldn’t finish first and I just edged him at the finish line. I joined the track team and discovered I could run longer than everyone else, even if I couldn’t run faster in the sprints,” Gordon said.

That competitive spirit runs in Gordon’s family, along with a shared passion for health. He met his wife, Beth, through running and they work out often together. She’s a triathlete, herself. Gordon says his son Ryan “rides his bike everywhere” and his daughter, Jessica, manages a sporting goods store and loves outdoor activities. Gordon’s older daughter, Kristen, is a yoga instructor. Clearly, Gordon has a way of positively influencing those around him – including his fellow Walmart associates.

“I encourage them to do triathlons, run races, just get out and do something,” Gordon said, adding that he shuns the elevator at work and coaxes others to do the same.

“I rode it today for the first time in about five years and only because I was with a group of people,” he said. 

Gordon’s been taking the stairs to his office at Walmart for eight years, and he says he still enjoys the challenge of learning new technology through his work. The love of a challenge appears to run in his veins, which you might expect from someone best known as the world’s first Ironman. 

The Ironman World Championship will take place in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, on Oct. 10. Read more about Gordon Haller in these recent articles from Sports Illustrated and ESPN.