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Biathlon/Duathlon: Some Early History of the Sport

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steve jonas
Steve Jonas crosses the finish line at the 2010 USA Triathlon Duathlon Nationals in Richmond, Va. He'll compete in the 2014 championship race in St. Paul, Minn., on July 19.
Duathlon, our run-bike-run variant of triathlon, first appeared in the mid-1980s under a variety of names: “byathlon,” “run-bike-run,” “cyruthon” (cycle-run), and the name that stuck: “biathlon.” In the early days the most common format was run-bike, followed by run-bike-run and then bike-run. It quickly evolved, however, to an almost exclusive focus on the run-bike-run format. My good friend Daniel Honig, president of the New York Triathlon Club (NYTC, nee the Big Apple Triathlon Club, BATC) was one of its principal early developers, if not the original inventor of the format.

At first, being in the New York metropolitan area where even after the snow was long gone in the spring and was a ways off in the fall, water temperatures were still too cold for comfort, Dan saw the format simply as a way to extend the multisport racing season in both the spring and the fall. However, it quickly came to be seen on its own merits, first as an entry into multisport racing for weak or non-swimmers, and then as a multisport form that stood on its own. Dan had originally organized the BATC back in 1983, running triathlons for a four-month summer season. By 1984 he had added run-bike-run biathlons to his race schedule. While his original idea was indeed to extend the multisport racing season in the New York metropolitan area, he quickly saw that for numbers of athletes he had developed a stand-alone, alternative multisport race format.

I had done my first triathlon, the first of the now long-standing Mighty Hamptons Triathlon series to be held at Sag Harbor, New York, on September 17, 1983. (Having done over 235 triathlons and duathlons over the years, believe me I don’t remember most of them. But that one I remember, and as I always say to first-time triathletes and duathletes that I meet at the races I do, “remember today, for you will never again do your first tri or du.”) I immediately fell in love with the sport.

Back in September 1983, I looked around for a second tri that I could do before that season ended. I found one in Long Beach Island, New Jersey. And it was after that race that I first met Dan Honig. An inveterate joiner, I paid my dues to Dan and his BATC and impatiently waited for his first announcement of races for the following season. And sure enough, the schedule came out (by mail in those days!) in the spring of 1984. Indeed, I found that the first race of that season was to be a biathlon, to be held on a closed former U.S. Naval Air Station, just off the Atlantic Ocean in Brooklyn, New York.

It turned out that it was a cold, rainy May day (and yes, I remember that day, the day of my first biathlon, very well too). While now in my 32nd season of multisport racing, I haven’t gone out on cold, wet days, for quite some time, but I surely did back then. My third race over all, I wasn’t going to miss it, and it was on a flat course on which there was no traffic — all except for the rain, perfect for one who was very much a novice. I finished, cold, wet and soggy, but man, I finished! Again, what a feeling.

I also happen to have competed in what was the first Triathlon Federation USA official Biathlon National Championship, held in New York City's Central Park in November 1986 under Dan’s direction. (In those days all those races had open entries.) A second one was held in November 1987. Big names, like Mark Allen and Kenny Souza, came in for those races. (If I remember correctly, Mark won the first one, in just about half the time it took me to go around the then-standard 3-mile run, 18-mile bike and 3-mile run course.) To this day I do two to six of Dan's duathlons each season.

A final historical note on the name change to “duathlon.” Dan, quite the iconoclast, called the event the “biathlon” into the 2011 season. Internationally the name change to duathlon came about in the mid-1990s, when the International Triathlon Union applied for the inclusion of triathlon in the Olympic Games. As the campaign got underway, even though there was no idea of including the run-bike biathlon as well, the need to come up with a new name for triathlon's two-sport offspring became appar­ent. In the Winter Olympics there is a well-established Nordic event that combines cross-country skiing and target‑shooting. It is known as the biathlon. Understandably, the International Biathlon Union did not want an­other event in the Olympics, summer or winter, which was associated with the same name as theirs. So, using a Latin rather than a Greek prefix, still with the Greek root, the name duathlon for the run-bike races was created. And so, this year, I look forward to seeing you at St. Paul!

The history of biathlon text is drawn in part from Chap. 1 of Steve Jonas’ book “Duathlon Training and Racing for Ordinary Mortals®,” Guilford, CT: Falcon Books/Globe Pequot Press, 2012, and also in part from his May 2104 entry to the USA Triathlon Blog, “Duathlon, Biathlon: What's in a Name?” Read more from Jonas in the Ordinary Mortals Blog

For more info or to register for the race, visit the 2014 USA Triathlon Duathlon National Championships event page.

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