Triathlon, what is it?

Thursday, May 17, 2018

CcongdonTriathlon. “What is it?”, “How much time do I need to train?” and “Can I do it?” These are questions I have been asked many times since March 2005 when I starting coaching triathlon as a certified coach through USATriathlon. Standard answers have been 1) swim, bike, run (usually in that order, distances can vary) 2) many variables factor in, but on average 4-20 hours/week 3) yes, you can.

The word triathlon is derived from Greek origin; treis (“three”) and athlos (“competition”); in reference, triathlon is sometimes referred to as multisport. Interpreted, it is 3 unique disciplines put together in performed in consecutive order. According to Tri Sports History Timeline (1902-2008), the multisport of three disciplines has been around since 1902. That triathlon consisted of running, cycling and canoeing. The “roaring 20s” in France pushed triathlon a bit further into the event we know today. Modern triathlon started to form in the United States in the early 70s. It gained popularity in 1974 with the following promotion for the first Mission Bay Triathlon in San Diego, CA:

RUN, CYCLE, SWIM: TRIATHLON SET FOR 25TH
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. Awards will be presented to the first five finishers. For further details contact Don Shanahan (488-4571) or Jack Johnstone (461-4514).

Triathlon gained more popularity when in 1978 an argument arose regarding which of the three disciplines (swimming, biking or running) required the greatest endurance. During an awards banquet for the Waikiki Swim Club, John Collins, a Naval Officer stationed in Hawai`i and his wife Judy, began playing with the idea of combining the three toughest endurance races on the island into one race. Those three events included the Waikiki Rough Water Swim (2.4 miles), the Oahu Bike Race (112 miles) and the Honolulu Marathon (26.2 miles). The couple decided to issue a challenge to see who the toughest athletes were, swimmers, bikers, or runners. On February 18, 1978, 15 competitors, including Collins, came to the shores of Waikiki to take on the first-ever IRONMAN challenge.

By 1982 the Hawaii Ironman had extensive coverage on ABC World Wide Sports, promoting the sport even further. A young college student by the name of Julie Moss captured the heart of America during the airing of the 1982 Hawaii Ironman. Julie had been dominating the woman’s event with a 6 minute lead. With ½ mile to go, her legs buckled then she fell. She began crawling toward the finish line. This was aired by ABC. See Julie’s own words here.

Since 1902 there have been varying combinations of unique disciplines comprising a triathlon, the majority of the triathlons however, include swimming, biking and running in that order. Races mostly start in the morning, NOT at 5:45 PM as with the First Annual Mission Bay Triathlon. Distances for triathlon vary.  Some triathlon distance categories are called super sprint, sprint, Olympic (a.k.a. international), half iron and iron distance events. The super sprint might consist of a 200 yard swim, 5 mile bike and 1 mile run.  The Olympic distance is standard at .93 mile (1,500m) swim, 24.85 mile (40k) bike and 6.2 mile (10k) run.  Distances under the Olympic distance can vary based on race venue. Olympic distance and above are standardized to specific distances. The iron distance (a.k.a. Ironman) is a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and 26.2 mile run. 

Generally, the amount of time spent training is based on two things. First, a person’s schedule and availability. Second, the event distance. It usually correlates that the longer the event goal, the more time is needed to spend training. That is predicated on how much available time a person has to train.

The sport of triathlon has evolved since 1902, but it continues to be a source of inspiration. Since the early years of this multisport event, millions of willing and unique participants have taken on the triathlon. Each with their own story. If you would like accept the challenge, create your own story and answer the question “Can I do it?”, get better at triathlon or would like to sit down for a conversation, let me know. Don’t know how to swim, the Y can help with that too.


Craig Congdon Greater Green Bay YMCA
Certified Personal Trainer, Certified Triathlon Coach & Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist