Cowman whackier than ever
Call him colorful. Call him unique. Call him an idealist. There are some who simply call him crazy.
No matter what the description, and no matter what the event, there are never any dull moments when Cowman shows up. And that’s every bit as true today as it was three decades ago when this endurance athlete – also known as Ken Shirk – and his famous set of buffalo horns literally streaked into the limelight at Lake Tahoe and, in time, worldwide.
He now enters races as Cowman A-Moo-Ha and, at age 62, concedes that he may have lost a step or two speed-wise. But that’s no big deal. It certainly wasn’t last Saturday when he finished the second annual lake Tahoe Triathlon in Kings Beach in a time of 5 hours, 9 minutes and 48 seconds.
“I just want to finish,” Cowman said during an interview in Kings Beach the day before the race. “I haven’t really biked or swam much since Donner Lake (Triathlon). My running is still strong and I can swim for miles, just not fast.”
As an athlete, Cowman’s photograph has been seen in publications worldwide over the past 30 years, the result of having performed on such stages as the Boston Marathon and New York Marathon, as well as the World Championship Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii, which he will compete in for the 29th straight year on Oct. 21.
“What I’m trying to accomplish doesn’t have anything to do with speed, it’s all about keeping the endurance I have and taking it to the Ironman World Championships on Oct. 21 – and trying to put on a good show for everybody,” Cowman said. “They draw the top athletes in the world, and I feel, for my age and for my size, I’m one of those top athletes.”
Cowman’s attire – or lack thereof – established him as one of Tahoe’s colorful legends on July 4, 1976, the day he wore those buffalo horns, and nothing else, and streaked through Tahoe City as part of America’s Bicentennial celebration.
“Part of that was my mother’s influence,” Cowman said with a smile. “She raised six boys on a ranch and she always told us that we’re born in our birthday suit, and you should appreciate your body and take care of it. So when they said, ‘Birthday of America, the 200-year celebration,’ and since streaking was the craze at that time, I just said, ‘Wow, I need to express myself on what’s going on in the world. OK, I’m going to have a parade of my own.'”
That he did, and for a good cause.
“I was a reserve fireman at the time and they were out collecting money for the fireworks that night in Tahoe City,” Cowman said. “I wanted to contribute to the cause, so I took money as I streaked through Tahoe City and dropped it off in the booth they had out in the street. The weather was good, there were a lot of people in town, there were people playing music. It was a good time for everybody.”
The ’70s were good times for Cowman, who came to Tahoe after attending San Jose State University and spending time with the National Guard. He was a familiar sight around Lake Tahoe’s North Shore driving a 1964 Chevy pickup truck labeled – “Cowman’s Turkey Patrol” – and, of course, those horns. He ran some pretty good times, too, winning the inaugural Wild Wild West Trail Marathon in Lone Pine in 1979, wearing the horns. Without the horns, he ran a highly respectable best marathon time of 2 hours, 48 minutes at Avenue of the Giants.
The 6-foot-3 Cowman was a natural athlete during his youth in Salinas, where he grew up on a ranch, played four years of football and was a tennis standout at North Salinas High School. At Hartnell College, he played some more tennis and one more year of football before he discovered his passion for cross country running.
“I was watching the cross country team run by and I decided to join,” Cowman said. “I found out I’d rather run over the mountains hundreds of miles. To me that’s more enjoyable. You can go when you want to. You can stop when you want to.”
The craziest thing he’s ever done?
“Doing the Ironman, just jumping into it in 1979, with no training,” Cowman said. “I was there visiting some college friends and heard about this race called Ironman, so I had to check it out. I had to borrow a bike – it wasn’t even a racing bike – and I rode it two or three blocks to see how it worked. As for the swimming, I had surfed in Santa Cruz, but I had never swam more than 400 yards at one time and here I was swimming 2.4 miles in the ocean with whitecaps.”
His fame took off, thanks in part, to the Ironman exposure, putting him on a path that led him to Brazil, New Zealand, Japan and Canada.
“Ironman was good for me because I would have never gotten the international exposure otherwise,” Cowman said. “They (race directors) would pay my whole way, like I was a movie star … all the travel, food, hotel, buy me gifts and they paid me appearance money. It was a professional thing, except I was an amateur, and I didn’t really have to compete against other athletes. They just wanted me to show up and participate. That’s an athlete’s dream.”
He has finished the Boston Marathon more than 15 times and the Honolulu Marathon more than 25 times and has made it to the finish line more than 22 times at the Kilauea Volcano Marathon, billed as the world’s most difficult marathon.
Cowman tries to pass on a message when possible. For example, he ran the Boston Marathon earlier this year and carried a sign calling for “World Peace” over the 26.2-mile distance.
“I try to promote health and peace through running and sports,” he said. “I’m trying to put out a message to share with everybody and hopefully it will be like a ripple effect around the world.”
Even after all these years, there are no signs that he is slowing down.
“People ask me how old I am and I tell them how young I am – I’m 62 going on 32,” Cowman said. “(Do I have) another 20, 30 years? Oh, 60. I want to set records. I believe in record-setting, and not about speed, but about endurance and longevity. That’s my attitude. Those are my two priorities.”
Other adventurous goals?
“Surf from Lake Tahoe to San Francisco. It’s kind of a unique idea, and if I ever get sponsors I’d like to say I did it some day,” Cowman said. “One day at Tahoe, I want to go out behind one of the boats on a surfboard from Sand Harbor side to Tahoe City … then paddle the board down the Truckee River … then get out at the entrance to Squaw and carry the surf board on the 100-mile (Western States Endurance) run trail and call it, ‘Surfing the trails.’ There’s no race. It’s just about doing it and finishing it.
“I would do it when the American River is high, so when I get to Auburn, I can paddle my surfboard. Possibly, depending on what’s happening, I’d like to go on with the surfboard – with maybe a Hawaiian shirt and my horns – to San Francisco. Then when I get to the San Francisco area, I’d surf some waves.”
Next up, Cowman will participate in the Santa Cruz Sentinel Triathlon on Sunday.
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