Famous Triathletes: Jack Johnstone

The roots of the multi-discipline sporting arena were set firmly in 1972, thanks to San Diego-based lawyer Dave Pain. Of the handful of competitors who joined Pain’s Birthday Biathlons, one man named Jack Johnstone got the idea of staging his very own multi-sport event with more alternating legs and longer distances.

Who is Jack Johnstone?

Jack Johnstone is recognized today as the father of modern triathlon. During his college years, Johnstone was an All-American swimmer. But as is the case with many who go into their 30s, Johnstone too lost his optimum physical condition.

So in 1971, at 35 years old, Johnstone decided to get back into shape again and got into jogging. He ended up joining numerous competitive races afterwards. His involvement in San Diego’s very active and very dynamic sporting community eventually led him to Dave Pain’s Birthday Biathlon in 1973. This year was incidentally the second run of the said race and where Johnstone performed fairly in.

Jack Johnstone and Dave Pain circa 1975
(image via www.triathlonhistory.com)

A year later in 1974, Johnstone joined once more and this time got in the top ten. His improved performance during the second race further confirmed that multi-sport competitions were more to his liking. So he thought of coming up with his very own race too. However, he wanted to have some modifications to the biathlon that Dave Pain organized.

Devising the race course

Johnstone wanted to put equal focus on both swimming and running. And he considered putting more alternating legs, with each having longer distances, for he thought the previous biathlons were a tad shorter.

He finally set running as the first leg, followed by swimming, and then another run but this time on foot. So it was crucial that the location either have sand or grass suitable for running barefoot. Fortunately, the course used during Dave Pain’s Birthday Biathlon had the necessary elements so Johnstone proceeded to finalize his race course design.

Coordinating with the San Diego Track Club

Johnstone was with the SDTC, one of the many track clubs in the Pacific Beach community in San Diego, California. Back then, it was not unusual for the group’s members to devise their own races which fellow members would gamely compete in.

Upon completing the plan for the race course, Jonstone called Bill Stock who was then in-charge of the association’s calendar of activities. Stock readily agreed to put Johnstone’s race on the calendar.

Stock advised Johnstone to call Don Shanahan, a fellow SDTC member, for the latter had a similar idea for a race. Stock suggested incorporating both their ideas to minimize having too many unusual races on the calendar.

Plan for first ever modern triathlon finalized

Shanahan wanted to include a bike leg for the race. Though Johnstone was reluctant about the idea, he agreed nevertheless. The race, which the two dubbed the Mission Bay Triathlon, was finally set for September 25, 1974. A press release was featured via the club’s newsletter which read:

Run, Cycle, Swim: Triathlon Set for 25th

Necessary preparations like procuring trophies were made. Johnstone even had to confirm the spelling of the word “triathlon” to the trophy maker for the latter found no entry of said word in the dictionary.

First modern triathlon successfully staged

Race day was early evening after work. Though this was the case, it did not stop 46 enthusiastic competitors from trying out this new and peculiar three-discipline race. Shanahan, as a last minute solution, requested some car owners to get their vehicles’ headlights on to provide light specifically for the final swimming leg.

Johnstone of course just had to try out the course, which was manned by volunteers and Shanahan who was unable to compete because of an injury. The Mission Bay Triathlon, the first of its kind in history, was won by Bill Phillips, who as can be remembered, was the same fellow who dominated Dave Pain’s Birthday Biathlon.


Triathlon – The Early History of the Sport


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