Moving to Tampa Bay: The triathlon scene sets global pace to swim, bike, run

Triathletes give an athletic bent to the term “snowbird.” Come winter, athletes from frigid climates leave the training hazards of snow and ice to head to Pinellas County’s sunny trails and scenic waterfront. Runners also gather to race up and down Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard. And after open water swims at Pass a Grille, there’s always the option of a pilgrimage to the National Training Center (NTC) in Clermont.

“With the opportunity for year-round training, incredible weather and a supportive community, Tampa Bay is a kind of mecca for triathletes,” says local professional triathlete and Coach Nicholas Chase.

Aside from the obvious allure of warm temperatures, an all-comers atmosphere coupled with the presence of elite athletes, both seasonal and local, has led to the multi-sport event flourishing in the Bay Area. Some athletes train for the Ironman races, those superhuman jaunts that involve a marathon run, 2.4-mile swim and 112-mile bike. Others have tamer aspirations. While the elite athletes are held in high regard, newbies aiming for shorter events have street cred as well in a community Chase calls “a catalyst for the sport.”

“Triathlon is definitely growing in this area,” he says. “There is a substantial amount of races, and the community keeps attracting more and more athletes.” 

Chase counts himself as one of them. It’s been five years since he embraced triathlon in the Bay Area. Locally, he easily found a collective of like-minded people who wish to perform at a high level, and in 3-4 years, he hopes to be a World Championship contender. When he’s not training and racing, he coaches athletes preparing for races such as St. Anthony’s Triathlon as part of the endurance group Tribal Multi-Sport.

St. Anthony’s Triathlon Event Director Susan Daniels sees the race as a jumping-off point for many novice triathletes who become inspired to pursue the sport further after competing for the first time. The course encompasses a scenic swim in Tampa Bay, a flat bike ride along the waterfront and a 10K run that offers impressive views of Snell Isle. The race’s bright travelogue led to Active naming it one of the best destination triathlons in the country in 2014.

Meek and mighty

Now entering its 34th year, the Olympic distance event also offers a sprint race. A Meek and Mighty event marketed to children has been part of its allure for 19 years, encouraging the next generation of triathlon participants. Then there’s its professional roster, which often includes Olympians, World Champions and three-time Ironman winner Miranda Carfrae, who competed here from 2012-2014.

Locally, it’s embraced as a tradition. Some 1,000 volunteers are needed to make the event run smoothly, and the community comes out in droves to cheer. The visibility the triathlon gives can’t be discounted on a tourism level, either — people from 41 states and 11 countries participated last year. Year after year Daniels witnesses certain athletes travel to compete here; some become so entrenched in the area’s triathlon culture that they move to the area full time.

You’ll find a smattering of these converts as members of the St. Pete Mad Dogs triathlon club, which boasts triathletes at every level in its membership rolls. Around for 22 years, the organization has had verve from the beginning, welcoming athletes at various levels with the slogan “Fun loving triathletes who train, race and howl together.’’ To this day, the St. Petersburg-based club beckons the true beginner, elite competitor and middle of the packer with open Mad Dog arms.

“There’s a reason we have more than 3,000 members,” says VP/Membership Carolyn Kiper, a Mad Dog since 1998. “The supportive, family-type environment attracts people from around the country and the world.”

Mad Dogs forever

Most Mad Dogs reside in the area, and their jerseys are well represented at local and international races. Thanks to an ever-growing membership, professionals preparing for Ironman distances easily locate fellow Mad Dog training partners; those who prefer the more tame triathlons find comradeship. The organization’s home stay program attracts the sport’s best to pack their wetsuits and relocate here.

Working in conjunction with St. Anthony’s Triathlon, Mad Dog members invite professional triathletes to stay in their homes leading up to the event. Kiper herself hosted pro triathlete Rene Vallant for 12 years before he moved to St. Petersburg for a short time. Vallant now includes local triathletes in his Austrian-based team, Pewag. Pewag and the Mad Dogs enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship; members do most of their training in the area and race worldwide.

Kiper suggests athletes interested in learning more about the Mad Dogs join the group at their weekly open water swim at Pass a Grille or attend one of their many other training sessions. It’s easy, she says, to find camaraderie and a supportive social network among their members or other triathlon clubs in the area.

Thanks to organizations like the St. Pete Mad Dogs and the presence of pro competitors, both snowbird and permanent, the Bay Area is a hotbed for those who swim, bike and run. Whether an athlete is aiming for greatness or just personal fitness, the Bay Area is a great place to tri.

Read more articles by Amy Hammond.

Amy Hammond is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida
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