Triathlon's First Butterfield

In 2015 Tyler Butterfield placed 5th in the Hawaiian Ironman and distinguished himself as the highest placing citizen from Bermuda in that race. Prior to that Tyler’s highest place 7th, in 2013, and that only earned him a tie.

The other 7th place Bermudian was his dad, Jim Butterfield, Olympic rower, who raced the Ironman in 1981. I’m still not 100 percent certain Tyler’s 2:56 marathon during his 5th place Kona finish was faster, net-net, than the marathon run in Kona by the elder Butterfield (see below).

My wife and I traveled to Bermuda for a “swimcation”. Bermuda is among the premier sites for open water swimming in the world (if you include variety, proximity, water quality, beauty). I took the opportunity to look over the upcoming course for the kickoff of the ITU World Triathlon Bermuda, the first stop in the WTS series, the first Olympic qualifier, and of course Flora Duffy’s home course. I’m considering coming back to race that race (in the 60-plus category: Brownlees, you need not be concerned).

As a fellow contestant in that 1981 Ironman race, the first held in Kona (the race was held on Oahu between 1978 and 1980), I was eager to talk to Jim Butterfield because there aren’t many who did that race (300-something) and it’s fun to talk war stories.

At the end we strayed into Bermudian society a little. The country is a diverse racial mix of black, white and Portuguese. Everyone gets along; Bermuda is a genuinely friendly place, not just with visitors but among Bermudians, one with another. But like my country (USA) Bermuda has slavery and segregation in its history, and its population is mindful of its history. Sport acts as a bridge among Bermudians, as sport tends to do, and endurance sport for Jim in that era was a case in point.

Dan Empfield: How did you find out about the [Hawaiian Ironman]?

Jim Butterfield: Sports illustrated. [The famous Barry McDermott article in 1979 that put the Ironman on the map] “That’ll work. That’s a challenge.” [Jim thought at the time] An English policeman [in Bermuda, at the time] said, “I’m going to do that!” But I said, “You can’t swim!” “I know, but I’m going to learn how to swim.” So we trained together.

DE But you started organizing events here before you even went to Hawaii? Are you the one who organized the races going all the way back to 1979?

JB Yeah, that was me. We organized our first three triathlons [in Bermuda proper] and then the police said, “That’s it, no more.” But then the commander of the [American Navy base sited in Bermuda at the time] said, “Bring it to the base, you can have it here.” We’d get 120 teams, that’s 360 people. The following week we did the individual. A lot of the people who did the relay said, “That was fun! Next week I’m going to do the individual thing.” For the first 8 or 12 years it was on the Navy base.

DE Did you call it a triathlon in 1979?

JB I called it a triathlon; I spelled it wrong. Triath-a-lon. But it was a swim, then a run, then a bike. It was after that I got that article and read it.

DE Wait a minute! You were putting on triathlons before you knew about the Hawaiian Ironman. How did you get the idea to put on a triathlon?

JB I don’t know. I don’t know how I got the idea. That’s why I say, we dreamt it up. But we got the order wrong. It wasn’t like we got the idea from someone else: That’s the way they do it; we’re going to do it differently. That’s a good question.

DE My first triathlon was in 1980. It was bike, run, swim. It was cramp city. We jumped in the water, immediate cramp.

JB We organized a race in St. Georges, a run followed by a swim, several people said, “That’s a dumb idea. Jim, don’t do that again.” That was the last time we did it.

DE Yours had to have been among the earliest triathlons.

JB Yeah. And Patty and Steven [Petty, the energizing force in triathlon in Bermuda for the last couple of decades] are into it now, they’re international, but even Patty, I don’t know if she was in on that first one, and I’ve got to be careful, because I don’t remember, but it was really mostly the running crowd and the swimming crowd, we even got the swimmers to do the timing. But yeah, we got the thing going here pretty early.

DE I always felt like the guy who nailed the run in that 1981 Kona race was Gary Hooker. But it was really you.

JB I was under 3 hours, yeah.

[This is where I question how fast the contestants in 1981 really did run, because of the actual length of that particular run leg; because of stops at weigh stations; and other factors. Slowtwitch analyzed the report of the first sub-3 marathon.

An explanation is in order. In 1981 the organizers weighed contestants 5 times during the race, to my recollection, with the Sword of Damocles over us that they’d pull us from the course if we lost more than 10 percent of our body weight (they weighed us prior to the race for a baseline). They stopped us, during the bike and run, had us get on scales, at the bike turnaround at Hawi, at Waikoloa on the bike return; at T2; and at 18 miles into the run. I don’t remember the 5th weigh station. Bike and run splits included these stops for our weights to be recorded on those doctors office type scales, with weights pushed across balance bars.]

JB I just remember on the bike, I was so heavy, because I had food, and tools, and spokes and stuff.

DE No follow van, no outside assistance. I had spokes taped to my seat stay. We all had tools with us. This was the first year for all of us, Molina, Tinley, Mark Montgomery who is my next door neighbor, we all have stories about the stuff we took. Molina had a water bottle cage on his handlebars with a jar of honey, and he drank the honey for fuel. I don’t know if you remember, he got off the bike 2nd or 3rd, and was chasing John Howard, running 6 minute miles for the first 6 miles, and then fainted dead out and collapsed. I don’t know if it was the honey.

JB I remember one guy, he had a transistor radio taped to his handlebars. I had spokes with me. A wrench. Tools.

DE I had never met another person who did a triathlon prior to Kona. You, obviously that was not the case. You were putting on triathlons. When you went to Kona, did you have any sense of…

JB Intimidation. I was a bit afraid. We were interviewed by ABC, 10 of us. And the guy in front of me said, “This is just a bike race. I’m from Colorado. This is not a big deal. And I kept listening to him and thought, “Well, I don’t know if I agree with that. It was Diana Nyad who interviewed us. And I was pretty intimidated. Yeah.

DE I don’t know if you remember this, Jim Lampley was the Wide World of Sports segment host, the expert commentators were Diana Nyad for the swim, Marty Liquori for the run, and Arthur Ashe for the bike, because he’d had a heart attack and used stationary cycling to rehabilitate himself. But he did an okay job. What else do you remember?

JB One guy said to me, “Jim, if you get anaerobic, huffing and puffing, you’re finished.” So I took it easy on the swim, same on the bike, didn’t compete, and then when I got to the run I said, “Now I can go to work.”

DE I actually started laughing after the bike, because I was so trashed. I didn’t pace myself well enough. I was trashed after about 80 miles of the bike. You obviously used a lot more forethought. Your son races that way.

JB Well, he used to race that way. Now, in Hawaii, he says, “Dad, if I’m back 3 minutes in the swim I’m toast.” So he’s got to stay at the pointed end. It forces him to swim harder. In that league it’s all different.

DE Your son must have taken his father’s path athletically. It’s almost certain he would have taken some other path were it not for you.

JB Yes. Spencer [Tyler’s brother] is the most talented athlete. Tyler has the drive. Tyler says, “If I’m hurting, you just be hurting more than me.” Tyler as a youngster had the drive.

DE You have 22 miles of island here, tip to tip.

JB Um hmm. If you ride around it’s about 63.

DE There aren’t a lot of roads. How did you find the island as a place to train as a cyclist?

JB The good news is, here, you can ride all the time.

DE Off the subject, but I’d like someone to explain this to me. How come Bermuda’s high season is in the summer? It’s December, it’s lovely now. It was gorgeous yesterday; we went open water swimming at Warwick Long Bay, we swam at Shelly bay, couldn’t ask for better days.

JB The locals won’t go swimming in January and February. It’s just too cold.

DE I’m sure it was at least 70 in the water yesterday.

JB When it gets below 70 Bermudians say, “Man, that water’s cold!” Cold? [Incredulously] We have a group open water swim from our house twice a week, right about now they’re probably getting into their wetsuits.

DE How long did you keep doing swim, bike, run stuff after Kona in 1981.

JB We got into the Bud Lite Series, we were traveling around. We kept going for a few years; kept organizing here. We used to get everyone together at the Old Colony Club, and old gray-haired men’s drinking club, I’d get 300 people up there saying, “Hang on, wait a second, you start with the swim, and then what?” We had changing rooms; all the girls would run into the changing rooms, change out of their bathing suits, put on their bike shorts. The whole changing room [for a sprint]. Makes me laugh now.

DE Let me ask you about that. I’ve been here all of 3 days, but my sense is that Bermuda is a culturally conservative place. Did triathlon disrupt some norms?

JB It was in line with what a Bermudian would do. But if I saw a visitor in the summer running without a shirt on, I don’t know if the police would stop him today but he certainly would’ve years ago. “Excuse me, sir. You can’t run down Front Street without a T shirt on.” So it didn’t break anything, but, for example, When Debbie and I first ran the 24th of May [Bermua’s old and iconic half-marathon] they gave us 3 numbers: one for your front, one for your back, and one for your coach, because your coach was allowed to ride along on the bike. And the race organizer said, “Remember, white shorts! White shirt! And your running shoes.”

DE Seriously!

JB Seriously. But, he was an elderly Bermudian, Sir Stanley Burgess. He was never actually knighted but that’s Bermuda. It started as a clash between the British and the Bermudians, the local blacks. Debbie and I loved it. We were among the first white people to run it.

DE You were one of the first white Bermudians to run it?

JB One of the guys I know, he said, “We used to run the same course the day before, look in the newspaper and say, ‘Well, we would have been 3rd.’”

DE Ha! Why didn’t white Bermudians run it?

JB It wasn’t done. When Debbie ran, Debbie finished 4th in Boston, the organizer [of the 24th of May race] said, Now Debbie, there’s no pride in finishing. If you can’t finish…” and Debbie’s nodding her head. It was a cultural thing, a very definite cultural thing. Average guy now, “Jim and Debbie Butterfield? Oh, you mean the runners!” I used to get it all the time. We definitely broke the mold. The track athletes were black Bermudians. The BTFA, Bermuda Track & Field Association. But eventually we joined them, we got on the board, and it [the tradition of track, versus road running, divided along racial lines] broke down.

DE When would this have been?

JB Debbie and I got married, and came back, maybe around 1976, between then and the early 80s.

DE I get the sense that sport here, it’s like New Zealand, the ratio of good athletes to the population is quite high, it’s a small place, everyone has to get along.

JB Sport generally brings people together. Like the yacht club now. I delight when I go to the yacht club and it’s blacks and white. When I was a boy, sailing was white, because it was expensive, equestrian still is a white sport. Running, track, it’s very mixed. The whole Americas Cup thing was so great, to see 300 kids undivided by race. That’s where more of us want to go. Sport does bring Bermudians together.