CARDIFF-BY-THE-SEA, Calif. – Thirty years ago, as she struggled to crawl the final few yards of the Ironman Triathlon on the Big Island of Hawaii, Julie Moss recalls vividly seeing the legs of another female competitor run past her in the darkness.
The moment is seared in her memory – so close to the end and yet unable to stay on her feet long enough to get there. Her desperation to win the world’s most famous endurance race was being snatched away by someone she didn’t even know.
Those pictures – Moss on her hands and knees as her rival, Kathleen McCartney Hearst, ran past the finish line unaware she had won – are frozen in time, and on YouTube. In a televised instant, captured by ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” Moss’ moment of triumph dissolved into a wrenching defeat.
“I was heartbroken,” she said, “but I got over it. I didn’t begrudge her for winning.”
How fitting that on the 30th anniversary of that race, Moss and McCartney Hearst are returning to Kona – this time as friends and training partners. Their rivalry is gone, replaced by a desire to help each other through transitional stages in their lives.
They will stand together at the starting line Saturday morning and for a brief moment will give in to the memories of 1982. But those will fade quickly.
The Ironman World Championship is not a sport for casual athletes. It’s a test of mental fortitude as much as athletic skill – a 2.4-mile ocean swim followed by a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon. You don’t compete in the Ironman; you survive it.
No one understands that better than Moss, whose first Ironman made her a symbol of athletic perseverance. She hadn’t intended for it to happen, and in fact only entered to fulfill her senior project in exercise physiology at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, but as the finish line came into view, she realized victory was within her reach.
Her training was minimal. She figured a trip to Hawaii was a pretty nice vacation, and she could convince her mother to pay for it because it was a school project.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, she found herself in the lead. How was this possible, that a 23-year-old college student with virtually no athletic background could be ahead of every other woman in the Ironman?
“I think there was an athlete in there,” she said. “There was an endurance athlete in there all along, and as the day went along, that was the only thing keeping me ahead.”
She stayed in front, running comfortably until about the last 10 miles. It was then that dehydration began to affect her. Then, with a quarter-mile to go, her legs started to wobble beneath her, unable to keep her upright without a struggle
Her senses were still strong. Her arms were pumping. Her head was steady. Her legs, they were like strings of cooked spaghetti.
“It was terrifying, in a sense, because I was so close,” she said. “I had really started to own the idea that I could win this, and what would winning mean? That I’m a winner. I hadn’t really been in that realm growing up, and I was starting to get attached to this. It was really close, and it’s going to get taken from me. I started to get desperate to figure out a way to make it happen.”
But she couldn’t. She fell four times. Every time someone tried to help her to her feet, she waved them off, knowing it could get her disqualified. At last, she began to crawl, because her legs had abandoned her.
And then McCartney Hearst ran by, all the way across the finish line, into TV trucks and spotlights and erupting cheers. It took a few seconds to sink in.
“A volunteer put up the finish line banner and said I was the winner,” McCartney Hearst recalled. “I was so excited. I jumped up and down, and they put a medal around my neck (and) a lei. I’m thinking, ‘What just happened here?’ ”
What happened was a singular moment for both of them – McCartney Hearst for winning, Moss for looking like a punch-drunk fighter who refused to give up. But it also raised the Ironman’s profile from a quirky race for fitness freaks to the ultimate test of endurance.
And 30 years later, at age 53, it has brought them together again. They knew each other, of course, but only as fellow competitors. Theirs was a mutual respect, not a friendship. They wanted to beat each other, not take their kids on play dates.
Then this happened: In November 2010, McCartney Hearst’s marriage broke up after almost 25 years. She needed the Ironman to summon her inner strength, to prove to herself she could overcome the worst of disasters and survive.
“It was the biggest shock of my life, devastating,” she said. “In so many ways, I needed a personal goal that would help me get my strength back and be invigorated, because I knew there would be some tough times ahead. I needed to have that goal.”
She committed to running in the 2012 race, giving her enough time to train. The fact it was also the 30th anniversary of her first victory seemed like kismet.
“I felt like that would be the most phenomenal reason to go back and celebrate such a great race,” she said. “I immediately thought to contact Julie and hope she would find it within herself and within her life to be able to do it.”
Here was something else: Moss, by coincidence, had moved back to Cardiff-by-the-Sea, north of San Diego, from Santa Cruz in Northern California. McCartney Hearst reasoned that if they could race together, they might be able to train together.
Except that Moss, who hadn’t run the Ironman since 2003, had no interest. She had essentially retired from the sport.
“It was the last thing I wanted to do,” she said. But knowing that McCartney Hearst needed her support to help her through a life change, she eventually gave in. She agreed to help her train.
“Her reason for going back to Hawaii was for her own personal growth and to overcome such a blow in her personal life,” Moss said. “My heart went right out. I thought, ‘I’ll even take the bike off the hook in the garage to help somebody do that.’ That’s just one of those calls that you get.”
But at McCartney Hearst suggestion that she also compete, Moss blanched.
“The first couple of times she suggested it, I kind of laughed,” she said. “I said, ‘No, no thank you.’ ”
It took only a month for Moss to give in. McCartney Hearst told her the deadline was approaching, and Moss didn’t want to be shut out that way. If she opted not to race, it would be because she chose not to compete, not because an arbitrary date on the calendar was counting her out.
“That was probably the nudge I needed because this isn’t something I wanted,” she said. “I wanted it for Kathleen, I didn’t want it for myself. But now it’s being taken away from me before I can even decide if I want it? I thought, ‘I’m going to go for it. I’m going to commit. I can always get a quote unquote injury.’ ”
And that’s all it took. The two have been doing their bike training twice a week, 100 miles one day, 75 the next. Because of back surgery she had five years ago, McCartney Hearst has been limited in her preparatory runs.
But for Moss, winning has become less important than it was 30 years ago. Now, it’s the freedom to enjoy the process. She has the time, too: Her son recently moved away to college, making this race her “empty-nest Ironman.”
“What I’ve learned this time around is that it’s the journey to get to the start line that’s the good stuff,” she said. “That’s where your life sort of changes. What happens on race day is sort of the icing on the cake. If you frame it positively mentally and do all the right things training-wise and nutrition-wise, you will finish.
“How you finish I don’t think is intriguing to me now as how we get there.”
It seems fitting that the theme of this year’s Ironman World Championship is “The Sparkling Eyes of My Roots.” Moss and McCartney Hearst are going back to where it began for them, to their roots in the sport, to the place where their paths first crossed and where Moss found what she was capable of accomplishing.