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Ironman New Zealand celebrates its 25th anniversary in a fortnight. Michael Brown looks back to where it all started.

It was an elaborate ruse but one Jeff Montgomery couldn't hope to get away with. The first oddity was the appearance of the young American at the far end of Mission Bay beach.

It didn't look like he had just swum 3.8km but his explanation that he had swum off course was accepted. For the time being.


The second anomaly was his bike time over the 180km course, which was 45 minutes faster on the ride home than on the way out.

After the race was completed, the bold step of disqualifying Montgomery was taken.

It was a risky move given it was the first Ironman New Zealand and officials wanted everything to go off without a hitch.

The stakes were raised when Montgomery professed his innocence to New Zealand Herald journalist Terry Maddaford, who bought his story and wrote how the competitor had been wronged and that organisers would live to regret it. It was to be Montgomery's downfall.

As it turned out, a member of the public read the story and called inaugural race director Paul Gleeson with the real version of events.

Montgomery had flagged him down asking for a ride back into town. When it was suggested he put his bike in the trailer, he declined and asked if it could go in the boot, presumably so no one could see it.

Furthermore, he asked to sit in the middle of the back seat between the man's grandchildren and was often seen ducking down when passing race officials.

When they got to the top of the hill above St Heliers, the situation got even more curious. Montgomery asked to be dropped off there and told the man he would cycle back to Mission Bay and tell organisers that someone had given him a ride and time would be added to his overall finishing time.

It later emerged Montgomery had spent the entire swim leg in a portaloo and emerged at the far end of Mission Bay after having splashed water on his body to make it look like he had completed the long swim.

Montgomery was banned from competing in any ironman event for five years.

"That set the standard and every-one knew then we were serious," Gleeson says. "We had systems in place to catch him."

Ironman New Zealand has come a long way in 25 years and not only because all competitors wear microchips which record their whereabouts during the race.

It is an event full of extraordinary feats by ordinary folk and the not-so-ordinary in Montgomery's case.

It's an event that pushes the limits of human endurance and it's this factor which has seen Ironman New Zealand prosper for the past 25 years.

When the first race took place in 1985, 340 people lined up at the start at Mission Bay but only 68 were New Zealanders.

Few people had heard of ironman but there was general curiosity and often bewilderment about an event that required athletes to swim 3.8km, bike 180km and then run a marathon.

The first ironman had taken place in Hawaii in 1978 with the intention of trying to find which athlete - swimmer, cyclist or runner - was the fittest.

Although it didn't really settle the argument, the concept proved popular and in 1984, organisers of the Kona event dreamed of creating a worldwide series. The first franchise was sold to New Zealand and that's where Gleeson came in.

He used to work for Air New Zealand, who bought the rights to Ironman New Zealand, and was one of the country's leading events managers, having organised such things as the New Zealand Golf Open, Bjorn Borg-Chris Lewis exhibition tennis matches and later the Pope's visit in 1986.

This was something different, however, and Gleeson had the good fortune of being approached by Rick Faulding, the first New Zealander to compete at Kona, with an offer of help. They had nine months to organise everything and were given a handbook on how to do it. It proved wholly unsatisfactory.

They had a route to put together, volunteers and sponsors to find, as well as the athletes themselves, and none of that could be found in their 'Bible'.

Gleeson still wonders today how they attracted such a quality field that included Dave Scott, who went on to win six Hawaii races, and eventual winner Scott Molina. But the fact the event was given 50 qualifying spots for Kona was a huge attraction.

The inaugural Ironman New Zealand started with a swim from Mission Bay beach before a bike ride on the relatively hilly roads out to Kawakawa Bay and back and a marathon around the bays.

Montgomery's antics weren't the only challenge organisers had to contend with. The popular Round the Bays was held the previous day and the runners had flattened the Ironman headquarters constructed in the carpark at Mission Bay.

A new one was built in time for the start the next morning.

Molina won in a canter. Scott pulled out after the cycle leg, not realising how punishing the hills would be, and Molina cruised to the finish line. That was impressive but there was widespread wonderment when Molina went for a 40km bike ride the next morning and looked like he had done nothing more than cycled around the block.

There was no question a second ironman would be held the following year after the success of the first.

In 1986, however, it shifted to St Heliers, where organisers were given assurances by the Auckland City Council their base wouldn't be trampled by errant runners.

That's where it stayed until 1999, when it moved to its current location in Taupo.

"I was the one who pushed for that," says Gleeson, who was race director for 18 years.

"We were finding that the bike course around Manukau was becoming too dangerous. It was not going to be long before someone was seriously injured. We had a couple of near misses, with people flying across the bonnet of a car.

"We looked at Rotorua, Queenstown and Taupo but it was obvious it had to go to Taupo. It's a small community and similar to Kona, Roth [in Germany] and Lake Biwa [in Japan] where everyone embraces it. In Auckland, we were just a small pimple on a big face. Everyone loved it but we were just another event."

For next month's race, the event's 25th anniversary, 1495 entries have been received, including 842 from Kiwis. They will come in all ages, shapes and sizes, from teenagers to grandmothers, elite athlete to the overweight. For most, simply finishing inside the 17-hour time limit is the ultimate goal.

"It's still the big target for any triathlete," Gleeson says. "Everyone aspires to do one and when they do one, it gets in their blood. It's like they have discovered Christianity."

There are converts everywhere. It's not known, however, whether Montgomery has repented for his sins.