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.


Triathlon – The Early History of the Sport

Don Shanahan Interview

History of Triathlon: 1974

Modern triathlon emerged relatively late. It’s not even in its 50-year mark yet, but it’s one of the most widely received sports in the world right now. In fact, no other sport is as extensively supported and participated in than triathlon.

Triathlon’s appeal is undeniable. Triathletes flock by the hundreds to local competitions, and by the thousands to international events. But have you ever wondered how this three-disciplined sports competition came about?

Jogging Craze

Jogging was all the rage in the 70s. Track clubs and meets were commonplace back then. This was especially the case in the Pacific Beach community in San Diego, California. Sports enthusiasts and fitness buffs would organize regular track competitions which were normally capped off with dips in the ocean to cool off.

San Diego Track Club

One of these clubs was the San Diego Track Club (SDTC). It wasn’t unusual for members to devise their own special races. They then enlist these on the club’s calendar of events to both inform and invite fellow members to participate.

Jack Johnstone

One of them was Jack Johnstone. He, like all the other health buffs then, was into jogging. He was once a university swimmer too. Having joined the Dave Pain Birthday Biathlon the two prior years, Johnstone wanted to come up with a similar event.

Jack Johnstone and David Pain circa 1975 (via triathlonhistory.com)

However, he wanted to put equal focus on both swimming and running. Plus, he wanted to have multiple alternating legs, with each leg having longer distances than the biathlon he previously joined.

After designing his very own event, Johnstone spoke with SDTC’s Calendar Chairman Bill Stock. Stock agreed to put his event on the club’s calendar. Stock suggested that he call Don Shanahan as the latter also had an idea for a race.

Don Shanahan

Don Shanahan was one of the board members of the SDTC. Shanahan decided to engage in cycling as a cross training routine for when nursing running injuries. Shanahan’s idea for the race was to have a cycling leg after the biathlon.

Mission Bay Triathlon

Johnstone agreed to incorporate Shanahan’s idea and they decided to stage the competition on September 25, 1974. They ran a notice on SDTC’s newsletter which read “Run, Cycle, Swim: Triathlon Set for 25th.

Needless to say, the first ever modern triathlon event, the Mission Bay Triathlon, was a success. Though it was publicized just two weeks prior, and was done on a weekday evening, it drew an impressive 46 participants. It was won by Bill Phillips, the same fellow who previously dominated the Dave Pain Birthday Biathlon. John and Judy Collins, who years later established the Ironman Triathlon, had participated in the event as well.



What Is Your Triathlon History?

Story of the First Triathlon

San Diego – the birthplace of triathlon


History of Triathlon: 1972

Triathlon was a huge hit in France in the early 1900s through the 1920s. Reports of three-disciplined sports competitions being held once every year in various locations in the Paris region attest to the fame of the sport.

Such was not the case in the United States though. In fact, multi-sport competitions were practically unheard of until the 70s.


This year saw the staging of the first ever multi-sport competition in the country. It was dubbed Dave Pain Birthday Biathlon, a race consisting of run and swim legs.

David Pain

David Pain, a civil lawyer based in San Diego, is the distinguished founder of the masters athletics movement in the United States. Back then, sports competitions only had open age categories which typically cover young athletes up to the age of 30.

Finding no available athletic competitions for folks aged 40 and over, Pain organized masters miles in 1966 to encourage those in said age group to join and compete in indoor and outdoor track races.

The advocacy was such a success that it paved the way for the age-group category, to accommodate not just young sports enthusiast who fall under the open age group, but expert and veteran athletes as well.

Pain’s regular track meets with masters became quite popular that a nationwide competition was staged and brought together 186 competitors in 1968. A year after, 200 veteran athletes from around the country joined the nationals event.

Former U.S. Olympic coach Payton Jordan dominates the M80 age-group category for the 200 meter dash event during the 1997 U.S. National Masters Championships held in San Jose, CA.

In 1972, Pain, his wife Helen, along with 152 other masters, traveled across Europe to compete in short and long distance races. In 1973, the Pains along with 51 expert and veteran athletes went to compete once more in age-group competitions in the Oceania and the South Pacific regions.

Dave Pain Birthday Biathlon

In 1972, Pain invited his friends and colleagues to a race to celebrate his 50th birthday. The first leg was a run of more than 4 miles through the Fiesta Island. The second was a swim of more than 200 yards through the estuary south of the Hilton Hotel.

It was reported that Pain’s reason for choosing these two particular disciplines was because he was quite skilled at swimming, and that back then, everybody was into jogging.

Garnering the support of running and swimming enthusiasts, the competition was an instant success. It was won by Don Phillips, who can be more or less considered as the first winner of the first ever multi-sport competition to be organized and held in the United States.

Succeeding Years

Dave Pain’s Birthday Biathlon was staged again in 1973. Among the folks who joined was Jack Johnstone, recognized as one of the founders of the modern triathlon. According to Johnstone’s accounts, he may have placed 14th on the 1973 event.

Johnstone was so taken by the sport that he eagerly joined again on 1974. This time, he placed 10th. Johnstone’s modest performance in the game inspired him to come up with his own event, which he staged that same year with the help of Don Shanahan and their  friends and colleagues. This was to be the first ever modern triathlon in America.


Story of the First Triathlon

History of Triathlon Timeline

What Is Your Triathlon History?


Magill on Masters: The Paper Chase

Masters athletics