Famous Triathletes: Don Shanahan

Participating in the two prior Dave Pain Birthday Biathlons gave Jack Johnstone the inspiration to stage his very own multi-sport event. However, what he had in mind was to have more alternating runs and swims. Including the cycling leg was another man’s idea.

Who is Don Shanahan?

Don Shanahan moved to San Diego, California in 1972 as required by his job with the marines. A health buff very keen on running, Shanahan eventually joined the San Diego Track Club, one of the many track and field groups that emerged due to the explosion of the jogging craze in the early 1970s. Shanahan would later become one of the board members of the San Diego Track Club.

Introduced to cycling

Shanahan was nursing an injury from running. A sport buff through and through, this did not stop him from pursuing other sports. Through a friend, he got introduced to cycling which back then was not yet a popular discipline. Needless to say, he grew fond of the sport that he considered including it in a multi-sport race he was thinking of staging with the help of the SDTC.

Collaboration with Jack Johnstone

Still in the planning stages of the multi-sport race he was looking to conduct, Shanahan received a call from fellow SDTC member Jack Johnstone. Johnstone, at this time, had already conferred with Bill Stock, then in-charge of the club’s calendar of activities.

Pioneer triathletes Bill Phillips, Don Shanahan, and Jack Johnstone
(image via www.triathlonhistory.com)

Johnstone wanted to put the race he designed into the club’s calendar. Stock readily agreed though advised Johnstone to call Shanahan for the latter also had a unique concept for a race. Perhaps the two could incorporate their ideas into one so as not to have too many unusual races on the club’s official lineup of activities.

Johnstone, having no prior experience in competitive cycling, was not too keen on Shanahan’s idea of including a bike leg. But Johnstone nonetheless agreed and both proceeded to make the necessary arrangements for the competition.

Planning the very first modern triathlon

The event, which they dubbed the Mission Bay Triathlon, was finally set on September 25, 1974 and would consist of run-bike-run-swim-run legs. They then commissioned a short ad on the San Diego Track Club Newsletter, making sure to mention that competitors bring their own bikes. Since there were not too many races at that time, and given that the sporting community in the Pacific Beach area was very close-knit, it did not take long for word of the triathlon event to get out.

The two-man organizing team managed to pool volunteers to serve as lifeguards. Making sure the competitors’ shoes, which will surely be damp and smelly, will be at the starting line of every run leg, will be taken care of by an additional volunteer support crew which will comprise of Johnstone’s wife and other folks.

Staging the very first modern triathlon

On September 25, 1974, forty six enthusiastic competitors turned up. This surprised Shanahan and Johnstone. For one, they barely had a month to disseminate information regarding the event. Secondly, race day was on a weekday, and scheduled for late afternoon as well. Surely folks would be too tired from work to even bother showing up, much less race multiple legs of running, biking, and swimming.

Being on a very tight budget, the competition lacked logistics-wise. In fact, Shanahan had to make last minute arrangements and requested those with cars to turn their vehicles’ headlights on to provide light for those emerging from the last swim leg. But the event, considered the first ever modern triathlon in history, was a success. Bill Phillips, who won the Dave Pain Birthday Biathlon, emerged victorious at the 1974 Mission Bay Triathlon.

Sources:

Triathlon – The Early History of the Sport

Don Shanahan Interview

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