ONE RAINY SATURDAY in February, 1982, Derek Duvall tuned into ABC’S Wide World of Sports. Along with millions across North America, he witnessed one of the most iconic moments in Ironman World Championship history.
“Here’s some race from Hawaii called the Ironman.” says Duvall. “Julie Moss collapses 10 feet from the finish. I’m looking at this and thought, ‘Ooh, interesting.’ I had no idea what a triathlon really was.”
Eight months later Duvall was in Hawaii. He lined up alongside alltime greats like Dave Scott and Scott Tinley. Despite a flat tire nearly 13 km from the end of the bike course, he still came home in 282nd place after what he described was a “neat day.”
Duvall, who lives in Vancouver, is now 71 and has been hooked on the sport for 35 years. The numbers alone are astounding. He’s a member of the USA Triathlon Century Club, having completed more than 100 of their races. As for long course, he’s finished more than 40 half-distance races and 41 full-distance events.
His amazing athletic career began in Lake Ontario where, at age two he was taught to swim. This developed into regular swim training, but it was when he progressed to hockey and then football, that his prowess really began to show.
“In about grade seven, when you’d be playing sandlot football, it was quite noticeable that I could kick footballs better than any other kid,” says Duvall.
By grade 13, Duvall could kick field goals of 60 yards and, upon leaving high school, he headed to the University of Western Ontario. Come opening day of the football season he made the starting team. Trials with the Hamilton Tiger Cats soon followed, but his college coach stepped in and the chance to sign slipped away. Duvall did end up playing one year of professional football, for the BC Lions reserve squad in 1979.
By 1982, Duvall was based in Courtenay, B.C. Working as a dentist, his schedule was flexible and he was soon spending all of his free time training. Duvall readily admits there was little science behind his workouts.
“I’d leave the office at two in the afternoon and train for four or five hours a day. On Saturdays and Sundays, you’d beat the hell out of yourself. You really didn’t know what you were doing. You just did this, without any rhyme or reason to it.”
With no understanding of rest and recovery, it was hardly surprising that Duvall would have days when just riding home from work was a struggle. But the training paid dividends and he raced the Ironman World Championship in Kona every year from 1982 to 1990. “The best one was the 1985 Hawaiian Ironman. I tell people I did a fourth event after the race. I said two words, ‘I do.’”
Duvall and his wife Kerry got married straight after the event. Kerry is a seven-time Ironman finisher herself and the couple are fiercely competitive. They last raced at Ironman Canada in 2002. She was the faster swimmer and cyclist, but Derek could overtake her on the run. Kerry predicted he would catch her at kilometre 35 of the marathon. As he passed her after five km, with a cheery “Hello,” she uttered, “Don’t you ******* speak to me.” The race hasn’t been mentioned since.
Over the decades, several events stand out. These include trips to the Southern Hemisphere to race Ironman New Zealand and the challenge of the brutal Ironman Canada course in Penticton. He also enjoys the fast, flat course of Ironman Florida. “Anyone who says they like hills is lying.” says Duvall.
He has represented Canada at the ITU Short Course World Championships on two occasions, in Edmonton in 2014 and Chicago
in 2015. In Chicago Duvall raced three events, coming fifth in his age-group for the aquathon and in the top 15 for both the sprint and Olympic-distance races. This year he will head to Penticton for the ITU Long Course World Championships and is targeting a place on the podium.
His training has come a long way since those early days on Vancouver Island. Duvall is a qualified triathlon coach and works with a small number of athletes. This has led to a much more structured approach to workouts, combining intervals and short, sharp sessions.
Strength and conditioning plays a big part in Duvall’s schedule, alongside swimming, biking and running. He attributes his longevity and lack of injuries to this fourth discipline, saying “I think I’m actually better now than 20 years ago. It’s down to the weight training. Doing squats, doing a clean and a snatch. You can’t beat those, you’re doing a full body session.”
But a return to Kona for the first time since 1990 eludes him, sometimes missing qualification by only one place. It is his key motivation to keep training. This year Duvall plans to race either Ironman Florida or Santa Rosa. He will compete at numerous shorter events, but hopes focusing on just one full-distance race gives him his best shot of grabbing that world championship slot.
If it does come together and he crosses the line first in his age-group? Duvall would love nothing more than to put himself through yet another “neat day” in Kona.
Luke Yates is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver.
OPPOSITE Derek Duvall at the inaugural Subaru Ironman 70.3 Canada 2016
RIGHT Duvall finishing Subaru Ironman Canada 1997