By Pete Williams
ST. PETERSBURG – The St. Anthony’s Triathlon staged an Olympic-distance event today for the first time since 2008, which means the 3,000 or so athletes on hand got to enjoy the event they paid for without weather disruptions for the first time since before the economy crashed.
When an event is joint promoted by its health care provider owner and the World Triathlon Corp. (aka Ironman), which seems to be going through the motions with its second-annual 5150 series, it’s not surprising that it comes across as tone deaf to the economy. No wonder St. Anthony’s has gone from a race that used to sell out in December at nearly 5,000 athletes to one that attracts about 3,000 and does not sell out.
That’s bad for Baycare and WTC, but awesome for the athletes. The event seems more manageable with fewer participants, though we’re not sure if moving the swim start north from Spa Beach to just beyond North Shore Beach had the desired effect of keeping athletes out of rough waters. In fact, athletes now seem to spend more time navigating the washing machine immediately in front of the Vinoy basin.
No wonder more than 80 percent of athletes wore wetsuits this morning. That’s a strange thing considering many Tampa Bay homeowners haven’t turned on their heat since February – of 2011. Air temperature was 75 when the pros went off shortly before 7 a.m. and well into the 80s by the time the last of the age groupers entered the water. Race officials announced the water temperature at 76.5 degrees, a wink-wink fudging of the numbers to ensure everyone, especially the hundreds of first-timers, could wear their wetsuits.
It’s a sound strategy. I was among the idiots who swam without a wetsuit. Though the water was plenty warm, just as it was two weeks ago during the half-mile swim at the Escape from Fort DeSoto Triathlon 10 miles to the south where hardly anyone wore wetsuits, I paid the price with an extended stay in the Vinoy basin rinse cycle.
The bike course is where St. Anthony’s has really improved because of decreased attendance. Putting nearly 5,000 bikes on a twisting, turning course through St. Pete more suited for the Honda Grand Prix was making things dangerous. But with just 3,000 cyclists, it’s much safer. St. Anthony’s always does a great job with volunteer support and it doesn’t seem they’ve cut there even as registrations have dropped.
Having endured a few Baycare medical bills in the last 15 months, we’re confident St. Anthony’s can get by with “only” 3,000 athletes. Ditto for WTC, which seems unwilling to admit that the 5150 branding of Olympic distance races was just a bad idea. Even many avid triathletes can’t explain the 5150 specifics, especially in a year involving a Van Halen reunion tour. We’ve never understood the odd relationship between WTC and Baycare. The 5150 series, which didn’t gain any fans in these parts by canceling the inaugural year-end race in Clearwater in November, only further blends two polarizing brands.
WTC has gotten into the habit recently of canceling events that don’t meet registration expectations. The M-Dot doesn’t hold that kind of sway over St. Anthony’s and even if it did, we hope that wouldn’t happen, even if registrations drop another 20 percent in 2013.
After all, it seems the smaller St. Anthony’s gets, the more enjoyable it becomes for the athletes.