—On the Run for World Peace
…By Fern Gavelek…
It’s easy to spot the Kailua-Kona resident known simply as “Cowman” running races and triathlons all over the world. Sporting his trademark, horn-topped helmet and hand-drawn t-shirts, Cowman has been competing in marathons and triathlons for over 30 years. Saying he’s “68-years-young,” Cowman—who was born Kenneth Ivan Shirk—is still competing in the sport, most recently in the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.
In the mid-1970s, the Kailua-Kona resident helped pioneer the Western States Run, which stretches from Squaw Valley Ski Area in California through the Sierras to the mining town of Auburn. In fact, Cowman is a global running celebrity of sorts, invited to appear in races in Japan, New Zealand, Brazil and Canada—and always with his horns. In Keauhou, he was honored with a race bearing his name in the 1990s: the Cowman Shaka Fun Run.
The rugged and zany character we know as “Cowman A-Moo-Ha” first hit the roads in California. But how the colorful persona came to be is the story of a farm boy, an award-winning high school athlete, a volunteer fireman and a life-loving mountain man who spent 18 years in the “outrageously beautiful wilderness” surrounding Lake Tahoe.
Ken grew up in the 1940s-50s in the rolling hills north of Salinas, California, where he helped the family grow its own food, including corn and hay to feed barnyard animals. As a young boy, he learned to fish and swim in a nearby lake and hunt for small game. “I discovered first-hand to appreciate nature,” he notes.
Crediting his parents for the values by which he lives today, Ken says he was taught the importance of love, compassion, patience and to stand up for himself and what he believes in.
“Mom gave us freedom to pursue our interests, but she was busy with our big family, so we learned to help cook and keep house,” recalls Ken. “Dad taught us how to drive and service the tractor, it had a crank starter, and I also could take care of the horse.”
Cowman says he was big and kind of clumsy for his age in grade school, carrying some excess weight. “I got picked last for all the playground teams and it affected me,” he remembers. “I told myself, ‘One day, I’ll show them.’”
And that’s what he did. By high school, Ken put his strapping young physique to work, excelling in four different sports in as many years. Besides being the top player on the North Salinas High School tennis squad, Ken vied in individual medley heats as a swimmer. At 6-foot-3, he was a formidable forward on the basketball court and on the gridiron, the teen played both offensive and defensive end for the NS Vikings.
At high school graduation, the youth was awarded the boy’s All Around Sportsmanship Award. “I thought that was the most special thing in the world,” he smiles. “That was the start of my sports career.”
But Shirk was also interested in art, “as it was something I was good at and encouraged to do.” While pursuing an associate arts degree and working on artistic projects like stage settings and murals, he started running. Soon he was hoofing it with the Hartnell Jr. College cross country team and putting on some miles. Being fit, multi-lingual and a self-described “strong bull,” Ken says he was hired to work construction between classes and he joined a labor union.
After earning his associate degree in 1964, Cowman enrolled in San Jose City College with the goal of earning a teaching degree and being a coach. He continued working construction by day and, with the escalation of unrest in Southeast Asia, the student decided to fulfill his military obligation by joining the Army National Guard.
“I didn’t want to get drafted to Vietnam and kill people,” explains Ken. “I preferred to defend my country here at home.”
Make Me a Mountain Man
Ever the athlete, Cowman joined the San Jose State Ski Club and fell in love with the sport. He also ran his first marathon in 1967. Then Ken “decided to change direction and become a mountain man.” He moved to the north side of Lake Tahoe.
“I got to ski all winter long and experience the mountain life,” details Ken. “I lived in a cabin with a wood stove, chopped my firewood and fished for trout. I had a horse for recreational riding. It was great.”
Cowman also kept running, but now he was traversing high altitude mountain trails from 6,200 to 9,000 feet in elevation. “Running the diverse terrain, under these conditions, made me a stronger, faster and better runner.”
During the winter, Shirk skied. In the summer, he worked construction. A friend recruited him to join the volunteer fire department. After training, he was on-call by radio for three years. “It was all about serving the community,” Ken says.
Cowman is Born
It was 1976 and Ken wanted to do something big for America’s bicentennial. “I decided to run around Lake Tahoe—72 miles—and I did it in one day and as far as I know, nobody had ever done that before. I had a couple friends crew for me, giving me liquid and food.”
Today, circumnavigating the lake by foot is one of Lake Tahoe’s annual running attractions, billed as an ultra-endurance event.
To further celebrate the nation’s 200th birthday, Ken planned a speedy trek through Tahoe City on the Fourth of July in his birthday suit—painted red, white and blue. His friend gave him some buffalo horns. He fastened the horns to a helmet, put on his new headgear and streaked through town. A friend got it all on film from astride his motorcycle.
“I was a fireman at the time and it surprised a lot of people, but the response was great, as streaking was all the rage. I thought it would be a wild, fun and adventurous thing to do…it’s when Cowman was born.”
After that, when Ken entered a race, he signed up as “Cowman,” complete with his horns, and was placing in the top of his 210-plus Clydesdale weight division. He also started wearing his own, colorfully designed t-shirts, emblazoning them with painted slogans like “World Peace Through Running” and “Save Lake Tahoe.”
“I used the shirts to express my messages of peace, love and happiness and they got noticed,” Cowman emphasizes. “Every day I try to be more open and communicate to others.”
What It’s Like to Be An Ironman
Cowman and his horns came to Hawai‘i to do the Ironman triathlon in 1979 and 1980 on O‘ahu. When the event moved to Kona the following year, Cowman came, too—to stay. “I fell in love with the people, the ocean, the landscape, the energy,” he says. “I got a construction job and helped build the Royal Sea Cliff.”
Cowman immersed himself into the Ironman lifestyle: swimming from Kailua Pier, taking long bike rides around the island and running. He also did the annual Volcano marathon, relishing the course around the crater’s diverse terrain.
“I was totally proud to say I was an Ironman,” says Ken. “I wore my horns for the entire race—even the swim.”
Cowman says he was subsequently told he could no longer wear his horns during the Ironman World Championship, or suffer disqualification. He says he decided to wear them anyway and after being told he was DQed, Cowman continued to do the race to the finish line—forfeiting a completion medal.
“Ironman and I had a difference of opinion,” Cowman explains, shrugging his shoulders. “Some people say I’m a bad example by still doing the course, but I’m standing up for my freedom. I want to give people courage to stand up when they see something is wrong or needs to be improved. It takes bravery, but they can figure a positive way.”
Cowman says he hasn’t “missed” an Ironman since 1979. He does the course as an unofficial entrant and doesn’t always make the cut-off times for the swim, bike or run segments. He vies “officially” in numerous other races though, including this year’s Boston Marathon.
Saying he added “A-Moo-ha” to his Cowman moniker to show he’s “all for aloha,” Ken says he tells people at international races he’s from Planet Earth. “I do that because I wish others would look at it that way…we need to get along better and live in peace.”
He adds, “I have become who I am because of my parents’ great influence and the different things I’ve done in my life. We were a church-going family and brought up to be fair and honest, and I expect others to do the same.”
Contact writer Fern Gavelek: firstname.lastname@example.org