TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent
I had the great pleasure recently to sit down and talk triathlon with one of the TCSD’s earliest members, John Healy. John has been racing triathlons since the earth started to cool. He has seen it all. I know you will enjoy getting to know this triathlon pioneer.
Craig: What sports did participate in before triathlon?
John: I grew in a suburb of Boston, where families were big and everyone played sports outside every day—hockey, baseball, basketball, football. No adults were involved—just kids. I ran sprints and played baseball in high school. An enlarging benign spine bone tumor began to press on my lower spinal cord in 11th grade and precluded contact sports and made baseball too painful. This was treated later with radiation and by age 20 I was pain free.
I started playing 4 wall handball at the end of college at Holy Cross and really got into it at the University of Vermont where I went to medical school. It was perfect for me. I had a strong arm and great speed. Most importantly it only took an hour to play, and I was always pressed for time. My opponents we were usually very athletic and very strong willed, but great guys off the court. I managed to win handball championships at Vermont, Stanford and at Navy and Marine Corps tournaments. But, in big venues, i.e. San Diego, I was just another adequate player. Handball was my favorite and most strenuous sport, but degenerative spinal issues made me give it up after 32 years at 52.
We had cold ocean water, very few pools, and polio scares in Massachusetts. I was not much of a swimmer until teenage years when my friends and I started to swim in the nearby Quincy granite quarries (which was an illegal and forbidden activity). We believed the old tales that the quarries were bottomless and that “truck drivers” would bring their girl friends there and swim naked at lunchtime (never happened, but made the quarries exciting for 14 year olds). I never could have done competitive swimming but became skilled enough to be hired by Cape Cod National Seashore as a lifeguard.
Craig: What chain of events led to you trying your hand with multi-sports?
John: An acute attack of back spasms during a Sierra backpacking trip in terrible weather led to ocean swimming being the only activity I could do in August, 1979. I saw an announcement for the 50th annual Labor Day swim in Oceanside and decided to do it. After the race Tom Warren, the owner of Tug’s Tavern in Pacific Beach and the hero of the classic Sport’s Illustrated story about the 1979 Ironman race on Oahu, was passing out entries to his upcoming Tug’s Swim-Run-Swim race—1/4 mile fun-1/2 mile swim around crystal pier in Pacific Beach , 5 ½ mile run, then another ½ mile swim around the pier. I had been in great shape since 1966, but was incredulous that anyone could do an event of that magnitude and length. There were about 300 entrants.
Craig: You are one of triathlon’s pioneers. What were some of the local triathlons that you did in the early days and what were they like?
John: After Tug’s, I got on the mailing list for the few triathlons existent in the 80’s—Chuck’s, Del Mar days, and Carlsbad and in 1983, the USTS Series at Torrey Pines and later the Koz races.
A lot of us would use our children’s bikes the first few years. Training would be a few weeks of swimming and a few bike rides around the neighborhood.
Del Mar Days triathlon (spelled Triathalon) started as a discontinuous event –10k run on the beach, then an hour later a one mile swim in a very cold ocean against a current resulting in a massive hypothermia (no wetsuits)–then later an ill-advised bike race in the wet, curvy streets in the Del Mar hills. That was the first time I realized that bikers had toe clips. Another year a bike race was going on at the same time and on the same course as the triathlon. I had never seen at peloton before and when I saw it catching up to me I was terrified and my mental terror, I believe, made my chain come off!
Chuck’s was a tremendous race on Fiesta Island starting with a 10k run, then a 12 mile bike followed by a 1 ¼ mile swim.
Those early races were followed by band music and big, unlimited beer gardens and had 200 entrants. Most of us changed clothes in the open between events. Unfortunately, both races ended when lawsuits were filed after relatively mild bike injuries. The races were a labor of love and were discontinued because of the lawsuits, even though I believe the lawsuits were not successful.
Carlsbad originally had a mile swim and 10k run with the same 16 mile bike as today’s event. Many of the early triathletes came from a swimming background as the long cold swims were a real challenge for “regular people”.
Craig: What led you to race the 1983 Ironman World Championships in Kona?
John: In 1982 my wife and I went to Kona for a medical meeting. By sheer coincidence we happened to land during the actual Ironman race. The Queen K Road was not closed for the race and we had a long very slow drive in the middle of the race into Kailua. We watched most of finishers and they looked beaten up on Alii drive. My memory is that they looked “haunted”, constantly looking over their shoulder to see if anyone was catching them.
I had probably done 10 triathlons by then, but with pretty casual training—mostly handball, skiing and running—very little swimming and biking—but a little more every year. By the mid-1980’s it was 6 months handball and skiing, six months, April to October triathlon.
That day watching the Ironman convinced me that the race was madness and that I would never be interested in doing it.
But, that night we went on a “Captain Beans” dinner cruise (the original boat used for the Ironman swim turnaround). Many free Mai Tais later, while sailing on Kailua Bay, somewhat illogically, I decided I would do the Ironman in 1983. The next day, outside the only hotel (the only building) at Waikoloa in those days, I began training for my one and only marathon.
I trained for 5 ½ months for the 1983 Ironman. It was very exciting, like a science project, I was running 13 miles every other day. I got injured after running the America’s Finest City half and missed two weeks of running and got quite a scare! In early August I took a vacation to Maui with a bunch of families and did not bike 2 weeks, but ran the half marathons every other day and swam 90 minutes each day. Otherwise training and racing went fine.
The whole Kona experience was a gas. It was incredibly exciting. In those days, not everyone there was a gifted athlete. But everyone was trained and super motivated and there were a lot of real unique individuals. Most had made a real sacrifice to be there. They had psychiatrists present to give a seminar to the spouses that had both suffered and supported the athletes’ training through their one dimensional quest. There were a lot of repeat contestants. I think I might have been among the first thousand ironmen.
The race day itself was another matter. It is still the windiest day in Ironman history. I saw people blown to a complete stop and even blown off their bikes. Many had to stand up on their pedals most of the way to Hawi, some walked. Only about 830 out of nearly 1000 starters were able to complete the race, the lowest percentage of finishers ever. Aerobars and clip-in pedals had not yet been invented and the average bike in the race was said to cost $350, about what I paid for my Univega Grand Premio at Zummatti’s. I can’t remember if helmets were mandatory but most of us wore the old Skidlid helmets that offered very little protection, kind of like a hairnet.
Craig: You’ve completed nearly 400 triathlons in your career, what are some of your favorite destination races?
John: With a growing and active family and a demanding profession I swore off Ironman races but returned to Kona twice for Half Ironmans in my sixties. In 2002 I had a chance to do “Ironman Revisited” in Oahu with 40 unique companions. The event caught my attention because I had watched the videos of the original Oahu Ironman race over and over while preparing for 1983. Training was limited for the August 2002 event because I had fractured my tibia skiing in late January. I swam for 4 months, biked for 3 months, but only was able to run 50 miles before the event, although I aqua jogged a lot. We had to supply our own support crew who drove along with us just like the original three Oahu races and supply all our needs. The event was well organized and a real thrill. My orthopedist told me not to run more than two hours, so I alternated running and walking.
I should write a separate article about my 1980’s Alcatraz races. In the 1980’s no wetsuits were allowed, a 15 mile run through Muir Woods to Stinson Beach and then return back to Mill Valley over hills as high as 1360 feet and starting and finishing with 672 slick wooden and stone steps (the height of a fifty story building). No directional buoys for the swim—once the race started I saw just two other swimmers. We had to memorize the San Francisco skyline and “never get to the right of the tall apartment building” in order to not miss Aquatic Park and get carried west on the outgoing Tide! They had a permit for 300 racers , but had fewer than a hundred enter. The bike went over the Golden Gate Bridge to Mill Valley. Looking down at Alcatraz after just swimming from it was a real thrill. I had trainied by swimming in Del Mar until I got really really cold and confused and by taking cold showers.
Craig: What is your favorite benefit of your TCSD membership?
John: One of my favorite benefits is the races the TCSD puts on. I fondly remember two unusual TCSD club races. The first was the “Jellyfish Triathlon” at Fiesta Island. After a vote was taken, we had the race. Every stroke I took I had a jellyfish in my hand and I was glad to have a bathing cap. Fortunately,they were nonstinging.
The “Cowpie Triathlon” was at a ranch near Ramona. We swam multiple laps in a small pond, then biked and ran among dozens of cows and thousands of cowpies. A great party and cookout followed and all finishers were awarded a dried cowpie on a necklace. Some club members camped out overnight. I got home very late and very tired. When I went to get in bed, I recalled that our swim had been in a BROWN pond-brown because of cowpies. I hurriedly showered after putting 2 plus 2 together.
Craig: I remember doing both of those epic TCSD races. Triathlon has been a family affair for you. How has your family been involved in our sport?
John: My wife and three children have all done at least one triathlon. I signed up early for one of the Optimist’s Coronado Triathlons when my two oldest kids were about ten and twelve. That year the race was Bike-Run-Swim. Your start position was determined by the date of your entry and my kids were in the front row with all the super aggressive adults behind them. I worried they would be biked over.
One of my great strategies during the years that the optimist race was formatted as a run 1.2 miles, bike 4, swim ¼ mile was to wear my bike helmet on the run. I beat a good friend three years in a row by a few seconds. He would always make fun of my helmet on the run—but never figured out that not having to put the helmet on when my pulse was probably 200 was my whole margin of victory over him.
For my 50th birthday my daughter swam from Alcatraz with me.
I have been blessed with a great family. Three children and eight grandchildren ages 5 to 17, all living nearby. My son John and son-in-law Brandon have done very well in Triathlon. Everyone else in involved in sports.
Craig: I’m thinking that with all your race experiences you have probably seen some pretty goofy things over the years. What have been some of the classics?
John: I could swim and run faster than a friend, but he was a much faster cyclist. He was one of the first to get the original Quintana Roo wetsuit. When he beat me out of the water, I could see that I needed a wetsuit also. They were hard to find at first—you had to “know a guy who knew a guy” to get one. I had a connection and got one at Bike Fever in Del Mar. The next race I beat my friend out of the water with my new wetsuit. However, I put on my helmet and bike shoes and started to mount my bike before I realized that I had forgotten to take off my wetsuit.
I did two races, one in Coronado and one in Ensenada, that had no bike turnaround marked and everyone turned around at different places, then they realized what was (not) happening.
The only drafting legal race I have done was in Huntington Beach. I was in a pack of 5 riders after taking two turns at the front, they told me not to lead anymore because I was going too slow; so I hung in the back and enjoyed the ride. At that same Huntington Beach event, big surf took off my goggles and pulled my Speedo right off—I saved my Speedo with one ankle to prevent a nude finish to my swim.
Craig: What have you done for a living?
John: I am a Neuroradiologist. I trained at the San Diego Naval Hospital and Stanford. I also had the opportunity to take a six month Navy course in Aerospace medicine (including flight instruction) in Pensacola and spent two years as a flight surgeon with the Marines. I spent most of my career at U.C.S.D. and the VA and had the opportunity to train a few hundred Radiology trainees. I also persuaded about ten of them to do a triathlon.
Craig: Who has been the most influential person in your life?
John: The biggest influence of me is definitely my wife of 50 years, Barbara, a physical therapist and a real miracle. She is a very independent, friendly and social person. She has broadened my horizons tremendously. I had several friends that I usually beat by a minute or less. I had to warn her to stop being so friendly and giving away my secrets of victory i.e. don’t wear socks, don’t sit down to put on shoes, use lace locks instead to tying shoes, etc.
Craig: What are your future triathlon goals?
John: Future goal? I have raced almost 800 events, mostly multisport. I have raced almost 400 miles swimming, 6700 miles biking and over 2300 running. Almost everyone my age has quit. I think a lot of them are just embarrassed how slow they have become—and so am I! I have a lot of arthritis everywhere and some serious medical problems and have been slow for quite a while. Every Spring I decide if I will continue. I love training in San Diego. Because I have been so busy, I have done almost all my training by myself, so have missed some of the great social aspects of the sport. I do fewer events every year, but will probably continue to do my favorites.
Craig: John, thank you so much for sharing your story. Triathlon has definitely kept you young. I think you have at least another 800 events in you. We are lucky to have you in our club!
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.