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The Compelling History of Triathlon in the UK

History of Triathlon

On 11th December 2022, it will be 40 years since the British Triathlon Association (as it was then known) was formed, during a small meeting held at the Mall Heath Club in Reading.

Just 22 people were in attendance when Mike Ellis, a former Navy man and pentathlete, formed the Association after competing in 1982’s Nice Triathlon.  He enjoyed the race so much, that he wondered if something similar could be organised in the UK.

And the rest, as they say, is history!

“Les Trois Sports”

Although the word ‘triathlon’ comes from the Greek for ‘treis’ (three) and ‘athlos’ (competition), the sport as we know it actually has its roots in turn-of-the-century France. 

The earliest record of a triathlon event was held in the Paris suburb of Joinville-le-Pont in 1901.  Billed as “Les Trois Sports”, it comprised run, bike, and canoe segments.  By the 1920s, the canoe segment had been replaced with a swim.

Triathlon then became fashionable in the United States during the 1970s, particularly in Southern California, as sports clubs developed their own variations of the race.  Part of Mike Ellis’s inspiration for creating the British Triathlon Association had come from the pioneering Hawaii Ironman World Championship, which began in 1978.


5th June 1983: a momentous date for British triathlon

And so the first official British Triathlon National Championships were held on 5th June 1983.

The National Short Course was held at Kirtons Farm, near Reading, where 200 athletes completed a mile swim – with wetsuits not allowed – followed by a 40-mile bike ride, and a 13-mile run.  The winner was Jim Wood, then Britain’s leading biathlete, with Julia Kendall taking the prize as first woman.

Meanwhile, the long course’s one-mile swim was held in the freezing Kelder Reservoir (again with wetsuits not allowed… those athletes definitely deserved their medals!)  This was followed by a 65 mile bike section, and a 15-mile run, to be won by Josie May and Steve Russell. 

In 7th place that year was Sarah Springman CBE, who would later become the President of the British Triathlon Federation.  She was made a Commander of the British Empire for services to sport in 2012.


The origins of the “hardest triathlon in the world”

By 1984, the popularity of the Ironman World Championship had increased, mostly due to televised broadcasts. 

For Mike Ellis, it was time for a new challenge: how about a triathlon that covered both London and Paris?

“They said it couldn’t be done, that it was impossible, and that I was mad to even think about it,” Ellis told the New York Times in 1984.  Not for the faint-hearted, the three-day event would include a 100-mile run from London to Dover, a swim across the English Channel, and a 182-mile cycle race from Calais to Paris!

Mike Ellis’s naysayers were wrong: the event could be done, and was duly arranged as a team relay race.  16 squads from Britain, France, South Africa, and the US took part, attracting worldwide media attention as a result. 

Despite some logistics-related issues on the day, a South African squad completed the race in a total of 25 hours, 23 minutes, and 14 seconds.  Their success inspired the team to form the South African Triathlon Federation soon after.

Sarah Springman (that name sounds familiar) also completed the race with her all-female team.  They finished a respectable tenth, which as Springman said at the time, “re-arranged some male egos and impressions of triathlon women.”

Amazingly, the London to Paris event is still going strong.  Called the Enduroman Arch to Arc, to date only 46 athletes have successfully completed the challenge… and as the event website states, five even managed to finish without a wetsuit.

(Wetsuits were finally allowed to be worn for UK triathlons in 1986, after a lengthy debate as to whether their use could be classed as an illegal advantage!)

Hardest Triathlon in the world

The continuous rise of triathlon, and British triathlete success

The first London Triathlon was held in Docklands in 1987, and by 1990, Britain’s first Ironman race was staged in Cirencester.

British triathletes were also beginning to make waves around the world, particularly five-time world champion Simon Lessing, and Spencer Smith, the youngest men’s world triathlon champion.

Triathlon finally made its debut as an Olympic sport at the Sydney 2000 games, comprising a 1.5km swim, a 40km bike section, and a 10km run.  Wherever they are held, events with this same composition are called Olympic distance.

To date, Britain has the highest number of Olympic gold and silver medals for triathlon… indeed, who could forget the Brownlee brothers’ incredible success at London 2012? 

Spencer Smith

Spencer Smith, the youngest men’s triathlon World Champion

Triathlon in the UK today

A popular ‘bucket list’ activity for many people, the popularity of triathlon has grown to the point where in 2019, Sport England believed that around 215,000 people competed in at least one race over the past year.

British Triathlon surmised that in 2019, 220,000 race starts across Britain meant that “there were about 600 people doing a triathlon per day”, with the number of race starts increasing by 82% since 2009.

The addictive quality of triathlon that we’ve seen time and time again seems borne out by statistics like these.   And if you feel like signing up for a challenging race yourself, you’ll clearly be in very good company!


How to choose a UK triathlon

With races held all over the UK, it won’t be difficult to find one near you.  To give an overall idea of effective courses and fastest finish times, this article by TriRadar offers a good summary.

You’ll note that we’ve made the cut with our Allerthorpe Olympic Triathlon, which has dates in August and September 2022. 

And if you’re up for something a little different, our Sundowner Triathlon, held on 4th September, offers the potential for some amazing finish-line photos… since as the name suggests, some athletes will complete the race as the sun sets.

Why not take a look at our recent race report to get an idea of the warm welcome that awaits you at every Marauder triathlon? One competitor claimed it was “the smiliest event I’ve ever done!”

If you choose to sign up, we defy you not to feel the same.