Sport Spe­cialty

Triathlon Magazine Canada - - SPORT SPECIALTY - By Kevin Mack­in­non

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

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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

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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

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