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The YMCA Wrightsville Beach triathlon first held in 1979 was the brainchild of Karl Sutter, then a resident of the beach. Karl was competitive by nature and had been college swimmer , then a few years after college had taken up running to get back in shape. While running one day he sprained his ankle and turned to cycling as an outlet for fitness while his injury healed. When reading Sports Illustrated in the spring of ‘79 he noticed a small article about the first Ironman triathlon with it’s 12 participants that was held in Hawaii the prior fall. Karl approached the Wilmington YMCA which was under the direction of Jack Morris at the time and a new event for the area was born. This triathlon named the Pepsi/Ymca Triathlon would become the first and longest running triathlon on the east coast of the US with its start of 99 participants that September, 1979.
The course was laid out and the swim would be across Banks channel from the Blockade Runner sound side beach to The South Channel dr. mini park on Harbor Island where there were stairs to exit the water. The cycling took the then favored training route of the time off the beach following Greenville, Masonboro, and Myrtle Grove Loop roads, south on Carolina bch rd , over Snows Cut bridge to follow Dow rd to Kure Bch where the first water stop would be. From there back through Carolina Bch , back over the big bridge and up River rd to downtown Wilmington. Once in downtown the run took the course established by the Wilmington Jaycees and their River to the Sea run route of Market st, through Forrest hills to Park ave switching to Wrightsville ave to continue to the finish at Wrightsville Beach Park. The distances were 1/2 mile swim, 42 miles on the bike, followed by the 10 mile run. All 99 triathlets finished that first year.
During these first years and being an infant sport about the only rule was each athlete had to wear a helmet. The transition area was a grassy park and one could choose a spot to park your bike, there were no bike racks. Most current day rules did not exist. Drafting and personal support cars with spare bikes/parts was just fair game. We had very little traffic control and for the most part we fended for ourselves while on the road. Nutrition during the event was granola, fruit, soft drinks, and candy bars. Gels and energy bars were not yet invented. The common practice of the day was to change clothes for each leg of the race too. Tri shorts came in the mid 80’s.
Over the years the distances and routes changed to meet the different time periods. Those first years the distances almost matched the current 1/2 Ironman distance which is 1.1 mile swim followed with a 56 mile bike ride and then a 13.1 mile run. A full Ironman is 2.2 swim, 112 mile bike and a 26.2 mile run. In some of the following years the then popular “olympic” distance of 1/2 mile swim, 26 mile bike, and a 10 k run was the distance to be counted on to draw the necessary number of participants to make the event successful.. Currently and for the last number of years the event went to the popular Sprint distance of 1/4 mile swim, 12 mile bike and a 3.1 mile run. This distance helped grow the number of athletes and as of 2010 stands at more than 1400 paid entries.
Karl Sutter was the race director the first year and handed over the job to Jim Mincher who took over responsibilities for the 1980 and 1981 events. The following year Jim Ritch had fun being race director but after a 2 year stint relinquished the reins to yet another Jim who was Jim Honneycutt. All four of these directors were members of the YMCA , the Wilmington Road Runners and The Cape Fear Cyclists clubs here in Wilmington. Without the help from the club members organizing the triathlon would have been difficult. To keep from burning out the volunteer race directors the YMCA took over the organizing responsibilities with Y staff. This led to Nancy Rife, Perry Maxwell, and Gray Lambeth taking the duties for the next 20 years. Setup Events (an event coordination business from Kure Bch) with founder Bill Scott partnered with the Y in year 2000 and the event has flourished with 1200-1400 entries selling out months in advance. This jump in attendance was due to triathlons gaining in popularity as a “new” sport, changing to the short “sprint” distance which was more achievable for most people, and Bill Scott’s newer established race production company.
Each summer as the mid September event draws near the triathletes come in droves to Wrightsville Beach each morning. On just about any morning as the sun begins to shine at the beach all sorts of friend/family groups hit the waters and pavement in and around W Bch to ready themselves for the fun of doing the race. For some this race has become an annual family tradition while others dabble in the swim, bike, and running event to see just what it is all about. All triathlons draw the serious athletes who are very fast and take the sport seriously. This race is an event for all types of people and the reasons for participation vary so wide one could write a book.
One local resident Frazier Perry age 81 has participated nearly every year and continues to do so. The late Henry forrest was one of the original 12 triathletes in the first Hawaiian Ironman event back in 1978. Henry had the luck to be stationed at Camp Lejune for much of his career in the marines and also participated in the YMCA race for many years. He even went back to Hawaii to participate in the 25th anniversary full Ironman event and did a respectable time of at the age of 50 something. Sadly Henry was taken by Pancreatic cancer or he would still be on the starting line as excited as ever and ready to hear the start gun.
This event has become a major fund raiser for the YMCA over the years. According to Dick Jones the current Y director this event raises money for community outreach in our county. Dick has also turned into a triathlete much because of the good energy being radiated from all involved in such a great event. While interviewing Dick for this article he just wanted to thank the Town of Wrightsville Beach, New Hanover county, and The city of Wilmington for allowing such a major event to take place, because without their cooperation it would not be possible.
Race Director - Karl Sutter
Swim - 1/4 mile - across Banks Channel
Bike - 42 miles - to Kure Beach via Greenfield Loop, Masonboro Loop rd, River rd to Downtown Wilmington
Run - 10 miles - Downtown Wilmington to the Wrightsville Beach park (the established River to the Sea run course)
Race Director - Jim Mincher
Course - same course as above for two years
Race Director - Jim Ritch
Swim 1.1 miles - Blockade Runner to to Atlantic Marine
Bike - 35 miles - Kure Bch via Masonboro Loop rd to River road miles with transition on River road
Run 10K - to and around Greenfield Lake to Finish at the Amphitheater
Misc - There was a hurricane the few days before one of the events
Race Director - Jim Honeycutt
Course : International distance
Swim - 1.2 miles ( Blockade Runner to Atlantic Marine)
Bike - 27 miles (down Greenville Loop rd, Masonboro Loop rd, Golden rd, Carolina Beach rd, Oleander dr back to the Beach
Run - 10K - Wbch Park to Shell Island and back to the park
Race Director - Nancy Rife (YMCA employee)
Course : International distance
Same as before
Race Director - Perry Maxwell (YMCA employee)
Course - International Dist
Misc - Hurricane Fran cancelled the event in 1996
Hurricane Floyd cancelled the event in 1999
Race Director - Gray Lambeth (YMCA employee)
Course - international
Misc - Participation dropped to approx 250 people over a 4-5 year period
Race Director - Gray Lambeth
Set Up Events took over race production
Course- changed to sprint distance in 2001 to up participation
Participation rose steadily to over 1400 by 2010
Director- YMCA Staff
Course - sprint - basically the current course as of 2016
A few years the bike was out and back on Eastwood road - two loops
Director – Tom Clifford
Course – Sprint + Youth Triathlon