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San Diegans Remember World’s First Triathlon 40 Years Ago — At Mission Bay

Video by Katie Schoolov

How often does someone's idea for a fun workout turn into an Olympic event? That's exactly what happened for two San Diegans who put on the first triathlon four decades ago right here in Mission Bay. KPBS reporter Claire Trageser catches up with them and brings us this history of the triathlon.

Forty years ago, San Diegans Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan had a wacky idea. They were both runners but wanted to mix things up by adding another sport to a running race.

"We had a number of events in town. Two were fairly popular run-swims," Shanahan, now 72, said. "So I got to thinking, well, it would be really fun to put a bike on the back end of this."

He said Johnstone had a slightly different idea.

Special Feature Map of First Triathlon Course

Click to view a map of the first triathlon course in San Diego's Mission Bay on Sept. 25, 1974. Course directions provided by Betty Johnstone.

Original Triathlon Announcement

"The First Annual Mission Bay Triathlon, a race consisting of segments of running, bicycle riding, and swimming, will start at the causeway to Fiesta Island at 5:45 P.M. September 25. The event will consist of 6 miles of running (longest continuous stretch, 2.8 miles), 5 miles of bicycle riding (all at once), and 500 yards of swimming (longest continuous stretch, 250 yards). Approximately 2 miles of running will be barefoot on grass and sand. Each participant must bring his own bicycle. Awards will be presented to the first five finishers. For further details contact Don Shanahan (488-4571) or Jack Johnstone (461-4514)."

San Diego Track Club newsletter

"Jack was a member of the (San Diego Track Club), he called up and wanted to put on a swim-run," Shanahan said. "They said, 'Well, Shanahan has this crazy idea. Why don't you talk to him?' So Jack called me and we put it on."

They combined their ideas and held the first-ever running, biking and swimming race on Sept. 25, 1974, in Mission Bay. Shanahan said they called it the "triathlon" because swim-run events were already called biathlons.

"It was not well thought out," he said. "We just did it."

Their course was a bit different from modern triathlons. Instead of starting with a swim, the 46 participants first ran a three-mile loop toward SeaWorld, then biked twice around Fiesta Island for a total of five miles.

"They came off the bikes, into the dirt, took off the shoes, ran into the water," Shanahan said.

They swam to the mainland, then ran in bare feet and swam again along the bay, then did one last swim up to the entrance of Fiesta Island. They crawled up a steep dirt bank to finish.

"So you had to crawl to the finish line no matter how good you were," Shanahan said.

Some participants took longer than the organizers expected, and it began to get dark as they finished their swims. Shanahan said they pulled up a few cars and turned on the headlights so the athletes could see.

Most participants weren't skilled swimmers, so Johnstone recruited his 13-year-old son to float on his surfboard and act as lifeguard. His wife, Betty Johnstone, now 75, was also there that day.

"I was in charge of shoes, so I went over to where they finished their run and started the first swim, and everybody just threw their shoes in a pile," Betty Johnstone said. "I took all these sweaty shoes and put them in big trash bags and drove back to the finish line and just dumped them in a pile."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Betty Johnstone

Betty and Jack Johnstone run together in a 24-hour relay race on the track at Patrick Henry High School. Their team name was the "Harried Marrieds."

Here, the story takes a sad turn. Jack Johnstone, now 79, has Alzheimer's and is in assisted living. Betty Johnstone sees him every day but said he doesn't always remember starting the first triathlon.

"He doesn't talk too much anymore, so I'm not sure how much he remembers, or how much he knows," she said.

She remembers when her husband first told her about the triathlon idea.

"I thought it was a crazy idea," she said. "And he never thought it would go anywhere. He thought it would be a one-time fun event."

Instead, the idea spread. More races popped up and their popularity grew. The triathlon became an Olympic sport in 2000. Last year, 2.3 million people finished triathlons in the United States, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

Photo credit: Betty Johnstone

Jack Johnstone, the co-founder of the first triathlon, and Bill Phillips, the winner of the first triathlon, at a San Diego race.

Comparing Triathlon Times After 40 Years

In 1974, Bill Phillips won the first triathlon in 55:44. The course was a five- to six-mile run, five-mile bike and 500-yard swim.

In 2014, Jay Maloy won the 40th anniversary triathlon in 56:35. The course was a four-mile run, 10-mile bike and 750-yard swim.

But original participants, including Tom Rothhaar, now 72, said they didn't know then how big the sport would become.

"Over the years as triathlon was developing, I remembered vaguely in the back of my mind that I'd been in the first one, but it wasn't a big deal to me," Rothhaar said.

He said he misses the populist feeling of races in those early days.

"You go to a triathlon now and you look at those high-tech, very expensive bikes," he said. "Most of us who were in that race were just pulling out our beach cruisers or whatever we could find."

The equipment is fancier, and races can now cost $100 or more to enter, instead of the $1 Shanahan and Johnstone charged. But people of all abilities compete, and Shanahan is glad he helped create something that promotes exercise.

"You could be first or 501st and you're still getting the workout," he said. "You're still competitive, and you're getting the health benefits. And, quite frankly, unless you're in the first five, the only people who care what your time is is you."

This past September, some of the original participants and their children competed in a 40th anniversary triathlon. Shanahan was there and got to watch people enjoy the sport he'd helped create — but never profited from.

"People have said, 'Why didn't you trademark it?' It didn't even occur to me," he said. "You've got events that are run-bike that haven't exploded, you've got run-swim that haven't exploded, and this exploded. So we didn't expect it, and quite frankly I'm happy it did. I'm excited it did. But that I didn't make any money on it, it's not that big a deal to me."

World's First Triathlon: First Person View of the Route

Video by Katie Schoolov

KPBS reporter Claire Trageser strapped on a GoPro to capture this first-person view of the route followed by the 46 participants of the world's first triathlon in Mission Bay in San Diego.

Map of the First Triathlon

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