CLEARWATER — Triathlon fans hoping to see a course record set in Saturday's Ironman World Championship 70.3 might just get their wish.
Germany's Michael Raelert, who shattered the course record by more than six minutes last year in Clearwater, is in the lineup again, and conditions appear favorable for a particularly fast swim, bike and run.
"There is a lot of talk that he is the future of triathlon," said Philip LaHaye, race director of the St. Anthony's Triathlon in St. Petersburg. "He is a guy that can do it all — swim, bike and run — he has no weaknesses."
Raelert, 30, who completed the 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike and 13.1-mile run last year in 3 hours, 34 minutes, 4 seconds, is an all-around athlete.
"In the past, you had people who were swim or bike specialists, or maybe great runners," said LaHaye who has worked in and around triathlons for nearly 25 years. "But Michael is a guy who can crush it from start to finish. If he has a good day he will be hard to beat."
Raelert will face a strong challenge from U.S. Olympic team member Matt Reed. Known in triathlon circles by his nickname "Boom Boom," Reed, 35, is a strong competitor who has made his mark locally by winning back-to-back St. Anthony's triathlons.
"He would have been the first to do it three years in a row had he not had a (tire) blowout," said Brian Harrington, president of the board of directors of USA Triathlon. "He is about as tough as they come on the bike."
This will be the last year triathlon fans will get to see the pros race on one of the fastest courses on the 70.3 circuit. Race organizers have announced that in 2011 the World Championships will move to Lake Las Vegas in Henderson, Nevada, a short drive from the Las Vegas strip.
Saturday, more than 1,500 triathletes, most of them recreational athletes from more than 50 countries, will have one more chance to swim the Gulf of Mexico, bike on local roadways and run a course that takes them up and down the Memorial Causeway Bridge twice.
The 70.3 distance, which gets its name from the combined mileage of the swim, bike and run, is nothing new. This particular distance race has been around since the early 1980s. In 2006, the Tampa-based World Triathlon Corporation created a circuit of 70.3 events under its trademark Ironman name and the distance quickly became one of the most popular in the sport.
Triathlon distances are broken down into categories. The most common is the sprint (0.25-mile swim, 12-mile bike, 3.1-mile run), favored by most weekend warriors, and typified locally by the popular Escape from Fort De Soto and Top Gun triathlons.
The Olympic, also called the international, distance is comprised of a 0.93-mile swim, 24.7-mile bike and 13.1-mile run, and it is the choice of most professional triathletes. The St. Anthony's Triathlon, held each spring, is one of the most competitive short-course events in the United States and has traditionally kicked off the new season.
Next year, however, the St. Petersburg race will be part of a new circuit called the Ironman 5150, which takes its name from the combined international distances of a 1.5-kilometer swim, 40K bike and 10K run.
The 5150 tour will begin March 13 in Miami, followed by St. Anthony's on May 1, then swing through 10 other cities before returning to Florida to hold its season finale in Clearwater on Nov. 12.
"We should have a good international pro field," said LaHaye, who will also serve as the operations director for the new race circuit. "This is the distance they race in Europe, so it should prove very popular."
The Ironman 70.3, once called the Half Ironman, is exactly half the distance of the legendary race in Kona, Hawaii. The original Ironman, with its 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile swim, is considered the ultimate test in endurance sports, and out of reach for most recreational athletes.
Ironman 70.3 proved much more manageable for amateur triathletes. In five years, the circuit grew from 16 to nearly 50 races.
"I would not call it an easy distance," said Lewis Bennett, a local triathlete and coach who competed in last year's event. "You never really slow down. It is more like an Olympic-distance event on steroids."
Last year, more than 10,000 people turned out in Clearwater and the surrounding areas to watch.
Raelert, whose older brother Andreas has also been a top 70.3 finisher, set a blistering pace of 5 minutes, 16 seconds per mile during last year's run and is a strong contender to repeat.
"Both of the Raelert brothers are very competitive," said LaHaye, who also oversees the Clearwater bike course. "Everybody looks forward to the day the two go head-to-head."
Reed, whose third-place finish last year (3:37:50) also bettered the course mark, is considered one of the best riders in the sport.
"He is a horse," LaHaye said. "You can never count him out."
On the women's side, Julie Dibens, a 35-year-old native of Great Britain who now lives in Colorado and is a member of the St. Pete Mad Dogs Triathlon Club, made history last year by becoming the first woman to break four hours in a 70.3 race.
"She always comes in a couple of weeks early to train on Pass-a-Grille," Harrington said. "She should be comfortable in the water."
Dibens, whose time of 3:59:33 was more than four minutes faster than her nearest competitor, is hoping to repeat.