By Al James
The USTS Tampa Bay Triathlon on April 24, 1983 was the first race on the USTS calendar and the first East Coast USTS race that year. Having conducted four successful short course triathlons on Clearwater Beach from 1981 to 1983, Pat Dallmann, President of the West Florida Y Runners Club (WFYRC) and I joined forces with Jim Curl, co-founder of the United States Triathlon Series (USTS), to stage the USTS Tampa Bay Triathlon (1.5k swim, 40k bike, 10k run) at Fort DeSoto Park, along the northern entrance to Tampa Bay. In the fall of 1982, I looked for a new venue in the county which could handle a larger number of triathletes on a longer race course and found that Fort Desoto Park was a good fit.
I found race directing in conjunction with USTS was a different challenge than planning the short course triathlons in Clearwater Beach. USTS had a year’s experience in staging triathlons with prize money and elite triathletes participating.
A Joint Venture
The division of labor between the local race organization and USTS was such that the local organization was required to meet the USTS standards for staging the race, while USTS provided administrative support including securing sanctioning, insurance, some equipment, and event supervision. Hence triathletes registered for the triathlon and received all race materials from USTS. USTS provided all awards, T-shirts, bike racks, swim buoys, and start and finish sponsor banners. USTS also measured the race course. As the race director working in the local area, I secured all the necessary permits from the Pinellas County Parks Department, secured assistance from the County Sheriff’s Department for traffic control, and a swim rescue boat, and County EMS assistance for medical matters. The local Eckerd College aquatic rescue team and County Park lifeguards monitored the swim leg. The St Petersburg Suncoast Runners Club helped on the run leg, and Tom Jessup’s Chainwheel Drive bikers provided all bike support including bike inspections, repairs, and monitoring the bike leg. The WFYRC ran the start/finish line, the transition area, and other aspects of the race.
The course was set up as follows: swim-in the Gulf of Mexico adjacent and parallel with the north beach, bike-along the two lane park road and into a small community to the north, run-along the same road within the park, and transition-in the north parking lot. Showers were provided for the swim to bike transition, port-a-potties, change tents, medical facilities, crowd control, etc. for triathletes. The Don Cesar Hotel on the Gulf of Mexico served as the race headquarters. St Anthony’s Hospital in St Petersburg was the primary local sponsor, and provided a large number of volunteers for administrative support. Approximately 800 age group and 30 professional triathletes competed in the 1983 USTS Tampa Bay Triathlon. There were no major difficulties during the race; however, a local timing group, with no experience handling triathlon race splits, had some difficulty with the timing challenge. After this experience, the USTS decided to employ a professional race timing group.
In 1984, 1,200 age groupers and 40 professionals raced. The increase in participants caused congestion, and potential safety issues due to some limitations of the Ft. DeSoto Park race course. A primary issue with the course was due to the fact that the Pinellas County Park Department was unwilling to close the bike course to traffic, because boating, swimming, fishing and RV facilities would have been cut off to the public. Another significant problem occurred when pressure from the USTS management team resulted in numerous local volunteers having some difficulty in dealing with the strict management from above. This caused me to seriously consider whether the alliance with USTS was working to our mutual advantage. Additionally it was becoming clear to me that Fort DeSoto Park’s distance from St Petersburg was a hindrance to building local community support for the race. Consequently, I began to explore the possibility of moving the race to downtown St Petersburg, and severing the WFYRC relationship with USTS.
Management and Course Changes
In 1985, the WFYRC Board of Directors decided to take full responsibility for the Tampa Bay Triathlon, and the move to downtown St. Petersburg was undertaken. Downtown St Petersburg with its wide streets offered a beautiful venue for the Tampa Bay Triathlon. The shores of Tampa Bay adjacent to the downtown pier offered a protected body of water for the swim leg which was configured in a counterclockwise loop starting from the beach next to the pier. The adjacent Straub Park was good location for the race check in, the swim-bike and bike-run transitions, a medical facility, and the race finish line. The bike leg was configured with a northern loop through residential areas, returning through the transition area to a longer southern route which extended to the southern tip of Pinellas County, and return to the transition area for the run leg through residential Snell Island to the north and return. The downtown Hilton Hotel served as the race headquarters. St. Anthony’s Hospital was very close to the race venue. Fred Green, a representative of the hospital, and I arranged to meet with a committee of the St Petersburg Chamber of Commerce to brief them on the proposed downtown Tampa Bay Triathlon. Few were familiar with a triathlon, but all were enthusiastic about the downtown venue and the participation of St Anthony’s hospital. The City Police Department, which was experienced in handling long distance road races, reviewed the race course. After adjusting a segment of the bike course, the Police Department signed off on the triathlon race course. With the Chamber of Commerce endorsement and the Police reviewed course, the City Council gave final approval. Although, the Tampa Bay Triathlon did not offer prize money in its early years, it attracted about 800 triathletes to the downtown venue for the first race in 1985.
St Anthony’s Hospital assumed all of the administrative tasks that USTS had performed. They created the race logo, printed and distributed the brochures, handled finances, conducted check in, provided all medical assistance, furnished timing and race results, prepared awards and conducted the awards ceremony, etc. Volunteer support for the race was handled much the same as the previous year, except that most of the lifeguards had to be imported for the swim leg. Moving to the St. Petersburg meant that a far greater police support effort was required. Initially the city provided complementary services, but soon the costs for professional support had to be absorbed by race management. St. Anthony’s hospital had a large set of portable wooden steps built so the swimmers could mount the seawall from the water.
One problem with the downtown venue was traffic and parking control. Nonetheless no serious problems ensued. The “no drafting” rule on the bike leg was one of the few early triathlon rules which attracted much attention. I sought assistance from local motorcycle clubs and experienced bicyclists to enforce the “no drafting” rule, but the results were mixed as triathletes and officials attempted to implement this rule.
It was soon obvious that St Anthony’s triathlon would require a professional race director to manage the race. After the 1985 race, I turned the race over to St Anthony’s Hospital, and Brian Harrington. In 1986, the St. Anthony’s added a “Meek and Mighty” youth triathlon on Saturday morning of the triathlon weekend. That same year the Tri Fed/USA Board of Directors met at the St. Anthony’s Tampa Bay Triathlon for their Spring meeting, and to observe the race. The Hospital supported Tri Fed by sanctioning the race and securing insurance through their auspices. From the outset the St. Anthony’s Triathlon set a high standard for race management, and over the years has been rewarded with National and International Championship races and many accolades from the triathlon community.
1. AI James: Founder/Race Director - Clearwater Beach Triathlon, USTS Tampa Bay Triathlon, Tampa Bay Triathlon, Sunshine State Games Triathlon, and Member - Board of Directors, Tri-Fed/USA, and Florida Region, Tri-Fed/USA
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