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Gasparilla flourishing despite no prize fund

The annual race, which offered money until three years ago, is on target to have more runners this year than at any other point in its history.

By PETE YOUNG

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2001


There were skeptics, naturally, when the Gasparilla Distance Classic Association decided to stop offering prize money -- and henceforth stop having a world-class field -- for its annual 15K race.

After all, with between 10,000 and 15,000 runners competing in the Gasparilla Distance Classic 15K and 5K, it seemed as though organizers were violating the if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it maxim.

Well, Gasparilla has more than just survived the transition; it is flourishing. Saturday's race, the 24th annual and third in the post-prize money era, has had the largest preregistration in its history and could surpass the 1990 record of 14,980 participants.

Wednesday, with four days of preregistration remaining, sign-up figures surpassed 11,000.

"In the past, more than 3,500 walkers and runners have registered the day before or the day of the event," race director Susan Harmeling said. "Numbers-wise, yes, we are in real good shape."

Almost too good. Harmeling's logistical plans allow for a maximum of 14,500 runners, a figure that appears likely to be eclipsed. In other words, there might be a shortage of T-shirts.

"The weather is the big factor," Harmeling said. "Last year we had 4,000 late registration. I'd love for that to happen again."

The race is testing the limits of the GDCA. In December it hosted the inaugural Hops Marathon, which had more than 3,000 participants. It has had just 2 1/2 months to recoup and organize another massive event.

"There's no question it's been a stretch for us," Harmeling said. "The thing that saved us is the race is two weeks later this year (in 2000 it was held Feb. 12)."

Two-time defending champion Laura Drake is the No. 1 women's seed. Drake knocked 1 minute, 34 seconds off of her 1999 time in 2000 (52:59).

Judy Maguire, third last year, is the No. 2 seed. Christy Phillips is No. 3, Lisa Valentine No. 4, Bethany Morse No. 5 and Kim Bumbul No. 6. Phillips is coming off a victory in the Hops Marathon.

The men's winner at Hops, Tony Teats, also is running Gasparilla. Two-time defending men's champion Russ Gerbers, a star runner for South Florida whose winning time of 46:37 surpassed his 1999 mark by 11 seconds, pulled out last week because of a conflict with USF's outdoor track schedule.

Last year's runner-up, Muchapiwa Mazano of Tampa, will be the No. 1 seed, followed by 2000 third-place finisher Scott Winnier, Matthew Whaley, Dror Vaknin and Lee Stephens.

24th annual Gasparilla Distance Classic

WHEN: Saturday. The 15K race begins at 8:15 a.m. (wheelchair start, 8 a.m.). The 5K race is 10:30.

REGISTRATION: Preregistration ($20 for each race) can be done online at www.doitsports.com/gasparilla until midnight tonight. Late registration ($30 for each race) and T-shirt/packet/ChampionChip pickup is from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday at the Tampa Convention Center, or Saturday at 6 a.m. at the Tampa Convention Center. For information call (813) 229-7866.

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