The state of duathlon – feature
The state of duathlon – feature

The state of duathlon – feature

We analyse the past and present of duathlon in the UK… and see what the future holds for triathlon’s multisport sibling

The full moon has just departed stage right, the rain has temporarily halted and 414 people in leggings and Lycra are singing the Happy Birthday song to something called the Ballbuster.

To the uninitiated, what’s happening at the top of Box Hill on 8 November 2014 is probably quite a strange sight. For the multisport community, the pre-race calm offers a chance to celebrate the 25th edition of the Winter Ballbuster, the longest-running, most arduous duathlon on the UK multisport calendar.

Flitting around the Ballbuster venue pre-race and it becomes clear that here’s an event that oozes multisport history. Jasmine Flatters, who was volunteering for Human Race way back in 1990, is still here, manning the door to the registration office; Human Race founder John Lunt is chatting to duathletes; and the fourth-place finisher in that first 1990 Ballbuster race, Mark Kleanthous, is again on the start line.

Fun, games and gore

At 8:10am, the gun goes and the athletes prepare to have their balls busted (and whatever the female equivalent is) over the 12.8km run/38km bike/12.8km run around and up the cycling mecca of Surrey’s Box Hill. After 43 minutes, men’s leader Andy Greenleaf has ticked off the first lap of Box Hill and arrived back in the sodden transition area, with women’s leader Lucie Custance following five minutes later. 

By the first of the three bike laps, the rain has turned as relentless as the course itself. Gallows humour is now the mood of choice for competitors bringing up the rear, with ‘Whose idea was this?’ the most common refrain.

“That’s what entrants to the Ballbuster prepare themselves for,” says author and adventurer Danny Bent, a former top-five finisher at the Ballbuster. “Pain and lots of pain. There’s no pulling out. The crowds gather for the fun and games and gore and eat the homemade cakes sold from the small café… torturing the injured and energy-depleted further. The final run leg is pure survival. To finish the race entitles you to hold your head high. To win it puts you among legends.”

Achieving legendary status this year are Greenleaf and Custance, in 2:37hrs and 3:03hrs respectively, with 376 other finishers following in their wake (and 220 trundling home 50th out of 51 in the M30–34 age group) to claim the famous Ballbuster race hoodie.

Ballbuster hoodie

It’s a sell-out field here today and elsewhere the UK’s duathlon season is beginning in earnest. But with just one, not two, Ballbusters planned for 2015, what is the state of the run/bike/run scene? Has triathlon’s stratospheric rise made duathlon nothing more than a winter stop-gap for the tri season? And what does the future hold for the sport that once shared equal billing with its three-discipline sibling? We speak to the race organisers, athletes and federations to find out… but first we head back to 1984 to discover the roots of what was once known as biathlon. 

Details on duathlon’s earliest years are sketchy, with no fabled meeting taking place in San Diego à la the formative tale of modern triathlon. In his book, Duathlon Training and Racing for Ordinary Mortals, American multisport veteran Steve Jonas cites Daniel Honig, president of the New York Triathlon Club, as “one of the principal early developers, if not the original inventor of the format”. In 1984, Honig started to add run/bike/run events to his Big Apple schedule of races, with the format variously consisting of run/bike, run/bike/run or bike/run formats, and going under the names of byathlon, run-bike-run, cyruthon (cycle-run) and biathlon.

What started as something to extend the triathlon race season, “quickly came to be seen on its own merits, first as an entry into triathlon racing for weak or non-swimmers, and then as a multisport form that stood on its own,” writes Jonas. The sport swiftly gained in popularity stateside, drawing major sponsors for events like the Coors Lite Biathlon Series by the end of the decade and producing duathlon superstars like America’s Kenny Souza, the flowing-haired, Speedo-wearing Californian who wouldn’t look out of place in a Motley Crue video.

Kenny Souza racing at Powerman England

Over in the UK, the first run/bike/run event is thought to have been held along the A3 dual carriageway on 25 January 1987. The Classic Biathlon consisted of a 4km run/16km bike/4km run close to Chessington, with Mark Kleanthous, a man with 460 multisport events under his belt, naturally on the start line. The inaugural National Biathlon Series would be created by 220 magazine in 1990 (“to create some events that we could report on during the off-season,” says 220 founder John Lillie), before John Lunt and the team at Human Race launched the Winter Ballbuster in December of that year. 

“The race would draw nearly 200 competitors,” recalls Kleanthous, “with entry consisting of athletes sending off two self-addressed envelopes for the race info and results, which were typed out and sent 10 days later. That race started at the bottom of Box Hill, with ‘Let’s bust our balls!’ shouted at the start.” The Ballbuster would become a fixture on the UK race calendar for the next 25 race seasons and beyond. It was a year earlier, however, that the sport would be changed forever, with the creation of a run/bike/run event in the small Swiss town of Zofingen (pop. 11,000).

The golden age 

Powerman Zofingen is duathlon’s equivalent of the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii; the mythologised home of a sport where quads burn, lungs bust and legends are born. While the days of sitting in the ‘Big Three’ of multisport events alongside Hawaii and the Nice Triathlon are now a distant memory, the cast list of Mark Allen, Paula Newby-Fraser, Olivier Bernhard, the Vansteelant brothers, Karin Thürig and Erika Csomor highlights the fundamental role Zofingen has played in duathlon history.

Zofingen’s journey began on 4 June 1989 with the initial format witnessing an opening 5km run followed by a 120km bike and a 30km run. The first winners were Hermine Haas of Switzerland and Andreas Rudolph of Germany, with a young Swiss mum and future six-time Ironman World Champion Natascha Badmann taking sixth place in her debut multisport event. From 1990 to 1996, the distances would be 7.5km/150km/ 30km and, like the Nice Triathlon, the event would quickly become a major draw for the then dominant American athletes.

Souza took the Zofingen title in early 1990 and Big Four member Scott Molina broke the tape in 1991. Coming home soon after Molina in 1991 would be another Ironman world champion, Paula Newby-Fraser, on the first year that the famous 4km Bodenburg climb was added to the bike course. Competitors would be subjected to the Bodenburg not once but three times over the three-lap course, with Souza just one athlete to succumb to the challenge… although admittedly in a snowstorm while wearing his trademark briefs and a tank top. 

The early 90s would be Zofingen’s golden age, with two-time Ironman world champion Erin Baker winning in 1992 and 1994, and Mark Allen finishing fourth in 1992 and taking the title (and a $40,000 winner’s cheque) a year later. A period of Swiss dominance would follow, with Olivier Bernhard, Urs Dellsperger and Stefan Riesen hogging the top of the men’s podium up to 2005. Confirming Switzerland’s duathlon dominance would be Badmann’s three full titles in the women’s race. By Badmann’s final victory in May 2000, however, the gaze of the multisport world was firmly focused on a September event in front of the Sydney Opera House.

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