A run for our lives

A race on July 15 will benefit programs for women and children.

Published July 4, 2007

CLEARWATER - Suzanne O'Neal had been running since her days as a high school athlete in the early 1990s at St. Petersburg's Lakewood High School.

But it wasn't until 2000 that a friend convinced the physical therapist to enter a triathlon on Madeira Beach.

"I absolutely fell in love with them, " said O'Neal, 31, who works at Morton Plant Mease Hospital. "The camaraderie, the people, as soon as you do that first one, you are hooked."

O'Neal is one of 850 athletes who have paid $65 to participate in the far grander second Morton Plant Mease Triathlon to be held July 15 at Sand Key Park.

This year's Morton Plant Mease Triathlon has nearly doubled the size of the field and raised the stakes to bring in more elite competitors. Last year, 464 athletes crossed the finish line, raising $21, 000 for the Morton Plant Mease Foundation.

For this year's race, all 850 available slots have been filled. A $4, 000 prize purse - $1, 000 more than last year - will be awarded to the top five elite male and female finishers.

Offering more prize money has helped, but so has Clearwater's reputation as an emerging triathlon mecca since hosting the Ford Ironman 70.3 World Championship in November for the first time.

"When you look to put on a race, you like to bring athletes to an area with nice shops, hotels and restaurants, " race director Philip LaHaye said.

The national- and world-ranked athletes signed up for this race include the following:

- Heather Gollnick, last year's Morton Plant Mease Triathlon elite champion and winner of the 2007 Ford Ironman Arizona competition.

- Spencer Smith, three-time World Triathlon champion and two-time Ironman Champion.

- Marc Bonnet-Eymard, the 2006 St. Anthony's Triathlon Overall Amateur Champion.

Race proceeds will go to women's and children's programs.

Last year's proceeds were enough to cover 20 uninsured families at the Turley Family Health Center for a year, said Holly Duncan, president of the Morton Plant Mease Foundation. "With another $20, 000, it could provide prenatal care for 20 mothers and babies."

Morton Plant Mease's Turley Family Health Center provides comprehensive and preventive health care for those who are underinsured, including residents of Clearwater's North Greenwood community.

The race, set to start at 7 a.m., includes a 1/3-mile swim in the Gulf of Mexico. The 13-mile bike ride rolls over the Sand Key, Memorial Causeway and Belleair Causeway bridges. The race concludes with a 3.1-mile run that starts and finishes at Sand Key Park.

For O'Neal, a serious bike accident in 2005 gave her a different appreciation for the sport. Biking in a pack during training in Jacksonville, O'Neal's front tire hit another biker's tire, sending her face down on the asphalt.

An oncoming car swerved into a ditch to avoid her, O'Neal said. She was flown to a local hospital.

"The skin was gone from my face and it was so frustrating because the bike I'd been on for years and years, and now to get back on it was like learning how to ride again, " O'Neal said. "I couldn't be near people (while biking). I kept my distance and trained by myself. It took a good several months to trust everyone."

O'Neal said she thinks about the accident sometimes when riding, but she can push the event to the back of her mind.

On July 15, she will be focused.

"The only thing in my mind is passing the person in front of me, " she said. "My mind is free of clutter"

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at (727)445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com.

How to help


Volunteers are needed to assist with registration, distribute water to athletes and assist at the finish line. Volunteers are needed July 14 and 15 and can sign up by calling (727) 820-7790.