Famous Triathletes: Bob Babbitt

Triathlon events always bring together a mixed bunch of folks. Some are there for the fame and the monetary rewards, while there are those who join to satisfy their curiosity about this very popular sport. But regardless of personal backgrounds or motivations for joining, one thing seems to be common among those who join triathlons, and that is this: having the guts to attempt to conquer the most difficult of elements, and come out a better person in the end.

One of those who were changed forever for the better by the sport of triathlon is Bob Babbitt.

Bob Babbitt(image via www.usatriathlon.org)

Bob Babbitt
(image via www.usatriathlon.org)

Who is Bob Babbitt?

Bob Babbitt was a Physical Education teacher who moved from Chicago, Illinois to San Diego, California in 1978. In late 1979, he read Barry McDermott’s piece on Tom Warren in the Sports Illustrated magazine. He got so inspired by the story of the 1979 Hawaii Ironman champion as well as the other athletes featured that he wanted to give the event a try as well.

Preparing for the 1980 Hawaii Ironman

Back then, there were hardly any books about race training and nutrition. Though jogging was in full swing, thanks to folks like Dave Pain who helped launch running as a sport, folks who wanted to learn more about the ins and outs of athleticism on their own had no reliable materials they could turn to.

Because this was the case, Babbitt immediately considered approaching Warren. No other individual would be more qualified than him to teach Babbitt how to train for the event. Warren was after all the 1979 Ironman.

So Babbitt called Warren, and was able to convince the latter to mentor him and roommate Ned Overend. Babbitt and Overend trained furiously for the upcoming January 10, 1980 Ironman to be held in the island of Oahu. They would do hundreds of laps in a 15-meter apartment pool just so they could cover the 2.4-mile swim required for the event.

They each bought a bike, and his was from a police auction, complete with a charred seat end. Because he had no idea how to change a flat tire, he outfitted his new secondhand bike with solid rubber tires.

His first Hawaii Ironman race

Babbitt flew with Overend and their support crew to Hawaii. He sincerely thought that he was going to do the race for two days so he brought a tent and sleeping bag with him.

January is storm month in Oahu. Days prior to the event, the organizers decided to move the swim leg to the protected Ala Moana Channel because the site for the Waikiki Roughwater Swim was too perilous. Fairly inexperienced in open and deepwater swimming, Babbitt made sure to swim at the shallow portion of the channel and somehow splashed out of the water unscathed.

He would proceed to do the second portion of the race donning a pair of beige shorts with a belt, and a long-sleeved shirt with pockets sewn at the back to store bags of Hawaiian sweet bread, his race food of choice. He’d slog through the bike which he’d rigged with a transistor radio on its fuzzy handlebars just so he’d have company during the long ride. He fitted it with panniers too to carry his tent and sleeping bag.

Through the race, he’d be fed by his crew with Big Mac, fries, and Coke, as well as a snow cone. He’d even gotten a 45-minute massage. His marathon was practically all walking and when he got weighed at one of the med stations, the aide was astonished that he’d gained instead of lost a few pounds, due to all the Hawaiian sweet bread he’d eaten.

Nearing the finish line, he couldn’t believe that he was able to do the race in one whole day. He expected to see crowds of people and a brass band to cheer and welcome his momentous finish. But all he saw ahead was a light bulb and the finish line drawn in chalk on the pavement. The official who was there asked him if he was part of the race, to which he replied a positive, in turn receiving a brisk reply that he’d completed the race.

Contributions to the multisport arena

Anticlimactic as the finish was, the race forever changed Babbitt’s life. He would go on to co-establish a magazine, the Competitor, dedicated solely to multi-sports. He would also later assist in putting up Competitor Radio, which to this day, is the premier source for multi-sport news in the broadcasting media. He would also create the Brooks Muddy Buddy Ride and Run Series which features fun obstacle races for the family and for folks who are just looking to unwind.

Babbitt would also become one of the founding directors of the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) which assists folks with disabilities pursue their athletic dreams. Babbitt would also be later inducted to the Ironman Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2002 and to the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2012.


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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

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


Famous Triathletes: Dave Pain

Multi-discipline sporting events were practically unheard of in the United States in the early 1900s. Except for a triathlon event consisting of the 100 yard dash, shot put, and long jump at the 1904 Summer Olympic Games staged in St. Louis, Missouri, there were no other competitions of this nature in the country.

But the multi-discipline sport arena will forever change when one man decides to stage a run-and-swim race for his friends for his 50th birthday.

Who is Dave Pain?

David Pain, a San Diego-based civil lawyer, is an avid sportsman. At age 44, Pain would scour the area for athletic competitions to participate in. Unfortunately, he would find none that would accommodate folks in his age group.

Dave Pain
(image via masterstrack.com)

Founding the masters miles

The lack of competitive sporting events inspired Pain to establish the masters miles in 1966. This way, athletes and avid health buffs aged 40 and over could compete in track and field races as well. Through Pain’s initiative, indoor and outdoor track meets got regularly organized in and around the San Diego area.

The emergence of the masters athletics

Pain’s masters miles became so widely popular that it drew many regular competitors. What started out as casual track meets among a group of avid sportsmen and women became a national sensation.

By 1968, roughly two years from the founding of the masters miles, a nationwide competition was staged that drew an impressive 186 competitors. A year later, 200 competitors raced at the masters nationals.

Pain’s advocacy was so successful that the masters athletics movement spread even through Europe and paved the way for the inclusion of the age group category. By 1972, Pain, along with his wife and over a hundred masters would travel through the UK, Germany, Finland, Sweden, among other European countries, to represent the USA in the international masters competition. This worldwide race would be held annually ever since.

First multi-sport race in the US

In 1972, Pain turned 50 years old. Instead of the usual birthday party, Pain thought of organizing a sporting event for all of his friends. He quickly considered including swimming for he himself was quite skilled at it. Everyone was into jogging back then too, so he thought to incorporate said discipline for the event as well.

The plan was to have a run leg of more than 4 miles all the way through Fiesta Island, capped off with a 200-yard swim through the deep estuary south of the Hilton, one of the landmark hotels along the Southern California coast.

Needless to say, the multi-sport event, which incidentally was the first of its kind outside of the Olympic Games arena in the US, was a big hit. It was dominated by Don Phillips.

Foundation of multi-discipline sport established

Dave Pain’s Birthday Biathlon was again staged the following year in 1973. Among the many competitors who joined was Jack Johnstone. Johnstone was an All-American swimmer in his college years. Like many folks in his 30s, he too got into the jogging craze to get back into shape again. He found the birthday biathlon a welcome variation to his monotonous jogging workouts. During his first try, he placed 14th.

He got so smitten with the race that he once again signed up in 1974. This time around, he got into the top ten. He got so inspired by his improved performance at the second race that it led him to consider coming up with his very own event. Johnstone’s idea was to conduct a longer race though. So he thought of adding a third leg.

Johnstone, along with Don Shanahan, will later organize the first ever modern triathlon race. If not for Dave Pain’s inspiration, the multi-discipline sport that we all love today would not have come into fruition.


Triathlon – The Early History of the Sport

Masters athletics