What Is Your Triathlon History?

What is your triathlon history? If you haven't completed a triathlon yet, perhaps it's time to give it a "tri"?

If you survey people that have completed a triathlon and ask them why they wanted to participate in the sport—what got them there—you may get an answer included in the list below:

  • I had too many running injuries and needed to do cross training to heal myself. Once I began cycling and swimming, I realized I enjoyed the variety and didn't want to stop.
  • I wanted a new challenge, a change from my regular activities.
  • It was a stake in the ground. I decided to make changes to my life and triathlon was the start.
  • I wanted a way to celebrate my next birthday.
  • I was decent at several sports and the idea of combining them into a single competition seemed to be to my advantage.
  • I watched a multisport event and thought the madness looked like great fun.
  • It's a fantastic way to stay fit because I get an overall workout. Cycling and running do nothing for my upper body strength. Swimming builds upper body fitness, but has little effect on building bone mass. Triathlon is the best of all worlds.
  • My buddies and I made a bet. I say a good cyclist can slaughter a good runner or a good swimmer in a multisport event. My buddies disagree. I guess we'll just have to test those theories. Bring on the race.

Some of the comments listed above were among the reasons for the first triathlon staged in the United States. Dave Pain's birthday celebration, "Dave Pain's Birthday Biathlon" was one of the seeds for triathlon as we know it today—swimming, cycling and running.

Dave organized a run/swim event to celebrate his 50th birthday by inviting a few of his buddies to run 4.2 miles around Fiesta Island near San Diego, then swim across the estuary just south of the Hilton Hotel. Dave selected swimming and running because he was a decent swimmer and back in 1972 "everybody ran."

A few years later a couple of guys, Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan, both had ideas to enhance the run/swim events that were already popular in the San Diego area. Jack wanted to stage an event with multiple running and swimming legs within a single event, an idea that evolved from Dave Pain's Birthday Biathlon. Don Shanahan was aware of the many biathlons in the area that were mostly lifegaurd competitions, but had no knowledge of Pain's Biathlon.

Don was also on the board of the San Diego Track Club. An avid athlete himself, his activity as a runner would occasionally sideline him with injuries so he took up cycling. His cycling diversion gave him the thought that it would be a good idea to add cycling at the end of one of the biathlons and made that suggestion to the Track Club board. Although the board wasn't necessarily thrilled with the idea, another board member, Dave Pain, suggested that Don contact Jack.

The contact between Jack and Don resulted in the organization of the Mission Bay Triathlon in 1974. The San Diego Track Club announced its new event, "Run, Cycle, Swim—Triathlon set for the 25th" in the club newsletter. This appears to be the first time that the word "triathlon" was used in the modern sense. (There was an event in the 1904 Olympic Games called "triathlon" consisting of long jump, shot put and 100-yard dash. September 4, 1921 was an event titled "Course Des Trois Sports"—the race of three sports—held at the Petit Perillon Swim Club in Marsellilles, France. LuLu Helmet, the woman that won the race, cycled, ran and swam her way to victory.)

It was common in the early triathlons to have swimming as the last event. It seemed logical to swim at then end of the race in order to cool off. As more competitors enjoyed the experience of a triathlon, it became obvious it was unsafe to swim at the end of the event. People experienced cramps and accumulated fatigue during the swim, making for dangerous conditions. Today, most triathlons are staged in a swim, bike, run sequence; although a few exceptions remain.

Most new triathletes make their first triathlon a sprint (400 to 500 yards of swimming, 12- to 15-miles of cycling and typically a 3.1 mile run) or an Olympic distance (0.9 miles swimming, 24.8 miles of cycling and 6.2 miles of running.) Some people are happy racing these distances; but others aim to go longer.

The crown jewel of long distance racing is the Ironman World Championship event. Undeniably, the award-winning television coverage of this race held in Kona, Hawaii, continues to intrigue and invite viewers from all walks of life to challenge themselves by participating in a triathlon. Just where did the wacky idea to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles come from? John Collins.

John, a U.S. Naval officer, was one of the participants in the first Mission Bay Triathlon. In 1977, at the awards ceremony for the Oahu Perimeter running relay race, he challenged those in attendance to compete in the first Ironman Triathlon, which combined three of Oahu's endurance events into a single event. He combined the Waikiki Rough Water Swim, the Around-Oahu Bike Ride and the Honolulu Marathon into one race. On February 18, 1978, only 15 men lined up at the start of the race and 12 of them finished. Gordon Haller crossed the finish line first, with a time of 11:46.58.

In the U.S.A., triathlon's popularity saw healthy growth in the 1980s. The year 1982 gave birth to the sport's first national publication, Triathlete magazine, and the first governing body, U.S. Triathlon Association (later U.S. Triathlon Federation and now U.S.A Triathlon.) In 1989, triathlon formed an international governing body, International Triathlon Union (ITU), whose focus was to gain acceptance by the International Olympic Committee and have triathlon accepted on the Olympic program. Triathlon was named to the Olympic program in 1994, with its Olympic debut as a medal sport at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

It's never too early or too late to begin training for a triathlon. It doesn't matter whether your goal is long distance racing or sprint events, triathlon training gives you overall body conditioning that is found in few sports.

What is your triathlon history? If you haven't completed a triathlon yet, perhaps it's time to give it a "tri"?

Adapted from "Triathlon Training Basics," VeloPress, 2004.


Gale Bernhardt was the 2003 USA Triathlon Pan American Games and 2004 USA Triathlon Olympic coach for both the men's and women's teams. Her first Olympic experience was as a personal cycling coach at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Thousands of athletes have had successful training and racing experiences using Gale's pre-built, easy-to-follow training plans. For more information, click here. Let Gale and Active Trainer help you succeed.

Related Articles:

The History of Triathlon

Choosing Triathlon as a Lifestyle

Sprint Triathlons: The Possible Dream

Discuss This Article

Follow your passions

Connect with ACTIVE.COM