What’s the Best Athletic Background for a Triathlete?
During his short triathlon comeback, Lance Armstrong was asked how much of an advantage he would have over his competitors thanks to his biking prowess.
“You bike for show and run for dough,” he replied during the press conference at his first triathlon race after a 20-plus-year hiatus from the sport in 2012. His pre-race words proved prescient – Armstrong was caught and passed by New Zealand’s Bevan Docherty with a mile to go at Ironman 70.3 Panama.
So, if cycling isn’t the best sport to come from if you want to be a triathlete, what is? Triathlon has enjoyed an unprecedented growth over the last 14 years, much of it attributed to the Olympic debut in 2000. While many were inspired to check out the sport after seeing Simon Whitfield’s winning sprint, that’s hardly the only factor that has seen a five-fold increase in triathlon participants in the last decade. There’s been an increased interest in fitness and healthy lifestyles of late, there are many more events on the calendar (including accessible shortdistance races) and a marked increase in the size of the industry in everything from equipment to coaching. Triathlon has also become a cool “bucket-list” item for fitness fanatics – once they’ve gone through the running hierarchy of 5 km to 10 km to half to marathon, many find a triathlon the next step.
At the elite level, though, triathlon is in the midst of a renaissance. The fastest triathletes in the world these days aren’t just good in one sport, they’re amazing in all three. Just like it was when it all started 40 years ago.
When he decided he wanted to lose some weight in 1971, Jack Johnstone, a former collegiate and All-American swimmer, joined the jogging craze. Like so many competitive types, it wasn’t long before he started competing in local road races. In 1973 he heard about a race called the Dave Pain Birthday Biathlon – a 4.5 mile run followed by a 400 m swim. “How many of these runners can swim?” he thought to himself as he signed up for the race. Johnstone was no-doubt disappointed with the swim length of that event, which ended up being more like 200 m, and finished 14th. Determined to create an event in which the swim would be more of a factor, Johnstone decided to create an event that would feature a longer swim. Someone told him he should get in touch with a guy named Don Shanahan, who had another “strange event” in mind. Shanahan wanted to include a biking leg to the race.
The Mission Bay triathlon was born. Here’s how the notice read in the San Diego Track Club Newsletter:
The First Annual? Mission Bay Triathlon, a race consisting of segments of running, bicycle riding, and swimming, will start at the causeway to Fiesta Island at 5:45 p.m. September 25. The event will consist of 6 miles of running (longest continuous stretch, 2.8 miles), 5 miles of bicycle riding (all at once), and 500 yards of swimming (longest continuous stretch, 250 yards). Approximately 2 miles of running will be barefoot on grass and sand. Each paricipant must bring his own bicycle. Awards will be presented to the first five finishers. For further details contact Don Shanahan (488-4571) or Jack Johnstone (461-4514).
Bill Phillips won that first triathlon. A survivor of a pow camp in the Japanese-occupied Philippine Islands in the Second World War, Phillips became an avid swimmer and coach while going to school in southern California. His interest in exercise physiology helped him become a sports enthusiast and it wasn’t long before Dr. William Phillips was studying the relationship between sports performance, physiology and health.
“If a family tree were to be drawn for any aspect of triathlon – from science and technology to motivation to training methods to the purity of raw experimentation – Dr. William Phillips and his thickly muscled frame would root every branch from Tom Warren to Dave Scott to Chrissie Wellington to the Brownlee Bros,” writes no-less an expert than Scott Tinley, one of the participants in those early triathlons. “Take away the thoughtful pragmatism of Dr. Phillips, his careful attention to the science and numbers and what you might’ve been left with is a handful of lifeguards, surfers and beer-swilling dreamers at the root of a very tall tree. Fun to watch it grow wildly, but an unsustainable piece of nature as its branches sought in growth the necessary empiricism of a well-controlled lab.”
Phillips, Tinley, Shanahan and Johnstone might have been at the front of the pack in those early races, but two participants who were a little further behind that day would create the event that has defined the sport. John and Judy Collins (their son Michael also took part) were both finishers in that race and, in 1978, they created the Ironman as a way to settle an argument as to who was the fittest athlete: a swimmer, biker or runner. The debate had started with a group (many of whom were Navy Seals) in a bar after a road race. Collins threw out the suggestion of combining the Waikiki Rough Water Swim, the Around Oahu Bike Race and the Honolulu Marathon. “Whoever finishes first, we’ll call an Iron Man,” he quipped.
When people started bugging him to actually put on such an event, the John and Judy Collins created the first Ironman. There were 15 starters and 12 finishers of the event, which was won by Gordon Haller. A year later Tom Warren arrived in Hawaii and dominated the race. Haller, a Naval communication specialist, was the consummate all-around athlete. With a work schedule that included an intense four days followed by three days off. Haller would run 10 miles, bike 100 and swim a few thousand metres on the first day off, rest for a day, then repeat the ambitious triple-workout routine before heading back to work. Warren, who owned a bar called Tugs on the San Diego beachfront, was famous for his multisport training routine. He once biked the 1,412 miles from Vancouver to San Diego. He competed in 15-mile swim races. He would regularly run from his bar on Pacific Beach to Tijuana. In the days before stopwatches, he’d put a dime in the payphone and call the time operator when he started, then repeat the process when he finished.
In 1980 the Ironman would entice a former collegiate swimmer named Dave Scott to the fold. While Scott may have come from a swimming background, he was much more like Warren and Haller than he wasn’t. Scott is, to this day, an fitness addict. Over the next decade Scott would become the sport’s first pro, win the Ironman World Championship six times and set new standards for training and preparation. Scott would change the face of the sport – it was no longer an endeavour that a fitness nut could dominate. Now it became a full-f ledged race that required specific training in each sport. In 1981 John Howard, one of America’s most celebrated cyclists, took the Ironman crown thanks to a bike split that was 34 minutes faster than anyone else, but that was to be the last time a sport specialist would win the sport’s biggest race.
Scott Tinley leads Mark Allen at the 1981 Tug’s Tavern Swim-Run-Swim
Bevan Docherty wins the 2012 Ironman 70.3 Panama
Lance Armstrong finishes second to Docherty
The start of the 1982 Malibu Triathlon, that year’s U.S. Championships, at Zuma Beach in Malibu, Calif.
Tom Warren in the mid 1980s running on his home turf in San Diego, Calif. at the Super Frog Triathlon
John Howard, the 1981 Ironman champion, racing the 1982 Ironman World Championship in Kona
Dave Scott (left) and Mark Allen during what’s often regarded as the greatest Ironman race of all time, the “Ironwar,” at the 1989 Ironman World Championship, Kona
opposite right top
Journalist Mike Plant (left) with Gordon Haller, winner of the first Ironman race in 1978, at the 2013 Kona Ironman
opposite right bottom Scott Tinley racing the 1981 Horny Toad Triathlon in San Diego