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Ironman here to stay
The doctor behind the triathlon race says it will get better.
By DEMORRIS A. LEE, Times Staff Writer
Published November 21, 2007
[Jim Damaske | Times]
Dr. Pit Gills, part owner of the company that owns the Ironman brand, says the race has a home in Clearwater as long as the city wants it.
TARPON SPRINGS - The Ford Ironman World Championship 70.3 has a permanent home as long as people welcome it.
That home is Clearwater, said Dr. Pit Gills, one of the owners of World Triathlon Corporation, the Tarpon Springs company that owns the Ironman brand.
"This race is not going anywhere as long as the city lets us have it," Gills said in an interview last week.
For a second year, nearly 1,500 of the world's top triathletes arrived in Pinellas County for a 1.2-mile swim in the Gulf of Mexico followed by a 56-mile bike ride and a 13.1-mile run.
While the event brought thousands of visitors from out of town, some locals are still disgruntled about the way it snarled traffic along the bike course, especially in North Pinellas.
In response, Gills, 37, who lives in Clearwater, asks residents to be patient.
"Each year it will get better," Gills said. "We really appreciate the opportunity to bring Ironman to Clearwater. Each following year, in communities where Ironman events take place we have seen the Ironman lifestyle become more contagious."
That sounds good to Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard.
"I'm thrilled to hear that kind of language," Hibbard said of Gills' commitment to the Clearwater event.
"We've forged a tremendous partnership in two years," Hibbard said. "Sadly, not everyone is happy with it, but that's the case with almost anything we do. I haven't found anything yet where everyone was happy."
Last year, the city received 224 calls from angry residents on race day, said city spokeswoman Joelle Castelli. This year, that number dropped to 84.
But while Ironman organizers have figured out how to move traffic north and south in Pinellas during the race, they are still grappling with the east-west movement.
Immediately following the Nov. 10 race, the city and Ironman began looking for ways to resolve the problem.
And when it comes to managing the race, Clearwater has accomplished in two years what takes many cities five years to accomplish, Gills said.
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Gills' father, James P. Gills, an ophthalmologist, developer, author and Ironman competitor, purchased Ironman with a partner for $3-million in 1980 and formed World Triathlon as its parent organization.
Today, Pit Gills, his father and his sister, Shea Grundy, own Ironman, with a global reach and its brand on a wide array of products. But the privately held company releases no information about its revenues or what it costs to stage the Clearwater event.
Pit Gills smiled when he was asked about his father's impact on his life.
"Obviously, he set an outstanding example as a role model, as a Christian, a father, a husband, an optometrist," Gills said as he sat wearing blue surgical scrubs in a conference room at St. Luke's Cataract & Laser Institute, where he works with his father. "That's your job as a father: to be a good example. And then we figure out on our own what it is we want to do."
Until recently, Ironman had been best-known for its grueling 140-mile Kona, Hawaii, World Championship race, which included running a full marathon with longer biking and swimming events.
About three years ago, the company decided to take what was once known as a half-Ironman and rebrand it as the 70.3. A season-ending world championship was added. The first was held last year in Clearwater.
The 70.3 started with 16 qualifying races. This year, there were 24. In 2008, there will be 32.
The intent, said Pit Gills, is to increase the pool of athletes who try to qualify, and that, in turn, will improve the quality of the race and the magnitude of the media attention.
This year's championship will be aired on NBC at 12:30 p.m. on March 23.
* * *
Reginald Douglas, 30, of the Caribbean nation of St. Kitts and Nevis, said qualifying for and attending the world championship in Clearwater will help popularize the sport on the island of Nevis.
"The sport is still fairly new," said Douglas, who had never swum in a wet suit before the chilly waters at this year's race forced him to. In the Caribbean, he said, the temperature hovers around 80 to 90 degrees.
"It was a great experience," Douglas said. "I will always be able to say that I participated in the world championship. That's something we can use to draw attention to the sport in our country. We can make it a goal. And If I reached it, so can others."
Ironman's reach goes beyond race day, said Gills, who participated in last year's 70.3 world championship and who has raced in five 140-mile Ironman events.
A charitable foundation is created in every town, Gills said. Since June 2006, the Ironman Foundation has donated nearly $170,000 to local organizations, such as the Clearwater Chargers Soccer Club, the Clearwater High School Band Boosters and Project Graduation and Boy Scout Troop 456.
Gills said the mission is to "share the Ironman experience."
"It's sharing a lifestyle of health and fitness and a positive atmosphere that anything is possible on or off the road," said Gills, who rides his bike to work a couple of days a week. "The only limits you have, you set yourself."