Some stories are told through pages; visual text in black and white. Other stories are orally-woven, verbal campfire chronicles that rattle and shake. And sometimes the best are too often never told in the quiet settlement of a singular person’s quest—a regular person in a regular life, denying the banality of his or her existence by asking why not? Why shouldn’t I do what compels me, what keeps me up at night, however measured or far away? I’m no hero but there is this thing that no one has done. Why not me? This is the unlikely story of just such a quest and the man behind it.
To understand the quest of one David Knox from Spirit Lake, Iowa is to understand not so much the town of Spirit Lake but the constitution of it. As the seat of Dickinson County, the town rests comfortably on the western shores of East Okoboji Lake in the Iowa Great Lakes Region. A 2012 census argued that there were nearly five thousand residents in the area but residents of Spirit Lake are quite typically Iowan-independent, creative, loyal as a bark to tree. Numbers don’t seem to matter much. Dave Knox has lived at the same address in Spirit Lake for 32 years where, along with his wife of 29 years, they raised three sons. He works as a crew foreman for a local investor-owned electric company where his team does high-voltage equipment installation and maintenance. I’d image the consequences of contact with a multi-phase 440 or 480-volt line are much different than a household light bulb socket. It appears a calculated occupation, steady as a plow horse and from the outside, appears to fit Knox well. He says he is not unhappy.
As Dave Knox stared into the barrel of his sixth decade, he gradually took on the form and figure of fellow 60-plus Midwesterners; a little thicker around the middle, a little thinner on top, and mostly satisfied with his life’s accomplishments. Still, his resume includes a 10:48 in the 1983 Ironman in Kona and a 2:48 finish at the 1984 Chicago Marathon. The additional weight appears gracefully on his Iowan frame as if he earned the regularity of his shape. Still, one imagines that Dave Knox, given the proper motive, could drop 30 pounds in an extended spring and win his age group in most regional endurance events. It’s just such a thing that anyone from Spirit Lake, Iowa—given the time and tools—would willingly do. But Knox’s other quest is not that easily framed or understood.
At some point, as his final trimester loomed, Knox wavered from the perfect predictability of Spirit Lake. “When you are nearing 60,” he mused, “and the only triathlon that seems to get done regularly is a three-course meal, the ideas of legacy and ‘what now’ start to mix with the (consideration of) everyday existence. A guy needs a hobby, or at least another hobby.” That was 2010.
It’s the fall of 2013 and I receive a random email from some guy from Iowa. He’s collecting posters from the Ironman Triathlon World Championship races in Kona and has this goal of gaining signatures on each poster from the male and female winners. (The posters were first printed in 1980 so he decides to create his own for the years 1978-1980). Damn, I think, that’s cool. But then I ask why. Ultimate fandom? Investment opportunity? Overdose of TMZ/Bleacher Report media exposure? There’s a disconnect between the idea and the reality, a shadow rationale that causes me to blink. I replied to his request.
“Yo, Mr. Knox, am happy to place requested signature on said poster(s) when and if you can find your way to Barrio del Mario and a Starbucks on the corner of 15th Street and PCH. High noon. Bring a sharpie.”
An interesting side note made itself known: Dave Knox had only procured one of the elusive posters from my victory years. He had the 18”x 26” October 1985 poster but not the 20” x 28” from February 1982. How hard could it be? Knox had found all 12 posters from Mark Allen and Dave Scott’s six-win each dynasty. He’d gone to Boulder to see the other Dave. I’d only won twice and was willing to buy him an espresso and a maple nut scone.
Dave Knox remembers it differently…
“Contacting Scott was easy, but that would change after his experience with me. It was sometime in 2013 that I e-mailed his web-site, told him about my collection and the posters I was missing. He very graciously replied that he did not have any leads for me (to find the missing posters). Tinley did show some interest in what I was doing for their TriHistory.com website but I did not feel at the time that my story was ready to be told. So I continued my search.”
A funny thing happens to old and partially-forgotten athletes—they get nicer with age. You can tell by the way they have a bit more time for strangers, pets, and young journalists. And so it was when Big Dave Knox rolled into my hood with his brother-in-law from up the coast.
“You know, ST we almost met in Kona in 1983,” he tested my wit from the head of the outdoor table and sipped a large American coffee.
“I remember,” an easy parry, “you were wearing shorts, a tank top, and Jesus sandals.”
I told him that my wife was born in Iowa and he told me they’d driven down the coast in his brother-in-law’s new Porsche. We shared a few laughs, drank typically-average Starbucks, and signed the one poster. “What about the other poster from February 1982,” I asked and as the words left my mouth too quickly I recalled I had once owned that poster.
“You know what, Dave? I used to have those posters from the first two years they made ‘em. 1981 and February 1982, right? Mounted them on some kind of particle board and tossed them in the garage when I got married. Hmmm. I wonder where they are.”
Dave’s pupils narrowed. His breathing quickened. He sat up straight in his chair and leaned in. “I need those posters,” his voice deeper than a minute before. “What do you want?” And then reached for where a wallet might be.
And that’s how we left it.
I liked this guy from Spirit Lake. He made me laugh. His quest was interesting and the cynic-in-me could not sense even a hint of profit motive. But I wasn’t going to tell him that. Dave was a smooth high-voltage operator. I was a story teller with too much old triathlon crap in my garage. That night I hunted the tall shelves in my side-yard shed and discovered the poster booty covered in rat shit and dust. They had aged better than their keeper. And I remembered when they came into my possession at some ancient check-in table at a kindler-quieter King Kam Hotel back room. Not sure why I schlepped them home in my cardboard bike box back then. Maybe I thought it they’d glow under a leftover 60’s-era black light.
After our brief encounter there was an email from Dave noting how he’d won the 1984 Big Creek Tri near Des Moines adding, “it was Iowa’s premiere triathlon at the time.” He’d opened the transactional paragraph with something like “five hundred per” and with sentimentality leaching up from some forgotten place, I thought I’d keep them for my grandkids. I’d spend five Benjamins on a dinner for extended family. But I’d never have what Mr. Knox wanted.
“Just give them to the guy,” my wife, Virginia, argued. “You have a ton of that old sports junk in the shed.” And I did. But no one wanted it...yet. Therefore, it had no material value in our market-driven state of economy.
Twenty-five years with the same company, 32 at the same address, 30 with the same wife, Heidi…Dave Knox was well on his way to earning a triple-double in consistency. But there is something about regularity that can either snap you out of bed every morning at 6:50AM EDT or drive you back under the covers until you can conjure a raison d'etre. At some point, and it wasn’t clear just yet, it seemed that collecting Ironman posters was as important as doing something that no one had really done before.
There are others who collect things. Sports memorabilia is an eight-figure business but not in the world of multisport. Joseph and Wanda Goldsharek, for example, have owned the Kona Inn Jewelry store since 1987. They have a wonderful collection of every Ironman poster from 1981 until present with nearly enough extra copies to display a full second set. Many of the framed posters in their shop were signed by participants and victors as they wandered around the Kona Inn Village and shopped for mementos of their long day in the sun. Joe ponders on one such competitor.
“He signed the 2004 poster with a tugboat sketch. (So) what I’m trying to say (is that) the posters are (a) history of (the) family of Ironman.”
No doubt the tug boat rendering belonged to 1979 winner, Tom Warren, and as Goldsharek remembers about “some kid who said his dad started the Ironman,” well that could only be John and Judy Collins’ son, Tom Collins.
But the Goldsharek’s collection seems altogether different from Knox’s. Dave has taken to actively seeking out and acquiring the posters ipso facto his 1983 appearance at the Kona finish line. And then—and it’s a big then—seeking out and acquiring the signature of each male and female winner of the annual event. There are costs to this journey, some of them financial, some not. But there are rewards.
I have two signed baseballs on an indoor shelve somewhere. One is from the great 1960s Los Angeles Dodger left-hand pitcher, Sandy Koufax. The other is from another consistent athlete, MLB Hall of Famer, Cal Ripken, Jr. Both of the balls came to me quite accidently and through my involvement in professional sports. The way they came to me as gifts from the athletes themselves, is more important than my ownership of them. That is what I imagined Dave Knox from Spirit Lake, Iowa also felt when I counter-offered the 81/82 poster transaction.
“Okay, Big Dave,” and channeling a line from Caddy Shack, “there’ll be no money involved. But if you ever come across a 1973 Hodaka Wombat 125cc in some forgotten barn out on the prairie then we have a deal.”
“You mean that dirt bike with the chrome tank and black frame?” He replied. “Those things were cool. I’m on it.” I’d thrown out a large piece of bait and Knox had decoded, deconstructed, and swallowed our deal. Six weeks later there was another email.
“Found a good one in an out-building not far from Spirit Lake. Who’d a thunk it? It’s being shipped to you on Thursday. When can I get my posters?”
Damn. This guy was good.
Dave Knox has collected every one of the 35 Ironman posters from the 34 years of the event (two races in 1982). He has designed and produced posters from 1978 and 1979 and is working on 1980 or the last of what he calls, “those Oahu years” in effort to have a full and presentable product for the winners, Gordon Haller, Tom Warren, and a young David Scott to autograph. He has procured 18 males and 16 female winners’ signatures on his booty-to-date and is active in efforts to reach the five men and six women he is missing. Not surprisingly, it is the non-Americans who he’s had trouble in finding (or at least hearing back from). He’s hopeful the German and Canadian contingency will find a Starbuck’s moment for the big guy at some point.
I asked Mr. Knox if he thought that the Ironman World Triathlon Championship owned by Wanda Sports Holding, a subsidiary of Dalian Wanda, arguably the world’s largest private property developer with its roots in Chinese real estate but its feet in global entertainment, was aware of his poster quest. His reply was as pragmatic as it was thoughtful.
“Not sure of that. Welchy and Newby and Heather are on their payroll. But I have this vision that at age 87 years old (I will be) sitting in my wheel chair at the Ironman race awards banquet. The champions approach and toss me the signed poster, ‘There's your poster old man.’ And another chapter will be written.” You have to appreciate a guy whose self-assurance is linked to a legacy written on the backs of banquet pasta, parking lot chicken, and the threat of being dismissed as side-show ideology. So, if I saw the 2028 Ironman World Triathlon Champion scoff at an octogenarian in the corner with a poster and a sharpie in his hand, asking simply for him or her to contribute to the long line of Kona progenitors, and they dissed him…I’d be all up in their face.
For myriad reasons explored elsewhere, the sport of triathlon has not fully embraced its cultural past. Perhaps the sport is too young, too diverse, too self-conscious or simply not enough of too many others things named and unnamed. I try not to compare triathlon or by extension it’s weightier nom de pleur--multisport—to America’s power sports of baseball, basketball, football (with nods to hockey and NASCAR). But I wonder perhaps for the sake of nothing at all what socio-historico value a complete collection of World Series posters signed by the winning team members or NBA Finals MVPs or Super Bowl winning QBs would bring when set in the sport’s respective halls of fame. Forget the fair market value for a minute. Forget that a singular person usually devotes significant material sacrifice in their efforts to complete their collection. But consider what their efforts mean to the institution of that sport or that event. Maybe nothing. Just some star-seeker jonesing for pseudo-fame. Or maybe something altogether different when set in context, not so much of effort but of intent.
Somewhere in my shed there is a sheet of autographs I was gifted while participating in the 1986 NBC Sports Superstars Competition. There were twenty of us in the finals and we all signed twenty sheets of paper and exchanged them as a kind of memory of who we’d met and competed against. On my sheet there is a NFL Hall of Fame quarterback, the winner of the Indy 500, and arguably one or two of America’s best track and field athletes. Of the 19 (besides me) over half are still famous sports figures, whatever that means. Hershel Walker, Willie Gault, Mark Gastineau, Vinny Testaverde, Danny Sullivan, Boomer Esiason…I didn’t know them before our fully-sponsored Miami Beach weekend and have yet to receive a Christmas card from Roger Craig of the 49er’s even though I distinctly remember buying him more than two beers at the airport. But to a one, every athlete had a personality, a message, and a healthy respect for my nascent place in early multisport. I enjoyed my time in the vice of Miami but don’t lose sleep worrying if that autograph sheet is rat-ridden or ready for eBay.
When the 1973 Hodaka Wombat was rolled off the delivery truck, Big Dave Knox was there in the driveway. He’d been waiting in his rental car for over four hours. Had taken his vacation time to make a deal work that wasn’t as much a deal as it was ceremony. I was at work until late in the evening and returned to an exterior light shimmering off the polished chrome tank. There was a note taped to the seat.
“Hope you like it. See you in the morning to complete our trade.”
It was signed “BD, Big Dave.”
Postscript: After some months (and now years) of watching Dave Knox scour the planet for an Ironman victor’s five-second slash of the pen on their corresponding year-winning poster, I became a fan and rooted for his efforts. Not sure why. Dave’s not wealthy or overly-handsome or otherwise charming in a postmodern sense. But he’s charismatic in a way that makes you like the core of him and his family and his town. Makes you buy him a second and third beer. In some ways I hope he struggles in finding that last one or two signatures and enlists the support of those who are now in his camp: Michele and Mark and Dave and Paula and John Howard and Skid and Heather and Tim and Kathleen and well, you know. We’d all fly up to Montreal on a scavenger hunt in search of The Puntous Twins before skipping over the Berlin to look for Herr Stadler. And we’d take the 1973 Hodaka Wombat as a sag wagon.