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Fewer runners challenge for titles as expected


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001

TAMPA -- Some people might have been scared off by reports of smoke from the fires in Polk County. Others might have changed their minds because of projections of warm weather.

Whatever the reason, the total of 12,714 participants at Saturday's Gasparilla Distance Classic was below expectations. More than 11,500 had registered by Feb. 18.

"It was never an issue. Other people made it an issue," race director Susan Harmeling said of smoke possibly causing the race's cancellation. "We can't suggest that the low numbers are because of that. I think the heat was a contributing factor -- it could have been anything. But hey, we had 12,700 runners. That's a lot. It was a great day."

The record of 14,980 was set in 1990.

AS THE WIND BLOWS: The wind direction often changes on Bayshore Boulevard, seeming to create a head wind both ways on the out-and-back course.

"Going out, at times, it felt like it was in our face. Then coming back, I was wondering, "Where is that (wind) coming from?' It's weird," said Tom Sellers, 35, of Ormond Beach, the wheelchair winner. "It seemed like a lot farther than 9.3 miles."

"We had a tail wind going out for a while, and then it turned into a head wind, and then it was obviously a tail wind coming back, and then it switched to a head wind," women's 15K and 5K winner Laura Drake said. "Welcome to Florida."

BACK ON TRACK: Sellers, a top-flight wheelchair racer in the early 1990s, was seriously injured when he was struck by an automobile in 1996. He recently began racing again, and one of the first things on his agenda was Gasparilla. He finished second in the event twice, in 1993 and 1994.l "I actually feel a little vindicated, because I really believe I won one of the times I came in second," said Sellers, who lost once in a photo finish. "I said first thing I want to do is go back and take care of the Gasparilla situation.

"It's kind of like a totally new beginning for me."

NO PRIZES?: Although Gasparilla no longer awards prize money, it does offer all-expenses paid trips to Washington for the annual Cherry Blossom 10-mile race in April to the winners of three distinct cups in the 15K.

The Tampa Bay Cup, to the top bay area finishers, went to Matt Whaley of Tampa and Laure Blume of Pinellas Park. They finished second and fourth, respectively, in the 15K.

The Masters Cup, awarded to the top bay area residents 40 and older, went to Gary Peters of Plant City and Mary Delie of Palm Harbor, and the Florida Cup, for the top state residents, went to Mike Greiwe of Tampa and Bea Marie Altieri of Clermont. Greiwe is attending medical school at South Florida.

AGE GROUPS: Don Ardell of Tampa won the men's 60-64 age group in 58:50, and Joe Burgasser of St. Petersburg was second in 59:15. "I'm thrilled with that," Burgasser said. "I haven't raced since last October (a 2:54 marathon), so I was pleased. I was gaining on Ardell till we hit the wind coming back. That's when he pulled away."

SEE YOU NEXT YEAR: The next Gasparilla Distance Classic is March 2, 2002.

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