PITTSFIELD -- It’s safe to say that Robert H. Bowmar never felt like a pioneer back in 1977.
"Honestly? A bunch of us were training and working out, and part of our workouts were running and rowing and biking," recalled Bowmar. "And when we heard about the race, we just decided to do the whole thing ourselves."
Bowmar was one of a handful of athletes who participated in the first Josh Billings Runaground in 1977 as solo "iron men."
Josh Billings records list just two local runners, but Bowman believes it might have been more.
Today, ironmen and ironwomen are not particularly unique. There will be more than 150 in this year’s race. Then? There wasn’t even a category for it. It was so unusual that former Eagle reporter John Egan devoted several paragraphs of that non-category in his 1977 story, noting that the top solo finisher won the "unofficial title of Iron man."
The ironman category wasn’t created until 1979, according to Race Director Patty Spector.
The 76-year-old Bowmar, then and now of 418 Holmes Road, was the third ironman finisher in 3 hours, 22 minutes and 32 seconds in 1977. Second was his friend Earl W. Stetson, then of Longview Terrace, in 3:18:36. The top ironman athlete was Randy Drake of Palmyra, N.Y.
"I don’t think I ever beat Earl in anything," said Bowmar.
Stetson died last year.
"He was a great athlete and such a gentleman," Bowmar said. "I remember when we were training for that first race, I had this beat-up old English bike and Earl had a new racing bike. And we rode together for a while, but after a couple miles, he said, ‘Do you mind if I go ahead a little?’ He was kind of concerned that I would be cycling by myself.
"And I said okay. And the next thing I know, he was, just Zoom! Up the road a half mile or so. He was amazing."
Bowmar was a University at Albany professor at the time.
"I think that helped, a little, because I wasn’t really chained to a desk," he said. "I was able to take an afternoon off and train. I could make my own hours."
Bowmar admitted that, over the course of several decades, he doesn’t have any specific memories of that first race.
"I think the one thing I remember was that they changed the route a couple of times over the years, which made it more interesting," he said.
Well, there was one memory: He and Stetson knew they weren’t going to beat Drake. Bowmar didn’t remember Drake’s name 35 years later, but he remembered how good he was.
"That guy from upstate New York was pretty amazing," he said. "He only finished a little behind the winners [2:50:24, or 18 minutes behind the winning time of 2:32:08]. And I remember thinking how good that was, because he had to canoe by himself, and the team that won it had two guys. Not to mention separate guys running and biking."
There were no real cross-training methods in those days, and Bowmar recalled that he and Stetson had difficulty determining exactly how to approach training for a three-sport event.
"We were thinking about it a lot," he said. "You know, if you run one day, do you bike the next day? Or canoe? It was hard to work that out."
Bowmar competed in several Josh races as an ironman. He also competed for years in road races. But he had to give up the ironman race after a few years.
"One of my shoulders started going," he said. "And if they go, it’s really tough to canoe. I still ran and biked for years afterward, but when I couldn’t canoe, I couldn’t do the [Josh] race."
At 76, Bowmar still works out regularly.
"Oh, sure," he said. "You never give that up."
To reach Derek Gentile:
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