You’ll Never Believe How the Ironman Triathlon Got Its Start

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Graphics: Well+Good Creative
It's February of 1978, and 26-year-old Bob Babbitt—who's been (in his own words) "racing triathlons way back when the earth was still cooling"—has a front-row seat to the world's very first Ironman Race in Sans Souci Beach, Honolulu. Babbitt eats, sleeps, and breathes (or rather, swims, runs, and cycles) triathlons—but his love of the more-intense cousin of the sport began when he ran his very first Ironman two years after the advent of the event, in 1980.

Nowadays, Babbit is a member of both the USA Triathlon and the Ironman Hall of Fame. As the co-founder of the Challenged Athletes Foundation based in San Diego, he has made a lasting contribution to the sport that goes well beyond PRs. To truly understand why the sport has become so popular in the United States, he says, you have to take a look at its long and winding history that includes some friendly competition, a near-death experience (or two), and Olympic placement.

The story begins with The San Diego Track Club, which dreamed up the idea of combining the three essential forms of cardio (that's swimming, biking, and running) back in the 1970s as nothing more than a friendly take on cross-training. "The whole idea was that it wasn't a race; they did it because people were just running. They'd run five miles, they'd run 10 miles, they'd go to the track," says Babbitt. "Next thing you know, on September 25, 1974, in Mission Bay, California, they put on this 5.3-mile run, 5-mile bike ride, and 600-yard swim. They called it a triathlon." Before it was an event, says Babbitt, it was a really intense way to break a sweat.

"Next thing you know...they put on this 5.3-mile run, 5-mile bike ride, and 600-yard swim. They called it a triathlon." —Bob Babbitt

John Collins and his wife, Judy Collins, were two of the inaugural triathletes who completed the three-part workouts with the San Diego Track Club. When the Collins family relocated to Hawaii, the couple continued to incorporate the cardio trinity into their weekly workouts. They had no real desire to make the triathlon into a worldwide phenomenon. That is until Sports Illustrated named five-time Tour de France champion Eddy Merckx the world's fittest athlete.

John, Judy, and their crew—who'd just returned from running an arduous relay around the island of Oahu—read the article around the breakfast table with great skepticism. Why should a biker receive the title when they ran, biked, and swam all to increase their endurance? "So John gets up in front of the group and goes, 'Listen, we're going to take the Waikiki rough water swim (2.4 miles), we're going to take the around-Oahu bike ride (112 miles), and we're going to take the marathon (26.2 miles)," recalls Babbitt. "We're going to put all three of them together and we'll call the winner the Iron Man." Just like that, the Ironman started as an intensified riff on the triathlon. And soon, it would be known worldwide.

In February of 1978, 15 starters and 12 finishers made good on their promise to one-up Merckx. Over the course of the next three years, Sports Illustrated came to cover the Ironman, the event drawing world-class athletes like Boston Marathon director and runner Dave McGillivray and champion mountain-biker Ned Overend. By 1980, ABC's World Wide of Sports was sending reporters to the event, which had moved to the Big Island to make space for the rapidly-increasing number of competitors. The race, which had started with a mere 15 people, now drew hundreds.

As for what really catapulted the competition and the triathlon into the public eye, well, that would be 22-year-old Julie Moss's harrowing finish in 1982. "Wide World of Sports is broadcasting the Ironman as Moss comes to the last half mile of the race and comes apart at the seams. It's like the original reality television: You're watching this young woman who's wearing a trucker hat, she's got a borrowed bra on, and you're watching her collapse over and over again," says Babbitt. "Then she gets passed by a woman named Kathleen McCartney within 50 feet of the finish while she's on the ground. The camera zooms back and you see Julie crawling, and then collapsing with her arm across the finish line."

Wide World of Sports cut the broadcast away just as medics placed a lei around her neck and pulled her away in a stretcher. Within minutes, ABC's phones were ringing off the hook. Across the globe, people were wondering, "How is Julie Moss?"

"They're watching this woman crawling to get to the finish line and thinking to themselves, 'How do I get some of that passion in my life?' —Babbitt

Moss made a full recovery, but to appease the sports-loving world, ABC flew both Moss and McCartney to New York for an interview. Viewers were smitten—not just with the two athletes, but with their inspiring grit. "It's 1982, and a lot of people have gone through high school, gone through college, gotten their jobs, started their family, and they're pretty comfortable, but there's something missing," Babbit says. "And then they're watching this woman crawling to get to the finish line and thinking to themselves, 'How do I get some of that passion in my life?'"

The answer? Run, bike, or swim—or maybe do all three. Moss's fight to stumble over the finish sparked a worldwide demand for more triathlons. When the event made its Olympic debut in 2000 with a 1.5-kilometer swim, 40-kilometer bike ride, and 10-kilometer, triathlon fever really caught on.

The sensation over the triathlon really begs the question of why so many feel drawn to a sport that requires not one skill but three, and Babbitt says the answer, for him, is sustainability. Swimming and biking safeguard the joints and muscles of runners who might otherwise find themselves sidelined by injuries. Babbitt just celebrated his 69th birthday and he ran 30 (yes, 30) triathlons in 2019. "Our sport is the fountain of youth," he says. "I know what it takes for me to be faster now than I was 20 years ago." In other words, the popularity of The San Diego Track Club was really onto something way back in '72.

Just because no one's officially racing right now because of COVID-19, Ironman is hoping to keep the triathlon interest alive with its Ironman Virtual Club, an online community for training, competing, and connecting. So far, it's worked. More than 72,000 people from 139 countries have signed up—a huge leap from the 12 brave participants who first competed in 1978.

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