Participants celebrate at the Ironman in 2013. Photo by Chelsea Schreiber, staff.
Every year on the Fourth of July, many Hermosa Beach residents partake in a ritual that begins with a run on the beach and ends with a lot of vomit. They call it the Ironman.
Hundreds of people show up at the beach early Independence Day morning to run a mile, paddle a mile on surfboards and then drink a six pack of beer as quickly as they can. If you can go 15 minutes without throwing up – the rule for officially finishing – you might have a shot at Ironman glory.
While this year marks 40 years for this unique tradition, the origins of it are a tad murky.
Robert “Burgie” Benz, former Hermosa Beach mayor, is a sort of figurehead for the Ironman. Though he’s been involved with the event since 1981 and still serves as the master of ceremonies, Benz, 57, can’t say who actually dreamed up the boozey puke fest. But the story goes like this: A group of friends in Manhattan Beach started the Ironman, and a crackdown on drinking by the Manhattan Beach Police Department drove the event to Hermosa Beach, where it has remained.
“The irony with the Ironman is that it is on the Fourth of July and the very nature of the event reinforces the meaning of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Benz said. “It’s really the sort of last vestige of what Hermosa was really known for – and that’s a party town.”
The race’s location is announced by word-of-mouth, and much of its organization is likewise shadowy. Registration for the event happens at a bar the day before, in order to weed out any underage drinkers. Most participants come from the South Bay, but Benz said people have come from as far away as Europe to compete and range in age from 21 to 72. What began with a few dozen people each year now attracts about 500 competitors every July 4.
Everyone brings his or her own six pack of beer, usually of the light variety, though some guys will chug Guinness to look macho, Benz said. Coors Light is such a popular choice for the Ironman that Benz once got a phone call from the beer company making sure event organizers weren’t giving it away to participants. For some reason, Benz said, Coors Light didn’t want to be associated with the Ironman.
Scott of Redondo Beach vomits on Chris Bald of Manhattan Beach while competing in the 39th annual Iron Man Competition in Hermosa Beach. Photo by Chelse Schreiber, Staff.
The top five men and women finishers are given small trophies and bragging rights. The person with the best vomit is awarded a keg of beer. Those who do the Ironman more for fun and less for glory will put red food dye in their beer to make their vomit more vibrant. Last year’s overall winner, Matt Ballandi, finished in 19 minutes, 32 seconds (not counting the 15 minute wait to confirm his non-vomitting status).
While Benz has never won the Ironman, he has placed second.
“I can drink a six pack in less than three minutes,” Benz said. “I went to college.”
Lt. Tom Thompson has been with the Hermosa Beach Police Department for 35 years. While the Ironman is an unregistered event that involves drinking on a beach where it isn’t technically allowed, the city and Police Department allow the tradition to live on.
“It’s kind of like rebellious kids; they have to do it once a year to keep their sanity,” Thompson said.
In its early years, Thompson said the event was more dangerous because it would start on the Strand and then move to a vacant lot for the drinking portion. Since then, he said, police and Ironman competitors have come to an understanding: start at 8 a.m., use only beer in cans for safety, be done with the beach and leave it cleaned up by 10 a.m.
While as many as six police officers used to man the event, Thompson said now they are just down to two. Aside from a few scuffles, he said problems don’t usually come up with the Ironman. Compared with the revelry that happens later in the day on the Independence Day, the Ironman is nothing, Thompson said.
“It’s a zero. Everything else is like an 8, 9 or 10,” Thompson said. “People come down here with the idea that it’s one day out of the year. It’s almost like a free for all.”
Annie Seawright, 48, of Hermosa Beach, has completed the Ironman 18 times, won first place 11 times, placed second five times and has thrown up twice. Her beer of choice is Bud Light. When she started doing the Ironman in 1993, she was the only woman doing it.
“There’s a camaraderie out there that’s so much fun,” Seawright said. “It just kind of exudes the whole Hermosa spirit, just how it’s a fun community that doesn’t take itself too seriously.”
Patrick Sweeney, 35, of Manhattan Beach is a runner who recently did a “beer half-marathon,” which involves 13 beers and 13 miles. So the Hermosa Beach Ironman seemed like a natural fit for Sweeney. Since he started in competing in 2008, he has placed second once, with a beer-drinking time of 2 minutes, 32 seconds.
“I guess I just like that something like this can still exist in this day and age,” Sweeney said. “It’s not the smartest thing in the world, but people are having fun.”
Benz said he plans to keep on competing in the Ironman for as long as he can. “It’s a testament of why people live at the beach,” Benz said. “It’s a surf event. It’s tragic that people live in such proximity to the ocean and yet never go and jump in the ocean.”