“Winning means reaching the Finish—reaching the Finish means winning.”
Ask anyone familiar with the early days of Ironman about the race’s signature image, and they will all mention the same thing. Not winners in fowered leis. Not swimmers churning through Kailua Bay. Not cyclists bent over their bikes like insects moving across the sun-baked lava felds. The image in everyone’s head is that of Julie Moss crawling to the fnish line. Moss’s never-give-up determination to reach the ribbon embodied the defning ethos of the endurance athlete, and in her Ironman debut she was immediately embraced as a full-fedged member of the tri pantheon. Surprisingly, though, Moss was only an accidental triathlete. At heart she was a surfer.
In 1981 Julie Moss was studying physical education at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo when she met lifeguard Reed Gregerson at a Carlsbad beach. Gregerson had caught the bug of the new sport of triathlon, which had originated in nearby San Diego, and he was talking about competing at the Ironman Hawaii, then three years old.
Her curiosity piqued, Moss tuned in to the ABC broadcast of the 1981 event, which had just moved from Oahu to the lava felds on the Big Island of Hawaii. As she watched triathletes struggle in the heat and wind, she was intrigued. “I remember Scott Molina collapsed, and Olympic cyclist John Howard looked strong on the bike but awkward on the run as he won the thing. But I do not remember seeing a woman. I thought it was both compelling and ridiculous at the same time. And it had parts I could relate to, like the swim in the ocean and the marathon. Afterward Reed contacted a friend and started training for it, and all of a sudden it looked like a doable thing.”
Moss had been a desultory high school athlete. “I liked being part of the basketball and volleyball teams for social reasons,” she said, “but I didn’t want anybody to throw me the ball. I didn’t like the pressure!”
Although she disliked the spotlight in team sports, her surfing played a crucial role in the development of her self-reliance and courage. “When I was in college I paddled out at a secret break in central California near a spot called Killers. There were really big sets, and as I tried to push through I was thinking, I may get washed up on the rocks, and I might not get out of this one. This was a situation where I had to rely completely on myself, and I managed to survive.”
And so, with her new boyfriend, Gregerson, Moss was drawn into long bike rides and running to go with her surf-honed swim. Ever practical, Moss decided to kill two birds and write her senior thesis on training for and competing in the Ironman, then held in February each year. A self-described “born procrastinator,” she put off the start of a training regimen until the clock was about to burst, relying on her belief that “you do your best work under pressure.” So it wasn’t until September 1981, with the February 1982 race a scant five months off, that her training got seriously under way with a half-iron-distance triathlon in Santa Barbara. The triathlon went well, but she received a dose of reality in December when at mile 20 of the Oakland Marathon she experienced the phenomenon that marathoners refer to as hitting the wall and dropped well off her sub-3:30 pace. With her self-confidence hurting, she penciled in a second marathon just three weeks later in Mission Bay.
But first, less than two months before the Ironman—on Christmas Eve, no less—Gregerson broke up with her. “I was devastated and would not have done the event if I didn’t have to finish my thesis to graduate,” said Moss. “My mom was single and raised us on a teacher’s salary. She had paid for my college, and I owed that much to her to finish.” Cornered by her commitment to graduate, she decided she was doing the race for herself and plunged ahead.