This past weekend found me in Tampa, at the Gasparilla Distance Classic. It’s a bunch of races crammed into one weekend. Participants can choose from various distances: 5K, 8K, 15K or a half-marathon. There are also combination “challenges,” combining two, three, or all four races. The starts are staggered so most runners can complete all four if they choose that option.
The Classic has been operating since 1978 in various forms, e.g., when I first got involved in ’06, there was a 5K and 15K on Saturday and a marathon on Sunday. Over the years, it’s become a real celebration of running. You can see high caliber runners, e.g., the 2015 half marathon was won on the men’s side by Dathan Ritzenhein, an Olympian who went on to be the first U.S. man to finish at Boston in 2015 (7th overall). Jen Rhines, who won the women’s race, is a 3-time Olympian.
The beautiful thing is that lining up behind the elites drawn to the race are the rest of us. We happy weekend warriors who run for health, for fun, for the love of running are all there. Groups of friends make it a weekend event that becomes an indelible memory for the rest of their lives. Couples get engaged there. The waves of the 5K include a “Stroller Roll” so that everyone in the family can be in a race. Because of the varied distances and no time standards required to register, a broad spectrum of runners and walkers participate. Around 30,000 of us, in fact.
This year, just one week after their Olympic Trials Marathon in L.A., Meb Keflezighi and Shalane Flanagan came to Tampa to speak at the expo. It’s not uncommon for larger races to have famous runners make these kind of appearances. I’ve seen several and am usually always impressed by the candor and sincerity they display.
Maybe it’s because I’d just seen the Trials the Saturday before, but I was especially touched by these two running giants this weekend. They spoke and answered questions with unflagging energy and patience. They were friendly, engaging and open. When one person asked about ‘race morning breakfast,’ you knew the answers were authentic, as Shalane described oatmeal made special by the various extra additions and Meb launched into a paean to an Hawaiian bread his wife makes from scratch that he loads up with almond butter, honey and bananas. They stuck around afterwards so people could get autographs and selfies and handshakes. To runners, these are our rock stars. And they did not disappoint. They were gracious and classy while being totally down to earth.
As one of those runners who took the 4 race challenge, I was even more taken with these two people when I heard them address us before each race. When Shalane told us she envied us being about to run a race, it was genuine. Neither uttered one comment about the early hour, about doing it repeatedly; they just did what they were asked to do: give us a little inspiration and maybe, just for a few fleeting seconds, make us imagine that we too, moved in an Olympian atmosphere.