Ultra-Triathlons – Are they the World’s Toughest Endurance Events? You decide.

Triathletes are known for their fitness, strength and determination, and there’s no doubt that simply possessing the ability to complete a course is impressive. For athletes looking for the ultimate challenge, however, long distance ‘ultra-triathlons’ have to be at the top of the list. So what exactly are these endurance events and how did they evolve from other versions of the sport?

Ultra-Triathlons – What Do They Involve?

An ultra-triathlon is a real test of an athlete’s endurance. The standard distances for different race types vary, but full triathlons are often based on the WTC’s Ironman World Championship, which takes place annually in Hawaii. This renowned race involves a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile run. As with all versions of the sport, the athletes taking part transition from one discipline to another without a break.

Ultra-triathlons are even longer than that prestigious event. Some boast courses covering twice or three times its distance, while competitors in ‘Triple Deca’ events, for example, participate in 71-mile swims, 3,400-mile bike rides and 780-mile runs.

Triathletes competing in the Rio 2016 Olympics, in comparison, will only be swimming 0.93 miles (1.5km), cycling 24.8 miles (40km) and running 6.2 miles (10km). Many races are even shorter, with athletes competing in Sprint Races, for example, usually covering distances of around 16 miles, broken down into a 0.5 mile swim, 12.4 miles on a bike and a 3.1 mile run. To complete an ultra-triathlon, or even a full distance or “iron” event, is a major achievement, however fit you are.

The History of the Sport

The initial concept for the modern triathlon is believed to have been developed in France, in the early twentieth century. Records show that a competition incorporating running, canoeing and cycling took place in 1902, but the precursors to the modern event are usually seen to be a number of races known as “Les Trois Sports” (or “The Three Sports”) which took place in various locations in France during the 1920s and 1930s. Competitors in these events completed consecutive runs, swims and bike rides, the order in which they did so differing from race to race.

The first event to be named a “triathlon” didn’t take place until September 25 1974. The brainchild of two San Diego Track Club members, Don Shanahan and Jack Johnstone, it was held at the city’s Mission Bay, with 46 athletes competing to win what was to become a historically significant triathlon trophy.

Three years later, athletes taking part at the O’ahu Perimeter Relay Race began to debate which sports people were the fittest, swimmers, runners or cyclists. John Collins, a United States Navy Commander, suggested that the matter could be settled by combining three of Hawaii’s sporting events – the 2.4 mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the 115 mile Around-O’ahu Bike Race and the 26.2 mile Honolulu Marathon – into a single competition. Collins, together with his wife, Judy, had taken part in the San Diego Track Club events in both 1974 and 1975.

Fifteen athletes participated in the inaugural “Ironman” race, which took place on 18 February 1978, in Waikiki, on the island of O’ahu. Gordon Haller, a Communications Specialist within the US Navy, became the first person to claim the title, completing the course (which was three miles shorter than the total distance of the three Hawaiian events that inspired it) in 11 hours, 46 minutes and 58 seconds. The event went on to be a major worldwide competition, with today’s version featuring a host of qualifying races before the final. It also inspired other triathletes to invent even longer and more challenging events.

The first ITU World Championships (which cover the same distances as the Olympic events) took place in 1989, while the sport became an official Olympic event in 2000. It’s been growing in popularity ever since.

Long Distance Competitions in the UK

If you’re looking for a new sporting challenge, and you enjoy swimming, cycling and running, training for a long distance event could be just the thing for you. You’ll find plenty of full-distance events to choose from in the UK, while the IUTA runs ultra-triathlons around the world.

Are you a triathlete? Have you participated in any long-distance events? Do you have any training tips to share? Tell us about your experiences in the comments section, or chat to us on Facebook or on Twitter.