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.
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 1:13:07 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.
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.