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A windy, chilly marathon

Competitors brave wind, waves and cool water in Tampa Bay Marathon Swim.

By TERRY TOMALIN Outdoors Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 23, 1999

ST. PETERSBURG -- Tell somebody you plan to swim the length of Tampa Bay and they undoubtedly will ask about sharks.

"You hear that every time," said Bambi Bowman, a 28-year-old from Miami as she prepared to enter the water for the inaugural Tampa Bay Marathon Swim. "Sharks just come with the territory."

But when it was over, things far less dramatic -- wind, waves and cool water -- posed the greatest challenges to the 16 solo swimmers who set out Thursday morning to conquer Tampa Bay.

"It was rough out there," said Finlay Macadam, who came from Grand Cayman Island to swim the 24-mile race. "I started getting seasick."

A strong south wind whipped the water as the odd group of swimmers left Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort near the Sunshine Skyway bridge and set off for Whiskey Joe's, a restaurant on the Courtney Campbell Causeway. The distance is approximately 2 miles longer than the English Channel.

For years, open-water swimmers avoided Tampa Bay's "shark-infested waters," thinking it was unswimmable. But two years ago, an ambitious investment banker named Ron Collins dreamed up the idea of staging a race across the bay's narrowest point to draw attention to the estuary's improving water quality.

"I'll do anything to promote the sport of open-water swimming," he said then. That first year, Collins' 3.1-mile race drew nearly 200 competitors. Last year, true to his word, Collins upped the ante and became the first person to swim the length of the bay, covering the distance in 9 hours, 52 minutes.

Word traveled quickly through the close-knit open-water swimming community, and six months later Gail Rice equaled Collins' feat, finishing the course in 8 hours, 24 minutes.

"I figured there was enough interest out there to stage a race," Collins said. "What better thing to do than swim the bay on Earth Day?"

Thursday drew a mixed crowd. Swimmers such as Bowman and Chris Derks, a 28-year-old forensic chemist from Miami, were seasoned competitors. Others, such as Hal Clarendon, a writer from Gainesville, didn't know what to expect.

"I've been training in a pool," he said before departing shortly after 7 a.m. "I just hope I don't swallow too much salt water."

The temperature eventually did in Clarendon. "They said it was 75 degrees, but it felt more like 71," he said after dropping out at 12 miles. "But I came and tried, that is what is important."

Macadam agreed about the temperature: "Cold, too cold."

Derks found the conditions ideal. Having completed the New York City Marathon (28 miles) and the Atlantic City Ocean Marathon (10 miles), Derks is used to cold water.

"The first two hours were the hardest," he said after crossing the finish line in 8 hours, 23 minutes, breaking the course record. "The map could have been marked better. At one point I thought there were 4 miles to go, but it was actually 7. That was tough."

Each solo swimmer, and those participating in the three, two-person relay teams, had paddlers in sea kayaks to provide logistical support. Tampa BayWatch, the environmental group that benefited from the swim, had its natural gas-powered boat on the water to help keep the swimmers safe.

Randy Nutt, a race organizer and accomplished competitor, said the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim will be a welcome addition to the national open-water circuit.

"People will love this," he said. "The trick is not to "race' it. Just get into a rhythm, relax and swim."

-- Sign up for the third annual Tampa Bay 5K Open Water, 7:30 a.m. May 1, and swim from Gandy Beach in Pinellas County to Picnic Island Park in Hillsborough County. Proceeds to benefit Tampa BayWatch. Call (727) 896-5320.

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