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This weekend, thousands of triathletes are set to hit the shores of Panama City Beach for the 22nd running of Ironman Florida, the first major full-distance race in North America since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of almost all other events on the 2020 calendar.
The Start of Ironman Florida
The first-ever Ironman Florida Triathlon was held on November 6, 1999, as more than 1,500 athletes converged on Panama City Beach, known for its emerald ocean, white sandy shores, and party-hearty vibe. ESPN covered the event in a broadcast narrated by famed Tour De France commentator Phil Liggett. The race drew an all-star cast of pros, including Germany’s Lothar Leder, 28, the first man to dip under the 8-hour mark in an Iron-distance event by going 7:57:02 at Challenge Roth in 1996. After being disqualified for drafting and unceremoniously pulled from the course–and the lead–of the Ironman World Championships just two weeks prior, Leder came to Florida with redemption in mind. He won the men’s race handily over Troy Jacobson in 8:26:27. On the women’s side, Germany’s Katja Mayer, 31, won her first-ever Ironman, outdistancing Canada’s Sheri Fraser by 13 minutes.
Fast Times at Ironman Florida
Known for its fast-and-flat course, Florida has seen some especially speedy results over the years, especially when the weather is just right. In 2007, female pro Tyler Stewart of the U.S. made Ironman history when she clocked a 4:47:59 bike split, the fastest time ever on an iron-distance course at the time. (It also erased the Ironman Florida course bike record by nearly 11 minutes).
2013 was a particularly impressive year, with records broken in both the men and women’s races. Spain’s Victor Del Corral established a new course record of 7:53:12, while the Netherlands’ Yvonne Van Vlerken cracked her own course record in a still-standing 8:43:07–the tenth fastest women’s Ironman finish at the time.
No Swim in 2014
High winds whipped the Gulf of Mexico into a frenzy in 2014, resulting in a strong rip tide that forced the swim to be canceled. Athletes, which included eventual winners Van Vlerken and Canadian Lionel Sanders in his first Ironman title, started on their bikes spaced out in a time-trial format and also had to endure cold (for Florida) temperatures, which were in the 40s on race morning.
A Change of Venue
In 2018, the race was moved to Haines City, Florida after the powerful Hurricane Michael pummeled Panama City just a month before the race date. 400 miles away from Panama City and sandwiched between Tampa and Orlando, Haines City is the location of Florida 70.3. Due to the last-minute relocation, many of the registrants did not start, and a late-afternoon heavy rain hampered a bulk of the competitors on the run.
2019’s installment of Ironman Florida was the fastest–and one of the most dramatic–to date. A pro-men only event, 31-year-old Brit Joe Skipper held off a hard-charging Ben Hoffman on the run to win by two minutes and set the course record of 7:46:28–eclipsing Del Corral’s 2013 mark by nearly 7 minutes. Thanks to ideal weather conditions, all three pro men on the podium broke 8-hours, including Andrew Starykowicz, who biked a speedy 4:01:19, breaking his own course record.