Runners from south of the county, the Tampa Bay area and perhaps the state have a new race to look forward to each February.
The inaugural St.Pete Beach Classic lived up to its name last Sunday morning as 1,200 athletes of all ages and abilities enjoyed a first-class event.
The principal architect of the Classic, including a health and fitness expo, was Wendy Johnson of Motion Sports Management. Steve Meckfessel of St.Anthony's Healthcare served as race director. He heads the annual nationally acclaimed St.Anthony's Triathlon in St.Petersburg.
"Everything went well," said men's winner Dror Vaknin, 36, who knows about staging races as a University of Tampa assistant coach and from days at his alma mater, South Florida.
"They had a good course, good finish-line set-up, good food and good awards," he said. "It was definitely successful. (Johnson) will build it up to 3,000 (runners) in no time. People loved the race."
Forerunners coach Joe Burgasser, who has been running and judging events for a few decades, agreed.
"This was a race formatted as a pure sporting event, using all the rules of the sport of road racing as a first priority," Burgasser said.
The courses were certified, coned, marked and controlled at every major intersection. Everything went smoothly, from check-in with trained volunteers to the Championship Chip timing system.
The awards, which went five-deep, were colorful art prints by local artist and runner Bill Castleman. A total of 1,515 registered for one of the three races. There were 495 finishers in the 10K and 577 in the 5K, and 120 children crossed the line.
Vaknin posted his victory by the margin of two seconds over someone half his age. Burgasser had designs on the national masters 65-69 age-group record (18:21) but came up short on a cold and windy morning.
Vaknin had unexpected company running north on Gulf Boulevard during the opening mile. Kurt Able, a Wesley Chapel High School senior, matched the race favorite - who's twice his age - stride for stride. The seasoned veteran had the quicker leg turnover to win in 33 minutes, 21 seconds.
"It made for an interesting race," said Vaknin, who finished 10th at Gasparilla two weeks ago just under his goal of sub-50 minutes with a 49:54 effort.
"I've been trying to recruit Kurt to enroll at UT. Maybe he let me win because he was being respectful of an old man."
St.Petersburg's Steve Wilcox paced himself entering the opening miles into the wind, then proceeded to wheel in faster starters to cop third place, 35:32.
Burgasser, coming off a national-class 57:37 for his age at Gasparilla, never found his groove this time. He posted 19:36, a 6:18 per-mile pace, but far short of his goal in the mid 18-minute range.
"I guess the cold wind got to me," Burgasser said.
The women's event witnessed a 52-year-old taking first, a rarity for a large race. Debra Wagner, a winter resident of Fort Myers Beach, captured the title in 38:14 over Sarasota's Rachel Chambers (38:18) and Mary Ann Protz, 47, of the Forerunners (38:58).
Wagner was No.1 in the women's 50-54 rankings by Running Times in its March 2003 issue. She finished third for the season.
A third Fort Myers runner, besides Vaknin and Wagner, won the men's 5K. John Biffar, a 2003 Admiral Farragut Academy graduate, turned in a 16:11 performance that beat Sarasota's David O'Meara (17:02).
Pinellas runners had their best showing in the women's 5K, in which Lisa Valentine and teammate Laure Blume ran 1-2 in 18:46 and 19:15, respectively. St.Pete Beach winter resident Rachel Winter was third, 19:54.
St.Pete Beach mayor Ward Friszolowski not only appeared for the festivities but ran to a fourth-place finish and award in the 40-44 bracket of the 6.2-mile race.
NATIONAL RECOGNITION: Five area runners received 2003 Masters of the Year honors in the March issue of Running Times.
They are Burgasser and Protz of St.Petersburg, Duncan Cameron, Palm Harbor; Al Treichel, Spring Hill; and winter resident Bill Riley.
Valentine should have been considered for the 40-44 division. She finished second among American masters in last year's Boston Marathon in 2:50:42, 62 seconds out of first.
COMING UP: The 23rd annual Strawberry Classic 5K/10K is Saturday in Temple Terrace. For information, call (813) 265-4394.
The Feb.22 Gulf Beaches Marathon in Clearwater will have a strong relay team. Last year's runners-up in the marathon, Mike Ferriera and his wife, Sandy, have merged into a squad. Runners can sign up at www.floridamarathon.com