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Museum Musings: Whistler’s first triathlon

Tri, tri again
A competitor nears the finish line in Whistler Village during the 1984 triathlon.

If you’re a regular reader of Museum Musings, you’ll remember last week we looked at the first Fun Fitness Swim in Whistler, which was sponsored by Molson in 1979. For decades, many competitions and events in Whistler were sponsored by beer companies like Molson and Labatt, from fun swimming events to World Cup Downhill races. In 1983, Molson also sponsored the first triathlon held in Whistler, the Molson Light Whistler Triathlon.

Triathlons, a race consisting of swimming, cycling and running, became increasingly popular in North America and Europe from the mid-1970s into the 1980s. One of the first triathlons held in Canada took place in Vancouver in 1981, and a couple of years later, the British Columbia Triathlon Federation was founded in 1983, followed by Triathlon Canada in 1984. Involved in all three of these events was Les McDonald, one of the founding members of the Alta Lake Sports Club (ALSC) in 1975.

An electrician by trade, McDonald was an early investor in Garibaldi Lifts Ltd., as well as an active mountaineer and climber. As a founding member of the ALSC, he was also involved in cross-country skiing in the Whistler area, and helped with the building of the trail network at Lost Lake (Les’ Leap is named for him). He began participating in triathlons in the 1980s while cross-training for marathons, and quickly became heavily involved in the sport. After helping found provincial and national organizations in Canada, McDonald got involved on an international level, and travelled to help set up national triathlon governing bodies in other countries. Then, in 1989, McDonald became the founding president of the International Triathlon Union, serving until 2008. When triathlon was included in the Olympic Games for the first time in Sydney in 2000, a large portion of the credit went to McDonald. During his involvement with the sport, he worked towards equal prize money, equal representation, and concurrent medal ceremonies for female and male athletes.

Not surprisingly, other members of the ALSC also took up triathlon, and members of the club participated in a triathlon in Vancouver just one month before hosting Whistler’s first triathlon on Aug. 14, 1983. The race consisted of a two-kilometre swim in Alta Lake, a 40-km cycle along “valley highways,” and a 15-km run around Lost Lake, finishing in Whistler Village. Entry to the race cost $10, and those who registered early got a free T-shirt. According to McDonald, who served as race director, the triathlon was not meant to be “an iron man endurance test,” but an opportunity to introduce all-round athletes and specialists to the “exciting and growing sport.”  To this end, the ALSC also organized an event for those under 19 the day before.

The inaugural Molson Light Whistler Triathlon was won by Glen Carsen of Vancouver with a time of 2:45:51 (Carsen also won the second annual Molson Light Whistler Triathlon in 1984) and the fastest woman was Loreen Barrett with a time of 3:11:56. McDonald finished 10th overall with a time of 2:59:00.

Though the ALSC is now defunct, the club continued to host triathlons through the 1980s. Whistler even hosted Ironman races from 2010 to 2019. Today, the Whistler Triathlon Club trains for races near and far, and XTERRA Whistler, an off-road triathlon, takes place in the resort in September.