When St. Petersburg's Brian Harrington, a board member of USA Triathlon, heard that an Ironman World Championship 70.3 would be held in Clearwater, he knew it would not take long for the half Ironman to become one of the most competitive triathlons in the world.
"As far as triathlons go, this is the hot new thing," said Harrington, who has been part of the local swim, bike and run scene for 30 years. "A half Ironman is a challenge, yet unlike a full Ironman … you don't have to put your life on hold to train for it."
The half Ironman — 70.3 refers to the combined distances of the 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike and 13.1-mile run legs — has been around since the early 1980s. But three years ago, Tarpon Spring-based World Triathlon Corp. decided to market a series of 70.3 events under its trademark Ironman name and hold a world championship at Clearwater.
"When we first came out with it three years ago, we had our skeptics," said Steve Meckfessel, Ironman 70.3 events director. "It was our first race, and we were calling it the world championship."
But Meckfessel, who ran St. Petersburg's St. Anthony's Triathlon for seven years, knew the format would appeal to triathletes who had mastered the Olympic distances but did not want to pursue a full Ironman, such as the one held each October in Kona, Hawaii.
"In 2006, we held 16 70.3 events around the world, all in destination locations," he said. "By 2007 that number had grown to 22. This year we had 30."
Bev Bussye, 51, from St. Petersburg who has participated in more than 200 triathlons since 1983, said the half Ironman appeals to working triathletes.
"It is still very competitive. … The swim and bike are a little longer than the Olympic distance, so you end up pushing yourself," she said. "But the race is still not so long that you have to quit your job to train for it."
Triathlon distances usually are broken down into four categories. The most common is the sprint (0.25-mile swim, 12-mile bike, 3.1-mile run), favored by most weekend warriors. The Olympic distance (0.93-mile swim, 24.7-mile bike, 13.1-mile run) is the choice of many professionals. The Ironman (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run), is considered the ultimate in endurance athletics. The 70.3 is gaining in popularity because it takes less of a toll on the body.
"Training for a full Ironman, it is real easy to run yourself into the ground," said Lewis Bennett, a local triathletes coach. "The half is still a tough race, because people tend to push themselves a little harder in the swim and bike and then have to run during the hottest part of the day, but the challenges are not insurmountable."
Rue Morgan, a founder of St. Petersburg's Mad Dogs triathlon club, said at least 30 members of his organization will be among the 1,800 competing Saturday.
"This is a big-money race with some very fast people," said Morgan, who has completed the Ironman World Championship in Kona. "There are other 70.3s, but that Ironman name means that everything is done first class."
Meckfessel said some triathlons pay out more cash (the 70.3 world championship has a $100,000 purse, with $18,000 each going to the first man and first woman), but the world's best don't come to Clearwater for the money.
"It is a prestige thing," he said. "If this is your career, you want to be able to say that you have won the world championship."
He expects next year's event to be more competitive.
"As we add more qualifiers to the schedule, this race is going to be harder and harder to get into," he said. "This is going to become the race."