CLEARWATER BEACH —The trucks rolled in from Panama City this weekend, loaded with the stuff endurance races are made of: parking for 1,600 bicycles, hundreds of tents, tables and sponsor displays and a towering finish-line arch.
Like a roadshow of triathlon paraphernalia, the Foster Grant Ironman 70.3 race has come to town for its premier stop. Saturday, the starting pistol is set to fire for the event's world championship.
Long before the nationally televised triathlon goes live, the event's crew is in for an adrenaline-soaked week of building the setting for a fast race on a tight deadline. But that's nothing new for the women in charge of making the race-day spectacle seem flawless.
"The race is a huge part of it, but people come for the whole experience," said Ashley Nalls, 26, a former Ironman competitor who is in charge of managing the event's expo area.
She said she is so nerdy about portable event construction that she takes pictures of bleachers and sign placement at sporting events.
For Joanna Jordan, the director for the triathlon, event logistics are something of a fixation. The petite, blond 27-year-old is certified on the forklift, and was once caught red-handed by race organizers behind the scenes at the Tour de France trying to glean clever setup ideas.
"I wish it was up for more than a day. Building out, that's what I live for," Jordan said.
So with a city of tents still waiting to be erected, inflatable buildings still tucked away in bags, parking a nightmare and a tropical storm in the Gulf raising tensions, no problem.
The crew has been through the motions almost weekly since March, bringing the same action-sport atmosphere to cities across the country, including Kona, Hawaii, Louisville, Ky., and last week, Panama City, Fla.
And in a field dominated by burly construction-worker types, Jordan and Nalls are willing to get their hands dirty, setting up bike racks or filling sandbags as needed.
"Being hands-on, that helps. It gives us credibility," Jordan said, leaning next to a bin filled with race clocks in the back of a tractor trailer parked along Clearwater Beach. "Plus it's fun to run a crew of guys."
And, she said, it's nice to see the chaos of a construction site turn into a tangible layout. Nearly finished, the 20,000-pound air-conditioned VIP boxes were being lifted onto risers by a crane along the shore.
Other tasks still to be completed by Saturday: Put together a bank of outdoor showers, build a giant sand castle and make sure a mall's worth of sportswear vendors are in place and ready to go.
"In the heat of the moment, it's often, 'Oh my, what are we going to do?' " Jordan said. "But we always find a way."
Dominick Tao can be reached at (727) 850-2951 or [email protected]