Dave Orlowski finished 3rd in the 1978 Ironman triathlon and is currently getting ready to return to Hawaii for the 30th anniversary. He shared with Slowtwitch some of his memories of that first Ironman plus what he is up to these days.
ST: Dave, you are currently getting ready to race the 30th anniversary Ironman Hawaii and the 70.3 Championships in Clearwater. How are your preparations going?
Dave: They are going fine. I have done two half iron distance races to this point. Mind you from 1978 I have not done an Ironman or Half Ironman and this is the first attempt for me again. In the first half iron distance, the swim and bike went well but the run was on trails in a state park and when storms rolled in volunteers left and I got lost on the run and ran an extra 4 or 5 miles. Was not very pleased with the race director, Gloria West, or the event. The second half iron was in July and again the swim and bike went well but the heat ate me up on the run. Learning a lot from fellow triathletes from St. Pete Mad Dogs and Tri Wisconsin triathlon clubs. Needless to say in 1978 the event concept was thought of and everybody that heard of it thought the people were crazy and that this could not be done. We proved them wrong and thirty years later look at the thousands of people that do it every year and how hard it is to get in the events because they sell out so fast.
ST: What gave you the idea to come back 30 years after your first one?
Dave: I don’t know if I would call this a comeback or not. I have always followed the event since its start and have a passion for it. I did not do triathlons again until 2004 and did the Mad Beach triathlon put on by the St Pete Mad Dogs. This was a sprint distance and just wanted to see how it would go. I have attended the World Championships in Kona for a number of years and had aspirations of doing it again. Age and injuries over the past years were a deterrent. I have had a shoulder replacement as well as both knees operated on and did not know if my body would take the training. This year it appears to be going fine without injury.
ST: Looking back at today’s equipment compared to what you had then, is it amazing to you how much stuff has changed?
Dave: I think the biggest change is in the technology of the bike. Swimming and running are something that really does not change except for some things like wetsuits being used now. I did not have a bike and did not train on one before the event. I borrowed a Sears Free Spirit 10 speed a week before the event from a fellow Marine and rode about 30 miles total before doing the Ironman in 1978. This bike was with no toe clips or anything for bottle cages and I just wore regular tennis shoes. The same shoes I did the marathon portion of the event. Give credit to Adidas at that time for the overall performance that the shoe provided. As for cycling shorts mine were real technical. The night before the event I took a scissors and cut off a pair of blue jeans so I would have shorts with pockets to stick money in for stopping to get food or drink. I had a Marine support vehicle that was supporting three people and did not know when they would be around. There were no aid stations so my nutrition consisted of stopping at gas stations and eating Hershey bars, water, coca cola, juice. I did stop to eat at a McDonalds and had a burger, fries and shake as well as stopped at a grocery store. At the grocery store I had to park my bike outside the store and worried whether it would get stolen while I was inside getting food.
ST: Along those lines, what bike will you be riding on in Kona and Clearwater?
Dave: I have a Trek Equinox 9 triathlon bike. It has been a great, smooth riding bike.
ST: Do you still recall that now infamous day in 1978?
Dave: I still remember the day pretty well. As the event grew and people knew of my background as being one of the original people I have told the story a good number of times. As you can probably tell from the above about cycling and nutrition everybody gets a good laugh because they can’t imagine it based on what everyone goes through now with equipment, nutrition, and preparation. The swim portion was memorable as within the first quarter mile there was a shark lurking around the sand bottom and clearly visible. It was probably a sand shark but not knowing it added a little nervousness to the early swim portion. It was gone in the first half mile and the rest of the swim went well. The bike was interesting as described earlier. It seemed like it would never end. So much about thinking when I under took the challenge that because I rode a bike as a kid I could do this. 112 miles is a long way when you have never done this before. I remember having to walk some of the hills in the north shore area. Coming off the bike I did not think I would finish as I could not get my legs to run. I probably walked the first four miles and then all of a sudden the legs started moving. Clipped off good speed running for the next 12 miles and then the legs started to give out. The next miles were walking and running till about 22 miles when I started going up Diamond Head Hill on Oahu. At this point I was cramping pretty much and pulling my self up the hill on the guardrail not thinking I would again make it. My support vehicle pulled along side of me and unknown to me my parents had flown to Hawaii to surprise me for the event. They by the luck of god ran into my support vehicle who took them to me. For them to find me was a miracle as this was not an organized event, just 15 idiots doing something that people thought could not be done. This gave me inspiration and an adrenaline rush and it was like a miracle for me that my legs kicked in and I ran the rest of the race to the finish line. Of course the night of and next day my GI system was all screwed up do to the diet of things I used to fuel my body in the event. Of course enough cannot be said about John and Judy Collins for the work they put in to do this. Our finisher shirts were hand made silk screens and then baked in the oven at the Collin’s residence. John Collins hand made each finisher trophy from copper tubing and wood in his residence. I took third place in the event but all trophies made just had 1978 Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon Finisher on it as when the event was put on it was not considered a race but who could finish with no time limit. Of course we paid a steep entry fee of $5.00 to do the event.
ST: What was your athletic background and who talked you into doing that first Ironman?
Dave: In high school I played some football but was a swimmer who specialized in distance events. In the Marine Corps I became a pretty good runner and had just run the Honolulu Marathon a couple months before the Ironman. This was my first marathon. Tom Knoll was a Marine that worked in the office I worked in. I was at the awards banquet when the event was conceived and the argument about who was the better athlete (swimmer, biker, or runner). Tom Knoll was the runner portion of the argument and was an ultra distance runner at the time. The three main events on the island of Oahu at the time were the 2.4 mile ocean swim, perimeter 112 mile bike race, and 26.2 mile Honolulu marathon. The event was conceived to put all three events together and anyone who finished would be called an Ironman.
ST: Do you remember what you did to get ready 30 years ago?
Dave: I ran pretty regular doing the most of about fifteen miles. I swam 1-2 miles in the base swimming pool 3 times a week and of course about 30 miles on the borrowed bike. Just went out with a positive can do attitude and that Marines don’t quit and made it to the finish line.
ST: How much training are you doing now?
Dave: Thirty years older and later I obviously have trained a lot more. I have done a fair amount of reading in Triathlete magazine as well as on the internet to devise a training schedule for myself. I kind of wanted to have a coach but after some thought wanted to stick to some principles of doing what I did 30 years ago and doing it on my own. I am cycling and swimming 4 times a week and running 5 times just building distance as I go. I have done a 2.4 open water swim at this point and as of yesterday I biked 112 miles on the Ironman Wisconsin bike course with the Tri Wisconsin triathlon club. Running is still hurting a little bit but hope to improve in the next 11 weeks. Did not realize how much of your life becomes committed to this once you start training. Finishing is my main goal in Hawaii but I have set some goals for myself at Kona and won’t expand on that until the event is over and see if I accomplish those goals.
ST: Are you still in contact with any of the original Ironman participants?
Dave: I am still in regular contact with Tom Knoll and Henry Forrest and have seen Gordon Haller at a number of events. Tom Knoll and his son Warren Knoll recently completed a run across the US to raise money for charity. Henry Forrest battled pancreatic cancer and had a major surgery in February that removed all of the cancer and is on the rebound. Henry has done Ironman 4 times and don’t be surprised to see him there one more time. Nothing can hold this guy down and is passionate about Ironman and triathlons and active in the Atlanta area. Have seen Frank Day at a number of events with his Power Cranks business. Hope to see a number of the Originals at the 30th Anniversary.
ST: What are you up to these days in general?
Dave: I retired as a detective last working in the Homicide Division at the Milwaukee Police Department. I own rental property now and manage and repair all the property myself which takes up a good portion of my time along with this training.
ST: Do you follow any specific sport?
Dave: I like football, Green Bay Packers of course, and follow triathlon and a number of other sports. My passion is of course the Ironman and met many wonderful people and friends through triathlon.
ST: Can you tell us about your food likes and dislikes?
Dave: I like food!!! I have changed my diet since April to a much healthier diet and have lost 40lbs. The loss of weight is the combination of exercise and diet while training for the Ironman. I still have a craving at night during the summer months for ice cream. I have traded this in for fruit and yogurt for that later night appetite. I have also cut out hard liquor all together and only have an occasional beer or glass of wine. It will be hard to be in Kona this year and not have the Kona Inn Mai Tai at night. Those people that have been to Kona know how good they are.
ST: What kind of taste in music do you have?
Dave: Nothing special. I like jazz music when relaxing and rock type music for good spin classes or a long ride if I wear an iPod. For safety reasons I generally don't wear an iPod unless I am on a bicycle trail or less traveled road.
ST: Anything else we should know?
Dave: I was first notified of receiving a slot from Ben Fertic, President of World Triathlon Corporation, and the Gills Family, owners of Ironman, in June 2008. Training and preparing for the event as well as other obligations I have did not allow me enough time to organize and raise money. Should I do another Ironman at some point of my life and sufficient time I would love to raise money and give back to charities.
I am also very thankful to everyone in the triathlon community that has helped me get to the point where I will be able to accomplish the goal of doing this Ironman again and inspire others to fulfill the accomplishment of doing an Ironman some day. I also want to thank friends and family for their support although this time again they think I'm crazy. This time though we know it can be done. Always remember "ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE." Good luck to all and thanks for this opportunity to share some memories.