FORT DE SOTO
The triathlon season doesn't officially start until April, but many of the state's top endurance athletes will get a jump start on the competition Feb. 3 at the annual Chilly Willy Duathlon at Pinellas County's Fort De Soto Park.
As the name implies, "the Willy" features two disciplines — running and biking. But some top multi-sport competitors think the race is actually harder than the traditional triathlon, which also features swimming.
"People tend to put everything they have into each leg … the swim, bike and run," said Eric Hall, 34, a professional-caliber triathlete who has won the Willy four out of the past seven years. "But in a duathlon, you start off with a run, then a ride, but you have to finish with another hard run. A lot of people just don't have that kind of endurance."
Like most elite duathletes, the former U.S. Army paratrooper comes from a running background. After the military, he competed with the University of Tampa cross country team and now works at the school as a strength coach.
"I was never the best swimmer in the world," Hall said. "I had to learn it for the triathlon, but the duathlon acted as a springboard to help me take it to the next level in triathlon."
But that isn't why most people find duathlons appealing.
The two-sport events are increasing in popularity as more recreational athletes look for alternatives to the nation's most popular fitness event, the 5K run. The duathlon has also been called the "Dry Tri," because there is no swimming.
"Athletes that are coming from a running background tend to do better in duathlons initially," said Tim Yount, USA Triathlon's chief operating officer. "Quick success in duathlons can encourage athletes to add the swim and make that next step to triathlon racing."
But Yount added that many top triathletes also enter duathlons for training purposes.
"An early season duathlon can give an athlete the opportunity to see where their baseline is on the bike and run as they prepare for the rest of the season," he explained.
"Duathlons can also be a great speed workout because we don't have a lot of long duathlons. They are fast and high tempo races."
The Willy is considered a "sprint" duathlon. Entrants start with a 5K run, followed by a 10-mile bike ride and then a second 5K run.
"What makes this race so challenging is that most recreational athletes tend to go out and push in on the first run," said Fred Rzymek, the 59-year-old race promoter who founded the Chilly Willy Duathlon eight years ago. "It is that last run that gives people trouble. You have to be in top condition to win this race."
One of the most difficult aspects of a triathlon is the transition from one leg to another. "When you come off that bike and have to start running … that's what hurts a lot of people," he said.
The duathlon gives wannabe triathletes a taste of what lies in store if they choose to make the jump to swim, bike and run.
"The duathlon is a great first step," said Celia Dubey, an elite triathlete and duathlete who owns Total Fitness Health Club & Spa in Tarpon Springs. "For a lot of people, going from one thing to the next takes some getting used to. This is an easy way to get used to transitions."
Dubey, a 40-year-old triathlon coach who has been to the national and world championships in duathlon, said many of her clients just don't feel comfortable in open water.
"The swim can be intimidating," she said. "If you want to be competitive in triathlons and at an elite level, you have to pretty much have been a collegiate swimmer."
The 2011 Chilly Willy's first-place female finisher, Dubey said she puts most of her energy into triathlons. But she still does three duathlons a year — the National Championships in Tucson, the World Championships in Ottawa and the Chilly Willy. "It's a great race," she said. "It's always a lot of fun."
Most duathlons draw 50 to 200 competitors, according to U.S. Triathlon. The Chilly Willy attracts nearly four times that number, which is why some competitors have called it the "Super Bowl of Duathlons."
"We have 650 signed up already," Rzymek said last week. "We expect to have about 800 this year."
Terry Tomalin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8808.