Tampa, FL. – The Gasparilla Distance Classic began 40 years ago when what came to be known as the first Running Boom ushered in an era of personal fitness that we still see in full swing today.

In its first year Tampa city fathers invited Boston’s Bill Rodgers to the Gasparilla 15K as he was elevating himself to iconic status, already owning one Boston and two New York City Marathon titles, while holding the American marathon record from Boston 1975 (2:09:27).

Bill came to Tampa in `78 to tune up for his second Boston win two months later. That victory by the reigning King of the Roads put Gasparilla on the map, and it soon became the season opener for every great road racer worth his or her salt from around the world.

Back in those days there was actually an off season in road racing, and Gasparilla always marked the beginning of a new racing year. Over the years its list of champions became a who’s who of running’s first boom era, including a record six wins by Norway’s Grete Waitz from 1980 and 1987. The still-standing course records belong to Philemon Hanneck, then of Zimbabwe, at 42:35 in 1994, and England’s Liz McColgan at 47:43 in 1988.

After the 1998 race, however, the Gasparilla board of directors saw how the sea change in the sport had stripped away a robust American presence as U.S. fortunes went into steep decline. Accordingly, Gasparilla decided to end prize money competition.

Only when American star Ryan Hall came to Tampa on his own in 2009 to run the 15K in search of a solo tune up race for the Boston Marathon did the buzz return.

Taking notice of Hall’s star power,  Gasparilla joined a list of American races looking to support the rebuilding of U.S. road fortunes.  For the 2014 race organizers instituted a new $30,000 American Development prize purse for the Publix Gasparilla Half Marathon. Since then the Gasparilla Half has returned to a position of prominence for top U.S. athletes on the winter calendar.

Northern Arizona Elite runner Scott Smith hammering out Bayshore Boulevard near 8 miles. Eventual winner Christo Landry and third-placer Meb Keflezighi hang on tight
Northern Arizona Elite runner Scott Smith hammering out Bayshore Boulevard near 8 miles. Eventual winner Christo Landry and third-placer Meb Keflezighi hang on tight

Today, in celebration of its 40th anniversary Gasparilla saw reigning U.S. half marathon champion Christo Landry and Northern Arizona Elite’s Stephanie Bruce take top honors on a breezy but lovely Florida winter morning. Landry’s 1:03:07 winning time over pace pusher Scott Smith of Northern Arizona Elite (1:03:24) and American legend Meb Keflezighi (1:03:29) sliced nine seconds off Dathan Ritzenhein’s 2015 course record. Bruce dominated the women’s race, though her 1:12:55 clocking fell 20 seconds short of Jenn Rhines 2015 course best.

Bill Rodgers returned to commemorate the event’s big 4-0, jogging through yesterday’s 15K. Fellow New England legend Joanie Benoit Samuelson also returned to Tampa to participate in three of the weekend’s four races. She won her 55-59 age division in all three comfortably.

Christo Landry sets course record to highlight Gasparilla's 40th
Christo Landry sets course record to highlight Gasparilla’s 40th

In all nearly 33,000 runners enjoyed the flat, bayside courses over the two days of racing, while race director Susan Harmeling celebrated her 25th anniversary at the helm by orchestrating the entire extravaganza to a fare thee well.

Congratulations to Susan, her team, the city of Tampa, all who have made Gasparilla one of the true road classics for four decades.



    1. Mike,

      Meb ran 63:02 as a master at the 2015 San Jose RnR Half to establish the U.S. Master’s mark for the half-marathon. His 63:29 was a solid effort considering it was his first race since the Rio Olympic Marathon.

  1. Toni,
    Thank you for the memories. I remember this race so well since it kicked off our season with an early test of fitness. Since it was one of few winter events with fantastic organization (and $) it seemed like everyone came. It was so competitive yet a great time to meet up with friends on the circuit.

    I am glad to see they again have a competitive field (and $) but wonder if the now very strong US running program can not only manage with some foreign competition but also benefit from it to raise the bar even more. In fact raise the profile of the sport.

    In any case congrats to the whole Gasparilla organizing team for 40 years.

    1. Thanks, John. I will forward your suggestion to the event organizers.

      For those too young to remember, John was a native Norwegian studying mechanical engineering at the University of Ottowa when he won the Gasparilla 15K in 1990 and `91. His 1990 winning time of 43:25 seconds bested England’s Jonathan Solly (43:47), Mexico’s Martin Pitayo (43:53), Kenya’s William Musyuoki (44:02) and Utah’s Ed Eyestone (44:09). John sliced 11 seconds off his time in his 1991 victory at 43:14.

      In 1990’s women’s race New England’s Judi St. Hilaire took the women’s title that year in 49:26. She was followed by Lisa Weidenbach (50:29), then from Issaguah, Wash., Sylvia Mosqueda (50:41) of Alhambra, Calif., Diane Brewer (51:18) of Gainesville. Fl. and Kim Jones (51:33) of Spokane, Wash.

      Good memories.

  2. Toni:

    I well remember this race starting up and ran in the 15K a few times but it soon turned into much too fast of a race for my training stage as the field improved dramatically. I won the 5K but never did win the 15K there. I believe Bill Orr became the invited athlete director there. It used to be much earlier in February….but the real season opener back then for the winter Florida road circuit took place in Miami a week or two earlier with the Orange Bowl 10K in late January. That, too, became a barn burner from about 1982 forward and both races started to attract many international stars who would come to America for 3-5 races and then “winter” in the southern part of the USA from late January until early March…. or roughly from the Orange Bowl 10K until the Jacksonville River 15K River run… before flying back across the pond. Those races actually became too competitive and too fast for several years for the development training periodization that we should have been doing in a “build up” fashion from Jan-March. Or, at least the training program I was on leading up to the World Cross Country Championships in mid March.

    1. Craig,

      The quality of those fields were always amazing. But as you say, there came a time when prize money arrived that a wave of international runners began to show up for 3 to 5 races before returning home. Then another wave would arrive, then another, etc. Without a managing organization to regulate the flow, and set participation standards to advance the sport and created media interest, the unregulated waves of foreign athletes eventually led to a diminished interest in the sport, and the cutting of elite athlete prize purses. That lack of an over arching circuit organization, like the PGA Tour, or ATP in tennis, continues to hamstring this sport from gaining greater public interest. When every race is a separate county fair that has no connection to any other county fair, there is no narrative to advance outside the local zip code. Here we are with another Running USA conference going on in Orlando, and no where on the schedule is any discussion of such matters of sport and circuits, and the need to regulate for the benefit of all. Again, thanks for contributing, and congratulations on your induction into the Illini HOF.

      1. Yes, Toni, you are exactly correct when you say that the unregulated and uncoordinated organization and ambition of each major road race… once it went to a mainly prize money structure…attracted “wave after wave” of new fresh foreign talent into the country for just 1-3 races at a time…they would peak for… and the American talent just could not keep up with all these “fresh troops.” Sort of like the Texans in the Alamo…. It also screwed up any semblance of a gradually increasing training/racing periodization program from Jan-March that was necessary to set up a superior April-August which I had experienced in 78-81. Maybe Bobby Hodge can give input into this, too. They were just running too damn fast in FL and AZ in those top races from Jan-March of 1982 on….and to finish in Top 7-10 and get any reasonable prize money at all….you had to be doing training that included “peaking” workouts to be competitive… because you were having to be fit enough to run 28:20 or faster for 10K in Jan-March. Sadly, you are also 100% correct when you say that there was no “over riding” organizational management of the sport… and all the American road races… back then… that might have been able to recognize/prevent this problem. Worse yet, there STILL ISN’T! Which is so wrong. When are we gonna wake up and realize that the athletes/agents are certainly more professional today… but the sport isn’t! The marathon majors are better w/ this but they only care about themselves… and not track or cross country races or athlete development in each country. Where is USATF or even the IAAF? Obviously, having a good time at the VIP hotel and stadium boxes at their major championships….nothing else.

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