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What a difference 40 years make

Published:

British Triathlon has gone through a lot of changes in its 40 years and Mark Kleanthous has seen them all.

Most recently he completed the British Middle-Distance Championships, which consisted of a 1.2mile swim, a 56mile bike ride and a 13.1mile run, but Kleanthous was also on the start line for the very first triathlon in Britain.

He explained: “I did the first triathlon, there was no standard distance back then. It was basically make up a distance with the size of the lake. The first triathlon was a 1mile swim, a 40mile bike ride, and a 13mile run. The swim was shortened to 1000m as the water was so cold.

“The cycle was generally all left turns with very few marshals and arrows were just painted on the road. The fields were maybe 30-100 people, there was very little chance of being held up because they were so small.

“Most people were single sport athletes, there were no 'triathletes' in that race, no one had ever done one. The sense of achievement you got was quite gratifying.”

Kleanthous loved the first event so much he began taking part in them as regularly as possible. He then began working with Aleck Hunter and a group of other athletes to establish British Triathlon, providing rules and regulations for the sport in the UK.

He said: “Ironically Aleck Hunter, who originally set up the British Triathlon Federation only lived about a mile from where I lived. I used to speak to him, he gave me some coaching lessons and he was talking about setting up a federation in the UK. I got involved with a few others and put together rules and regulations.

“It was a short list compared to today. It was needed for the safety of competitors though, having a set transition area and making people wear a cycle helmet.

“Look at British Triathlon now. It has a head office rather than a place above a newsagents in Dagenham. There are coaching licenses and welfare courses you can go on. It’s come a long way from two or three people doing it voluntarily.”

As well as the rules we have today, Kleanthous was also ahead of the time when it came to using ‘technology’ to speed up certain aspects of his race.

“In the 80s helmets were not required, nudity was required in transition, and some had outside assistance from family and friends, and bikes were just laid on the grass. I think 25% of the bikes wouldn’t even pass a check these days," he explained.

“I consider myself one of the forerunners of technology. I was a marathon runner so I’d get quite cold coming out of the swim onto the bike or the run, so I used what would now be elastic laces, but I used elastic bands. My competitors didn’t realise I was using elastic bands as shoelaces to help get my shoes on quicker because my hands were so cold.

“I realised that changing from swimming kit to cycling and cycling to running kit was quite slow, so I’d use a cycling suit with swimming shorts over the top.

“I didn’t like the fact we had to wear a t-shirt with your number on the front or back. I put my numbers in a plastic wallet or got them laminated and I safety pinned one on my chest and one on my back, so when I came out the swim I didn’t have to put on a t-shirt.”

But for all the changes, Kleanthous taking part in triathlon has not changed. He has completed a race every year since the first ever race back in 1983.

He said: “I’m very proud to have competed in every single year. Even during covid I managed to fit some races in.

“I didn’t think I’d be doing triathlon for more than a couple of years but here I am 40 years later. I would have loved for something big to happen but because it was so small then, you could list the six triathlons a year and now there are hundreds a year.

“I’d always wished something great would happen with the sport in the UK and British Triathlon would have enough members to support the sport and grow the brand, so I didn’t have to explain what a triathlon was every time I went out.

"I still pinch myself now when I see what British Triathlon does. It’s absolutely amazing from less than 200 people jumping into a lake, having no idea what we were doing and not one person had any experience to now, it’s rare to not come across a triathlete.”

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