If you were born in 1980 or before, you may not know that triathlons did not exist in North America before 1980, despite the fact that today you can find a triathlon here, there and everywhere. There are sprint triathlons, longer half-Ironman length ones, full Ironman triathlons and the rare, longer ultra-triathlons.
The sport was born accidently when a group of military guys were drinking together one evening in Honolulu. It was the mid-1970s, and the happy revelers came from several of the branches of the military. Some of them were from swimming backgrounds, some were runners and others favored bicycles. Hawaii is a great place for endurance events, among them the traditional 26.2-mile Honolulu Marathon, a 112-mile bike ride around the island and the annual 2.4-mile Rough Water Swim. The barroom conversation gravitated to the question of which of these three events was the most demanding. Someone (I am told that it was Coast Guardsman Gordon Haller, a Portland, Oregon native) guffawed and said that the hardest would be to combine all three events in one three-part contest. It would take a real Iron Man to finish all three in one day. No one disagreed. A date was set, the race was held, and the sport of triathlon was born. None of these happy campers had any idea that they were birthing a brand new sport that would spread like wildfire internationally.
But Valerie and Hank Grundman, owners of a fitness club in Honolulu, saw the potential of the new sport. They raised the event, now known as the Ironman Triathlon, to a commercial level and invited non-military athletes to enter. I heard about it at the awards dinner of an ultramarathon in the Sierra Nevada. I love a new challenge, and sent in my entry right away. I think that the entry fee was something like $25. To my surprise I was accepted into the rarified group. Keep in mind that prior to the Ironman, no organized triathlon had ever existed anywhere in the world. My friend Ron Kovacs and I flew to Honolulu filled with hope and fear. I was one of the oldest competitors. Despite my fears, I finished the grueling event in a reasonable time and returned for further punishment five more years.
In today’s world, big changes require big publicity. Enter Sports Illustrated and ABC’s Wide World of Sports (“The Thrill of Victory, the Agony of Defeat.”) Sports Illustrated gave the new Ironman a nice spread, bringing the concept of a triathlon to the minds of millions of readers. ABC’s Jim Lampley and Diana Nyad came to Honolulu and interviewed us for television. The seeds of explosive growth were planted.
When I got home, I started planning a triathlon where I lived in San Francisco. We could start with the challenging swim across the Bay from Alcatraz to the City, then ride our bicycles across the Golden Gate Bridge to Mill Valley. Mill Valley is where the Dipsea Trail starts, a rugged mountain run that goes through the redwoods to the Pacific at Stinson Beach. To make it harder, the run would be a round trip to Stinson Beach and back to Mill Valley, a very tough half-marathon run. It would be much shorter than the IRONMAN, but both the swim (in cold, rough water) and the mountain run would be much more challenging.
Undertaking the production of that event would be a big job, but it would be fun. San Francisco deserved its own triathlon. I called my dream The Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon. Realizing the potential, I trademarked the name.
At the time, I was swimming regularly in San Francisco Bay as a member of the Dolphin Club, which dates back to 1873. Extensive damage from a devastating fire at the Club left it in need of funds to rebuild. President Frank Drum asked me about putting together a fund-raiser. I told him about my experience at The Ironman Triathlon and my plans to produce The Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon. We agreed to have the Dolphin Club use the event to raise money, and they would supply the bodies and know-how to make it work.
We did the alpha version in the spring of 1981 with a small number of stalwarts. Bear in mind that the concept of being a “triathlete” did not exist. The participants were just a few good, all-around athletes who were willing to give this “tri” a try. The winner was Norman LaPera, an East Bay park ranger. Thus, at San Francisco’s Dolphin Club, the sport of triathlon was introduced to North America.
In time the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon became a bit too big for some of the members of the Dolphin Club. Understandably, they did not want the peace and quiet of their club disrupted by hundreds of outsiders. So now there are two versions of The Escape. The first, true to my original course, is limited to members of the Dolphin Club and the South End Club next door. It is a relatively small event with a history of several decades. It has become a tradition.
The second version, a very professionally conducted event, is put on by IMG, a large sports management organization. They own legal rights to the name Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon. That televised version starts with a swim from Alcatraz to the shores of San Francisco, but the bicycle ride and the run are all within the confines of the City. Participants, among them the top tier of professional triathletes, come from all over the world. There is a large entry fee and over 1,000 entrants compete annually. Even with early on-line application, many applicants are turned away every year.
I directed swims from Alcatraz for three decades. After a while it stopped being fun and became another job. When I turned it over to others, it was with a sigh of relief. Enough, as they say, is enough.
To think that it all started with the IRONMAN TRIATHLON in Hawaii, then spread like a virus. Who knew?