ST. PETERSBURG — Former Olympian and reigning Ironman 70.3 champion Joanna Zeiger knows you don't have to be the fastest swimmer, biker or runner to win the St. Anthony's Triathlon.
"You have to be strong in all three events," said Zeiger, a 38-year-old world-class triathlete who also happens to have a Ph.D. in genetic epidemiology, the study of genes, the environment and disease. "To finish first, you have to be smart on each leg."
Zeiger, who broke the course record by more than four minutes at the Ironman World Championship 70.3 in November in Clearwater, knows the value of being a well-rounded athlete. She has been an Olympic trial qualifier in three sports: swimming, marathon and triathlon.
"You never know what is going to happen," she said. "You can feel good on the swim and bike, but then you go to run, your legs just won't go. You have to be ready for anything."
For the average triathlete, the .9-mile open-water swim is usually the most intimidating part.
"For the recreational athletes, the swim can be a real show stopper," said pro Andy Potts, last year's St. Anthony's runnerup. "But when you get to our level, everybody can hold their own."
Potts, a former University of Michigan swimmer and widely considered to be one of the best open-water men in the sport, is usually first out of the water. In the Ironman 70.3 in November, he demolished the record by covering the 1.2-mile swim in 21 minutes, 44 seconds.
"You are not going to win a race on the swim," Potts, 32, of Princeton, N.J., said. "But you can sure lose a race on the swim."
The course on Tampa Bay, like any other open-water venue, can be flat as glass or a churning mass of 4-foot rollers.
"A lot of people just try to survive the swim," he said. "But if you want to make up some time, or build a lead, you do it on the bike. That is where you spend 50 percent of your time."
The course is flat and fast. The streets can be hot and humid in late April, but if you are a top pro cranking along at 30 mph, the wind will cool you a bit.
"The bike is the longest leg," said Becky Lavelle, a two-time St. Anthony's winner. "A lot can happen out here."
Because drafting (riding too close behind another competitor to get a wind break) is illegal at St. Anthony's, a strong cyclist has a definite advantage on the 24.8-mile course. A competitor who builds a strong lead on the bike portion can also have a psychological advantage.
"You know … out of sight, out of mind," said Lavelle, 34, from Minnetonka, Minn. "You don't want to lose sight of somebody on the bike."
Last fall at the Ironman 70.3 in Clearwater, Lavelle led the pack out of the water and was out in front on the run. But eventual winner Joanna Zeiger never lost visual contact, and when she had the chance to move out in front, she took it.
"So while biking might the longest leg, and you can get an advantage, in the end, it often comes down to the run," Lavelle said.
At 24, Terenzo Bozzone is a relative newcomer to the professional triathlon circuit. But the New Zealander had four junior titles when he set a course record at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship at Clearwater in November.
"This sport is so competitive," said Bozzone, who competes in his first St. Anthony's competition Sunday. "All the guys can swim, bike and run."
But Bozzone learned quickly that the pro scene has its specialists. "You have guys who are good at the shorter distances, others are better on the longer course," he said.
Last year in Clearwater, Bozzone trailed Andy Potts coming out of the water and could not capture the lead during the biking portion. But he came out of the second transition area first and took off running.
"You try to keep up on the swim, hold your own on the bike, then hope you still have some legs left for the run," he said.
Bozzone and held off several challengers during the run.
"So I guess you can say, in the end, it all does come down to the run," Bozzone said.
Terry Tomalin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8808.