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Ironman's growth is seen right here in Pinellas County

The 19th Gatorade Ironman Triathlon World Championship, set for Oct. 7 in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, takes on added significance to bay area triathletes and fans this year because of the record number of local qualifiers.

At last count, 16 local triathletes will take part in the sport's version of the Super Bowl, hoping their months and years of training will carry them through the 2.4-mile swim, 112 miles of cycling, and 26.2-mile marathon run.

The latest area qualifier is St. Petersburg's Jeff Abraham of Team China City/PowerBar. The 29-year-old emergency room physician raced Sunday, in Lubbock, Texas, finishing the Buffalo Springs Lake half-Ironman distance in 4 hours, 25 minutes.

Nearly 1,500 competitors, ages 18 to 78, will travel from 50 countries to Hawaii, including last year's winners, Greg Welch (8:20:29) and Paula Newby-Fraser (9:20:14).

World Triathlon Corporation, which owns the Ironman Triathlon, is based in Tarpon Springs and is headed by Dr. Jim Gills, an ophthalmologist, endurance athlete, author, and medical pioneer. He is described by his WTC staff as "multi-talented, caring, yet totally driven and a type A personality." His "Excellence With Love" motto seems to filter down through the WTC ranks right on to the athletes in Kona on race day.

Visiting WTC offices leaves one with the feeling the race itself is not the most awesome part of the Ironman experience. Ironman is a lifestyle, the athletes say, and in watching last week's Ironman rebroadcast on television, what stood out was the triathletes' expressions as they ran down Alii Drive to the finish line, revealing their overwhelming feelings.

Ironman advertising/public relations director Rob Perry, well-known to readers of glossy triathlon magazines, credits WTC president David Yates with keeping the Ironman machine running.

Major television deals and Ironman licensing agreements for watches, shirts, bicycles, socks, hats and other assorted "Ironstuff"are evidence that triathlons have become a big business. Ironman Japan, Ironman Germany, Ironman Australia, Ironman New Zealand, and Ironman Lanzarote keep the WTC staff racking up frequent flyer miles.

Gills meshes daily training with his surgical rounds at St. Luke's Cataract & Laser Institute by hopping on a stationary bicycle located between the operating rooms. A bible is open on the bike's reading stand. A state-of-the-art weight room is down the hall, with Gills' titanium road bike leaning against the wall, waiting for his ride home.

Upstairs, Perry and Yates are in suits and ties, working to promote and expand the Ironman Triathlon. Phone calls come in from all over the world. Qualifying for the race is fiercely competitive.

Interested in joining thousands of spectators who watch the Gatorade Ironman Triathlon by the light of the full moon each year? Call the Ironman Mainland Office at (813) 942-4767, or call Contrail Travel at (312) 984-9831 for Ironman package information.

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