How could a city with a rich sporting history and a strong running and endurance community like Boston not have its own world-class triathlon?
The whole thing made no sense to Michael O’Neil, a former college Division I soccer and hockey player turned investment portfolio manager, agent for professional triathletes and weekend warrior.
In all fairness, Boston had a small triathlon, The Urban Epic, created by Will Thomas in 2009. The event drew racers from the local community, to compete in a small Sprint race, a shorter distance race that typically doesn’t become a destination event for racers.
O’Neil believed the sport of triathlon in Boston had so much more potential. Thomas agreed and believed he had brought the race as far as he could on his own. In 2012 O’Neil took control and began building the modern Boston Triathlon with Thomas continuing to work with O’Neil to fulfill their vision of a world-class event, which will kick off its 11th annual edition this Sunday, July 28th.
O’Neil’s first move was to change the sprint course to improve racer experience, expand the venue footprint, and increased awareness in the athlete community that there was a triathlon in the city of Boston. Adding an Olympic Distance event to the original event wasn’t easy and took years, since Boston’s land and water belonged to a wide diversity of stakeholders. For example, the Boston Triathlon’s Race Village is located on property belonging to the Boston’s Teachers Union. The race traverses land belonging to the City of Boston as well as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the race utilizes parking from UMass Boston as well as some privately owned lots.
“We must have 30 permits from various organizations and departments at this point,” O’Neil says. “But I have been to Machu Picchu and was humbled by the human determination that led to the building of that incredible place, and I figured, if they can build that on a mountain in a jungle, surely we can create something much smaller, like a world-class triathlon in Boston.”
O’Neil credits solid support from the state (Division of Conservation and Recreation), the Mayor’s office, City Point Neighborhood association (The race takes place in Southie) and several South Boston leaders that made the event possible. O’Neil knew that to be successful, a collaborative approach with all stakeholders would be essential. Additionally, O’Neil set the race on a trajectory to make a positive impact to the neighborhood and the city in general.
“Adding a kid’s race has been great and was the idea of Senator Nick Collins,” O’Neil said.
Along the way, there were several key milestones that continued to build momentum for the race. In 2012, Boston Medical Center, the largest and busiest provider of trauma and emergency services in New England, became the official charity partner of the event, allowing racers to raise funds to help fight substance abuse disorders and fulfill their Vision 2030 initiative to make Boston the healthiest city in the country. And in 2016, Columbia Threadneedle Investments saw alignments between the race, Boston Medical Center and their commitment to their community and committed to a multi-year title partner agreement. This commitment allowed O’Neil to add an Olympic Distance event with confidence, a key milestone in elevating the event for a wider group of athletes. At the same time, a commitment was made to continue the Sprint distance event, keeping the event accessible to the everyday athlete.
“Years ago,” O’Neil recalls, “the first time Mayor Walsh came to our event, he told me Carson Beach was a beautiful resource that many residences were unaware of or never experienced and this race was helping change that. I think he saw our race as a positive thing for the city and he has been an incredible supporter of efforts.
“Back in the early days of the race, many people didn’t realize the water quality in Boston had improved to the point where you can actually swim in the Harbor. Today, Boston Harbor actually has higher water quality than the water off Waikiki. It’s not necessarily warmer, but it’s cleaner. So in that sense, the race was ahead of the curve by utilizing such an incredible natural resource starting back in 2009.”
Where did Triathlons come from? Over 40 years ago, the sport of triathlon emerged from a conversation in a San Diego bar amongst three athletes – a swimmer, a cyclist and a runner – debating whose discipline was the most demanding. So they put together a race that combined the three events, and the concept rapidly took hold around the world.
Most people are familiar with the Ironman because of its annual broadcast on NBC, which consists of a 2.4 mile plus swim, 112 bike ride, followed by a full marathon. Top Ironman competitors get all of that done under 9 hours. For mere mortals, there a half Iron races, which cover half the distance of an Ironman, and there are also Olympic distance triathlons, which are one quarter of an Ironman, as well as a Sprint triathlons, which are typically half the length on an Olympic Triathlon. The Boston Triathlon offers competitors the option of Olympic and Sprint distances.
In 2000, the sport of triathlon became an Olympic sport for the shorter distance that has athletes swim approximately a mile, bike for 24 miles and run 6.2 miles. How does a triathlon work? Competitors gather on the beach in wetsuits and go off in “waves,” designated by gender and age. They swim a designated course, marked by buoys and patrolled by lots of lifeguards and safety officials, complete their swim and then run to the transition area, where they get out of their wetsuits, put on their cycling shoes and helmet and jump on their bikes. They complete the bike portion of the race and then return to the transition area, rerack their bikes, change into running shoes, and take off for their run – a 5k for the sprint and roughly a 10k for the Olympic distance athletes. And then comes the finish line.
This year’s Boston Triathlon features competitors from 14 countries and 42 states, yet 70% on the competitors are from Greater Boston, a fact that delights O’Neil. “People are discovering the beautiful waterfront and discovering the sport of triathlon right here in Boston,” O’Neil says. “Ten years ago, few people went to the beach in Southie unless they lived there. Now Bostonians and many others are discovering this wonderful area for swimming, biking and running. I think it’s part of a wider trend toward health and fitness in the city of Boston and we are excited to play a small part in that trend.”