I am standing at the finish of the 1998 Ironman in Kona, Hawaii. Standing next to me is Michael Collins, the son of the Ironman founders, Commander John and Judy Collins. As people filter across the line, one after another is at first ecstatic with their accomplishment and then, in the blink of an eye, obviously bummed with their time. The goal was 11:10 and they’d gone 11:30. We’d hear the ‘I had a bad day,’ grumbling over and over and over again.
Michael Collins can relate to having a bad day. Heck, we all can. Things always tend to go wrong at some point during a 10-17 hour day in the heat and wind of Hawaii. But Michael’s day back in 1979, as a 16 year old doing his first ever Ironman, was one for the Bad Day Hall of Fame.
The race was supposed to be on a Saturday in January, but the weather was so stormy the race was postponed a day by Commander John.
The weather was just as horrific on Sunday, so when Commander Collins left the house, he told Michael to sleep in, that the event was going to be postponed again.
The 15 or so Ironman hopefuls on the beach overruled John and insisted on racing. Judy Collins called the house to wake Michael up and to tell him he best get to Sans Souci Beach as quickly as possible if he wanted to be part of the action. Michael then called his buddy Jeff, his support crew for the day, and asked him to pick up the bike at the house and meet him at the finish of the point-to-point swim while Michael scrambled to get to the start in time.
A swimmer since the age of 6, Michael had little concern about getting through Iron Day. “I had done the Waikiki race a number of times and knew I’d be faster than a lot of those old people,” he insisted. “I rode my bike everywhere so that didn’t worry me. Even though I didn’t run, I knew that I could walk a marathon.”
He came out of the water not too far behind Tom Warren, who would go on to win the 1979 Ironman. But when Michael headed to his support van, it turned out that Jeff had brought the bike Michael normally rode, not the cool french one that he borrowed from his mom and outfitted for the race with Tootsie Rolls, hard candy, a repair kit and a pump . “It really wasn’t his fault,” says Michael. “He grabbed my bike from the porch, but my mom’s bike, the one I planned on using, was four feet away in the car port.”
Everything went fine early, but on the windward side of the island, Jeff drove by Michael and headed three miles down the road to wait. At that moment, Michael flatted. Remember, there was no texting or pulling out the trusty cell phone back in 1979. “There was absolutely nothing I could do,” remembers Michael. “ I went to a Burger King and waited for Jeff to find me.” When the two finally connected, Michael used a pay phone to leave a message on the Collin’s phone machine at home.
Two hours later, Judy arrived at Burger King with the other bike and Michael, after having a cheeseburger, was off. He was now firmly in last place and it wasn’t long before the sun started to set and he was riding in the dark. “At this point I was thinking this Ironman thing was pretty stupid,” Michael laughs.
He arrived at Aloha Tower, the end of the bike ride, at midnight and started walking the marathon. “The only running I did was when I ran across the freeway,” he says. “Other than that, I walked the entire way.”
As he headed towards the finish at Kapiolani Park, he told his mom that she better be ready with the camera because he was so tired he only had one smile left and she better not miss it.
“These people have no idea what a bad day is,” said Michael as we stood side- by- side back in 1998 watching the disappointed finishers come across the line. “When you’re walking the Ironman marathon, you’ve been out on the course for over 24 hours and the paper boy is going by you delivering papers with results of a race you’re still in? THAT’s a bad day. “
Who can argue with that?