With the explosion in triathlon in the last decade it could be hard for some competitors to imagine a time when the sport was just finding its feet. The latest British Triathlon figures show that in 2013 there were 993 events held around the UK. 

From huge 10,000+ competitor events like the London Triathlon to small, local club events with less than 100 entrants over a range of distances, triathletes are spoilt for choice nowadays. In the main, regardless of size, these races are extremely well organised with efficient transition areas and bike racking.

But it wasn’t always quite like this. Back in 1986 a group of sporting enthusiasts in East Grinstead, West Sussex decided to put on a triathlon. Little did they know the challenges they would face and the impact the race would have for years to come. 

The class of ‘86

According to Martin Darlison, now head coach of East Grinstead Triathlon Club, the race was originally the brainchild of Dirk van der Starre, who was manager of the King’s Leisure Centre (which has served as EGTC HQ for the past 30 years) at the time.

Dirk served as the race director while local swim teacher Eve Savage was responsible for the pool-based swim. Experienced road racer Bill Wates took responsibility for the bike section while Martin himself arranged the run. 

“There was no standardisation of distances in triathlon at the time, so we thought we would go with some round figures; a mile (1.6km) swim in the Kings Centre pool (64 lengths) seemed like a good idea, an oft-used 40km bike circuit around some brutal local countryside would keep everyone happy, and finish with a 10km run as two laps around a residential part of East Grinstead.

“Little did we know that this would later become (almost exactly) the standard distance triathlon we know today,” Martin says. 

Challenges

However there were still several challenges to come. To start with the enthusiasts needed to form a club in order to register British Triathlon Association to get the race sanctioned. However, East Grinstead Triathlon Club was slightly short of members.

“As the minimum membership was seven we had to make up a name for the seventh person as there were too few of us to form a club,” Martin admits.

Despite a slightly unorthodox start to the event, the race managed to attract 80 entrants from sports clubs and some of the other very few triathlon clubs in the south east of England. The race itself could be described as near unrecognisable by today’s standards.

Martin recalls: “We did not know how to arrange the transition area as none of us had done a triathlon before, so we set up chairs in the main sports hall and competitors leaned their bikes on the chairs. “As only a few competitors had tri-suits, nudity was all too prevalent as competitors changed clothes between swim, bike and run.”

Race novices

Event management has greatly improved since then, particularly for the well oiled machine that is the modern East Grinstead Triathlon, and so has racing equipment.

On display back in ’86 were steel frame bikes, toe clips and leather straps with leather ‘hairnet’ crash hats and no proper crash helmets. Race day nutrition consisted of water, bananas, dried fruit and walnut cake. 

Such was the general lack of racing experience one competitor did not even realise he could take off his goggles after finishing the swim section, due to the general lack of racing experience. 

“His goggles were pretty steamed up by the finish as he was so warm. It was mid June,” says Martin. “The real fun of the first East Grinsted Triathlon was that almost all competitors were novices and we all shared a terrific experience together and were all hooked by the end of the day.

“We had become part of a very small group in a particularly minority sport. A lot of us went out for a meal together that evening, and we formed a strong bond that has held us as close friends, still 30 years on.”

Podium finish

These days membership of East Grinstead Triathlon club is well in excess of 120 and constantly growing. Therefore it is no surprise that it is an extremely well organised and marshalled event – only a small number of members are allowed to enter the event each year. 

However that was not the case in 1986, with founder member Roger Sheridan who worked alongside Dirk at the Kings Centre winning the event, and Martin himself taking third place.

The following year the race attracted double the number of competitors, and the race and club have gone from strength to strength ever since. 

“We never believed that what we staged 30 years ago would last so long,” says Martin. “Triathlon has grown massively over those three decades and has moved from a ‘random fad’ to mainstream recognition of an honest and challenging test of endurance, where the top triathletes are respected as amongst the best in the world of sport.”

Class of 2015

To celebrate the 30th birthday of the East Grinstead Triathlon, which takes place on 10th May 2015, there will be a special wave for those that took part in the inaugural race. While the club is still in touch with some competitors from the Class of ‘86 there are a number which are yet to be tracked down.

So if you took place in that first event then please contact the race director at rd@egtri.club. The club would really love to see you there on the day, even if are you are currently resting or tapering and don’t wish to take part! For more info head to www.egtri.com.

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Did you race one of the first East Grinstead Triathlons? Let us know in the comments!

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