War's not slowing him down

He won a Tampa race two years in a row— and he’s flying from Iraq to try for three.

Published February 15, 2007

TAMPA — No trees. No ponds. No lights. “No nothing,” Elias Gonzalez said. “Except sand.”

Yet there he was, running up to 13 miles a day in the giant sand box of Ali Air Base in southern Iraq. It’s been that way since May, when his National Guard unit in St. Petersburg was called to active duty.

His first thought about going to war?

“Will I be able to run there?” said the Tampa resident. “I wasn’t worried about being shot or killed. I know I’m trained well enough to stay safe.”

Second thought?

“Will I be able to run in the Gasparilla race?” he said. “I really wanted to defend my title.”

Before he left, the two-time defending Gasparilla Distance Classic 15K champion said he was told to fill out his top three picks for leave time: No. 1 was Feb. 8-24; No. 2 was in April for the birthday of his 7-year-old son, Manuel; and No. 3 was for a summer race in the Dominican Republic, his home the first 13 years of his life.

“I got my first choice, which meant I’d get to run (in Saturday’s 15K featuring about 4,000 runners) and I’d also get to watch Manuel run in the Gasparilla Junior Classic (a half-mile race last Saturday ),” Gonzalez said. “Manuel ended up finishing fourth, and he was so happy about it. He seems to love running as much as his dad.”

Maybe. Dad, 30, loves running so much that he wakes up in the barracks every morning at 5:30 and hits the sand, which he said is often packed hard from Jeep traffic throughout the base’s 20-mile circle. Many times he has run in 100-degree weather, sometimes in 20, occasionally in mud after a heavy rain.

Whatever the conditions, he makes sure to keep clear of the towers protecting the perimeter and to stay alert for trouble, which comes about twice a month in the form of a few mortar rounds launched into the base.

“The mortars get scary when you think about them, but I don’t think about them too much,” Gonzalez said. “The concrete walls of our facilities are so thick that I don’t believe the mortars could blow them up. Thankfully no one has been hurt.”

Through it all, Gonzalez has continued to exercise, which, at least at Ali Air Base, is the only time troops are allowed to set down their M-16s and wear something other than military issue.

“You have to carry that rifle everywhere, and by that I mean always,” Gonzalez said. “I get so sick of carrying the rifle. So when I run it’s like a nice little escape. Sometimes I’ll run twice a day just to get away from it all for a little while.”

He has won a few races on the base that have been staged in conjunction with major U.S. races, which send official race bibs, T-shirts and medals. Those “victories,” included beating up to 300 fellow troops in the Race for the Cure 5K (in 15:40), the Twin Cities Marathon (under three hours despite running off course a few miles) and the Miami half-marathon.

He believes he has stayed fit enough to win his third consecutive Gasparilla 15K. Perhaps, he said, he might be more fit than last year when he won by nine seconds in 48 minutes, 39 seconds.

The motivation this time?

“I want to keep my name in the mix for guys to take seriously,” said Gonzalez, who after serving his required Army stint, earned All-American status running for the University of Tampa in 2003-04. “I want to stay as fit as I can until my tour is over (in August or September).”

Ultimately, he hopes to train in the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, which grooms ex-military who might have a shot at reaching the Olympics. Gonzalez realizes he’s far from that level right now, but, he said, “With the right training, who knows?

“Maybe I can get a low enough time in the 10,000 meters or the marathon to at least give it a legitimate shot. Why not? It’s my dream.”

For now the order of business is Saturday’s 15K. After that he will spend as much time as possible with Manuel, while making sure to visit his 10-year-old stepdaughter Rebecca and ex-wife Melissa.

On Feb. 24 he will return to the troops of Charlie Company 1-111th Aviation, where he serves as an inventory officer, in the little base outside the city of Tallil.

There, he said, he will do what keeps him sane.

He will run.

Scott Purks can be reached at (813) 226-3353 or purks@sptimes.com.