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Heartland Triathlon surges on

— Very rarely do athletics transcend the playing fields and affect even the non-competitors.

The Heartland Triathlon is one of the those occasions.

“When we first started this, there weren’t very many runners or cyclists cruising around Lake Jackson,” said Patrick High, one of the triathlon’s key organizers. “There was no Fitness Together, Anytime Fitness, or things like that — Highlands County didn’t have a very high level of personal fitness. Now, not a day goes by that you don’t see someone running or riding around the lake or in downtown Sebring. We believe that the Heartland Triathlon has been instrumental in that transition.”

This weekend marks the ninth annual Heartland Triathlon, and nearly 1,000 people will be competing today and Sunday. The kids (ages 6-15) will go first, departing from the City Pier Beach at 7:30 a.m. today The adults (13 and up) follow on Sunday at 7.

Both groups will be swimming, biking, and running — in that order — through Lake Jackson and in downtown Sebring.

“There’s the option of both a long and short route for each group,” High said. “Which includes an Olympic distances for the adults.”

There will be close to 60-70 newcomers this year, too. High said it’s important that they treat the triathlon as less of a race and more like a “fitness morning.”

“It’s typical to have anxiety ahead of something with the scope and size of a triathlon,” High said. “Most first timers will compete in the shorter races, but some will go for the Olympic distances.”

High, who has competed in both the Heartland Triathlon and Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, estimates that nearly 30 percent of this year’s competitors are from Highlands County.

“Roughly 250 kids between 6-14 will be there, and about 50 or so between 15-19,” he said. “We’re even going to have two 80 year olds — Larry and Jackie Yost — as well as an athlete who’s legally blind and a few Wounded Warriors. What’s been amazing about our growth is that we’ve drawn all types of people from all over Florida.”

High and other organizers like Cherrie Starr, Chet Brojek, Greg Harris, along with several county commission members, have worked hard to raise the event’s profile. Their efforts paid off when USA Traiathlon officially sanctioned their event as the Florida Regional Youth Triathlon.

“That’s a really big deal, especially for an event that originally spread by word-of-mouth,” High said. “Florida Hospital Heartland is our title sponsor and they’ve done a wonderful job for us. They’ve made it their mission to support this race for the last nine years.”

High, though, knows the success of the Heartland Triathlon is due to largely to the community.

“It’s a neat thing to be able to do,” he said. “All over the country, there are triathlons going on practically every weekend. But ours is different. It’s really unique in that it’s a athlete and community-focus event that’s put on by volunteers and business leaders from Highlands County. That’s something that feels good. And if that’s what measures success, than I’ll call the Heartland Triathlon a success.”