Marathon to compete with Disney

Sunday's Bank of America Marathon is starting to lure top masters runners in the competitive world of racing.

Published February 5, 2005

TAMPA - There are two women running by Cinderella's castle, smiling as if nothing could be finer than running through Walt Disney World, as if the Magic Kingdom takes the pain out of trudging 26.2 miles.

The picture fills Disney's marathon Web site, a picture that many folks seem to have in their heads. How else do you explain 18,000 running the thing every year? It's Disney, it has to be magical.


That's what Joe Burgasser says.

"Disney does a good job but the race does have some logistical issues," said the 66-year-old Burgasser, one of the world's renowned masters' runners who has finished Disney six times. "You have to get up at 4 a.m. and fight traffic with everybody going to the parks. You have to do that just to get to the starting line on time.

"Then you might think you run through the parks and it's scenic, but you actually run through the parks for less than five minutes each."

That aside, Burgasser, a St. Petersburg native, said Disney is a natural because families go to the parks and mom or dad run the race, which is, like everything Disney does, clean and efficient. As a race, though, he believes there are others in Florida that are just as good or better, such as Tampa's Bank of America Marathon, which on Sunday will draw 1,400-1,600, far below what Burgasser believes it should.

Bank of America race director Susan Harmeling sees it this way: "The only thing we don't have that Disney has is Mickey Mouse. But hey, Mickey is huge."

Mickey's slice of Florida's marathon pie is by far the largest, but there are plenty chasing the mouse: Marathon of Palm Beaches (Nov. 14), Space Coast (Nov. 28), Jacksonville Bank (Dec. 19), Clearwater's Gulf Beaches (Jan. 23), Miami Tropical (Jan. 30), Ocala (Jan. 30), Bank of America (Feb. 6), Tallahassee (Feb. 20) and Pensacola's Blue Angel (Feb. 26).

When you add the perennial national biggies such as Boston, New York and Chicago, which draw well into the tens of thousands, the scene can get really dicey.

What to do?

Harmeling decided to go with a masters' niche, luring the 40-and-over set with some decent prize money: $8,000 for men's and women's winners, $4,000 for second, $1,500 for third, $1,000 for fourth and $500 for fifth.

That's $30,000 total, tying it with Minnesota's Twin Cities Marathon for the nation's largest masters marathon purse.

The idea seems to be working at least a little because not only did the money lure the reigning men's and women's masters USA Track and Field champions, Dennis Simonaitis and Janet Robertz, but overall race numbers are several hundred higher than last year, not including last-minute registrations.

"We knew with our level of prize money that there was no way for us to compete with the big boys (Boston, Chicago, New York)," Harmeling said. "And so far I'm encouraged with our plan. We built it up a little this year and hopefully we'll keep building on this base. ...

"Our marathon has been up against same major challenges. We haven't been able to secure a firm date because of the cities' commitments to other events. We haven't had the huge prize money, and, because we're in Florida, we can only run marathons when the weather isn't so hot. That means all of Florida's marathons are competing for participants around the same time."

Burgasser, who has run five of Florida's marathons, each several times, said there isn't a problem with too many marathons.

"Some people seem to think that humans are made of plastic and tin and that if we run marathons our bodies will fall apart," said Burgasser, who has run hundreds of marathons, including Sunday's Bank of America, which falls less than two weeks after he ran Clearwater's Gulf Beaches Marathon. "I had a guy named Walt Sieg in my club (Forerunners) who once ran seven marathons in one season, including one in Pensacola and one in Miami on back-to-back days.

"Two months later he ran Boston and finished in 2:36. See?"

There aren't too many marathons in Florida, he said, they all just need to find their niche, "and I think Bank of America just might be onto something by targeting the masters.

"I guess we'll just have to see how it goes."