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Why the Swim is First

Posted Jul 21 2008 10:05am


Have you ever spoken with a friend or acquaintance that has no knowledge of triathlon? I have and I’m always amazed that they just assume that the swim is last. It does seem logical that after all the biking, running and sweating that swimming would be a great way to end the race.

The funny thing is that the history of triathlon proves that your friends are correct to put the swim last. This is from the USA Triathlon web site:

1904- An event in the Olympic Games was called triathlon, consisting of the long jump, shot put and 100-yard dash.

September 4, 1921– The Petit Perillon swim club in Marseilles, France, held an event called Course Des Trois Sports: The Race of Three Sports. The race consisted of a bicycle leg of about 7K, a run of 5K, and finished with a 200 m out-and-back swim, and was won by Lulu Helmet.

1972- David Pain, celebrating his 50th birthday, held a run-bike biathlon in San Diego, Calif., the first known multi-sport event in the United States.

September 1974– While advertising its new race, the San Diego Track Club Newsletter headline read, “Run, Cycle, Swim – Triathlon set for 25th,” using the word “triathlon” for the first time in the modern sense.

January 1977– John Collins challenged those gathered at the Oahu Perimeter Relay Run awards ceremony to compete in the first Iron Man Triathlon, a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run.

February 18, 1978– Fifteen men started and 12 men finished the first Iron Man Triathlon, won by Gordon Haller in 11 hours 46 minutes 58 seconds.”

You’ll notice that it wasn’t until the first Ironman in 1977 that swim was first. I suspect the reason for this is that in such a long race there would be a much higher rate of drowning if you put the swim last. Even in a wetsuit it would be hard to walk the swim.

There are some other interesting facts about the history of triathlon that jump out at me. Can you guess what they are?

#1)The modern sport of triathlon really began at the Iron Distance. You would think that it would the Olympic distance that started it all but it was the Iron Distance that really caught on first. So why is there no Iron Distance race in the Olympics and why is the International Long Course distance (4 kilometer swim, 120 kilometer bike and 30 kilometer run) different from the iron Distance?

Why are these so many different race distances? There are at least 6:

1) Sprint

2) Olympic

3) Half Iron (70.3)

4) International Long Course (now defunct)

5) Iron Distance (The Ironman)

6) Ultra Distance (The Ironman times 2)

Most other Olympic sports have one or two distances that are considered the standard.

In running it would be the 100 yard/meter dash and the marathon.

In swimming it would be the 50 yard/meter freestyle sprint and perhaps the 200 IM.

In biking it is the Tour De France and don’t ask me why. I suspect the French are somehow to blame. They did put on the first triathlon after all.

But in triathlon we have at least a half a dozen different distances that are considered to be a sprint. It’s all very confusing to us who and follow the sport let along the average Joe.

#2)The next interesting fact that the history of triathlon shows is that it was an all boys sport and I bet I know why. Most women are usually too busy and responsible to be sitting around Hawaii discussing which athletes are the most fit. “Is it a swimmer, a biker or a runner? Hard to say gentlemen, so let’s find out by putting on a race that combines all three sports and let’s make it...shall we say...a tad over 140 miles long.”

There are several true and funny stories from the beginning years of the Ironman. The first few years some of the racers would stop at a local restaurant, sit down, and order a nice meal during the race. Indeed one guy showed up with his bike loaded with food and camping equipment as he assumed it was a multi-day event.

#3)The most interesting fact is that triathlon is still a very young sport. For me that’s what makes it so great. The Pros don’t yet make crazy amounts of money. It has not been commercialized, popularized, materialized, and sanitized. It is still a citizen’s sport where you can hit the water next to some of the best in the world.

But most importantly, there’s a small and rabid group of athletes who race and follow the sport while the rest of the world wonders why we do such crazy things as swim, bike and run in one race. Shhhh, let’s keep in our little secret. There’s no need to explain too much….and yes ;-) the swim is last and that’s why all your friends should consider the much safer sport of golf.

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