Your First Triathlon-the right triathlon distance for you

Your First Triathlon-the right triathlon distance for you.

In the early days of triathlon there were very few races to choose from. Other than a few shorter triathlons in the United States there was little to choose from as far as triathlon distances.

Few people realize that the very first triathlon actually took place in Mission Bay in San Diego 4 years before the Ironman was born.

It was really the inspiration of two runners who were part of the early 70’s running craze and felt there was a need for more of a challenge. The first triathlon ever took place on September 25, 1974.

At the time the word “triathlon” never existed and it was Don Shanahan, one of the organizers, who had to come up with a spelling for the trophy engraver. So the word triathlon was born as it was similar to Heptathlon, Pentathlon, and Decathlon. For many years there were variations of the spelling. Triathalon and triatholon were common variations until “triathlon” finally became the accepted spelling.

It was somewhat surprising that 46 people entered the world’s first ever triathlon. All 46 finished the course that included a 6-mile run, a 500-yard swim and 5 miles of biking.

Strangely enough, there was originally nobody listed in 35th place when the results were published in the San Diego Track Club Newsletter. It turned out that John Collins was the missing finisher who had just completed his very first triathlon and who would several years later inspire the triathlon event called “ironman.” Later he was awarded the 22nd position according to his finish time. His wife Judy and son Michael were also in the race. Judy finished in 30th spot and Michael was 34th.

Bill Phillips was the winner of the first triathlon ever and a woman named Barbara Stadler was the first one to finish last in a triathlon.

Tom Warren and Scott Tinley who would later consider triathlon their specialty would take part in later versions of this triathlon. In later years Tom Warren would go on to a second place finish in Ironman Hawaii and Scott Tinley would become a two-time winner of Hawaii.


There is a quote by one of the founders of that original triathlon that is very important to all those who are taking up triathlon for the first time and trying to decide where they fit in and just what sort of distance they should tackle.

“Reflecting now on that first event years ago, I marvel that we were able to draw such an impressive field under the circumstances. These were not triathletes. There was no such thing at the time. None were into cross-training, a term not yet coined. Most didn’t own racing bikes and some were marginal swimmers at best. Yet they had the adventuresome spirit to come out after a hard day’s work and with only two weeks notice to participate in a new athletic event. Few of the names listed in the results will be familiar to today’s triathletes, but if it weren’t for them, the new sport may have died on that cloudy evening on Mission Bay.”

Pay special attention to the words, “none were into cross-training, most didn’t own racing bikes and were marginal swimmers, yet they had the adventuresome spirit.”

There are few words that better describe today’s new triathletes. What was true on that historic day in 1974 is just as true today.

Many of those new to triathlon today don’t own racing bikes, are marginal swimmers, and most definitely have adventuresome spirits.

However the one big advantage today’s triathlete has is the sheer numbers and varied distances of triathlons in the world today.


Much of your decision should be based on your current abilities in the three disciplines.

That very first triathlon back in 1974 would fall somewhere in between today’s “try-a-tri” distance and a “Sprint Triathlon.” However it is more common for the swim portions of today’s entry-level races to take place in a pool. This is an ideal scenario for those of you who are new to swimming.

Triathletes than have the option of increasing the distance of their triathlons as they become better conditioned and gain confidence in their ability.

So the natural progression of race distances from beginning to end might look like this:

Try-A-Tri, Sprint Triathlon, Olympic Distance, Half-Ironman Triathlon, and Ironman Triathlon.

However this is not written in stone and if a new triathlete is comfortable with swimming and has a running background, they could very easily jump right into the Olympic Distance or further.

In the early days of ironman there were very few shorter races in the world and often it was a matter of doing the ironman or staying home.

That’s exactly what happened to me in 1984. I didn’t own a bike, couldn’t swim a stroke yet heard the call of the ironman and the rest as they say, “is history” and my first triathlon became Ironman Hawaii.


If you love being part of triathlon and really enjoy the social aspects of the sport and are perfectly happy sticking to the shorter distances, than that’s exactly what you should do.

Your decision should come from inside and not from some outside pressure trying to convince you to go faster and further.

On the other hand, if you have heard the clarion call of the Iron Gods and simply can’t get the ironman finish line off your mind, there is no law in the world that says you have to progress through the shorter distances before taking on the ironman challenge.

If it’s in your heart, just go for it.

It is your passion and “the adventuresome spirit” you share with the earliest of triathletes that will propel you to the Ironman finish line just at surely as it propelled the early triathlon pioneers to the very first triathlon finish line ever.

The Ironstruck team will be more than happy to help you realize your dream regardless of the road you choose to follow during your triathlon journey.

We would be honored to help you reach your very own personal finish line wherever it happens to be.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *