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Blast from the Past - 40 Years of Triathlon Races in the UK

Blast from the Past - 40 Years of Triathlon Races in the UK

Triathlon has come a long way since its inception in the 1970s but racing in the UK didn’t start until June 1983. The first-ever race organised by the British Triathlon Association, the now British Triathlon Federation, had a charm of its own, but it was quite different from the triathlons we know today. ZONE3 Ambassador, Mark Kleathous has competed in over 530 triathlons over the last 40 years and was keen to share with us his memories of what it was like to compete in the sport 40 years ago. Let's dive into the memories and explore the quirky and exciting differences between that historic race and the modern-day triathlon events.


  1. Transition Chaos:

Back in the early days, the transition area was far from the well-organized spectacle we see today. No real transition layout, no barriers, and no bike racking system. Competitors simply laid out their bikes on the grass, making for a chaotic scene that tested one's memory skills when trying to find their ride amidst a sea of rusty old bikes.


  1. No Wetsuits Allowed:

In those days, wetsuits were considered a form of cheating, particularly by swimmers. So, competitors braved the cold water without the added buoyancy and warmth of wetsuits. It was a true test of resilience and toughness.


  1. Navigate Your Own Way:

There were no course marshals or signs guiding the way. It was the competitors' responsibility to know the bike and run routes, which led to some interesting adventures and occasional wrong turns. GPS watches were non-existent, so basic Timex sports watches were the only means of tracking time.


  1. The Support Crew:

Friends and family played a significant role during the race. Spectators mingled freely in the transition area, offering assistance to their loved ones. It was not uncommon to see someone's friend riding alongside them, providing hydration during the run segment.


  1. Safety Measures Were Limited:

Safety standards were quite different back then. Helmets were not required, and no bike checks were conducted to ensure roadworthiness. Towels were available in transition areas for competitors to dry themselves off after the swim.


Mark Reading Tri 1983 and Mark at Bedford Tri 2020, 38 seasons later

  1. Bike Technology of the Past:

Triathlon bikes as we know them today didn't exist. Any bike was considered acceptable, with steel and a few aluminum bikes being the norm. Disc or aero wheels were unheard of, and most bikes had traditional spoke counts.


  1. The Quest for Results:

Patience was a virtue in those days. Competitors had to wait weeks for the results to be mailed to them. The race organizers would provide self-addressed envelopes, and only then could participants find out their splits for swim, bike, and run.


  1. Swim, Bike, Run in Traditional Gear:

Triathlon suits were not part of the equation. Many competitors would transition from their swimsuits to cycling clothing and then change again for the run segment. Lace locks and speed lace toggles were yet to be invented, so good old shoelaces were the norm.


  1. Fueling the Old-Fashioned Way:

Gels hadn't made their way into the triathlon scene yet. Competitors relied on real foods like apples, dried fruit, apricots, and bananas to fuel their bodies during the race.


  1. The Absence of Standard Distances:

In those early days, there were no standard distances for triathlon races. The first UK triathlon covered a 1000-yard swim, a 40-mile bike, and a 13.1-mile run. The concept of sprint, Olympic, middle, and full Ironman distances had not yet emerged.


Mark Exiting the water at Box End Triathlon in August 2021

The first triathlon race in the UK was a testament to the passion, determination, and camaraderie of its participants. From the humble beginnings above Hunters Newsagents in Dagenham to the professionally organized events we enjoy today, triathlon has grown exponentially. As we reflect on the

differences between then and now, we can appreciate the progress and innovation that have shaped this incredible sport into what it is today.


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