Ask any veteran triathlete and they will tell you that the hardest part of this multi-sport endurance event is not the swim, bike or run, but simply making it to the starting line.
"It can wear on you," confessed Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Jack Helinger, who on Sunday hopes to complete his 30th consecutive St. Anthony's Triathlon. "Some years have been better than others."
According to race officials, Helinger is the only person to have a perfect record when it comes to triathlon participation.
Helinger, a 62-year-old father of two, was a multi-sport athlete in high school and played softball and flag football after graduating from Georgia Tech. Then, in 1984, he heard about this event called a "triathlon."
"I was running a lot at the time," he said. "But something about three different activities really appealed to me."
The inaugural race, held at Fort DeSoto Park, was called the Tampa Bay Triathlon. The first stop of a 12-city U.S. Triathlon Series tour, the race had the distinction of being the first to use the format of 1.5K swim, 40K bike and 10K run, which would become known as the "Olympic" distance.
The Tampa Bay Triathlon also was the first to use the wave start for the swim and electronic timing. In the early 1980s, triathlons were hardly big business. Entrants didn't ride expensive road bikes and when it came to safety, cycling helmets were a rarity. Most people thought the triple-sport endurance event was a passing fad.
That first year, it drew about 600 competitors. The following year, when St. Anthony's Hospital took over the event, the competition moved to downtown St. Petersburg and more than 1,000 people swam, biked and ran along the city's emerging waterfront.
"I can remember being just happy to finish," said Helinger, whose wife Chris is also a judge. "It wasn't nearly as competitive back then as it is today."
Each year, when April rolled around, Helinger would ask himself the same question: "Am I going to do this again or not?"
Over the years, Helinger had his share of minor injuries, but nothing major.
"I think the reason why I was able to come back year after year is because I never took it to the level that some of the people I know did," he said. "I always kept it in perspective."
Helinger, still trim and fit, declined to discuss his personal records, other than to describe himself as a "solid, middle of the packer."
Helinger has fought the urge to try longer distances.
"I think that is one of the secrets of longevity as a triathlete," he said. "If you stick to the Sprints and Olympic Distances you can do this forever."
"I don't think I deserve any special credit or recognition," he said. "The real heroes are the hundreds of volunteers who show up year after year to make sure that everybody has a safe race."