The race -- made up of a 1.2-mile ocean swim, a 56-mile bike race and 13.1-mile run -- will attract thousands of people to the area.
By AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published June 17, 2005
A scaled-down version of the Ironman, perhaps the world's best known endurance competition, is coming to Clearwater starting next year, bringing with it millions in tourism dollars and possibly network television, city and race officials say.
The race, the inaugural Clearwater Half Ironman World Championship, would launch from Sand Key Park and circle mid-Pinellas County.
Made up of a 1.2-mile ocean swim, a 56-mile bike race and a 13.1-mile run, the annual event would be half the distance of the traditional Ironman World Championship, which is televised from Hawaii each fall.
Executives with the World Triathlon Corporation in Tarpon Springs said they hope to build a similar following in Clearwater. They asked for and received support Thursday from theCity Council and expect to make a formal announcement about the race next month.
The race would be a boon for all of Tampa Bay, attracting thousands of people during November, typically a slower tourist month.
Some 2,500 racers from all over the world will spend a week or more in the area, according to race officials. City officials have already determined they will need 10,000 hotel room nights for the event. Carole Ketterhagen, executive director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the area will see millions of dollars in economic impact, though she could not provide a more precise figure.
Steve Meckfessel, an Ironman executive who formerly coordinated the St. Anthony's Triathlon, said organizers are talking with TV networks, including NBC, about broadcasting the event.
"You can't put a price on what two hours of network exposure may be worth," said Clearwater City Council member Hoyt Hamilton.
Race and city officials are still working out details of a contract, which city officials hope will keep the event in Clearwater through at least 2011. Meckfessel said Ironman hopes to extend the partnership beyond that, building a tradition similar to Ironman's Hawaii race.
"We're looking to establish that same economic return and visibility for Clearwater," Meckfessel said.
A mix of swimming, cycling and running, Ironman is viewed as one of man's toughest physical tests.
Racers will qualify from events around the world for the Clearwater championship. The first qualifying race will take place in the United Kingdom in September, Meckfessel said.
For the last 16 years, the Ironman trademark has been owned by local entrepreneur and ophthalmologist Dr. James P. Gills, founder of St. Luke's Cataract & Laser Institute in Tarpon Springs and builder of the Trinity community in southwest Pasco County.
Also an accomplished athlete, Gills, 70, is the only man to have completed six double Ironman triathlons and five Hawaii Ironman triathlons.
His son Pit approached Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard to gauge the city's interest in holding an Ironman locally.
Race officials have said they chose Clearwater because of its proximity to the Ironman headquarters and because of the city's big development plans, which include a new bridge and some luxury resort developments on the beach.
The championship would follow in November 2006. By then, the new Clearwater Memorial Causeway bridge should be open. The city's $16.2-million Beach Walk restoration program would be ongoing, and several new luxury Clearwater Beach hotels should be under construction.
"The world can see our progress," said Hibbard.
Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Dunbar said as the event grows, he hopes to turn it into a week-long celebration, with concerts and other parties.
The first race may cost the city as much as $84,000, but Hibbard and others believe they'll be able to find corporate sponsorships to offset the costs. The largest cost, some $52,500, is for police officers to close off the course on race day.
Dunbar said roads will only be impacted on race day, a Saturday.
A race map is not yet available, but racers would start with the swim in the waters off Sand Key Park, then bike south along the barrier islands. Dunbar said. They'd head east across the county toward the Courtney Campbell Parkway, then west toward Dunedin's Edgewater Drive. The final 13.1-mile run would go through Clearwater, over the new bridge and back toward the park, and the finish line.
"Can you imagine seeing all those athletes crossing that beautiful bridge?" said Ketterhagen. " It's a great event for Clearwater. The size of it is incredible. The venue is absolutely perfect. We're thrilled."