SEBRING — Not long after the conclusion of this year’s Heartland Triathlon, Patrick High’s inbox was inundated with compliments.
“‘Wow!’ ‘Unbelievable!’ ‘Exceptional!’ ‘The best race I’ve ever attended in the country!’ — those were some of the impressions I got from this year’s attendees,” High said, who’s helped organize the Heartland Triathlon since it began in 2005. “We had 1,000 or so competitors this year, which was 300 more than last year, and it pretty much went off without a hitch.”
The triathlon, which started from meager beginnings, drew around 100 people for its first event nine years ago. Since then, High and others have worked tirelessly to turn what was once strictly a community function into a statewide competition that’s been sanctioned by USA Triathlon.
“It’s a really unique event that’s tailored to our athletes,” High said. “We have a ton of support from our county commissioners, the city council, and the rest of the community. We’re lucky to have it.”
Despite the local economic boon from the triathlon, High and other organizers have been quick to give back. They’ve donated close to $10,000 to youth triathlon programs in Florida.
“We try to never forget that we came from donations and support like that,” High said. “So we always want to give back to the sport however we can.”
This year’s course was situated in downtown Sebring, with athletes opening Sunday’s triathlon in Lake Jackson next to the City Pier Beach. From there, they transitioned to the cycling stage, and finally to the running portion of the event, crossing the finish line just shy of the library. Athletes had the option to complete the sprint (swim 1/4 of a mile, bike 14 miles, run a 5k) or international/Olympic (swim .93 miles, bike 24.8 miles, run 6.2 miles) course.
This year’s international triathlon belonged to Josh Eaton of Bonita Springs. The 29-year-old was the Male Overall Champion, traversing the course in 1 hour, 56 minutes, 57 seconds. Lake Mary’s Kerry Simmons was the Female Overall Champion, finishing in 2:10:43. Simmons was also the Female Masters Champion. Jeff Cubbeback, from Longwood, was the Male Masters Champion. He finished in 2:03:58.
Port St. Lucie’s Tommy Alore was the Male Overall Champion in the sprint event, finishing in 58:39. Taylor Knibb made the trek all the way from Washington, D.C., capturing the Female Overall title in 1:01:26. Orlando’s Edson Soares was the Male Masters Overall Champion, finishing in 1:01:05, and Heather Butcher was the Female Masters Overall Champion, coming in at 1:07:50.
“We must’ve had eight or nine current or former age group champions this year,” High said. “That’s what I’m really pleased with, the percentage of competitors who return to Sebring.”
Highlands County also had a sizeable turnout. A bevy of athletes from Avon Park, Sebring, and Lake Placid had impressive times in both the sprint and international distances.
Top times among international competitors from Highlands County included Avon Park’s Vicki Musselman, 12th (2:47:48) in the 40-44 class; Lake Placid’s Nancy Drach, fourth (3:07:38) in the 55-59 class; Sebring’s Karin Doty, 17th (3:01:32) in the 45-49 class; Sebring’s Eric Moore, second (2:31:26) in the 55-59 class; Lake Placid’s Dave Drach, sixth (2:37:10) in the 55-59 class.
Top times in the sprint course included Lake Placid’s Ryan Blount, who finished fourth (1:27:18) in the male First Timers division; Avon Park’s Karin Van Rooyen, second (1:27:30) in the female First Timers; Sebring’s Eric Zwayer, second (1:20:29) in the Clydesdale division; Avon Park’s John Milam, third (1:28:09), in the 70-74 class; Sebring’s Whitney Lee, fourth (1:26:25) in the 25-29 class; Avon Park’s Terry Hancock, third (1:12:49) in the 25-29 class; and Sebring’s Allie Mann, fifth (1:24:07) in the 15-19 class.
But the afternoon belonged to Lake Placid’s Lukas High and Sebring’s Dana O’Rourke. High won the 15-19 age group in the international event with a sizzling time of 2:09:21, while O’Rourke won the Athena Division of the sprint course in a blistering 1:30:28.
“Lukas did the Olympic distance, which in and of itself is a big accomplishment for a 15-year-old,” the elder High said. “He’s only been into the sport for a little over a year, but he consciously wants to be a part of it. And it’s something he could do for the rest of his life. I’m very fortunate to be able to enjoy a sport like this with my son.”
High will have little time to bask in his son’s achievement, though. Planning for next year’s event is already underway.
“The reaction we got from this year’s athletes was really rewarding,” High said. “But we’re already starting to do the little things to get ready for 2015. There were a lot of good vibes this year — everything from the hospitality to our volunteers — got a great reaction. And in an age where most triathlon particpation across Florida is decreasing we keep growing. The Heartland Triathlon is a testimonial to everyone’s hard work.”
For the complete results of the ninth annual Heartland Triathlon, visit www.sommersports.com.