On September 25, 1974 fellow members of a local track club Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan hosted an event at Mission Bay in San Diego unlike any they believed the world had ever seen. They assumed that because neither had been present when a similar event took place near Paris in 1902.
In each case the event consisted of three separate sports mashed together into one race. The Paris event was cleverly called Les Trois Sports, which roughly translates as “race event for impressive athletes who are also mildly insane.” Trust me on this. French is a highly efficient language.
In San Diego, the newfangled race was called a triathlon, because Greek is an even more efficient language and Johnstone, unsatisfied with his fitness level after running and running and running, was just insane enough suggest that the San Diego Track Club throw some other challenges into the mix.
Les Trois Sports initially included run, bicycle, and canoe components, all completed consecutively without a break outside of the time it takes to exchange some equipment and chow down some quick sugar, like a power bar or maybe a baguette or something. I don’t really know that much about turn of the century French culture.
The Mission Bay Triathlon consisted of running, biking, and swimming. In that order. Fortunately, the distances for this first triathlon were relatively short since it had not yet occurred to the organizers that an exhausted swimmer is more likely to accidentally drown than one who has a lot more exercise still to look forward to.
Forty-six athletes participated in this first triathlon event in the US, which is a lot more mildly insane people than Johnstone and Shanahan expected. Two of those participants were Judy and John Collins, who only four years later, proved they were not so much on the mild side of insane when they began the Ironman event in Hawaii, consisting of a 2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26 mile run. At least it was in that order because by then, triathletes had figured out that collapsing from exhaustion on the road, while dangerous, is usually not as immediately deadly as collapsing in the ocean.
As insane as I believe the Ironman to be, I do admire and appreciate the extreme dedication of the athletes who train for and participate in it. In concept, and on a much smaller scale, I am even drawn to the idea of a triathlon.
I’ve mentioned on this blog before, but it always bears repeating, that I believe with my whole heart that running is stupid. I do, however, love to swim and I’m also a big fan of biking and of participating in race events in general. There’s just something about the camaraderie of misery that really sizzles my bacon.
So, when a friend recently asked if anyone would like to join her for the sprint course of the TriathLou in Litchfield, Illinois, I readily volunteered. I participated in a similar event ten or twelve years ago with my sister and I remember it being tough but fun. Then, to my surprise and delight, my slightly insane fourteen-year-old son said he wanted to give it a try this time, so I was definitely stuck.
It wasn’t a terribly long event. We swam 0.3 miles, biked 12 miles, and ran 3.1 miles, done consecutively with only enough break between to exchange some equipment and chow some quick sugar, like an energy bar or a Snickers because I am pretty familiar with early twenty-first century American culture.
Yes, I did finish, and I did run every step. As I easily predicted, the swim and bike went just fine and I was slow and miserable-ish on the stupid run, but I did it. For my efforts I got improved satisfaction with my fitness level, a tee shirt, and a finishers medal so I can prove to anyone who questions me that I am mildly insane.