Philip LaHaye spends a good part of his year planning St. Petersburg's St. Anthony's Triathlon. The Olympic-distance event is considered one of the most competitive of its kind and each spring draws top triathletes from all over the world. But fall is a slow time for LaHaye. So when he wants a vacation, he heads to Hawaii for the Ironman World Championship. The grueling 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run has set the standard for endurance events. "It is said that I have got to go run an Ironman to relax," the 36-year-old Palm Harbor resident said a few days before he left for Saturday's race. "When you are producing an event, you always have to be 'on.' But in Kona, I am just another triathlete."
The Ironman started in 1977, when John Collins convinced a group of fellow Navy SEALs to combine the Waikiki Rough Water swim, Around Oahu bike race and Honolulu Marathon into one event.
Collins declared that the winner of the event would be christened the "Ironman." Fifteen men participated in the inaugural event. Twelve finished.
Eventually the race's popularity increased. Sports Illustrated and ABC's Wide World of Sports covered the competition. In 1981 the race was moved to the Big Island and the town of Kailua-Kona.
LaHaye joined his first swim team when he was 4. He added running at 10 and at 13 entered his first triathlon.
"I have been running triathlons for 23 years," LaHaye said. "My background was in swimming, but by the time I got to LSU, I really started focusing on triathlons."
In all, LaHaye has competed in more than 200 triathlons, including 22 half-Ironmans and 16 Ironmans. This is his fourth trip to the World Championship.
"For this distance, you have to keep your base up," LaHaye said. "So I train all year-round and about 16 weeks out really start to pick up the pace."
Last year at the Ironman Arizona, LaHaye broke the magic 10-hour mark, finishing in 9 hours, 57 minutes.
"At this distance, athletes hit their peak in their mid to late 30s," he said. "I feel pretty good going into it."
The big day
LaHaye will be one of about 1,800 triathletes who hit the water Saturday morning.
"My background is in swimming, so I am not worried about that leg," said LaHaye, who has a bachelor's degree in exercise physiology and a master's in physical therapy.
The bike leg, which goes across lava fields, can be hot and windy. "No matter what happens, you can always keep moving forward," LaHaye said.
The 26.2-mile run, however, is another story. "That is the hardest part," he said. "You never know how you are going to feel at that point of the race. One year, my legs cramped up, and I had to walk the last 24 miles of the race."
But he believes his investment of time and money is worth it. "I think it adds to St. Anthony's credibility," he said. "When the pros see me out there, they know that I have the athletes' best interest at heart."
Terry Tomalin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8808.