KEY WEST -- Now in his sophomore season on the triathlon team at the The United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Alex Habecker competed in five events this season, finishing strong in each one but never on top of the leaderboard.
In Sunday morning's inaugural Key West Triathlon (TRIKW), the 19-year-old finally caught that elusive first-place medal.
Habecker swam, biked and ran to an overall time of 2 hours, 2 minutes and 42 seconds on the 32.2-mile Olympic course to finish first overall Sunday in a fleet of 550 triathletes. A Winter Park native, Habecker said it was a great feeling crossing the finish line for his first victory.
"It's been a long season and I've put in a lot of hours up at West Point -- we train about 3-4 hours a day, seven days a week -- and it just paid off," he said. "This was my first big win, and it just feels great for my hard work to finally pay off."
Habecker had plenty of familiar faces join him at the finish line. In all, 15 athletes from the West Point team came down for the race and they dominated the top of the standings. Teammates Brian Trainor (2:03:25) and Romedy Murr (2:06:45) were second and third among the male finishers, while fellow cadet, 19-year-old Jessica Clay, was the top female finisher at 2:16:02.
"I was alone on the course so I kind of had to push myself, but seeing them on the turnarounds really made me push harder," Habecker said of his teammates.
The race began with a 1-mile swim from a floating dock near Ibis Bay resort in the Gulf, where the water temperature was around 71 degrees for the first wave of swimmers around sunrise, to the Marriott Beachside. After the swim, the athletes were stripped of their wet-suits by volunteers and hurried to their bicycles for a 25-mile ride on U.S. 1 to and from the Naval base on Boca Chica. From there, they completed the event with a 6.2-mile run on South Roosevelt up and down Smathers Beach to the finish line back at the Marriott.
Habecker said the run was the hardest part for him.
"It was a long run and my legs were a little tired because I pushed the bike real hard," he said, "but I was able to hold off for the win."
Lauren Looper, a 20-year-old West Point cadet who finished first in the female 20-24 age group with a time of 2:24:39, said she also struggled with the final leg.
"The run for me mentally was tough," she said. "Just because we ran out here and kept going around the island. I was looking for the turnaround and just thinking, 'Where is it?' the whole time."
The team of Mario Carcamo, Rodney Cepeda and Reynaldo Nunez won the team relay with a time of 2:27:54. The event marked the first ever triathlon for the Miami trio, which came down to Key West just looking to try it out and have some fun.
"We're were just looking to do our best and that's it," said Cepada, the team's cyclist. "It was our first time, so we just wanted to test the water out."
Warren Benjamin, one of the co-owners of Stay Fit Studio, which organized and hosted the race, said that it was a great feeling seeing everything come together and all of the athletes having a good time.
"I had no expectations coming in, but from what I can recall of the last two days, my impression was that it was just an amazing experience for our athletes," he said. "They've competed in other cities around the state and around the country and I think this event proved to them that we can stage a first-class event in Key West. I think we far exceeded expectations for an inaugural event. There were a couple mistakes that will be corrected for next year, but nothing that endangered anybody."
Several of Sunday's finishers were locals who are also members of Stay Fit Studio. It was because of their initial interest that the event was put together. Among those was 74-year-old Elaine Ginsberg, who as the only member of her age group completed the sprint course -- which had all the distances cut in half -- in 2:29:36.
"It's great to see anybody finish something like this," Benjamin said, "but to see somebody who went to our studio thinking, 'Maybe I'll take a yoga class or a spinning class,' and to now see them come accomplish this and cross that finish line with their arms in the air, it not only meant a lot to them, but for the owners at Stay Fit Studio, it's something that we feel like we've succeeded in helping build better people and healthier people."
Almost immediately after the conclusion of the race, Benjamin and fellow Stay Fit Studio co-owners Amy Spielberg and Doug Bradshaw got to work preparing for next year's TRIKW II, scheduled for Dec. 4, 2011.
"We're going to meet during the week and go over what we did right, discuss some of the mistakes that we made, and plan on definitely next December," Benjamin said. "Today's weather couldn't have been better and everybody has complimented us on just how well the course and activities were."
Nineteen-year-old Sarah Haight, a West Point cadet who won her age group with a time of 2:33:15, was among those complimenting the course.
"It was well run," she said of the event overall. "There were some glitches, but it's a nice course and a nice venue for it and everyone was supportive."
Habecker said he'd like to return next year to defend his title.
"It's a great opportunity," he said. "Up in West Point it's freezing right now, so it's nice to come down here in December where it's 70-80 degrees, compared to West Point, where it's 20 degrees right now and snowing."