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Triathletes Outnumber Augusta Golfers at Biggest Half Ironman

Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver Competes
Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver competes in the Augusta 70.3 half Ironman triathlon in September, 2010. Photographer: Randy DuTeau/Augusta Sports Council via Bloomberg

Deke Copenhaver was running for re-election as mayor of Augusta, Georgia, last year, when he decided to swim and bike along the campaign trail, too.

Copenhaver, who became the first U.S. mayor to complete all three legs of an Ironman-sponsored triathlon in his own city, will be back at it again this year. After finishing the Augusta 70.3 half Ironman race near the back of the pack in 2010, the mayor has a loftier time goal this year.

Copenhaver, 43, will be one of about 3,200 triathletes on the course Sept. 25 in Augusta, a city becoming as well-known among endurance athletes as it is among the thousands of golf fans who attend the Masters Tournament in town every April. The event is sold out, and is expected to be one of only two of the 25 half Ironman races held in the U.S. this year to achieve that, according to Ironman spokeswoman Jessica Weidensall.

“My time wasn’t great, but on the run portion I had to go from athlete to ambassador,” Copenhaver, who completed the race in 6 hours, 56 minutes and 38 seconds, said in a telephone interview. “That’s my excuse. People were yelling ‘mayor, mayor.’ I was shaking hands with everybody. I’m going to wear a visor this year, I think.”

Down-Current Swim

The 70.3-mile (113.1-kilometer) race consists of a 1.2-mile swim down the Savannah River, a 56-mile bike ride that begins in Augusta and continues through nearby Aiken County, South Carolina, and finishes with a 13.1-mile run through the streets of downtown Augusta. With a down-current swim, bike ride through rolling country roads, and a two-loop run course that allows spectators and family members to line the streets, the race has attracted an average of 3,200 competitors since its 2009 debut.

That makes it the largest race of its kind based on participants, according to Ironman, a subsidiary of World Triathlon Corp., which is owned by Providence, Rhode Island-based Providence Equity Partners.

Greg Stivers, a senior vice president with Automatic Data Processing Inc., the world’s largest payroll processor, in Alpharetta, Georgia, will compete in the event for the first time. After moving to the Atlanta area from Pleasanton, California, in June, he said he wasn’t sure where Augusta was on a map.

“I’m new to the South, so I had only known of Augusta for golf,” Stivers, 44, said in an interview. “I didn’t know if we were going to be riding around the Masters course or what. That’s what’s so neat. There’s a little bit of mystique to it.”

The majority of the race takes place in downtown Augusta, about five miles from the 70-year-old Augusta National Golf Club, which has hosted golf’s first major tournament of the year since 1934.

Financial Windfall

While the route might come as a disappointment to any golf fans hoping to glimpse the Masters course, it’s a boon to the city’s downtown business district. Because many Masters’ attendees rent houses during the week or stay near the club for the majority of the day and travel home after the final putt falls, businesses located farther from the golf course enjoy a bigger financial windfall during Ironman weekend.

“We probably get at least a 25% percent increase,” said William Harrison, owner of the Boll Weevil Café and Sweetery, a family-owned restaurant located about two blocks from the finish line. “We do pretty well on the weekends already, so it’s a blessing.” Harrison declined to reveal the financial value of the increased business.

Like many Augusta residents, Harrison, 33, has been attending the Masters since he said he was “old enough to appreciate it.” He said the city, which has about 200,000 residents, is still defined by the tournament, which was co-founded by Atlanta-born Bobby Jones.

“Anybody you talk to about Augusta, that’s the first thing that comes to mind,” Harrison said.

Estonian Triathlete

In addition to the Masters and Ironman events, Augusta, which is also home to the Professional Disc Golf Association and National Barrel Horse Association, hosts about 40 athletic events per year, according to the city’s convention and visitors bureau. The city also hosted the USA Cycling national championships in June for the first time, drawing more than 1,000 racers.

The sporting events are “huge for our economy,” Brinsley Thigpen, chief executive officer of the Augusta Sports Council, said in a telephone interview. “We love being known for the Masters, don’t get me wrong, but it would be nice to be known for other events as well.”

Marko Albert, a 32-year-old professional triathlete from Estonia, took a 10-hour flight to compete in the 2010 race. He finished with the fastest swim time, covering 1.2 miles in 18 minutes, 52 seconds, and placed eighth overall.

“It’s a nice place,” Albert said in a telephone interview. “The bike course was not only scenic, but if you are a strong biker, you can make up some time. On the run, the main streets were full of people. There was huge support.”

After finishing third in last month’s Ironman Austria event, Albert will skip this year’s Augusta race as he travels to Hawaii to train for next month’s Ironman World Championship.

Copenhaver, however, won’t be watching from the comfort of a private viewing area like some city officials. He’ll be trying to finish in less than six hours.

“I’m a competitor,” said Copenhaver, who was a partner in a real estate firm before becoming the full-time mayor in 2005. “There’s no backing down.”

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