"People look at Florida as a legitimate Ironman," said Spencer Smith, the 2001 champion. "They look at it now as ‘Well, I'm going to do Ironman Florida instead of I'm going to Hawaii.' People don't question it."
According to the Panama City News Harald:
"In the early days of Ironman Florida, the race was an unknown on the Ironman circuit. A lot of triathletes used the race as a fallback if they did poorly at the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.
But as word spread and more and more triathletes traveled to the Panhandle to compete in and along the Gulf of Mexico, Ironman Florida developed into a necessary stop for Ironman triathletes.
That means it's become harder to win, Smith said.
Since Lothar Leder, the first triathlete to win an Ironman in less than 8 hours, claimed the first men's title in 1999, the competition has increased annually. It's also become harder to participate.
During the first few years, it took a few days for the race to sell out, former IMFL race director Shelley Bramblett said. Last year it took just 45 minutes.
"Obviously the popularity of the event has grown and the quality of the athletes has grown, too," Bramblett said. "The thing I've seen grow the most is the enthusiasm from the community. I think when it first started, I don't think a lot of people knew what Ironman was. Since that time, the community has really embraced it."
That is one of the main reasons why so many triathletes return to Panama City Beach every year for the race."
Check out a video of last year's race HERE.