How Triathlon Got Hot

It took one moment of intense drama to spark public interest in triathlon. Now, 22 years later, the sport has spawned a lifestyle — and both have caught fire.

It was Feb. 6, 1982, a dark, typically humid evening in Kona, Hawaii, and Julie Moss was running. First running, then stumbling, then falling and finally crawling toward the finish line. Muscles limp and organs failing from overexertion, Moss’s body was clearly shutting down. But in that moment, something else was crackling to life: a public passion for a little-known endurance sport called triathlon.

Broadcast in its entirety by ABC’s Wide World of Sports, Moss’s finish was the sort of graphic, do-or-die scene that made it hard to look, but even harder to look away. Moss, a college student out gathering some data for an exercise physiology project, had collapsed while in the lead of the Hawaii Ironman triathlon. The demands of the course, comprised of a 2.4-mile ocean swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile marathon run, were matched only by the demands of the hot and windy conditions. Recalling the 1982 scene at the 25th anniversary of the Ironman event, Moss said, “it took all my concentration just to keep my legs from buckling. I wasn’t aware of the crowd or the television cameras.” What the rest of the world witnessed was Moss crawling the final feet. They watched as she was passed by Kathleen McCartney for the win and still refused all offers of help until her fingers broke the finish-line plane. Legendary sportscaster Jim McKay, articulating an impression felt by millions, called it the most inspiring sports moment he had ever seen.

The impact of the broadcast was immediate, lasting and wholly unpredictable. Despite the disturbing imagery, the struggle Moss endured to complete the event clearly ignited the interest and imagination of many who witnessed it.

The spectacle also expanded the idea of winning: Triathlon was now defined as a platform where one – anyone – could compete vigorously against oneself. It wasn’t about finishing first. The competition was against the inner desire to quit, and against any weakness or lack of will hidden deep within one’s heart. To finish a triathlon was, in effect, to win a triathlon.

Triathlon soon evolved from a sport pursued solely by elite endurance nuts to people from all walks of life, all ages, all abilities, from places as far and wide as Albania to Zimbabwe. Within three years of the broadcast of Moss’s finish, Hawaii Ironman entries doubled.

Ironman triathlons are now held around the globe, including Malaysia, France, Korea and South Africa, and the Hawaii Ironman can handle only 1,600 of the thousands wishing to race it every year. It’s estimated that 500,000 people have entered an “Ironman-distance” event. Many more have taken up the challenge of one of the 2,500 swim-bike-run events offered annually in the United States, held everywhere from the smallest rural community to cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

In 2000, triathlon made its debut as an Olympic event. In less than 30 years, triathlon has become a sport that’s here to stay.

Bring Your Own Bike

The invention of triathlon can be traced back to an imaginative element that surfaced during the running boom of the 1970s. Seeking to add some spice to training and racing, the San Diego Track Club began patching together swims, bike rides and run segments into a variety of workouts and offbeat races in and around Mission Bay in San Diego. The first official “triathlon” was held in 1974. The flyer read like this:

“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 participant must bring his own bicycle.”

The adventurous beginnings of triathlon soon became inseparable from the spirit and lifestyle adopted by “triathletes.” Triathlon was brand spanking new, and with little history to be reverent toward, irreverence was the rule.

Triathlon, like many “extreme” sports to come, became a cult of personality. The experimental aspects of the sport also carried over into training. Triathletes sought the latest information on sports-specific fitness, nutrition and equipment. Pursuing the “edge” became part of the passion, and was most visible in its use of aerodynamic handlebars on bicycles.

Since most triathlons had ruled performance-enhancing drafting illegal, triathletes scooped up the air-slicing handlebars, which quickly gained the tag of “tri-bars.” Tri-bars lowered the profile of the cyclist and reduced the energy cost of air resistance experienced in a cycling time trial. The professional cycling world openly ridiculed triathletes and their bars until American Greg LeMond used a pair to eke out an eight-second win in the 1989 Tour de France over Laurent Fignon. The laughter quickly stopped, and cyclists have been using tri-bars ever since.

Health-and-Fitness Nuts

In addition to technology, triathletes became obsessed with sports nutrition. This stampede was led by Dave Scott, winner of six Hawaii Ironmans between 1980 and 1987, and triathlon’s first superstar. Scott came to triathlon after playing water polo for the University of California in Davis and was notorious for long training days. “If I didn’t get in six hours of working out, I didn’t feel right,” Scott recalls.

Scott strictly adhered to a low-fat, vegetarian diet and was even known to rinse his cottage cheese. His peers, both pro and amateur, followed his lead, replenishing energy stores depleted by training with the healthiest stuff they could lay their hands on (or at least what they thought was healthiest at the time).

When triathletes began studying and adopting sports nutrition along with training, the ultimate health-and-fitness lifestyle was born. While the running boom of the 1970s chauffeured many out of couch-potatohood and into a routine with an emphasis on daily exercise, triathlon’s unique incorporation of three different endurance activities demanded the attainment of a whole new level of fitness.

When comparing triathletes to swimmers, cyclists and runners, the difference was visible for anyone to see: Swimmers had broad backs, big shoulders and a bit more body fat; cyclists had powerful-looking legs and calves and undeveloped upper bodies; runners were skinny with sinewy legs. Triathletes, thanks to their swim-bike-run routine, had it all: a balanced musculature and low body-fat percentage. The mix of exercise choices in the weekly regimen had several other payoffs – boredom was averted thanks to the variety, and injuries were reduced because of the balanced workload. Indeed, triathlon has long attracted distance runners frustrated by the high injury toll of their sport.

With triathlon displaying the virtues of a varied exercise routine, the term “cross-training” caught on. Nike identified the trend and designed the first cross-training shoe. Triathlon was now part of the general culture – it was reshaping the way average Americans approached exercise and health.

Public Appeal

Once the Hawaii Ironman began lighting up the airwaves once a year, the concept of triathlon competitions began to spread. However, like marathon and running events, triathlon was supported not by TV contracts but by the growing numbers of people paying to participate in its events.

Initially, the term triathlon was synonymous with the ultra-distance-length Ironman, and most multisport creations were made in this image. But savvy race directors, sensing a bigger picture and a bigger potential audience, began to design races that wouldn’t scare amateur athletes away.

Mark Aiton, a northern California race director, created the first “Tri for Fun” triathlon in 1988. The Tri for Fun concept featured an easy-to-finish course and did away with score sheets, trophies and medals. “Back in 1988, the only two races around the Bay Area that a beginning triathlete had access to were the United States Triathlon Series (USTS) races in Livermore and San Jose,” Aiton says. “Both of those races were known for their horrendous bike legs. Looking around, I didn’t see any triathlon opportunities geared for the novice. And that was what I wanted to create.”

The race distances of the Tri for Fun course – a 400-yard swim, 11-mile bike and 3-mile run – were established after a little experimentation by Aiton and his friends. Their goal: Select distances that minimized the intimidation factor but that were still challenging and proportionate to standard triathlon events. As the races grew, the start waves were organized so that athletes streaming into the finish-line shoot would be in a jumbled sequence of performance – there would be no clear idea of who had won and who had finished last.

Aiton knew he’d struck a chord when the events started selling out. His Tri for Fun races still sell out every year and have now been so widely copied that “Tri for Fun” has been adopted as a generic title for similar amateur races held around the country.

Boom Time

The 1990s saw huge growth in smaller-scale triathlons, both as standalone events and piggybacked on major races. While medium- or long-distance triathlons may hold the top media billing, most triathlon weekends, like the Accenture Chicago Triathlon or the Wildflower Triathlon at Lake San Antonio in California, now also place one or more beginner-level triathlons on the slate. Membership in USAT, the national governing body of triathlon, has grown from 15,194 to 53,000 in the past 10 years.

The most successful single-event series has been the Danskin Triathlon races, a women’s-only series staged in large metropolitan areas around the country. Created in 1990, using a 1?2-mile swim, a 12-mile bike and a 3-mile run format, more than 120,000 women have finished a Danskin race.

What races like Danskin have managed to do is tear down the perception that triathlon is only for the super athlete. “I think triathlon has been demystified by the groundswell of people coming into the sport,” says John Duke, publisher of Triathlete magazine. “Especially by people who are drawn to the challenge of a marathon, who do a few and then look for a new challenge. Once they finish a triathlon, they’ve found a new sport for life.”

In fact, triathlon’s “all-comer” policy has broken down a number of previously held myths about what average people are capable of. Triathletes in their 70s finish the toughest races. In 2001, Bob Scott, 71, completed the Hawaii Ironman in 12 hours, 59 minutes, a time that would have earned him third place in the first Ironman competition in 1978, or fifth in 1979.

The sport has long been emotionally charged with stories of the disabled, the overweight, people living with AIDS and diabetes – people tackling societal expectations and their own internal demons. Joseph Aaineri was the first blind competitor to race the Hawaii Ironman in 1982. Michael Russo, a deaf athlete, competed in 1984. Physically challenged athletes, using wheelchairs and handcycles, are a common sight at most triathlons.

Perhaps the most famous triathlete of the past five years has been Judy Molnar. Molnar got the attention of the Rosie O’Donnell show after she transformed her 330-pound body with help from a personal trainer and a nutritionist. Molnar burned off 130 pounds and set her sights on triathlon. She successfully completed a variety of sprint and long-distance events, and eventually took on the 1998 Hawaii Ironman, a journey she chronicled in her book, You Don’t Have to Be Thin to Win. Amazed by Molnar’s attempt at the Hawaii Ironman, O’Donnell assigned her to coach the show’s “Chub Club,” which boomed to 300,000 members in the late 1990s.

Change Agents

Thanks to the power of stories like Molnar’s, triathlon has come down to earth. In fact, thanks to the built-in emphasis on variety and cross-training, triathlon has become a magnet for many out-of-shape types seeking to get their health, and their weight, safely into check. For all its demands on the individual, it is a surprisingly inclusive and accepting sport. Although competition at the upper levels is fierce, it is mostly a friendly competition, and among amateur “age-grouper” athletes, the sense of camaraderie is palpable.

Along with the growing number of triathlons in the country, triathlon clubs are on the rise, featuring the social comfort of group workouts and supervision of qualified coaches. Health and fitness clubs have caught on to the trend, organizing teams and inventing multisport fitness classes.

“Brick”-style workouts, where instructors intermix running, cycling and swim workouts, are proving not only to be a good way to bolster the interest of students but also a means for delivering an extra wallop of aerobic activity, while employing a wider range of muscle groups.

In addition to the fitness benefits of tri training, the prospect of actually entering and finishing a triathlon goes a long way toward fueling the training fire. With the goal of competing in a distant race dangling in front of a daily workout, boredom becomes less of a problem; training is energized with purpose and tinged with anticipation.

According to Bob Babbitt, publisher of Competitor magazine, author of 25 Years of the Ironman World Championship, and a lifelong triathlete, triathlon holds enormous power to transform and energize those new to exercise, in part because of the attractive identity that accompanies it. “There’s something sexy about the idea of being a triathlete,” explains Babbitt. “Once you finish a triathlon for the first time, regardless of the distance, you’re a triathlete. You’re a part of it.”

Babbitt’s been watching and racing in triathlons since 1980, and he’s witnessed the transformation countless times. “When I see people finishing a triathlon, I see the pride on their faces,” he says, “because now they can identify with a Mark Allen or Paula Newby-Fraser – with someone they saw winning a triathlon championship on TV. Once you’ve done it, you’re in the club. And for me, that’s what it’s all about.”

Even for people who aren’t drawn to the participatory cult of triathlon, for those who have no desire to drag themselves through daily workouts, to risk the shin splints, the wipeouts, the swimmer’s cramps and other athletic trials and tribulations, triathlon continues to hold powerful spectator appeal. There’s something exhilarating and inspiring about watching people push themselves to the limit – not just in a single discipline, but in three.

Plus, every tri finish line still holds the promise of galvanizing dramas: some excruciating, cathartic moments like Moss’s iconic 1982 crossing, but also the near certainty of hundreds, even thousands, of rousing personal bests and breakthroughs – most with energy and enthusiasm to burn.

T. J. Murphy is a freelance writer and veteran triathlete based in San Francisco.


Triathlon Camps and Clinics
There’s nothing like a few days with the experts to vault you onto the right path in triathlon. Many programs are geared for the raw beginner. Campers go home with a basic grip on essential skills and a personalized training plan.

Multisports Camp
Coached by triathlon stars like Paula Newby-Fraser and Peter Reid, Multisports.com camps are held throughout the year in California, New York, Idaho, Wisconsin and Hawaii. www.multisports.com

Total-Immersion Swim Camps
Using the easy-to-learn “fishlike” swimming technique, Terry Laughlin’s camps have become a favorite of those new to swimming and triathlon. www.totalimmersion.net

The National Triathlon Academy
Orchestrated by coach and elite triathlete Troy Jacobson, the National Triathlon Academy is an international network of multisport coaches and programs. One-day workshops, weekend minicamps, and four-day and nine-day winter training camps are offered. www.triathlonacademy.com

CTS MultiSport camps
Directed by Lance Armstrong coach Chris Carmichael, CTS hosts a series of training camps throughout each year for all abilities. Camps for swimming, running and cycling are also offered. www.trainright.com

On the Web
Internet resources for the world of multisport.

www.usatriathlon.org
Web site of the governing body of triathlon. One of the best race calendars available, and plenty of information on what’s happening in the sport.

www.active.com
Mostly a race calendar, but also chock full of training and nutrition articles.

www.triathletemag.com
Triathlete magazine is a premier glossy magazine that covers the sport on an international level. Every month the pages are filled with training programs and articles on technique, equipment and nutrition.

www.slowtwitch.com
A popular online magazine published by Dan Empfield, an icon in the sport and former owner of Quintana Roo, a triathlon-specific bike and wetsuit company.

www.ironmanlive.com Training articles, Ironman race coverage and profiles of professional and amateur successes in the long-distance wing of triathlon.

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