Bob Babbitt reflects on the beginnings of Competitor magazine.
I am sitting in my office and, as is my habit, my mind wanders as I look around the room at the photos and items on my shelves from the past 25 years of Competitor magazine.
A particularly important piece of memorabilia is a photo from the 1979 Ironman race in Oahu, Hawaii—the second one ever held—and the entire field of 15 is standing on the beach ready to tackle the day. In the photo is Tom Warren, the saloon owner from San Diego who would be the main subject of Barry McDermott’s seminal article in Sports Illustrated after winning that 1979 race.
My roommate at the time, Ned Overend, and I read that article in Sports Illustrated and decided we needed to try this Ironman thing. In 1980, there was no information about how to train for or survive a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run. We couldn’t go online, and magazine and newspaper articles were few and far between. The first running boom was in full swing and a few triathlons had been held in San Diego, but there were no books, no training plans, no options. So, we decided we would track down Tom at Tug’s Tavern and pepper him with questions about how to prepare for this crazy new event.
We were ambitious and athletic young guys, but we had no idea what we were getting into. At Tom’s house we found his bike set up in a sauna so he could prepare for the Hawaii heat by riding up to five hours at a time while sweating his brains out. We started to get a glimpse of how crazy this Ironman thing was about to become.
With Tom as our mentor, Ned and I went all in. We bought road bikes at a police auction. Mine cost $75 and had been in a fire so the back end was charred. Since I had no idea how to change a flat, I bought solid rubber tires that you waxed on to the rims. The bike had reflectors, a kickstand and a fuzzy raccoon seat cover. For the race, I bungee-corded a Radio Shack transistor radio to the foam covered handlebars. I rode in beige walking shorts (with a belt) and a long-sleeved cotton T-shirt (not great for the Hawaii heat) with a pocket sewn onto the back so I could carry Hawaiian Sweet Bread, my performance nutrition product of choice.
I also had panniers, a sleeping bag and a tent because I honestly thought I would do the 2.4-mile swim and ride 56 miles on the first day, camp out on the beach and then ride back to town the next day to run the marathon.
Made sense to me at the time.
Aside from Ned and I, a fit-looking guy named Dave Scott was among the 108 people lined up on the beach for that Ironman race in 1980. After somehow surviving the choppy ocean swim, I mounted up for the epic ride. About 25 miles in, my support crew met me with some typical early-Ironman nutrition—a brown bag with a Big Mac, fries and a Coke. At Mile 80, it was a root beer snow cone, and that really hit the spot.
After the ride, my crew had a bamboo mat laid out for me with a boom box, and I spent 45 minutes getting a full-body massage before starting off on the run through Waikiki. It seemed like a great idea at the time.
As I crested Diamond Head and started back down toward the finish with my crew driving directly behind me in their convertible Fiat, I started to reflect on my day. I had no idea I could actually do this entire event, and do it all in one day. I started to wonder what the finish line was going to be like. A band, maybe some cheerleaders. I was sure it would be special.
Finally, I saw the white chalk line across the road and a light bulb overhead.
Then, a voice in the darkness said, “Hey you.”
Exhausted and dehydrated, my witty response was simply, “Yeah?”
“You in the race?”
There was absolutely no one around except one idiot doing one-arm pushups in the park. But I realized quickly that I really didn’t need anyone else at that point.
Finishing the Ironman that day changed my life forever. I learned from that experience that anything is possible, and I felt that if this event made such a huge impact on me, other people would love it and others like it as much as I did.
I returned to San Diego to work for a magazine called Running News and I convinced the editor, Mike Plant, to change the name to Running and Triathlon News. Soon, Lois Schwartz, a former teaching colleague, and I were the Los Angeles editor and photographer of the magazine, covering new events every weekend. It felt like we were on a grand adventure to grow the world of endurance sports together.
When that magazine went out of business in early 1987, I pitched an idea to the owners of two California-based cycling magazines: Let’s build a magazine that showcases running, triathlon and cycling. Ultimately, I couldn’t convince them to partner with me, but later a number of friends gave Lois and I $17,000 to start our own magazine.
The first issue of Competitor hit the streets in June of 1987. I lived on a friend’s floor and we rented 200 square feet of warehouse space underneath 10,000 pounds of bike racks from a local race director. We didn’t pay ourselves a penny that first year, so I was living frugally. But it was a dream job, and I knew we were onto something big.
We didn’t know that new magazines had a survival rate of about 5 percent. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. We didn’t put together focus groups or do a lot of planning. We followed our passion and believed in our gut that if we liked something this much, so would our readers.
Now that we’re celebrating our 25th anniversary, I guess we were, in fact, onto something big. Over the years we’ve chronicled the growth of the endurance sports lifestyle, and, of course, the idea of participating in endurance-related events to support a charity.
I tell people all the time that I have been blessed. What do I do for work? I get to go to parties—we call them races—every weekend of the year where people are changing their lives for the better through our sports. No one is ever in a bad mood after finishing a race, right?
Back then only a handful of people were doing these sports. Now it’s become part of the fabric of a lot of people’s lives. In the 1980s, people typically defined themselves by the sport they did. If they ran, they were a runner. For those who started dabbling in triathlon, they were triathletes.
Today’s endurance athlete may do a half-marathon one weekend, a mud/obstacle race the next weekend, a 25-mile bike ride the next and a triathlon the weekend after that. And, when they aren’t outside, they are in the gym doing yoga, taking a spin class, or pumping a little iron. While most people use running to help develop their fitness base, in this day and age, everyone does everything and there are no limits.
From the photo behind me of the 1979 Ironman to my first Ironman in 1980 to the past 25 years of Competitor there is one constant: When you cross that first finish line, your life is changed forever.
See you at the races!
This piece first appeared in the July 2012 issue of Competitor magazine.
About The Author:
Bob Babbitt is the co-founder of Competitor, the co-founder of the Challenge Athletes Foundation, a 2002 Ironman Triathlon Hall of Fame Inductee, creator of the Muddy Buddy racing series and a 2012 USA Triathlon Hall of Fame Inductee.