Recalled: The Origins of the ‘World’s Hardest’ Triathlon
A race from London to Paris? Only 45 individuals have finished the solo version.
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This weekend, some of the world’s best triathletes will square off in the London arena for the Super League Arena Games. (Watch Super League on Outside Watch.) London is a city where triathlon goes deep. In fact, endurance athletes have been swimming, biking, and running through the UK capital for the better part of four decades—including using it as the starting point for the “hardest triathlon in the world:” The Enduroman Arch 2 Arc challenge. Stretching between London and Paris, only 45 people have finished the race. Here’s more about how it all began.
The year was 1984 and, thanks to the televised broadcast of the Ironman on ABC, people around the world were waking up to the idea of swimming, biking, and running for hours on end. But for some, 140.6 miles wasn’t enough. There was the urge to go farther and to push the envelope beyond what anyone else had done before—or at least farther than anyone had documented. That was the motivation, at least, for Brit Mike Ellis, the brains behind the very first London-to-Paris Triathlon, a three-day event that included a 100-mile run from London to Dover, a swim across the English Channel, and a 182-mile bike race from Calais to Paris.
“They said it couldn’t be done, that it was impossible, and that I was mad to even think about it,” Ellis told the New York Times in 1984.
Turns out it could be done. Barely. The very first London-to-Paris Triathlon was not without its challenges—most of which had very little to do with the arduous and lengthy distance of the course. Organized as a team relay event, 16 squads from the U.S., South Africa, France, and Great Britain took off from London on an early June morning and made their way by foot to the shores of Dover (each member covering 25 miles). With scant support along the course and the competitors running in rush-hour traffic, some teams got lost; the British Royal Air Force team accidentally crossed the River Thames before being turned around and getting back on course.
The swim on the following day was even hairier. The choppy English channel was a frigid 51 degrees F (no one wore wetsuits), eventually ruling out the U.S. team—comprised of Navy Seals—whose medic became too seasick on their small support boat to attend to the weary athletes. The remaining swimmers hit a roadblock when French workmen, who were laying a cable in the channel, refused to let them swim through the area. The race paused as competitors were plucked out of the water and put back onto the boats to be taken beyond the French work zone, some 5 miles away. (All told, they covered just 15 of the 20 miles across the Channel.) In the end, only one-quarter of the teams finished the swim before nightfall; the rest were hit with six-hour penalties for missing the cut-off. The South African squad reached the French shoreline well ahead of everyone else in 5 hours and 40 minutes.
On the third day, the cyclists took off from the coast, sans helmets–racers didn’t often wear them back then–for a race through the streets of Paris. The bike leg was staged as an individual 30-mile cycling time trial and a 50-mile team time trial to Paris, ending on the Champs-Élysées. In the end, it was the South African squad of Norrie Williamson, Mike Hogg, Dave McCarney, and Philip Kuhn who came out on top in a total time of 25 hours, 23 minutes, and 14 seconds. The British Army Physical Training Corps and French Nice teams rounded out the podium. The race was so pivotal for the South Africans that it prompted the team to form the South African Triathlon Federation soon after.
Another remarkable finish of the day? The all-women British team, led by Sarah Springman, an early Ironman pioneer and champion triathlete. They finished tenth; an outcome that “rearranged some male egos and impressions of triathlon women,” Springman recalled.
Despite the hiccups and logistical issues, the event clearly had legs. It garnered worldwide media attention and persisted for decades; ultimately the stakes were raised as competitors began going after the distance as a solo endeavor. Now called the Enduroman Arch to Arc, only 45 individuals have finished it to date, five without a wetsuit. The fastest finishers so far? Lionel Jourdan of France, who set the course record of 49 hours, 24 seconds in 2021, while Dutchwoman Jacomina Eijkelboom set the women’s record of 66 hours, 56 minutes in 2019.