Ironman aims to get better

Organizers liked the outcome but will work on minimizing disruptions for residents.

By DEMORRIS A. LEE, Times Staff Writer
Published November 14, 2007

CLEARWATER - The nearly 1,500 athletes are gone. Police removed the orange cones from the roads, and ocean life around Clearwater Beach's Pier 60 has been restored to order.

And though officials are pleased with the overall execution of the Ford Ironman World Championship 70.3 in Clearwater on Saturday, they are already looking for ways to make next year's event better.

"Things went superbly well," said event director Steve Meckfessel, noting there were 150 more athletes for this year's race. "We'll continue to focus on improving our communications to the Pinellas County and Clearwater residents to minimize the impact to their busy schedules on race day."

Clearwater police Lt. Joseph Young agreed. "The improvements we made to the course helped to make the event the success it was," Young said. "Any time you have an event of this magnitude, there will be mishaps. That's to be expected."

Athletes from all 50 states and 52 countries participated in the event. Clearwater has a five-year commitment to host the event, which includes a 1.2-mile swim in the Gulf of Mexico, a 56-mile bike ride through the city and a 13.1-mile run mostly along the Pinellas Trail.

According to police, nine athletes were taken to local hospitals for non-life-threatening injuries.

Meckfessel said officials emphasized communication with local residents for this year's event. The city said it received about 60 calls from frustrated motorists, far fewer than received for last year's race.

"Putting on a world-class triathlon in an urban market is about as challenging as it can get when it comes to planning and executing," Meckfessel said. "We will continue to do that kind of planning for 2008."

The most troublesome traffic spots were at Tampa and McMullen-Booth roads; Keene Road and Gulf to Bay Boulevard; and several intersections along Belcher Road.

In the Countryside area, several residents called to complain they were trapped in their subdivisions, which had only one exit.

Tuesday afternoon, law enforcement officials involved in managing the triathlon gathered to discuss it while the event was still "fresh on the mind," Young said.

"We know there was a lot of confusion up in north county," he said. "It was the first time in that area. ... I don't think they quite understood the impact the race was going to have."

Toby Johnson said he was surprised by how clogged the roads were.

The Tarpon Springs resident said he saw signs along Tampa Road alerting him there would be delays, so he left his home 30 minutes early Saturday to make it to his custom car business in Oldsmar. It took him 2 1/2 hours to make the 12-mile trip.

"The signs never said that I wouldn't be able to get down Tampa Road or Curlew," Johnson said. "The sign only said to expect delays. It said nothing about closures.

"If the signs would have given more details, even a number to call, I would have been better prepared."

But Wendy Ehlers of Safety Harbor said the city and Ironman organizers did an adequate job of warning residents. She said she saw maps and articles in the newspaper every day leading up to the race. Ehlers said residents should be more understanding.

"It's one Saturday out of the year and it's not during rush-hour traffic," said Ehlers, who also served as a volunteer during the event. "For the amount of money and recognition it brought to Clearwater, that was a small price to pay."

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