Triathlon's Storyteller: Bob Babbitt's Take on 35 Years of IRONMAN
"It’s the Super Bowl of triathlon and its most important brand, and symbolizes the everyday person successfully taking on the impossible. I hope I’m part of it forever."
by Lee Gruenfeld
Of all the people whose names are writ large across the IRONMAN story, it’s hard to think of anyone who has done more in and for the sport than Bob Babbitt. ABC’s Wide World of Sports might have put IRONMAN on the map, but it was Hall-of-Famer Babbitt who kept it there, in the pages of his Competitor magazine and a handful of books, and in his tireless, passionate boosterism spanning three decades. In his spare time he helped create and build an organization that has changed the lives of thousands of severely injured people who might otherwise have been written off as hopeless cases. Here are some of Babbitt's thoughts on 35 years of Kona.
LG: I’m interested in knowing how you came to be so closely associated with a sport that didn’t even exist when you were growing up. So where did you grow up?
BB: I was born in Chicago but moved to Wilmette when I was nine.
LG: Far as I’m concerned, Wilmette is Chicago.
BB: Typical New Yorker reaction.
LG: Were you athletic as a kid?
BB: I was pretty active. I worked as a lifeguard all through college.
LG: Which college?
BB: University of Illinois.
LG: What was your major?
BB: Intramural sports and fraternity. I loved the whole animal house atmosphere, and forty years later I’m still close to a lot of those guys from school.
LG: Kind of explains where Muddy Buddy might have started. So what did you do when you got out of school and into real life?
BB: My first job was working with emotionally disturbed kids at the Central Baptist Children’s Home. It was a residential treatment facility attempting to mainstream kids who came from some pretty rough backgrounds.
LG: Rough how?
BB: It was a real mix. Some were orphans, others had been beaten and abused. A lot of them had been in four or five foster homes. That was a cheaper way to house kids but people there weren’t trained to deal with hardcore cases. So by the time they got to us they were seriously damaged. I remember one kid who shotgunned his brother to death.
LG: What kind of training did you have?
BB: At the time I thought I might want to teach, so I took some classes at George Williams College in therapeutic recreation, which played in nicely to what I was doing at the treatment home. The idea was to build up the kids’ confidence by getting them into organized clubs and sports.
LG: How’d it work out?
BB: We had a pretty high success rate in assimilating kids back into life outside the facility. And it was a powerful learning experience for me.
LG: But you didn’t stay in Chicago.
BB: Being an outdoorsy guy, the sixty-below wind chill started to wear on me. My sister was teaching in San Diego so I got a job running the PE program there. When I arrived I got a tour from this 12-year old student, and when we were done I said, "Uh…where’s the gym?" She told me they didn’t have a gym, so I asked her what the kids were supposed to do when it rained. She looked at me like I’d just turned left at the wrong galaxy and said, "It doesn’t rain here!" OMG! Been in San Diego ever since.
LG: What kind of PE program did they have?
BB: That was the other thing. They didn’t. So I started one from scratch.
LG: Did they really call it "Bob time?"
BB: Yes. I stayed at that school for eight years, until 1985.
LG: So you did your first Ironman while you were there. How did that come about?
BB: I was rooming with Ned Overend, who would later become a world mountain bike champion. We read about Tom Warren [winner of the second IRONMAN, in 1979] in Sports Illustrated. We’d done a couple of local endurance events and wondered if we could do Ironman. We decided to track Tom down and find out more about it. We got in touch and he told us to come down to his office at Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach. When we showed up, there was no office, not even a building, just a motor home. I stuck my head in the window and there was Tom.
LG; The motor home was his office.
BB: Yeah, and it had all the latest conveniences, like a roll of dimes so he could make calls from the payphone next to a bar. He became our mentor. After connecting at the motor home, we walked over to a local bar. Tommy had a magic marker with him and every time he drank a beer, he made a mark on his arm. Ned and I were a tad confused and asked him what he was doing. "Well, sometimes I lose count," he said. "Now I make a mark on my arm, and when I get to the sleeve I know it’s time to head home."
LG: Did all that mentoring pay off?
BB: The training part did, but as far as learning what the race was like, not much, because it was so new that everybody’s individual experiences of it were vastly different. There were no guidelines for equipment or nutrition or race strategy, all of that stuff we have today. You had to have your own crew, too, because there was no such thing as an aid station. And I brought a sleeping bag, tent and panniers because no one bothered to tell me that you were supposed to do it all in one day. I thought you swam 2.4 and rode 56 on day one, camped out, then rode back on day two and ran the marathon. That made a lot more sense to me.
LG: But you had a world class bike, right?
BB: You bet. It was a half-burned beater I picked up at a police auction. I didn’t know how to change a tire so I used solid rubber ones.
LG: I heard you did all of your swim training in a condo pool.
BB: That’s true. The swim leg of the race was supposed to duplicate the Waikiki Rough Water Swim, but on race day the waves were so bad they were breaking against buildings on shore. Turns out ABC was covering the race and was only able to shoot on that one day, so the race director decided to move the swim to the Ala Moana channel. The "real" swimmers weren’t happy about that but I was ecstatic. Look, you’re talking about a guy who showed up for the race wearing a pair of sneakers and walking shorts complete with a belt. I had foam grips and a raccoon seat cover on the bike. If they’d have kept that swim in the ocean, no way was I coming out of there alive.
LG: Were they weighing people along the course that year?
BB: Yes, to make sure they didn’t lose too much bodyweight. Drop 5% and they pulled you out of the race.
LG: I guess you stayed above that threshold.
BB: Are you kidding? My nutrition plan was all about Big Macs, fries and snow cones, and I gained four pounds! But, all kidding aside, I was surprised at what I’d accomplished, and I was in love with the sport.
LG: How many did you do altogether?
LG: What was your best time?
BB: 11:39, but, more importantly, in 1980 I was 55th in the world.
LG: No wonder you were inducted into the Ironman Hall of Fame.
BB: Very funny. There were a hundred people in the whole race.
LG: I have to ask: Are all those stories you tell about that race true?
LG: But they get better every year.
LG: So how can they get better and still be true?
BB: I don’t see the problem.
LG: Then neither do I. How did you get involved with Competitor magazine?
BB: Mike Plant had a publication called Running News. I told him about triathlon and that he ought to be covering it, so eventually it was renamed Running and Triathlon News. I created a triathlon for the kids at my school and called it Iron Kids and asked Mike if he wanted to cover it. He asked me to do it, but I’d never written anything before. I wrote it up like it was the Olympics, with helicopters hovering overhead and stuff like that. Mike liked it and asked me to submit more ideas and articles. Then I started writing some columns, like The Running Wino and Old Fart of the Month, and created characters like Reverend Campagnolo of Triathalism. Then in 1985 I decided to leave teaching. Lois Schwartz, who taught in the same school, had the same thought. Mike hired me to be the L.A. editor and Lois became the magazine’s photographer. We drove up to L.A. nearly every weekend to cover running, cycling and triathlon. Didn’t make a dime but we loved it. Two years later the magazine closed its doors and disappeared.
LG: And you and Lois were out of jobs.
BB: I went to two cycling magazines that were also in California and proposed putting out a magazine that covered running, triathlon and cycling, but they were convinced triathlon was a fad and would be gone in five years and they were adamant that they would never put a skinny runner on their cover. They wanted nothing to do with it. Our friends Ron Mirolla and Larry White surprised with us with a check for $17,000 and told us to start a new magazine, and we brought out the first edition of Competitor in June of 1987. We worked out of a 200-square-foot office, I lived on friends’ floors and we didn’t pay ourselves for over a year. But we had a ball and managed to slowly grow the magazine.
LG: The issues were free so you depended on advertisers for revenue. How did you convince them that Competitor was a good channel?
BB: It wasn’t easy, but towards the end of the 1980s triathlon, and especially IRONMAN, began to really take off. No matter what sport you think of, what really propels it in the public imagination is personalities. Babe Ruth, Rocky Marciano, Michael Jordan…guys like that put their sports on the map. Well, in 1989 we had the legendary Iron War between Mark Allen and Dave Scott, possibly the greatest endurance race ever. Allen’s and Paula Newby Fraser’s dominance in Kona made news well outside the triathlon community, and then you had others like Greg Welch who made their mark. We were right there covering all of that.
LG: Did you see your magazine as an objective eye on triathlon or a booster?
BB: Both. We were objective in our reporting but made little secret of the fact that we saw our mission as helping to grow the sport, to bring it into the mainstream, make the elite athletes household names and draw more people into it.
LG: I can report that it worked in at least one case: My wife was first inspired to try an Ironman by an article in Competitor.
BB: I remember her telling me that a long time ago. We even lowered the prices on event advertising because to us that was practically editorial content. And where we used to distribute copies in running stores, bike shops and fitness clubs, we branched out into locations like Jamba Juice and Rubio’s where people who might be tempted to try a short event would be more likely to pick up a copy and decide to go for it.
LG: I could spend all day listening to you talk about IRONMAN but there’s something else I want to learn more about. Of all the things you’ve done, the one I admire most is founding the Challenged Athletes Foundation. How’d that get started?
BB: Really began with a guy named Jim MacLaren. Great athlete, played football for Yale and weighed 300 pounds. In 1985 he got hit by a bus in New York City, flew about ninety feet and lost a leg in the process. Athletic career over, right? Except a couple of years later he decides to do Ironman.
LG: We were there. Had the room next door at the King Kam and met him out on the balcony one evening. We didn’t know a thing about challenged athletes at the time and when he said he was doing the race I thought he was kidding. And he ended up doing it in what…?
BB: Ten hours, forty-two minutes. And bear in mind, this wasn’t on a specialized running prosthesis, just an ordinary walking leg. He’d also done a 3:15 marathon on that thing. Then in 1993 he gets hit by a van at the Orange County Performing Arts triathlon and becomes a quadriplegic.
LG: Almost impossible to believe.
BB: The worst part for him was the loss of independence. One of the things that happens to a lot of people with injuries like that is that their parents come back into their lives in jarring ways. They’re like children again, utterly dependent on others. Jim still had partial use of his arms and one of the things that three of us—Jeffrey Essakow, Rick Kozlowski and myself—wanted to do was get him a hand-controlled vehicle. With a small group of supporters, we raised $40,000 to do it, and that was our first experience trying to raise money for a challenged athlete.
LG: Where does insurance come into play for people like that?
BB: They’ll cover what they considered the necessities, like walking-around limbs, but they consider running legs and racing chairs to be luxury items. So a few of us got together to see if we could help severely injured people get back into athletics. Jeffrey became our operations guy, Rick tackled the financial piece and I did the marketing. Virginia Tinley was our first employee, and since then we’ve raised over $47 million to help 8,000 challenged athletes.
LG: Now when you say "get back into athletics," you’re not talking about just the feel-good, photo-op stuff, right?
BB: No way. The idea is for these people to become powerful, not sympathetic, not just finishing a race but competing seriously and pushing each other to excel. Listen: "One-Arm Willie" Stewart, who lost an arm in a construction accident, has done Ironman, completed the Leadville 100 and won the Catalina Marathon overall.
LG: I remember the IRONMAN rivalry between hand cyclists David Bailey and Carlos Moleda…
BB: It was every bit as intense as Scott vs. Allen. Those guys weren’t going for a Hallmark moment; they were out to win. We’ve seen double amputees, both above and below the knee, finishing Ironman and then coming back to try to better their times.
LG: Cherie takes a bunch of kids from her foundation to the CAF event in La Jolla every year. Says it’s the most inspiring thing they’ll ever see. It’s the most inspiring thing I’ll ever see.
BB: CAF is the proudest accomplishment of my life.
LG: As well it should be. Speaking of proud accomplishments, how’d you manage to land such a classy wife as Heidi?
BB: Remember that twelve-year-old who gave me a tour of the school in San Diego?
LG: You’re kidding.
BB: I even have a class photo where I’m sitting next to her. Twenty years later I put on this Fourth of July softball game and she shows up and introduces herself and tells me she was my student way back when.
LG: Great story. You probably made it up. Anyway: Competitor expanded into all kinds of things -- the Muddy Buddy series, the Endurance Sports Awards, a radio show – but you sold it five years ago. So what’s next in your life?
BB: I’m still an employee of Competitor, and I still do a lot of races even though I’m fighting some Achilles issues. I’ll always be involved in Ironman in one way or another—
LG: When did your business association with IRONMAN start?
BB: Around 1990. We took over producing the IRONMAN race program that year, and continued to do it until 2011, showcasing not only the pros but age groupers. In the mid 1990’s I worked with Ironman President David Yates to create the handcycle division in Kona and I did the commentary for a number of the ESPN Ironman shows over the years, from Canada, Germany and Lanzarote. Plus, when we started the Competitor Awards Gala in the early 1990’s, we worked with Ironman to create the Ironman Hall of Fame and Dave Scott was the very first inductee at The Competitor Awards. That was really exciting.
LG: Will you continue to officiate at the carbo and awards banquets in Kona?
BB: I hope so. I love doing it. IRONMAN has been the base of almost everything I’ve done. Even among my business competitors I always felt that we were all in it together, to grow the sport. It’s the Super Bowl of triathlon and its most important brand, and symbolizes the everyday person successfully taking on the impossible. I hope I’m part of it forever.