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Who needs a gym when you've got the Belleair Causeway Bridge?

New mom Renee Franklin of Indian Rocks Beach runs the Belleair Causeway Bridge at least twice a week while pushing her 6-month-old, Joseph, in his stroller.

"I'm from Philly, and just like Rocky did when he reached the top of those stairs in downtown Philly, sometimes when I get to the top, I do a dance for Joseph,'' she said.

Kurt Thomas of Clearwater sprints the bridge, which spans the Intracoastal Waterway and links Belleair Beach to Belleair Bluffs, about five times each week. He holds a lime green stopwatch and clicks it on near the Belleair Bluffs entrance sign. After he dashes over the bridge, he clicks it off at Gulf Boulevard.

"It's a little over a mile one way, and my best time is a little under 10 minutes,'' said Thomas, 59. "I do it because it's a good challenge for an old guy.''

And on a recent Tuesday, Pam Broucinek of Largo walked the bridge with her three friends, Jacie Bell, Lisa Woods and Dawn Wysocki. The women are preparing for their summer vacation hiking in Cumberland Gap National Historical Park where the borders of Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia meet.

Walking the bridge is "great exercise because it gives us an incline,'' said Broucinek, 57. "And we use the bridge to catch up on each other's lives.''

Whether it's morning, lunchtime or sunset, drive across the Belleair Causeway Bridge, which opened in 2009, and chances are you'll see serious hoofing going on.

Although Pinellas County officials anticipated the community would take advantage of the public park below the bridge — it's equipped with 10 boat ramps, a dog park and a fishing pier — the new bridge's popularity as a fitness destination is a pleasant surprise, said Paul Cozzie, bureau director of the parks and conservation resources department.

"I guess I didn't expect it so much,'' he said. "And I think I didn't expect it because of what was there before. We just didn't see people using the old bridge the same way, but now I myself have walked it, and I've heard that someone is even running a fitness boot camp there.''

That would be Julia Zammito, a certified personal trainer who lives in Indian Rocks Beach.

"I love the bridge,'' said Zammito, 28. "The bridge was my back yard while I was growing up in Harbor Hills, and even when I'm not working, I still love to walk it when there's not a monsoon happening.''

About once a month, Zammito holds what she calls a bridge boot camp. (The next one will be June 30 at 8 a.m.) First, she leads participants in a 20-minute workout on the sand below the bridge before taking them up the 74-foot-tall bridge.

"We do walking lunges, side-shuffles and backpedals up the bridge. After that we work on push-ups by using the bridge's railing,'' she said.

Woody Brown, a Largo city commissioner who owns a downtown Largo chiropractic office about 2 miles from the bridge, believes the bridge offers something for all fitness levels.

"The view is beautiful, and it's not a real steep grade. The Sand Key Bridge is steeper,'' he said.

"I like to encourage all my patients to walk, and along with that, the best prevention of diseases like osteoporosis is weight-bearing exercises, along with proper nutrition. Walking a bridge is certainly a weight-bearing exercise,'' he said.

However, Brown stresses that people always should use caution.

"If you're going to run it, even if you're an experienced runner, it's best to first walk it one or two times to get to know it, and when you do run it, keep in mind that most injuries occur not on the incline but when you are going downhill,'' he said.

"When you're going downhill, it's a different workout. You're using different muscles to slow down. So more people hurt themselves going down than going up the bridge,'' he said.

Brown has become familiar with the concept of having a bridge as an exercise tool through his wife, Jenny, who frequently participates in marathons.

"My wife likes to use the three bridges near our home — the Belleair, the Sand Key and the Memorial Causeway — for training. Otherwise, Florida is so flat,'' he said. "She considers the bridges her mountains.''

Piper Castillo is reachable at pcastillo@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4163. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

. Fast facts

Know what you're doing out there

Take precautions if you are going to exercise on the Belleair Causeway Bridge, advises Dr. Woody Brown, owner of Main Street Chiropractic of Largo.

• "It's hot outside, and you don't want to dehydrate, so take a bottle of water,'' he said. "And if you're running and feel winded, stop running and walk.''

• Include a warm-up in your routine. "A walking warm-up is all you need, and a walking cool-down is good too," Brown said. "Most of the people that I see going over the bridge start by either walking from a nearby restaurant parking lot or from down at the boat ramp's lot.''

Pinellas County operates a 5-acre park under the Belleair Causeway Bridge. Parking is available there for $2 per day for passenger vehicles and $6 for vehicles with trailers.

Who needs a gym when you've got the Belleair Causeway Bridge? 06/16/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 16, 2012 4:31am]
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