Graham Fraser Reflects
In 1984 I landed in Kona to try the new event I saw on NBC called Ironman, the lucky recipient of one of the 100 lottery spots for Canadians. I had a $200 Bianchi bike, Scuba mask, shoes with no cycling cleats and no idea what I was doing. I was not alone. Most of the 900 athletes competing had very little knowledge of equipment, nutrition, pacing or what to expect. We soldiered on and walked the run in herds to entertain ourselves and to ensure no one pushed the pace too hard. A few experienced and talented people, lead by Dave Scott, had figured out you could race these things, but most were still living in the unknown.
My race day experience included 10 bananas, some sugary sport drink, a few Fig Newtons and lots of walking. In 1987, aero bars came on the scene, bringing with them more people who were determined to race the event rather than just trying to complete it. An entire industry was emerging with more races, highly specific equipment, wetsuits, nutrition, magazines and TV coverage. Great pro athletes began to emerge like Paula Newby Fraser, Mike Pigg, Erin baker, Mark Allen and Scott Tinley who paved the way for a new generation of elite athletes.
In Canada, I started the Royal LePage Triathlon Series (now the Subaru Triathlon Series) in 1987. It was the first mass participation series here in Canada. We measured swim courses by swimming them to the times we thought we would do for that distance. Bike courses were measured by cars and runs by Cat-Eye bike computers. We were many years away from seeing our first gps unit. We manually timed races in those days before timing chips. There was certainly no live coverage or online registration.
In the early days most triathletes were super competitive and the emphasis was less participatory. Coaching and education came from magazines, word of mouth and experimentation. Coaching did develop for top athletes trying for national teams and, eventually, worked its way to the masses as Ironman races grew starting in 1999 in Lake Placid, N.Y.
If you wanted to compete in an Ironman before 1999, it meant a trip to either Germany, Penticton, New Zealand or Kona. Races had very international fields and the pros routinely showed up to the races because there were so few of them. Ironically, prize money was very similar in the 1990s to the present structure. As more races have been added to the calendar, events have become much more regional. While this has allowed many more people to experience Ironman, unfortunately many people are now “collecting” Ironman finishes, which takes away from the original concept – the ultimate endurance test. It can be also be unhealthy on many fronts.
Now the masses can try any race distance virtually anywhere in the world. They can get coached if they want and now have lots of information at their fingertips. Women’s fields have grown dramatically – they’ve tripled at Ironman races – and triathlon is one of the few sports to offer equal prize money.
These days logistical challenges include getting permits from municipalities, along with insurance and liability coverage. In 1999, in Lake Placid, they told us to make up our own permits and send them in. In the early days races were usually put on by an athlete-turned-race-director. Now the corporate world has taken over most big events, which has added more resources, but taken away some of the personality.
The goals of athletes have changed over the years. They are more time focused and brand seeking – the sport has grown to the point where brands now exist. It is probably natural as the sport evolves, but as more people race expectations are very high and entry fees have risen.
Athletes have so many sports to choose from, but what has helped triathlon grow as much as it has in 30 years are the abundance of high-level events and opportunities compared to most sports.
Ray Browning becomes the first man to break the nine hour mark at Ironman Canada in 1988 in 8:55:39
Ironman Canada 1983